You don't know Grey--a self-described "20 year old gender fluid punk singer and vigilante in New York City"--yet, but you're about to.
The artist has recently released the debut EP, Clown in Residence--an emotional, soft, garage rock collection of songs that Grey created entirely within a bedroom, hunched on a mattress on the floor with a laptop and a guitar. In order to attain the impulsive, raw quality of Clown, Grey stopped writing songs out and just began hitting record and improvising until the most authentic lyrics bubbled naturally to the surface. One song on the record provides vocals to an old suicide note Grey wrote. Another explores the dangers of over-the-counter medication.
Grey grew up in Los Angeles, and in addition to music classes co-founded the activist group Arts Not Parts,which enlists mainstream artists, like Sia, Peaches, and Jacob Tobia, to create posters showing solidarty and love for trans youth and opposing transphobic bathroom bills.
In addition to Clown in Residence and Arts Not Parts, Grey makes music with the punk band Home Alone, is at work on a new zine called "Biting the Bisexual Bullet," and is appearing in an upcoming cartoon form Wylie Phoenix. Listen to the new EP, then read our extensive chat with Grey below:
OUT: Can you describe how you identify, how you like to dress, your relationship with the words 'gender' and 'queerness?'
Grey: Well, I guess I identify as a lot of things--more specifically I'm a queer person of color. When referring to my sexuality and gender identity I like to poke fun and say that I was born split down the middle since I am bisexual and genderfluid. I'm also bipolar, so from my head to my heart I get to experience the forever expanding spectrums of this reality which makes me one of the luckiest kids alive, I think.
My style is inspired constantly by people I've admired throughout history. At this moment my inspirations are Pretty Boy Floyd, Malcolm X, Debbie Harry, and James Dean. I slick back my braids, put on my denim, my velvet, my recycled leather, and I'm a real tough guy, yah know. They were tough guys with really big hearts, vigilantes, and I need that in my life right now. When I first moved to New York I was dressing like Mozart but Mozart wasn't giving me what I needed to survive in the city. This city reveals the true nature of people and it really took me off guard. I've only been here for 7 months and I can't tell you how many times I've screamed into my pillow and thought about jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge. I guess wearing clothes that remind me of their strength is my way of feeling as though I can do anything, it's my way of having an entourage. Fashion keeps me from feeling like I'm alone. That's what it's always been. I don't have that many clothes, I'm a minimalist, but the things I do have make me feel safe and like I've got a couple of old friends around. I'm really into 50s/60s fashion at the moment, I've even ordered a pillbox hat for spring. I think I'm going to really be feeling that look come spring, I predict I'll be trying to intertwine some Eartha Kitt and Jackie O into my greaser aesthetic. Eartha Kitt especially will always be a number one fashion icon for me because of how she played with androgyny. Her features were very unique, her voice was an unread frequency sounding neither masculine nor feminine and her style always reflected her eccentricities, which resonates with me.
Ever since I was a child I was obsessed with how people expressed their gender identity. I didn't know that this was being called words like queer or fluid or anything on that spectrum but I knew that it was special. I grew up confused by gender and gender politics, especially. Since I had a younger brother I'd see him get treated, some would say, better than me and my sister because he was a boy. He'd get to have his door closed and he'd be allowed to sit with his knees apart and he'd be allowed to walk down the street by himself. Little things like that I noticed. All the while I was there feeling very masculine some days, more feminine other days, at times a combination of the two, and more often than not outside of the binary altogether. I peed standing up for a year straight, wouldn't wear anything from the "women's section", and it would drive me crazy if I wasn't considered to be one of the guys because I thought that I was a boy trapped in a girl's body. All my friends were guys and we were rough with each other, skateboarding and play fighting. But I wasn't always like that, yah know. I would be in moods were I only wanted to be referred to as a woman, have on skirts, and do my makeup. I considered myself to be a tomboy until earlier this year when I heard the term gender fluid. I was at the Leslie-Lohman Museum in Soho, you have to sign-up when you go in and they ask for you to check a box with how you identify. I had been struggling with being called a girl or a woman for quite some time now and I didn't feel comfortable checking that box because it felt like a lie. So, as I went to click the box that says "undecided" I saw the term gender fluid and my whole body reacted so positively to reading those words together. Quickly I pulled out my phone and looked up the definition and it fit me so perfectly, it was what I had been looking for all my life! Gender fluid, that was me. I went down a rabbit hole after that and I learned about different queer identities and the wide spectrum we are all on. It gives me so much joy to know that I'm not this enigma, this freak, the only one. These terms and words give me a community and this community has a history, one that is worth knowing and appreciating.
Did your childhood have a large impact on your songwriting?
I thought I'd be a singer one day like Whitney Houston of Barbra Streisand but reality hit and I realized that that ain't me. I couldn't hit those notes and the type of music they were making was different from what I was meant to. When I was about 12 years old I discovered rock 'n roll and I couldn't get enough of it! The first band I remember ever listening to was Green Day and my friend played me this song called "Boulevard of Broken Dreams." I never heard music like that growing up in a black southern household. After I heard that song I tried writing my own songs for the first time ever. I wanted to write a song like that, one that says all the words you never thought to say or that you could say. I had a lot of things to get off of my chest but I never knew how to get it all out until then. Discovering rock music saved my life. I was really depressed, severely bullied, and my mother was very strict. I took all of that emotion and put it on paper, then I'd sing all the thoughts I'd been too afraid to admit and I'd feel better. There is no fear in rock music, you can be anything, say anything, dress how you want, be who you are! I was raised in environments that used fear against me constantly and when I started hiding Aerosmith albums in my underwear drawer their reign of terror was over.
Movies are the reason why I first fell in love with music, believe it or not. The scoring of a film made me want to be that one day, made me want to be that song that you'd play while Leonardo DiCaprio runs down the street.
I wanted a guitar really badly and the only way I could get a guitar was if I took lessons. I hated the idea of someone else in this forsaken world telling me what to do but I had no choice but to go. So, I was put in guitar lessons,drum lessons, and piano lessons. I cried and ran to my dad when my mother tried for the 50th time to put me in vocal lessons so I didn't have to do that. I did beginners courses of all of them but only finished my piano lessons. The other two I weaseled my way out of. I've always hated those types of environments which is probably why I didn't even go to high school, I didn't feel like I was learning anything or expressing anything, I just felt like I was being forced to memorize. I ended up just teaching myself things here and there, learning new chords from my friends, and making songs out of what I knew how to play.
The EP - tell me about the inspiration behind it, focusing specifically on a few songs if that's helpful.
The name of the EP, Clown in Residence, is a play on the term Artist in Residence. That term inspired the record more than anything because I began to criticize myself and the world around me. I began to ask myself, "What is an artist? What am I? Who am I being? What am I doing here?"
I am a clown, I'm a fool, I'm a joke, and I'm an illusion. The structure of a clown is a projection of one's own fears and it reflects onto you a bitter truth, the truth being that you're not who you appear to be! I've gotten sick of hearing people say, "you're so lucky, I know I don't have to worry about you, you seem so put together, I wish I was more like you." Those things eat away at me because if people really knew how crazy I was they wouldn't be saying these things, if people knew how unhappy I was at times, if people could really see me would they still feel the same way? Artists are constantly glorified even though I know for a fact that many wouldn't glorify themselves. I wanted for people to hear a song where I read my suicide note that I wrote a few months back, I want them to know that same person they were laughing with and talking about the future with didn't want to see tomorrow. I want that to make people uncomfortable and for them to then go and do research on mental illness and invest more energy into in-depth conversations that don't just stop at "How are you?" And "I'm fine."
The song "Drug Lord" was inspired by how many people I know doing pharmaceutical drugs as recreational drugs and some wise people may ask what the difference is and to be honest with you there really isn't one. The whole record is dedicated to exposing the not-so-pretty parts of being an artist, of being different, of being queer, of being mentally ill, of being human but not being treated like you are. I've been offered everything from weed, coke, adderall and loxapine all as means to cope with my existence. The night I wrote "Drug Lord" I had gone to a party and this guy passed me a joint, he was very drunk and gave it to me by accident. I tapped him on the shoulder and gave it back and he responded screaming "Thank God!"
What was the songwriting process like - how long did it take/ where did you do the writing and recording?
Every song I made for this record took about 20 minutes to write but over 4 months to produce. Between working and mental breakdowns I would tweak things or scrap songs entirely. There were over 16 songs in the beginning but only 7 made the cut. I play the whole album over one film in particular which I'm too embarrassed to name and if the songs make a good scoring then I know I've done a decent job. My dream is to one day have my songs used in movies. I'd rather have that then a Grammy.
The song "Ruin This Body" was the one song I was most uncomfortable putting out. I spoke about my struggles with being a queer, plus sized person of color. I've spent so much time loathing everything about myself because it made me a target growing up. The way I expressed my queerness put me in situations that could've left me hospitalized, the way my body is shaped made people hateful, and the color of my skin will always come with the weight of the world. But because people could tell I was queer from a young age I was bullied a lot. People would call me slurs and I'd be physically assaulted. I didn't know what I was or what to call myself and no one gave me anytime to figure it out. There weren't any out kids in my school and no one even mentioned gay people in history class.
I tried to act more heteronormative in order to survive but I'd always screw it up. I took out all the parts of myself that made me who I was and I bought comic books, played my guitar, dressed very normally (except for my cowboy boots), and kept to myself. I realize now that I was pretending to be a straight boy which explains why things got worse but at the time it was the best idea I had and I was tired of eating lunch in the bathroom stall. This song was my way of vocalizing the thoughts of my younger self , thoughts that still sometimes cross my mind when I'm feeling low. I used to think that if I could remove all the things that make me different, if I could just take off this shell and show you my beating heart, somehow that would make people love me. If all that made people hate each other was superficial, what would happen if all of that was gone and you only judged someone based on their soul, on their character, the true essence of who they are?
What propelled you to finish this album - is there a specific feeling or message you're hoping to spread, specifically to queer audiences?
I wanted to put the record out because I wanted some queer kid somewhere out there to find it and know that sometimes it's okay to be a sad song. I made a record with no love songs, no anthems, no hits. I didn't want this record to break any records, I wanted it to save a life. Many queer people, me included, are true performers, actors, entertainers but sometimes you don't want to be everyone's release, you want some relief. I want for people in my community to address addiction, abuse, and mental illness. We will start to lose people if we don't. I was a club kid and I worked the underground scene, I've seen some crazy shit and recently found out that someone I knew in passing from that time in my life had died. Only a few years older than I am now and he's gone. He was so beautiful and always the life of the party, I wasn't that close to him but I feel responsible for some reason, I'm sure everybody does. If we are a family, if we are a haus, then let's act like it and take care of each other.
What other artists did you look to for inspiration/ as role models for this album?
I listened to a lot of Thin Lizzy, Anohni, The 1975, Shirley Bassey, Talking Heads, The Smiths, Fiona Apple, and Nat King Cole. I watched Rebel With A Cause a whole bunch for obvious reasons.
Art Not Parts - how did that get formed/ who did you make it with/ what propelled you to make it?
Arts Not Parts was at first just something small I was going to do on my own in LA. When I found out that people were proposing Bathroom Bills I was heartbroken. Bathroom Bills mirror Jim Crow Laws and the intention of them has nothing to do with the wellbeing of others, it has to do with people's right to exist in public space. I can't tolerate unnecessary evil and hurting people who have done nothing to deserve it. My father says I have a hero complex and he's probably right. When you spend your adolescence constantly under attack for just existing as you are, being different than the heteronormative world, you can turn out like me and be on some V for Vendetta type shit.
I wanted to make the opposite of Jim Crow signs and tag up storefronts and bathrooms. I wanted for people to read these posters and make the connection and see how screwed up these Bills are, how inhumane it is. I made some posters and hosted a small local event, nothing too earth shattering, and the response was amazing, so many people showed up and made posters, so many people cared.
I ended up telling a friend of mine about it, Molly Logan, and she was the one who suggested we make this a global movement. She even came up with the catchy name. Together her and I got all these artist to make posters, we put the posters on the site for free so that people could print them out and tag them up. Many of the artist were friends of hers and some of mine, others we just emailed and hoped they answered. Jacob Tobia and Peaches were two of the people we emailed, with no connection to them whatsoever, and they were so down to do it without a second thought! It made me feel so good knowing that people wanted to be a part of a solution, wanted to help some kid they don't know create a queer graffiti movement.
I felt a shift in energy when those Bathroom Bills were being talked about. Things just felt heavy and there was so much negative speech around the topic of trans people, especially trans youth, and I wanted the posters to be the opposite of all of that. I wanted for trans people to see these posters while walking down the street and know that somebody loves them, that somebody close by was willing to do something technically illegal in order to let you know that you're loved, someone in that area cares and thinks you're worth fighting for! The artists who made those posters made them for you, whoever you are, this is from Sia to you, from Maya The Drag Queen to you, from Trevor Moran to you, yah know.
The posters double as a 'fuck you' to some people and an 'I love you' to others. Not everyone is going to go and tag the bathroom in Trump Tower on the 4th of July like I did. And the response I got to tagging Trump Tower was so overwhelming, kids were sending me messages for days after the live steam I did had ended, and there were kids all the way in Indiana and kids all the way in India who could feel my pure intentions. I'm not just some adrenaline junkie, I'm not an activist, I'm not an anarchist, I'm a vigilante.