Alexis Penney's New Album Will Cast a Spell On You
The singer and occasional drag show host talks about leaving Kansas City, looking for life-altering love, and performing naked.
Hysterical. Spiritual. Normal. These are the three words that Brooklyn-based vocalist, performance artist, and occasional drag show host Alexis Penney has picked to describe himself. While normal may not seem like an appropriate adjective for the androgenous singer, his music carries a message that all "normal" people can relate to. Break-ups, loss, lust, panic, and self-realization are timeless themes in which Penney languishes on his debut LP Window—out now on Ecstasy Records.
Co-produced by two technical geniuses—Nick Weiss of Teengirl Fantasy and Jamie Crewe of Poisonous Relationship—Alexis Penney's Window conveys the richness of pure human emotion in the form of 90s house and synth-tinged shoegaze. The raw kicks of vintage drum machines paired with Penney's pop-star melodies and tragic-yet-relatable songwriting make Window an incredibly memorable contribution to contemporary electronic music. In contrast to most dance records that shout constant joy, Penney's LP provides some brutally honest food for thought. Window is a transparent invitation into Penney's life, but also a window into your own; it's a spell cast to make the world a little more self-reflective, something to help people see the similarities they share behind the superficial differences. With every song, Penney insists on digging deeper into the subjects that most people shy away from. It's not all sadness though, as the end of the Window story suggests that there's always some light at the end of the tunnel—even if it takes years to see it.
With this record completed and released into the universe, along with a book under the same title, Penney is proud to close this chapter of his life and carry on doing as he does, whatever that may be. These days he enjoys yoga, lying in bed all day listening to records, keeping healthy, and throwing the occasional drag show here and there. It seems that the all-nighters filled with drugs and orgies may be things of Penney's past, but he sure as hell isn't afraid to tell you all about it.
THUMP: Tell us about your hometown and the music you were exposed to.
Alexis Penney: My dad is a classical pianist who taught lessons out of the basement of our house, so there was a lot of different piano stuff always drifting up through the vents. I played piano at my dad's behest and sang in choir and definitely dabbled with composing through high school but I never really had the attention span or confidence to take music seriously until way later. Not until I was 20 or 21 did I start to have the idea that music was something I wanted to do.
My mom commanded the soundtrack in the rest of the house. She has music on at all times if she's home, so I grew up listening to stuff like Ella Fitzgerald, Judy and Liza, Barbra, Heart, The Eagles, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Carly Simon, Peggy Lee, stuff like that—kind of washed out glamorous 70s-cum-50s stuff—definitely a lot of which I still continue to be influenced by, in various ways.
I left my parents' suburb of Lenexa and lived in Kansas City, MO for three years and then moved to San Francisco to be with the guy I was dating long distance at the time—Hunx of Gravytrain/Hunx And His Punx.
Kansas City had a really cool scene when I was growing up. It was really punk but the expression of that through music was super diverse. I joined this really crazy electro-speak rap group that performed naked when I was 18 and we played with all kinds of crazy acts; noise bands, really tight math rock bands, grindcore bands, big doom beautiful shoegazey metal bands, kids doing really glitchy 8bit electronic stuff. There was also this rad all-girl punk band called Crap Corps.
How were you introduced to electronic music?
This is so circuitous but it really kind of started at church youth group when this kid brought in Cibo Matto's Viva La Woman! I was totally blown away, like, "What was this?" It sounded like the soundtrack to an anime that I really wanted to watch or something, just so cinematic and beautiful but fucked up and in your face. I devoured everything I could find by them, which lead me to Le Tigre, who totally blew the whole thing open for me.
Later it was disco. I had always had a really deep affection for the cheesier radio disco hits without really having a reference point for what it was. Cody of SSION introduced me to a lot. We'd play that stuff at our house parties in KC. It felt super fresh and underground, because the gay bars we went to then were only playing hip-hop, Beyonce, stuff like that, which was awesome. But we really felt like we found our music with disco.
That slowly lead me to house. After moving to San Francisco, I got really into really big room 90s club house and also the really nasty vogue Chicago and New York stuff, while I also getting into darker shit like Detroit techno and hanging at goth clubs. I liked like Siouxsie and Nine Inch Nails, but I didn't really understand where they all fit together until way later. I spent days of my life downloading music and figuring out what it is and what I like. I'm totally a child of the Napster generation.
Had you already been performing prior to living in SF?
I did back-ups of vocals for SSION and others, and had been in a few other bands, but did nothing that was driven by me. I had no vision for what I wanted to do. I actually thought I wanted to be a visual artist. I'd interned with this painter Sean Ward after dropping out of college. But I was ingesting SO much drag in Kansas City, the scene there was so vital and wild, we went to drag shows like three or four times a week. So I knew when I moved to SF and inherited the night at Aunt Charlie's I wanted to do a drag show. But I didn't know any queens so I just did it myself. I fell ass backwards into it but suddenly it clicked like, oh wait, this is what I want. I'd been practicing for years without really knowing it. So really drag was the platform on which I launched my music career and built my stage craft and confidence before I even sang a note in public.
What spawned your decision to move to New York?
The main reason was Grant, having a home here with him already waiting for me, and just knowing that I wanted to be close to him, to be with him and experience his energy and collaborate with him. We created a beautiful home together here. I'm definitely in the grips of a huge transition now that he's died, trying to reimagine myself without him. He was such an integral part of the changes I've made this year, and we had so many plans together. We were going to change music together. So I have to change it now without him I guess.
Explain the roles of the internet in your creative process and general life.
I was just talking about this. The internet is a huge, immeasurable part of who I am as an artist. It opened me up to soooo much art and culture and music and just people and connection. It really offered me a chance to develop my identity without fear of reproach and connected me with all of the diverse and incredible weirdos I call my friends and collaborators. I love the internet.
Do you still consider throwing events important?
In a lot of ways, but not in the way that creating something that persists after one evening is. Bringing people together is huge for me, especially people of different interests and reference points. With High Fantasy—the party I started and ran for two years with Myles Cooper—we would book these nerdy gear-heads to play live PA techno and bracket their sets with amateur drag performances, and then play our weird pop house bizarre mélange of music. So you'd have the house heads, the drag queens, the music people, the weirdos who just wanna be around other weirdos, all kind of scratching their heads but having a blast at the same time. That was illuminating for me—to see how you could influence people's expectations of what a party could be. I love that shit. And of course wrangling drag queens is literally like herding a bunch of cats that have been dosed on acid, it's just so insane. You've got queens washing their CDs off in the sink, screaming into their bluetooths, passed out. But that's something I learned to expect way before, performing with my folks in church…"That's showbiz!" my mom would bark as she was teaching us a 30-page show to perform the next morning. Just being able to take whatever the night throws at you and make it look planned and fun.
Explain the importance of making an LP and as opposed to a series of EPs.
I was pretty focused on the single side of things until my friend Tamaryn sat me down and was like, "Fuck the singles, fuck the EPs. They're great but they're not going to make people and - more importantly - yourself take you seriously." So I decided to make an album.
Does Window represent a certain chapter of your life?
It references lots of things but is pretty encapsulated in one moment, this time of moving to SF to be with my first boyfriend and all those expectations. "Praying For Rain" touches on the longing and wanting to find love before that, of spending all these years fucked up on drugs in Kansas City just really wondering if I'd ever find that life-altering love. I really had kind of given up on it at the ripe old age of 20, but then it found me.
Are there any songs off the album that you're especially proud of?
I really love "Praying For Rain." It encapsulates a lot of how I feel about everything in a song and I'm expanding on those themes for the next record. And you can't fuck with that hook, it's really good. I'm super proud of that. I love "Your Eyes" because me and Jamie and Nick all wrote it together and it's also really got some pretty insane hooks. That was the first song we worked on actually, it just tumbled out of me and the boys were there to help it out, that was great. I love "I Saw It All" because I wrote it alone and worked on it for a long time.
What's the meaning behind the name it?
Window is a transparent invitation into my life but also a window into yours as well; it's a spell for the world to self-reflect a little more and exposes the similarities between other people hidden behind superficial differences.
The album reflects struggle and self-realization. Would you say that there's beauty in darkness?
Oh yeah there's beauty for sure. I came out of something I honestly didn't think I'd survive, and came out successful and thriving. It's crazy and exciting to live through something like that. I have to keep going back to that elated moment of self-realization somewhere after the breakup when the depression finally lifted and I looked around and was like, "Woah, I did it and I'm happy with myself and where I am and what I'm doing." I keep going back to that moment, especially having lost the guitarist from the record—my best friend Grant Martin—six weeks ago. I've already made the decision to live a full life and give my life up to music and art and the world—there's no going back now. So I keep trying to go back to that moment of strength, keep trying to draw from that. I know it's there though it's insanely hard.
There's a book version of Window?
They're companion pieces. They have similar themes and vibes, and the same relationship at the core. But they're told in different ways. The book delves way deeper into my childhood and my recent life in New York.
Why exactly gave you feel the urge to share these things? What a scary thought…putting it all out there for the world?
It was totally selfish. I had to get them out to ratify that they happened and try to make some sense of them. I've always been very open and very out there—done a lot of performing naked—always really candid about my sex life and the drugs and stuff. I kind of see that as a way for nobody to have anything on me, there's nothing you can say I haven't said about myself. But I think it can be therapeutic for the listener too, which is why it works. A lot of pop music is rooted in that uncomfortable moment where you feel like you know too much about this person, but bring it immediately back to your own experience. I don't know how to live any other way honestly.
Does fashion and the drag community have a direct impact on your music?
Nah, I think fashion is garbage culture for the most part. It's such an underused medium for what it could be. The same with film; though there are some movies that are huge inspirations for me. I really like 70s rock operas and musical biopics—A Star Is Born with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristoferson is a huge one for me. But I find inspiration in the sunset and in these big dramatic drag moments for sure. I also find it in the quiet times, in people on the street. I find inspiration everywhere.
Now that the album has been complete, how have you been spending your days?
We're recording another EP and have started demoing for the next record. I'm also working on some things; another photo book and a novel. Of course taking a ton of pictures too. I'm doing a new weekly drag show and I'm also about to embark on a 6-week yoga teacher-training course. Yoga is a big part of my life.
Tell me about the relationship with Window's label, Ecstasy.
It's like family. I called Rafael and Honey mom and dad. They're beautiful grounded and inspiring people. They inspired me to stop drinking, to really take my health and state of mind seriously, and showed me how to do it in a cool, interesting, and still super fun way. They are just so great and supportive. And their music is amazing. The scene in Portland is so cool and weird, this new house moment happening out there… it's so rad.
What are a few things you want to bring to the people?
I have an agenda for the world. I am a hyper-aware person and very sensitive. There's a laundry list of things I'd like to change about the way that people in this global community relate to each other and the planet. Things are pretty fucked up right now but I have a lot of faith that they don't have to be, and I can be a part of the solution for that, even in a small way. Though in a big way, too. I'm totally fine and happy with what I'm doing, but I have to know that I did everything I could to help the rest of everybody or I could never live with myself. This is where I get crazy but it really only takes one person with a lot of crazy ideas to change the world in huge ways. Think about Jesus Christ or even someone like L. Ron Hubbard, for better or worse. Everybody has the power to alter history, and looking back on what I've experienced already, it's not far fetched at all that I will and already have been that person. "I'm rich and I'm changing the world" is my mantra right now, maybe forever. I'm going help all these sad sacks if it kills me [laughs].
Any advice for aspiring musical artists and beauty queens?
Be honest, be good to your body, feed your mind, love everyone.