Photography by Daniel Seung Lee. Hair: Iggy Rosales at Opus Beauty. Makeup: Mikayla Gottlieb at Opus Beauty.
A few years ago, Cody Critcheloe got sick of seeing his own face. The creative mastermind behind Ssion had spent years directing his rotating music collective's distinctively surreal videos, in which he also starred, and after touring extensively in support of his 2011 album, Bent, he decided to take a break. Frustrated with the pressures of trying to function as an independent artist and feeling less than inspired, he devoted the next four years to directing music videos starring other faces -- most notably Kylie Minogue, Robyn, and Mike Hadreas of Perfume Genius.
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"I love directing, so I didn't feel like I was completely tied to having to be a musician, this front person for this band," Critcheloe says. "I started thinking about what success meant -- my brand and my place within all that. That's when I was like, I should be a director. That's the safe, smart thing to do. That's how you age in this business."
But Critcheloe never completely stopped playing shows or writing songs, and in May he returned with Ssion's first album in seven years. The vibe of O, he says, was very much influenced by producers Nick Weiss (Teengirl Fantasy) and Sam Mehran (Test Icicles), and it's best encapsulated in the record's lead single, "Comeback."
"It was one of the first things I wrote where I really felt like, This is the manifesto for the album," Critcheloe says. "We were able to treat the song itself like a mixtape, making this mess but having it work as a good pop song." And, yes, Critcheloe says you can call it a comeback. "That song could be referencing a love in your life, but to me it was more about a creative muse -- like having a muse come back," he explains. "It's such a mission statement, and I felt like if you're gone for a while you better come out of the gate with something really great."
Critcheloe plans to make videos for at least five of the tracks on O, which he considers an audiovisual album. He's already directed a Bob Fosse-meets-Pink Floyd clip for "Comeback" and a warped interpretation of its follow-up single, "At Least the Sky Is Blue," which features lo-fi indie-pop weirdo Ariel Pink. But for an artist who's been sought after for his off-kilter visual vocabulary, he struggles to precisely describe his own style. "I feel like other people are better at talking about that," he admits.
He can, however, say this: "I feel like what I do is honest and it's real, but I'm not trying to show a straight-up picture of reality." Instead, Ssion's imagery depicts what reality, particularly for gay men, can feel like: generally strange, often alienating, and always vivid. The Gregg Araki-influenced clip for "At Least the Sky Is Blue" presents a neon-drenched Los Angeles fantasia in which Critcheloe pursues his crush (porn star Adam Ramzi) from a McMansion straight out of Less Than Zero to a fitness class to a dance floor populated by shirtless muscle studs. All the while, his guardian angel (Ariel Pink in luminous Liz Taylor drag) watches over him. The whole thing culminates in a dreamlike drag duet with Critcheloe performing alonside Pink as Liza Minnelli, the pair bathed in the ethereal glow of a cocktail lounge spotlight, before Ramzi shoots him.
"I do have a gay aesthetic," Critcheloe says, "but I always want to do things in a way that's a little twisted, which I guess is also part of a gay aesthetic. I want there to be an underlying depth to it, something aching. It has to be weighted by an emotion that's deeper than just camp."
He continues, "It all comes down to magic for me. It needs to feel magical."