Monday 27 September 2021

Interview with Ella Feingold

Monika: Today I have the pleasure and honor of interviewing Ella Rae Feingold, an American professional orchestrator, guitarist, composer, and producer, known for her collaboration with Bruno Mars, Janet Jackson, Jay-Z, and Ariana Grande, as well as a proud transgender woman that shares her transition story on social media. Hello Ella!
Ella: Hi Monika! I’m excited to have a chat with you. Thank you so very much for all that you do for our community. I’ve read a lot of your interviews before I was ready to come out and hearing others' stories will continue to mean a lot to me. I think this is a wonderful space that you’ve created.
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Ella: I’m a 40-year-old transgender woman. My pronouns are she/her. I am a professional orchestrator, guitar player, and music scholar. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to work with artists like Bruno Mars, Janet Jackson, Jay-Z as a guitar player and to orchestrate for Ariana Grande and The video game series Destiny. Music is something that has never let me down.
Monika: Why did you choose Ella for your name?
Ella: This is not going to be a common answer. But here we go; I let my mother choose the name Ella for me. She was having a difficult time with my transition and I wanted her to feel like she was giving birth to me again. I asked her if she gave birth to me today what would she name me. Without hesitation, she said “Ella! Ella Rae Feingold” When she said it, I just knew it was me! It was soulful and bluesy and just wonderful. Oddly enough, my dead name ends where my new name begins [MichaELLA] This was unintentional.

"To be honest, I mistrust inspiration."

Monika: What inspired you to share your intimate life moments via social media?
Ella: That’s a really good question! This was the first time I “showed up” for myself in 40 years and I wanted to share my journey with those who will listen. I wanted other girls like me or people hiding parts of their lives to know it’s OK to show up for yourself and be who you’ve always been.
Monika: Do you get many questions from your social media followers? What do they ask for?
Ella: I do but I get more people who wanted to share parts of their lives in private that they haven’t allowed the world to see. I continue to receive messages like this and I’m grateful that people feel safe with me. I guess I may not have the answers but I’ll listen and hold their hand in the dark. I think we all just want to feel safe and listened to. I know I do.
Monika: The musicians and artists that you worked with are all very different. How do you recall your collaboration with them?
Ella: So these days, it’s very project-dependent. With Ariana Grande for her Grammy performance and Coachella, it was me working remotely with her musical director and sending files back and forth before we recorded the orchestra. When I’m working for, say Bungie on the Destiny video game series, I will orchestrate the music from my home studio and then fly into wherever the orchestra is recording to supervise the sessions.
Monika: Where do you draw your musical inspiration from?
Ella: To be honest, I mistrust inspiration. I look at music much more as a craft that one does rather than waiting for the “muse” to come in through the window to inspire. I have friends that work like that but it never worked for me. I just try to “show up” every day and work like a bricklayer adding brick by brick until the creation is complete. I know it’s not a very beautiful aesthetic but ”Art is a beautiful lie” someone once said.

Ella's website.

Monika: Did the transition change your artistic perception of the world?
Ella: That’s a fascinating question and one that I continue to think about myself. In a word; yes! The thing that I’ve noticed the most since transitioning is my confidence and comfort when making decisions; it's so effortless. I just trust that I’ve done my best and that everything is going to be OK. If I’ve made a mistake, that’s OK too.
My mom always says “If you don’t know better, you can’t do better”. Prior to transitioning, a lot of my musical choices were done from a place of fear as I was scared of making mistakes. Being an orchestrator, it’s my job to anticipate problems but the fear could be crippling at times. I look forward to seeing how I evolve as a musician now that I’ve finally shown up for myself.
Monika: Jimmy Page used to say that every guitar player inherently has something unique about their playing. They just have to identify what makes them different and develop it. Did you reach this level?
Ella: That’s a wonderful way to put it and I agree with him. As a guitar player, I’m not sure if I’ve reached that level or not. Music was something I did to quite literally stay alive so I wasn’t so concerned with finding my voice as I was with just being authentic. I know some listeners prefer someone to be authentic than original. As an orchestrator, I do however feel like I’ve reached that level. I think that if you try to imitate a “model” be it a painting or a musician if you have something to say, it will show up naturally as you are being unwittingly faithful to your “model".
Monika: We all pay the highest price for the fulfillment of our dreams to be ourselves. As a result, we lose our families, friends, jobs, and social positions. Did you pay such a high price as well? What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Ella: I feel very fortunate that everyone has been incredibly loving and supportive. If anything, new doors have opened up for me since coming out. I’m not sure if this has to do with me being a musician or not.

"If anything, new doors have opened
up for me since coming out."

Monika: Were your parents and family surprised by your transition? Did they accept it easily?
Ella: Everyone in my family was utterly shocked about me being transgender when I first told them. Their feelings about it evolved over time but it certainly felt like the 7 stages of grief. My father had the easiest time with it in the beginning but as I became more and more feminine, I think that was difficult for him to see. That’s not to take away his love and support but it was just something different he had never experienced.
Overall, I think for my parents, being their kid they always knew I was a tortured soul and that I never had a sense of self. The first couple of months were challenging but as they saw Ella emerge with such joy and presence, it was undeniable this is who I've always been. I’m so lucky to have their support.
Monika: Are you satisfied with the effects of the hormone treatment?
Ella: I most certainly am! I’ve been on HRT for 8 months now and I have such a sense of self-awareness and inner peace that I never had been fueled by testosterone. I’m certainly not where I’d like to be transition wise but my expectations are very realistic and I’m happy to see things evolve over time. I experience dysphoria just like all of all. I have my good days and my bad days.
Monika: We are said to be prisoners of passing or non-passing syndrome. Although cosmetic surgeries help to overcome it, we will always be judged accordingly. How can we cope with this?
Ella: That’s a really profound statement. It’s almost like “dammed if we do, and dammed if we don’t”. I’m not sure I can speak on this with any authority but I think being kind to ourselves is certainly is a great place to start. I feel like the world is changing [be it slowly] and I hope I get to live in a time where “passing” is not a thing and we all just express ourselves however we see fit.
Monika: Do you remember the first time when you saw a transgender woman on TV or met anyone transgender in person?
Ella: I do! I would say between the movie “Soapdish” and 90’s shows like Maury Povich. It hit me like a baseball bat in the chest because I realized that’s who I was. It was painful to see how we were portrayed, the but of everyone’s joke. This is partly why it took me 40 years to come out.

"I’m living out the 90s as
a 40-year-old woman."

Monika: Are there any transgender role models that you follow or followed?
Ella: Anyone who has the courage to be authentic is a role model for me. There are so many trans people I follow for different reasons. Seeing so many different trans people be out and thriving really helped me feel like it was OK to be me.
A few names that come to mind are Trace Lysette, Michelle Hendley, Contrapoints and my trans mother whom I know will prefer to be anonymous but she is the best support I have. Often, I find myself messaging those that have come before me and just thanking them for being themselves because I feel they made the world a better place for me to be me.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in your country?
Ella: It’s not where I’d like it to be but I think that the world is changing as we become more and more visible. I would like to think that if celebrities were able to love girls like us out loud, it would change things drastically for us and let other people know we’re magic and that we all just want to feel safe and loved.
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colors, or trends?
Ella: I don’t know a lot about fashion but I certainly like to put any effort into what I wear. My sister is actually a celebrity fashion stylist so I’ve got a pretty tough critic. As far as trends, I grew up in the 90s being a grunge kid, so I guess you could say I’m living out the 90s as a 40-year-old woman. It feels so good!
Monika: Do you often experiment with your makeup?
Ella: I absolutely do. I wear makeup every day. This might sound pretentious, but as an orchestrator, I draw a lot of parallels with makeup to Orchestration. I just enjoy the craft of it and as a bonus, it’s wonderful that it makes me look prettier sometimes. I just really like making someone look at a particular feature by highlighting something with color or lack of color. I am very lucky because a few of my friends are celebrity makeup artists, and I can always ask questions if I get caught with something.

"Anyone who has the courage to be
authentic is a role model for me."

Monika: By the way, do you like being complimented on your looks?
Ella: I do enjoy being complimented on my looks.
Monika: Are you involved in the life of the local LGBTQ community?
Ella: I am not currently involved locally but I certainly have reached out to a lot of people via social media to have more of a sense of family within my community. I recently offered to teach Orchestration for a month for free to anyone who would donate to a black trans lives matter fund so I suppose that’s one way of trying to be involved in my community.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Ella: if you’re referring to self-love, it is of the utmost importance to me. I love who I am finally. If you’re referring to intimacy or romance, I haven’t put myself out there yet as I am still getting my feel together so to speak But it is something that’s important to me.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Ella: I have read a few of Janet Mock’s books and loved them. I don’t feel I lived enough as a trans woman to write a memoir but I certainly would be interested in writing a book on other topics such as Orchestration.
Monika: What is your next step in the present time and where do you see yourself within the next 5-7 years?
Ella: My next step is to excavate Ella more and more each day and discover who I’ve always been. It’s a massive but rewarding task. I’d also really like to reach a lot of people with music and my story and hope that it may comfort someone hurting.

"Music is something that has
never let me down."

Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender women that are afraid of transition?
Ella: I want them to know that there’s nothing wrong with you. You are not broken and there is a lot of support out there even if it’s not from your family, you will find it in your chosen family. As Jay-Z said, “Life is a gift, open it up”.
Monika: My pen friend Gina Grahame wrote to me once that we should not limit our potential because of how we were born or by what we see other transgender people doing. Our dreams should not end on an operating table; that’s where they begin. Do you agree with this?
Ella: I can understand what she’s saying. My dreams began the moment I said to myself on the inside “I’m Transgender”. My next dream began when I started hormones. For me, things continue to be a dream come true of a life I dismissed early on. It’s a life I never thought I’d get to live.
Monika: Ella, it was a pleasure to interview you. Thanks a lot!
Ella: Monika, it was such a pleasure to have a chat with you. Thank you again for listening to all that you do for us. I don’t take it for granted.

All the photos: courtesy of Ella Feingold.
© 2021 - Monika Kowalska

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