Trans singer-songwriter Our Lady J first met Daniel Radcliffe at a party given by a mutual friend in 2008. In the spring of 2009, the tabloids got wind of their friendship and began pumping out a stream of wild and uniformed headlines about "Harry Potter's drag queen friend." At the time, Radcliffe and Our Lady J merely acknowledged their friendship and happily left the world to wonder about its exact details. Now, in our September cover story, they chat about magic, music, trans visibility, and finding Daniel a date when he moves to New York City to star in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. We caught up with Our Lady J on the eve of the cover story hitting the web to find out a little bit more about her music, her friendship with the actor, and her brand-new boobs.
OutHow did you choose the name Our Lady J?
Our Lady J: I was reading Jean Genet's Our Lady of the Flowers at the time and it really moved me -- not only because it was one of the first novels that had a trans person as the main character, but because it was just a beautiful piece of poetry. I wanted to honor that and the effect that it had on my art, so I chose Our Lady and the J stands for my legal name, Jonnah. Thats an homage to my family because were all Js.
Just like the Duggars! Do you know the Duggars? They're a crazy couple with like 20 kids and they have their own reality show. All of the names of their children begin with J.
Im sorry -- having 20 children is morally irresponsible [laughs].
The mother likes to say Children are like flowers: You can never have too many.
[Laughs] Honey! Talk about an out-of-control carbon footprint.
Among other things. And theyre incredibly religious --
Of course they are
And you were also raised in a severely religious environment. How did your upbringing influence your music?
Well, the name I chose also has religious connotations to it, Our Lady being the mother of God. So, that was a bit of rebellion against the religion. I grew up Pentecostal and to be taught that who you are at your core is morally wrong really sets someone on a path of exploration from a young age. I feel like that is reflected in my music and in my lyrics and not only through rebellion but through genuine spiritual inquisition. I had to look at myself and say Am I really morally wrong for being who I am? I used music as a way to explore that and also to reach other people who might be looking for the same answers as I was when I was younger, or the same answers that I will continue to look for.
Whats your relationship with religion now?
I consider myself to be a spiritual person, but not a religious person. I understand religion -- finally [laughs]. I really understand its place in society but I think its constantly misused and abused to put people down and its used as a power tool rather than a personal path.
You just released your first single, a cover of "Hurt" by Nine Inch Nails, from your upcoming album, The Gospel Electric. Why did you choose to cover that song?
The song is about self-mutilation in some way and moving forward through that. I believe it was written about addiction, but my take on it is the preservation of innocence. When I heard it for the first time it was Trent Reznor singing it and then I heard Johnny Cashs version and both versions had such different meanings for me. Cashs was a man looking back on his life and being filled with regret. Reznors was a man who was in the midst of pain. So I wanted to do a take on it that was more about transcendence through a painful period. Thats why I made it such a big sound and in the end it turns into a dance beat that I hope people find transcendent.
Youre not really known for making electronic music. What pushed you in this new direction?
Ive been performing gospel music -- I call it Gospel for the Godless -- in major cities around the world like New York and Berlin and London, but I found it has a limited audience because of having to have an orchestra and gospel choir every time I perform. And I really want my music to reach other people, so, I buried myself in my computer and discovered the mass appeal of electronic music -- not just because its super listenable but because its portable as well. So Ive taken these huge vocal arrangements for gospel choirs and Ive put my own voice through synthesizers and computer software to make my one voice sound like a choir. Thats how Im performing live now, although Im in London right now performing with the choir. But the hope is that I can go to other towns more easily and not have to hire a choir every time I travel. Though, eventually I do want to travel with a choir everywhere I go.
How would you respond to hardcore fans who might say, We want the old unplugged Our Lady J?
Luckily that hasnt happened. Ive been performing the new music for two or three months, kind of workshopping these new songs in front of my audiences, and theyve been more than enthusiastic about the songs. Thats also why I kept going with the idea. I put it out there to make sure Id still reach my fans and they came back and they loved it, so I continued with it.
I sometimes ask queer artists about their sexuality and if its had an impact on their art. Half of the time they say it hasnt -- that its just another part of who they are and really doesnt influence their output. But others, like Jonsi from Sigur Ros, have responded by saying, I wouldnt be a musician if I werent gay. How does being trans influence your music -- if at all?
I didnt find my voice until I transitioned and it was because I wasnt able to be honest with myself musically until I was able to be honest with myself personally. Ive always made music but it didnt have words. Im a classically trained pianist so a lot of my life was spent interpreting other peoples music and making instrumental compositions and when I finally transitioned, suddenly life made sense. I was able to write words and I was able to summarize what I was experiencing through music. I wouldnt be doing what Im doing now if I hadnt come out as a trans woman and if I hadnt been born as a trans woman. I wouldnt have had the path that I had. I might be a classical pianist, but this where I am and yes, it has had an incredible effect on my path as a musician.
The tabloids had a field day last year when they discovered you and Daniel are friends. Did your that sudden push into the spotlight freak you out?
I was born for the spotlight [laughs] but -- and its a big but -- I was misrepresented by the media. People were calling me a Dolly Partonimpersonating drag queen which is just outrageous. I do perform songs by other people occasionally and Dolly is one of the artists that I cover, but only because I love her music. I have no desire to impersonate her and Im not a drag queen. I think its pretty simply stated -- theres a difference between a trans artist and drag queen. Theres a big difference. So I was freaked out by that but I was also freaked out because I wasnt sure how Dan would respond to being associated with me in public. We hadnt known each other for all that long and Im more than relieved to know that hes not ashamed to be my friend and by going forward with the Out story it just shows what an amazing guy he is.
Right. When it all happened, instead of sending out a press release to refute your friendship -- as I could imagine a lot of other straight leading men in his position might consider doing -- he simply said, I think shes wonderful, and left it at that.
It really shows that hes confident in himself as a person and an artist and thats really rare, as you and I both know.
Regarding being called a drag queen instead of a trans woman, even in the queer community theres still a lot ignorance about the wide spectrum of gender expressions. Do you ever get annoyed that youre constantly put in a position of having to educate people?
Im not annoyed by it because I wanted to know what trans was years ago and I wanted to see if it was me. None of us are born with an instruction booklet and I think its our duty as people who are on the frontier of any minority -- a public frontier, weve always been around but it just hasnt been public -- and as its becoming more exposed I think its our duty to educate people and it requires a lot of patience but I think the result is worth it. The positive effect it has on society is definitely worth the slight annoyance.
I think the cover story is really a fun piece but I also think its an incredibly important piece. Daniel has such a huge name and there are so many eyes on what hes doing at any given moment and the visibility that you -- and the trans community by extension of you -- are going to receive because of the story is huge. How do you feel about -- for all intents and purposes -- suddenly being seen as the new face of the trans community?
Im no different than my trans sisters and brothers but it just happens to be that Im a musician and part of the life of a musician is being in the public. So, Im grateful for that opportunity. I dont feel pressure right now because Im just living my life like anyone else. Well see what happens in the future. If I decide to become a hermit, Ill always have my music. My goal is to share my music for the rest of my life. Im willing to deal with the consequences of being a public person in order to do that.
Youre performing in London right now and we both know how beastly the paparazzi can be in the U.K. When this story hits tomorrow things are probably going to get kind of grizzly. What have you done to prepare for the craziness that awaits you in the next couple of days?
I tinted my hair today [laughs]. Its just a little browner - Im going back to my natural color to honor my pagan ancestors [laughs]. Im really just focusing on my show right now. We opened last night, so, Im just focusing on the concerts. I try not to think about the paparazzi. Who knows if theyll care or not?
Can you run in heels?
I can run in heels, but I do love a day flat [laughs].
Last year you held two Boob-Aid benefit concerts to raise money to get what you called Park Avenue titties. Since then, Boob-Aid has come and gone and you finally got a gorgeous pair of breasts. Now that all is said and done, how do you feel about them?
Its more than I was hoping for. Its deeper than I thought it would be. At first there was the initial excitement about having a new body that I think we all feel whether we dye our hair or lose 10 pounds or gain 10 pounds -- whatever excitement we go through with our bodies changing. But to have that have to do with my gender, which has been a life long struggle, it went a lot deeper because we never know if we are making the right decisions until those decisions have been made. And that has to do with surgeries, hair colors, weight loss, anything. We can only go on our intuition and our exploration of who we are. When I went through this surgery I knew afterward that it was the right decision. So I went through a period of grief for all the years that I was tormented by this. That was the deep part -- I wasnt expecting that to come along -- the feeling of being sad for all that time lost. But I honored that and I moved on and Im happy as can be about my new body. And Im so grateful that the community came together to make this happen through Boob-Aid.
So much has happened for you in the last year. What are you looking forward to in the next year?
Im looking forward to finishing my album. Hurt is the first single. I spent the summer in Los Angeles before I came to London and I was working on the rest of the album and its coming along really nicely. I have three other singles finished right now, which is really exciting. Thats my main goal - to finish the album this year. Im presenting it to labels right now. Who knows? The record industry is changing everyday. If Im not picked up by a label, Ill distribute this thing on my own! [Laughs] Its going to happen, its just a matter of time.
To read our September cover story featuring Our Lady J and Daniel Radcliffe, click here.
To see our slide show of photos by Terry Richardson featuring Our Lady J and Daniel Radcliffe, click here.