Music: Holcombe Waller: The New Gay Interview
Submission by TNG music contributor Kaysey Crump
One year ago I accompanied my girlfriend to a Holcombe Waller show in Portland, Oregon. I wasn’t terribly familiar with Holcombe’s music but my girlfriend was a long-time fan who had waited years to see him perform live. Two hours later I was a devoted fan. Holcombe is a multi-instrumentalist songwriter and performance artist, and one of the most captivating performers I’ve seen in years. His latest album, Into the Dark Unknown, was released earlier this year. Tracks from the album were featured on NPR’s Song of the Day and Starbucks Pick of the Week.
Holcombe took some time out of his extremely busy schedule to talk to TNG about his music, inspiration and how he feels about the state of gay rights in our world.
The New Gay: So 2011 has been a big year for you, you had a new record come out. What have you been doing since then?
Holcombe Waller: Since the record came out – whew! So February the record came out for the first time. We did a smaller release and had a really great response at South by Southwest. We were picked up by a larger distributor after Ann Powers at the New York Times wrote about my showcase, so they wanted to do another press campaign. I was touring a lot through April, May and June. I’ve also started to create a new performance piece. There are so many things. The basic gist of it is that I’m doing three things: I’m touring while making music videos behind my record, I’m preparing my performance project that I will performed the first segment of in June, and the third thing is that I’m spearheading this new project for musicians and music artists to promote marriage equality.
TNG: You split your time between New York and Portland correct?
TNG: I suppose I can still ask you how you felt about the recent vote to legalize gay marriage in New York state, so, how did you feel?
HW: I was thrilled about that.
TNG: Didn’t you live in New York at some point?
HW: I’ve actually never lived in New York.
TNG: Wow! I have read that several times.
HW: You know, the level of writing has gotten so low that I’ve stopped trying to correct errors. Honestly I just don’t have time.
HW: It is interesting. I’ve talked with my PR team about possibly having a sort of web sweep where we would go and try to correct all of the errors but we haven’t gotten to it yet. But, yes, there’s a lot of stuff on line from reputable outlets that’s not true. Nobody fact checks, I don’t think they have money or time. What I’m finding is that the best writing and the best interviews are coming from smaller bloggers and blogs such as TNG. They aren’t necessarily doing it as a job but they’re doing it because of their love of music or their love of music criticism. They are approaching it that way other than folks that are having a hard time piecing together income and the interview or article might just be a check mark on their list. I think, but I’m kind of guessing. It can be really unsettling.
TNG: Well now we know the truth!
HW: Everyone thinks I live in New York. At first I thought it was because I have spent a lot of time there but then I realized it had been written about in a few places.
TNG: So what inspired the song Hardliners? It’s such an emotional and beautiful song.
HW: I wrote that song a while ago. I may have written it in 2007. It went into a black hole though. There was no album. There was no performance. I sort of revitalized and rearranged it in 2008 and put it in the performing arts piece I was touring at the time which was called Into the Dark Unknown. When I wrote it I was having a pretty down phase, I was pretty depressed. I knew I wanted to write something really “up” and I really didn’t want to stress out about it, so I kind of just wrote this song to myself.
TNG: You covered Buffy Sainte-Marie’s Qu’Appelle Valley, Saskatchewan on your latest album and your album cover art seems to be very inspired by Native American culture. Are you inspired by Native American cultures and art?
HW: When I was writing Hardliners I was in a phase where all I wanted to hear was different Native American chants. I had of lot of different seasonal chants and war chants. I was very intrigued by the aesthetic. My mother was a big Buffy Sainte-Marie fan so that’s where that connection came from. I actually covered her song Starwalker first and with that cover and the Qu’Apelle Valley cover I kind of take the chant and I go in a slightly different direction. I take the chant and make it more like a call, calling out to something. Ross Christy is an amazing artist in town. He did the cover art. I’m drawn to his art because it has this sort of Native American feeling. He does modern re-interpretations of dream catchers, which is what my record cover art work is. There’s a lot of Native American influence in the circles that I travel in but of course I’m not trying to reappropriate anything or step on anyone’s toes.
TNG: When I listen to your song I Can Feel It I get this kind of feeling that it’s this kind of queer, progressive truth anthem. What inspired that song?
HW: Originally it was a quote from Noam Chomsky, “the system always reflexing against itself,” from a book I was reading. It’s a lot like Hardliners in that it’s a mantra of self, so when I sing it I feel as if I’m singing it to other people as much as I’m singing it to myself.
TNG: You’ve been an openly queer performer for over a decade. What have you witnessed as far as changes in visibility and acceptance of queer artists in the larger culture of America?
HW: You know, some people feel that we are really moving forward because young people are pro-gay apparently or less concerned about marriage and therefore we just need to sit back and inevitably everything will come. Then we see all of these statistics that paint this rapidly progressing picture but there are other elements that I find extremely unsettling, particularly internationally. Like there’s this voter initiative going on in California and if they get five hundred thousand signatures they will have, on the ballot, an initiative to ban the teaching of homosexual figures in public schools. Which means anyone who’s gay would have to be removed from the history books. And if they get that on the ballot, even if it doesn’t pass, it opens up this ugly dialogue that perpetuates these terrible ideals. Even if we achieve marriage equality across the country someday we’re still looking that this international scene, particularly with the rise of Islam, where homosexuality is not right on a level of “I will kill my son if he’s gay.” So, I don’t know. I feel like I came out in the 90s and had similar kinds of access and response as I do today. What I can say, genuinely, is that gay artists are pigeonholed by mainstream press. If you identify too strongly as a gay artist you will be pigeonholed. There are some artists that can break out of that with their brilliance or they can break out of it with their kind of slippery unidentifiability. Overall I can’t say I’ve witnessed any kind of big shift. I feel like the way things were in the 90s is kind of the way they are now. Things have changed but there’s been a startling rise in extremism. Even in small numbers that’s very unsettling. It doesn’t take more than one crazy ass person to do some crazy shit at a pride festival. You know what I mean?
TNG: Oh yes.
HW: I don’t see the country overall moving in a pacifist direction, or even moderate. It’s part of the reason I want to start this new thing for musicians, in particular straight allies, to make positive emotional artistic statements in favor of marriage equality. It’s a way to say “it’s about love, it’s about commitment” because that message is very tonifying to potential extremist inclinations, haha.
TNG: When will that launch?
HW: We are just in the planning phases of it. We’re hoping to launch the first videos this fall. It’s going to be a performance video blog.
TNG: Along the lines of TNG’s It Gets Better music videos?
HW: Absolutely, it’s like that.
TNG: How do you feel about the “It Gets Better” campaign?
HW: I loved it. I didn’t stay reading and watching every single one but I loved that it clearly struck a nerve and so many people had things to say.
TNG: Yeah, for everyone.
HW: Everyone. I think that’s really good. Dan Savage is really brilliant that way.
TNG: Thank you Holcombe, this was great.
HW: Thank you too!
First time here? See what we're all about... Get involved... Send us a tip!...