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Emily Wells, Turning Coming Out Into Art

emily wells
Courtesy of Shervin Lainez

The musician and her gay dad made their coming-out stories an art form.

Her dad is reliably punctual, and the familiar Nintendo-like rings of his incoming Skype call start right on time. But the tea isn't ready yet, so Emily Wells tells him she'll call back in a few minutes.

"Hi! Welcome home," she says, when his pixelated image returns. Wells, a singer and composer who released her latest album, Promise, in January, is seated at the dining room table under a soaring ceiling in her Bushwick loft below a sign with FUCK scrawled in pink neon (she made it for her girlfriend, Samantha Nye, a visual artist).

"This is great, just to be able to visit with Emily," her father says from his couch in Indiana. Another moment of pleasantries and introductions, and then they are discussing scenes from their past that many families would only talk about in the presence of a therapist.

"In regard to coming out to my parents, it all happened in one big overhearing of a phone conversation by my mother," Wells says. At the time, her parents were trying to work through her father's same-sex attractions. There was tension in the house, but Wells didn't know why. After Wells's mother learned of her daughter's sexual orientation, "she took the liberty of outing my father at the same time." Later that night, Wells and her father passed in the kitchen and briefly acknowledged the revelations. Wells describes it as a type of handshake. "We were a new kind of kin from that moment forward," she says.

Wells, now 34, was 17 at the time, and she and her father have spent the latter half of her life engaged in an ongoing conversation about their queerness (her father, who is no longer with her mother, requested his name not be used). In March 2015, Wells spent a week with him at his home to record their dialogue.

She told her father, "Even if we have the exact same conversation we've had before, let's have it on the record as a document for us both to examine."

But what also distinguished those discussions was that they would be public, sampled as part of an installation called Fossa (created in collaboration with artist Amy Cutler), which opened last year in Santa Fe and arrives at the Leslie Tonkonow gallery in New York in late April. After recording the conversations, Wells went home and responded to them musically. The result offers only snippets of their chat, as if overheard in a noisy cafe, mixed with music that is melodic and at times melancholic.

Setting this soul-baring to music made sense, since music has been part of the family DNA since the beginning--a language they all speak.

"One of the coolest things you can do with someone is make music with them," says Wells's father, a professional French horn player and teacher. "But that also takes trust in that you have to both lean on and support the other person, as in life, or any relationship." During her visit, Wells and her father improvised on their respective instruments (Wells started violin lessons at age 4), and Wells sang standards to her father's piano accompaniment. It was one way of warming up, and practicing perhaps, for the deep talks they held nightly in the dining room, or at a bar over beers.

For 20 years, Emily's father has been struggling with his sexual orientation. He says it's an ongoing process. The hardest questions, he explains, are "Why is it so OK for her to be gay and not so OK for me to be gay? Why do I feel so bad for myself when I have this daughter who's in the same boat that I love dearly and wouldn't want any other way?"

Wells's father speaks with a slow staccato rhythm and often seems to be searching for the right words. Watching him from Brooklyn, Wells, her dark bangs hanging down to her eyebrows, nods encouragingly and inserts words of affirmation. For a parent-child relationship, the emotional honesty of their exchange and the equality of their vulnerability feel jarring and radical and extraordinary. But such is this fascinating new era in which parents are cautiously following their children out of the closet into a more-or-less welcoming world.

It's a story that's having a mainstream moment: Last year, the musician-actor Carrie Brownstein detailed a similar situation with her father in her memoir; Fun Home, Alison Bechdel's less cathartic version of that tale, was embraced on Broadway; and Transparent is writer-director Jill Soloway's pioneering take on the theme. "It's the next wave of coming out in a way," muses Wells, following the call. And even though her relationship with her father has entered the public sphere in a small way as well, their continuing conversations serve a more intimate purpose.

"I need to be reminded sometimes," her father says, "about communication being something that fills a hole that really needs to be filled."

"I have the same need as well," his daughter tells him. "The conversation was for us both. It wasn't like I was doing something for him." This idea of sharing a weight figured prominently in their talks and emerged as a central theme in Fossa. Wells speaks of this "willingness to carry the burden for each other" not as a strain but as a privilege.

On screen, her father nods. "That's a good way to put it," he says.

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