Trixie Mattel on folk music, comedy and life after RuPaul's Drag Race

The drag queen, singer-songwriter and comedian joined q's Tom Power to talk about the ups and downs of drag superstardom, and her deep love of folk and country music.

The RuPaul's Drag Race star reflects on her path forward outside of the hit reality show's spotlight

Drag queen, comedian and singer-songwriter Trixie Mattel. (Lisa Predko)

If you know the name Trixie Mattel, it's either because you're a fan of her music, or because you're a fan of RuPaul's Drag Race. Trixie is a folk and country singer-songwriter, a comedian, a drag queen and the winner of RuPaul's Drag Race: All Stars season three.

Since first competing in season seven of the hit reality show in 2015, Trixie has gone on to release two records, Two Birds (2017) and One Stone (2018), and star in her own comedy series called UNHhhh, with fellow Drag Race star Katya Zamolodchikova.

Now, a new documentary called Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts follows the drag queen's rise to fame, hinging on the moment she carved a path forward for herself outside of the RuPaul's Drag Race spotlight.

Trixie joined q's Tom Power on the line from Los Angeles to talk about the ups and downs of drag superstardom, and her deep love of folk and country music.

Here's part of that conversation. You can listen to the full interview above.

As you say in the documentary, you found music before you found drag. How did you get into folk and country music?

I mean, I grew up listening to it and I grew up playing guitar, but my grandpa was a folk and country musician. So when I was younger, I didn't think he was very cool. You know, you don't like the old people music. No matter how good it is, it's old people music, so you just don't like it. And then, once I got older, like I hit 24, right around when I did Drag Race, that's when I started to hear it for the first time. I was like, oh, it's a simpler structure of music, but it has a very dense emotional intelligence. 

What was it that brought you back in? What were you listening to that made you think that maybe your grandfather's music was actually pretty good?

I don't remember what it originally was. I think I worked backwards. Like I worked through some contemporary artists that had very strong influences to older music. I was listening to Jason Isbell and Brandi Carlile. Then I went deeper into what they must have been listening to and I found June Carter Cash, Dolly Parton and Townes Van Zandt.

It just wasn't dressed up cool enough for me at the time because, you know, I was young and gay and this was when women with guitars were a thing. When I was 13, it was like Avril Lavigne, Sheryl Crow, Michelle Branch. I think that's why there's no gay guys who play guitar. It's usually presented as like a hyper-macho instrument. But you can make anything gay and I've made a career on that.

You play the guitar, but you also play the autoharp. When did you get into the autoharp?

Shortly after I moved to Los Angeles — I always wanted to learn — and I would meet people who played it and they were like, "Oh, if you can play guitar, you can totally play this." There's something about limitation that kind of feeds and waters creativity. With guitar I could kind of do anything, but with harps it was like, these are your chords. You know, in folk music they say, "give me three chords and the truth" and it's like, on autoharp, you don't have a million options. So tell your story.

Trixie Mattel holding her autoharp. (Lisa Predko)

Was the connection between folk and drag immediately obvious to you?

No. I had just decided that I wasn't going to do music because, you know, drag queens don't play guitars and sing. It's just not a thing. So I kind of retired that idea. And comedy and drag was so lucrative and fun, I was just going to do that. But then I started playing some of my songs in my shows and earnest folk music combined with stand up was such a great combination because people love to laugh and cry back and forth. When I got the idea to record the album, I definitely had people around me being like, "Are you sure? Are you just going through a thing?" But it felt right. I think that's the good thing about folk music, if you believe it and you tell your real story, the commitment is woven in.

The great thing about being a drag queen is you get to tell the story of the underdog, but you get the audience to be on your side immediately.- Trixie Mattel

When you're not in drag, your name is Brian Firkus. When you're telling your story, are you telling Trixie's story or Brian's story?

It doesn't really matter to me how people think of it. For comedy, it definitely helps to be dressed up because my sense of humour is so dark. I'm a tall white guy with a shaved head, which isn't really like the look for alternative comedy at this juncture in American history. And the great thing about being a drag queen is you get to tell the story of the underdog, but you get the audience to be on your side immediately. You get to play both sides of the field. You get to be the ugliest person in the room and the most beautiful person in the room. It's really advantageous for comedy because you can really say anything.

The new documentary is a snapshot in time, where your fame is rising, but there's also a lot of uncertainty. Can you remember how you felt during that period of time?

Well, there was a lot going on because I had recorded RuPaul's Drag Race: All Stars three, and the pendulum was still swinging on whether or not I might win. So I didn't know. And then I'm also recording my second record trying to avoid a sophomore slump, and I'm trying to beat the idea that maybe the first record was a fluke. I'm on a tour, don't laugh at me, I did the entire One Stone album — we recorded it in, was it three days? Three days. Because I was going on tour and we had only three days.

When you look back, how do you see the role of RuPaul's Drag Race in your trajectory: as a launchpad or as pigeonhole?

No, no, no, I don't see it as pigeonhole. This is really harsh: people who complain about it as a pigeonhole are people who got on TV, partied and got excited, did nothing the whole time, and then were shocked and shook when people only know them from that one thing they did. Hello, Carol, that is all you did. 

It's sort of like, RuPaul shines a light on you and tells you to get on the milk crate. You got 30 seconds to convince the whole world, after the last commercial airs, that they should still see what you're up to next. What you do with that window is more of a test of your skills as a business person and as an artist, it's kind of both.

RuPaul's Drag Race is often credited with bringing drag into the mainstream, but does that version of drag oversimplify drag culture? 

I don't think so. It's like, if, let's say, Kesha is the first person you've heard rap, that's your bibliography of rap in your mind. So that's sort of like your library of references that you personally built. It's not anyone's fault for following those artists and doing it more, you know? It's up to you to do your research and figure out what you like and figure out how many artists are performing down the street from you. I mean for drag, you could go see a drag queen as good or better than somebody you've seen on TV for probably five bucks tonight in your neighbourhood. It's up to you to go do it. If you're one of those people that only leaves the house to see a drag queen from TV, you're not a fan of drag, you're a fan of a drag TV show.

Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts is playing now at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto until Wednesday, Dec. 4. The film will be available on iTunes as of Tuesday, Dec. 3.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview with Trixie Mattel, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' link near the top of this page.

— Produced by Diane Eros

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