RuPaul’s Drag Race has spawned the international stardom of numerous gay men and trans women, and not simply as drag performers. Many alumnae of the show’s 11 seasons (including its two “All Stars” incarnations) have gone on to create music careers for themselves. Queens as diverse as Willam, Sharon Needles and Adore Delano have found themselves scoring big on the industry charts, lauded for releases that range from comedic pop parodies to rock tracks to pop gems, respectively. But no contestant on Drag Race had forged a career in the genre of folk music, the mere utterance of which conjures soft-spoken singer-songwriters and “murder ballads.” That is, until May 2, when the debut album of Season 7 star Trixie Mattel, Two Birds, saw release.
We recently chased down Trixie, real name Brian Firkus, 27, following a late-night gig in Leeds. During the middle of a European jaunt that also included gigs in Dublin and Birmingham, the perpetually pink drag star shared all the details surrounding what sparked the creation of Two Birds, his folk music background and where you can catch the album’s tracks performed live this summer.
“Oh my god, can you even?!” Firkus exclaims across the line in response to my congratulatory sentiments.
On the day of its release, Two Birds sat at number 2 on the iTunes albums chart — a reason to cheer for any drag performer, RuPaul included, but even more so given the album’s genre. And that fact alone — that Trixie Mattel had just become an overnight folk music sensation — was likely shocking to fans of the reality series that first gave him a national platform.
“Well, here’s the thing,” he says. “People know me for comedy, and they know me for the specific look, but I haven’t really made it public or known that my whole life and in my free time I do folk music. Folk music to me is like a family thing, so it never really occurred to me. … There are a million and one white guys with guitars. I’m a realist, and I’m a business person. I was like, ‘Well, I’m never going to do that for a living. That’s not realistic.’ Do you know what I mean? It never occurred to me to have Trixie put those skills to work in drag.”
As for the album’s seven tracks, they recall country music, but only if you go back half a century.
“To me, country has evolved into something that is a little bit further from what my music is,” Firkus says. “I think my music listens more like a ’50s country album than it does a current country album. Folk music is music passed down to you — you know, ‘music of the people.’ You kind of learn it by word of mouth, family, et cetera. That’s how I learned music. That’s why I have always felt like a folk musician. Plus, country has become basically pop, and I think my album listens more like a folk record than it does a country record.”
The album’s tracks make up a concept album of sorts, which could be yet another musical first for Drag Race vets-turned-music stars. “It’s the life experiences of traveling as Trixie Mattel, traveling the world alone and meeting people,” Firkus says. “But it’s distributed through the eyes of, you know, the Wizard of Oz. The man behind the curtain.” That through line comes to the forefront in the music video for the album’s first single as well. The video for “Mama Don’t Make Me Put On the Dress Again,” released just prior to the album’s debut, features a guest spot by gay comic genius and Will and Grace vet Leslie Jordan.
Reaction to the album — needless to say, considering its high-ranking spot on the charts — has been positive, even if some fans of Trixie Mattel were surprised at the Barbie-influenced persona’s ‘hidden gift.’
“The fan reaction has been really fabulous,” Firkus says, “because I do this thing where I get in drag and then I have discernible gifts, which actually catches people off guard. In the culture now, if you dress up — that’s the talent!”
Not so for this Drag Race veteran, whose shows regularly feature tap dancing, acoustic guitar sets and live renditions of songs penned by Firkus during a magical stint in Provincetown, Massachusetts, last summer. It was a trying time for the performer, but the record that emerged from it has proven the summer clearly wasn’t for naught.
“Last summer in P-Town I was going through a breakup, and I was there doing my show five days a week,” he says. “I had no air conditioning, no wifi, no working refrigerator. It was the worst, worst apartment in P-Town. But I had my guitar, so I spent all my time at night doing my show — doing comedy, doing jokes — and I spent my days singing and writing music. It was just a really good environment to get off the Drag Race circuit and do that kind of stuff.”
It was actually that P-Town show, titled Ages 3 and Up, in which Firkus made the conscious decision to combine his witty banter with live music.
“Everybody’s favorite part of the comedy show was the part in the middle where there’s a somber moment. I’m singing with my guitar — a breakup song. That’s when it kind of took on, like, maybe I should record this. People were always saying every night that I should record it, or asking where they could buy it. I just didn’t think people would go for it. I felt, drag queens don’t play instruments, and drag queens don’t play folk music. But I’ve never wanted to do parody, or a bass track. This is music the same way other drag queens do music, but it’s just in my own way. And it’s not comedy music, either, and I think that’s kind of a curve ball for people.”
It seems we have Provincetown to thank for the emergence of Trixie Mattel as a folk music singer-songwriter. Those who missed out on last summer’s sold-out performances at the Post Office Cafe can catch him in the resort town once more this summer. Firkus is currently writing a new show, though he says he’s tweaking the format a bit.
“My last show was almost all stand-up,” he says. “This new show will be more like a musical experience with stand-up woven in. Before it was like stand-up with music dropped in for variety. Now it’s going to be more music with stand-up supporting it. I love doing comedy, but I don’t love comedy music, and I’m really happy I’ve found a way to do both.”
At the end of the day, Firkus insists, “The drag is just a costume.” First and foremost is the music, which offers the most authentic possible look into the man behind the makeup.
“I have the identity of drag, but it’s true-to-life stories, it’s true-to-life perspectives,” he says. “That’s what really resonates with people, and the look is kind of secondary.”
Two Birds by Trixie Mattel is out now. Find it on iTunes.
Featured photo by David Ayllon