Country music fans sure love to wave their flags, from Old Glory and the Southern Cross to the checkered flag of NASCAR. The last flag you’d expect to see unfurled high above the Grand Ole Opry stage is the vibrant rainbow of Gay Pride, but thankfully there’s a stirring in the rafters.
When Chely Wright, one of the most beautiful and talented women on mainstream country radio, proudly announced she was a lesbian a few years back, the only debate I hoped to follow would be if and how she covered “Stand By Your Man” in future setlists. Her announcement placed just about every major country music performer into the spotlight to reveal if they would publicly support her, and in turn one of the major social movements of our time. While no “We Are The World” show of unity followed, the Advocate reported that there was at least movement in the… cough… right direction.
Rhetoric aside, the only thing that should make or break any artist within any genre is the quality of the art. Exhibit #1, one of the most breathtaking, heartbreaking and absolutely gorgeous country songs I have heard in a long time: “October” by a new Brooklyn trio called Kings.
This song is your invitation into New York’s underground Queercore Country scene; a place where American roots music, the American Riot Grrl movement, classic country (Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn) and modern folk (Ani Difranco, Indigo Girls) melt into an urgent and compelling new form of music that’s equally inviting to fans of every persuasion, orientation and identity under the rainbow.
Our tour guides today are Kings’ two grrls and a guy: Stephanie Bishop, Emily Bielagus and Robert Maril.
POPDOSE: “October” is one of those, stop in your tracks, take your breath away, chills up and down your spine songs. Did it evolve out of a three-part harmony jam session or did you rearrange an existing song?
EMILY: I wrote ”October” almost four years ago after a painful break-up. At the time I was working on a solo career — doing the singer/songwriter thing in New York. Every time I performed that song by myself, I heard so much more noise than I could make alone. When I got together with Robert and Steph and we formed Kings, it was one of the first songs I brought to the table. They took the bones of the song and added meat and skin and teeth — everything I had dreamed of. We call that ”Kings-ifying” a song.
ROBERT: What I love most about it is the way that it means so many different things to people — it’s definitely about the end of something huge, but what? I think that Richert Schnorr really captured that in the video, too.
STEPH: ”October” is and always will be an important landmark in the evolution of our sound as a band. It was one of the first songs we sang together and the first song that really felt like a ”Kings song.” There’s something about the simplicity of the melody line that allowed us early on to focus in on our three voices and how they could come together in a meaningful way.
The sound is such a timeless slice of Americana, I’m not sure what’s more shocking: Kings is a queercore country group or Kings is from Brooklyn. Are you all New York natives or did you simply wind up there?
EMILY: None of us are from here, but we are all total type-A nutbag New Yorkers at heart. We’ve all lived here for about six years. I’m from New Hampshire, Robert’s from Oklahoma and Steph’s from upstate.
ROBERT: I definitely didn’t just wind up here. Having grown up in a small town in Oklahoma, I got it into my head at about 14 years old that New York City was the only place that queer people could live equal, happy lives. Of course, I now know that there are many cities that queer people can do that — but by the time I had that realization, the dream of my life in the city was too deeply embedded.
STEPH: I grew up in the Hudson Valley and actually had an aversion to the City through high school — a result, I think of too many field trips to see ”Cats” and to marvel at the neon lights in Times Square. My girlfriend (we met in college) grew up in the West Village, and it wasn’t until I got to see the City through the eyes of a native that I began to understand the magic of New York.
I’ve heard of Country, Country & Western and Alt Country, take me inside the Queercore Country sound…
EMILY: I think ”queercore” has less to do with our sound and more to do with the political nature of what we’re trying to achieve. I remember we were trying to figure out what to call ourselves and no genre felt right. Folk? Country? Indie rock? We knew that our queerness was this thing that linked us all, that was really important to the identity of the band. Bands with women are a minority, bands with queer folk are a minority, and queer bands, with women, making country music are certainly still a minority. One day I remember Robert just said ”We are a queercore alt-country trio” and Steph and I were both like ”YES!” I think he made that word up?? It’s perfect though, because it puts our identities to the forefront and reminds people that because of the tone of certain parts of this country right now, just singing country music, for us, is subversive. Hopefully that inspires those gay teens in the middle of Tennessee to be cool with who they are AND also to be cool with the fact that they’re into Top-40 country, which seemingly has no place for them.
ROBERT: Ha! Emily, I only wish that I made up the term queercore! It’s technically in reference to a gay punk movement that happened parallel to the Riot Grrl movement of the 90s. Otherwise, Emily is totally right: we aren’t Nashville Country, we aren’t Bluegrass, we aren’t Roots Music, we aren’t typical folk. The best way I could think of to describe us was by what we each shared: a queer identity. As more songs are released, you’ll hear this develop more explicitly. We never shy away from the correct gender pronoun in a song, for instance — when I’m singing to ”him” it’s not my ”friend” I’m talking to. It was important to me that we call ourselves Queercore because when I was growing up, I’d have to read between every line of a song to place myself somewhere in it — often adding completely different meanings to lyrics just so that I could relate to it. I still remember the first time I heard lyrics with ”gay” in them: Tori Amos’ ”Hey Jupiter…are you gay?” is the song that always comes to mind. I wanted to give the queer kids in Oklahoma a record that they could identify as their own — music that assured them they are not alone out there.
Is the Queercore scene in NYC centered around one club, or are there Queercore Country nights all over the city (and all over the nation)?
EMILY: There is an amazing collective of musicians here in NYC who are doing the queer country thing. There’s a big giant annual performance called the Gay Ol’ Opry, as well as monthly queer country nights. We were fortunate enough to be able to play one of these nights and meet this community and it’s been a great network for us. It’s one of those things where we didn’t know there were others like us, but once you find one you find them all! As with any sort of fringe group, we stick together because we have to.
ROBERT: That’s truly one of the incredible things about New York City. Anyone can find community here if they look for it.
STEPH: I think it’s also important to note the significance that venues play in growing the queer music scene by hosting and promoting queer music. We’ve especially found a home at Rockbar (on Christopher Street). Their support and enthusiasm for our music has been amazing and energizing.
After coming out the closet, Chely Wright experienced a dip in sales, tour support and a rise in hate mail. Kristin Hall left Sugarland and even k.d. lang left country music in the dust when she went public. The Dixie Chicks run-in with Bush showed just how fast the country music community will turn its backs on something they fear. Is the Grand Ole Opry/Nashville Radio crowd one you want to court, or is your audience elsewhere?
EMILY: As I said before, the DREAM would be for us to be on Top-40 country radio stations as this gay country band. Maybe that’s a pipe dream? Maybe we’ll be more on the Indie-rock side of things, where again, those teens in small towns can listen to us girls singing loves songs about girls and a boy singing love songs about a boy and feel like they’re not alone. It doesn’t matter to me how people hear us, like into which pipeline our music goes — it just matters to me that people hear us.
ROBERT: I think that our queerness isn’t necessarily what’s going to keep us off of Top-40 country radio. More than anything, it’s our sound. The music that’s being played on country radio is very slick, essentially pop music with some fiddles and slide guitars thrown in. We might write songs in the pop idiom — and believe me, many of our songs follow a traditional pop song form — but the sound: acoustic-driven, thoughtful music that begs you to pay attention, is what sets it apart.
STEPH: It’s also significant that we’ve been ”out” from the beginning. We aren’t musicians who also happen to be queer. We’re queer musicians. Does that make sense? It’s not like we’re going to end up on Top-40 country stations and then people will be shocked when we come out. We have purposely tied our queer identities to our music, which, for me, is freeing; it means that people who embrace our music also embrace our identities. So yes, bring on the Grand Ole Opry crowd, and any other crowd that will have us.
If you could record or perform with any of your contemporaries or idols, who would be on your must list?
EMILY: Oh my god. tUnE-yArDs. DIXIE CHICKS! Fleetwood Mac! This is a wish-list right? Bonnie Raitt! JD Samson, Carrie Brownstein, Perfume Genius, The Blow… Oh my god, I have to stop there. I have an endless list.
ROBERT: As a total music geek, this question lights me on fire. Emily, Steph, not a word about me already being flaming! In addition to Em’s artists, I’d add Dolly Parton, Alison Krauss, Ani DiFranco, Corin Tucker, Bikini Kill, Horse Feathers, k.d. lang, Patty Griffin, PJ Harvey…okay okay, I’ll stop.
STEPH: Andrew Bird, My Gay Banjo, Punch Brothers, Fiona Apple, The Avett Brothers, Bonnie Raitt times one million.
How is the album shaping up? Will there be a mix in tempos or does October reflect your signature sound?
EMILY: There’s a mix of tempos, although faster-tempoed songs are harder for us to write than the slow ones!! We are currently recording our ”barn-burner.” It’s a real hoe-down, knee-stomping bluegrassy kind of song about a bride who leaves a bride at the altar. It’s always a crowd favorite.
ROBERT: I have a running joke at practice that we have to go ahead and practice our ”barn-warmer.” It’s true, writing the fast and loose country numbers has never come quite as easily to us as writing songs that are tuneful and introspective, but we’re getting there. The EP is going to encompass everything from songs like ”October” to songs that sound like traditional protest songs, cowboy songs, and of course a 60s girl-group number thrown in for good measure.
STEPH: One of the things I love about our sound is that it’s hard to define from song to song. The goal is for the album to be full of songs that have different tempos and subjects, but that are unmistakingly Kings songs. Easier said than done, but I’m VERY excited about the way things have been going.
What lyrical themes will you be expressing in song?
EMILY: Oh we’re young — we’re singing about love! But I think we’re also singing about what it means to be queer and alive today. For me, I write about what it means to be queer, and be a woman, and be alive today. We aim to get political — we want people to feel inspired to maybe make some changes if they’re angry. Or to get angry, if they want to! But also, a beautiful pop love song is always something everybody needs!
ROBERT: I’d add that in addition to singing about love and the queer experience, I feel like a lot of our songs directly or indirectly deal with mortality. There was a moment at rehearsal when we realized that three of our songs on the EP feature the word ”bones” prominently. We’re at a time in our lives where we’ve just become these full-fledged Adults — speaking personally, I finally came to the realization that ”adult life” wasn’t something that was coming for me, it was something I was already living. And with that realization came the staggering one that — just like your grandpa told you — life goes incredibly fast.
STEPH: I think some of our most powerful songs are the songs that allow space for seemingly disparate themes or images to rub up against each other. Love, mortality, politics, identity, disillusionment — these do not exist in separate compartments in our brains and our lives. They are often overlapping, and we try to capture those moments.
What is the meaning behind the group name Kings?
EMILY: Naming ourselves something so patriarchal and being SO gay and subversive is very funny to me. I think it’s humorous and tongue-in-cheek, but it also feels and sounds strong.
ROBERT: Exactly! Most people think that we’re called Kings because we’re based in Kings County (Brooklyn) and are surprised to hear that, for me anyway, it has nothing to do with that.
STEPH: Agreed. When it comes down to it, we’re more queens than kings.
OK loyal readers, as your treat for finishing the entire Queercore Country tour, Kings has given POPDOSE an exclusive download of their debut single (recorded and engineered by Eric Beug). This link will be live for a very limited time, so get it while you can. Right click (PC) or Option/Click (Mac) to download.
Video and photographs by Richert Schnorr except where noted.