To live, what choice, but to do so as we truly are? And if the world fails to welcome us or hounds us and lets us down as members of the human family that we all are, we must find our way through, regardless. The lucky of us may have a gift to transmute our suffering into something durable, artistic vessels that carry us across troubled waters. Or we find our communities where the love is real and you just come as you are, far beyond the cliché of such. To be able to "walk into a room and count on a certain level of acceptance and understanding," as Namoli Brennet says, we can spend what feels like a lifetime searching, clawing, climbing for it. Namoli's music is a testament to the fact that we must live our lives the way we intend, because who we are is not up for debate. Our hearts are pure and the world will do what it has always done, speak too soon, rather than just listen, rather than make room for understanding. Our beating hearts have a language all their own. While a song can transcend so many things, we also don't yet know what a song can do. Can it turn a heart of stone to a heart of flesh? We just don't know. But even if it can't go that far, we hope, at the very least, that it reaches those who need it. I mean, really need it. To make it through the night. "I really think you should hold on a little longer," the songs tell us. These are lighthouses we're talking about. These are lives on the line. In some ways, Namoli says, it all boils down to this; "how can you know if people like you if you don’t show them who you are." To live authentically is to risk so much sometimes, but to live inauthentically is to risk even more. But that we are not alone. Such is Namoli's musical outpouring. Hope songs that leave a trail of light for others in need of emotional mapping back to the world. Yes, you do belong. What choice, but to live your life, to sing your song?
James Diaz: I know you now call Iowa home, but you used to live in Tucson for quite a while, right?
Namoli Brennet: I did, I lived there for 12 years or more. Tucson has a really fertile community of artists working in a lot of different disciplines, and it was a really great place to be.
JD: And is Iowa a bit like that too?
Namoli: It’s different. I don’t think there’s probably the same sense of community where I live now as there was in Tucson. Tucson had this kind of really unique overlap between the community of artists, the LGBTQ community, and then also sober/addiction stuff. Which makes sense that those would happen together, because of course people would want to self medicate when they’re living in the world as a sensitive person and just dealing with all the baggage that comes from being different. Sometimes it’s nice to have people around you who sort of get it right off the bat. A lot of times, if someone is an artist, they get it, you know? Being a highly sensitive person who takes in a lot of information, is prone to mood swings, and whatever else you’re dealing with, it’s just nice to know that people understand it and that they also empathize with it.
JD: To be able to walk into a situation where you have the general feeling that people are going to know where you’re coming from, the places I’ve been and what I’ve experienced. It can often be very difficult to find that. Which is why I wanted to reach out to you because I get that sense from your journey, that it was often a struggle to find that sense of community, and not at all easy.
Namoli: It can be hard when it feels like there’s such culture you’re having to push back against. It’s such a difference just being able to walk into a room and being able to count on a certain level of acceptance and understanding, rather than walking through every situation, whether it’s getting gas or groceries, and having to think, “is this safe?”
JD: That level of anxiety and high alert, it’s devastating to have to live and walk through that.
Namoli: And not even just safe physically, but also psychically. Can I let my guard down, basically. You might not even realize that you’re walking around holding your breath.
JD: That makes total sense. The psychic parts of ourselves and our bodies are connected and hardwired into each other.
Namoli: And it’s especially difficult when dealing with anxiety, which has always been a struggle for me.
JD: And as a performer, the anxiety part must be that much more magnified I’d imagine, to have to go out on stage in front of an audience, how do you work through that part of it?
Namoli: I feel like I’ve become a good performer but in a lot of ways I feel like I’m not cut out for it. It’s kind of been this struggle of feeling like I do seem to have a gift for this, but at the same time it doesn’t ever really feel like it comes all that easily to me. Usually once I’m up on stage it’s ok, it’s the before and after and the in-betweens that can be really daunting.
JD: I remember something you once said in an interview that really stuck out to me, which was that while you probably still don’t make much more than the average Taco Bell employee, it sure feels like a lot. Is that the part of it for you that allays all the anxiety, the feeling that you get from others telling you that your music has helped them tremendously. Does that part of it become the piece that helps you get up there and perform when sometimes it may feel like the rewards are small?
Namoli: Performing is such a weird and unpredictable experience. Sometimes the audience might be big or small, reactive or conservative, so I kind of decided that my goal is to make sure that regardless of those unpredictable environments people have a meaningful experience. Even if there’s only 10 people maybe I can accomplish that. Sometimes not, if people aren’t necessarily open to it. I think I just do it because I never really felt like I had much of a choice. It always felt kind of obvious that I was meant to do my life’s work in music. Although I don’t think I really hit my stride until my 30’s, which has a lot to do with being a transgender woman and going through that process, getting honest with myself about it. I feel like that’s what really opened the door for me creatively.
JD: That was kind of the leaping off point for you, making your first album, Boy in A Dress, at a time when you didn’t know for sure if there was a community out there for you. Just saying to yourself; “this is a leap of faith, I know who I am and I have to be who I am and it’s really important for me to tell this story and this is the work I have to do in order to tell it.” And once you got out there you found that there was a community for you, but you didn’t necessarily know it at the time. That takes tremendous courage and has to have been not at all an easy journey.
Namoli: I put it off for a long time and I think there was probably a good reason for that. Because I had some idea of what it might ask of me and because I had really bad anxiety all through my mid to late 20’s, and I didn’t know what it was, I just felt really really bad in ways that were hard to describe but super debilitating. That’s when I was thinking about transitioning, it was completely overwhelming because I could barely get through a day as who I was, let alone taking this on. Part of what motivated me was the feeling that part of my anxiety had to do with the fact that I was hiding who I was. I couldn’t walk through the world with any sense of being relaxed and authentic. In some ways it boils down to this; how can you know if people like you if you don’t show them who you are.
JD: That’s a beautiful way to put it. And you talked earlier about still having to be hyper vigilant at times, which is heartbreaking, because you had to deal with the anxiety before transitioning of not being able to be in the world as you truly are, and now that you are, you still have this anxiety attached to being who you are because we still haven’t fostered the kinds of communities of care we need in this world. What is your hope around that, from the moment when you began to live in the world as you truly are, to now, the trajectories around your own community and the world at large? Where’s your hope at, do you think we’re better or getting there in any sense?
Namoli: Well, I feel better as of January 20th, sure. It was touch and go for a while. I just went through the check out in our grocery store and there was this person who had a button on that said “They/Them/Theirs,” for pronouns. It’s interesting for me to see how the trans experience has evolved over the years. One of my sister’s kids came out as trans, and I told her to let them know they could talk to me if they needed to know anything about hormones or electrolysis and my sister said “yeah, they’re not doing any of that,” and I was like “Oh, I’m like the dinosaur.” They’re more content to just embrace a kind of more ambivalent identity, which I think is really cool.
JD: You mean without all the medical process of transitioning, just a kind of mental and emotional reclamation of transition?
Namoli: Yeah, and just giving yourself the freedom and latitude to find and explore what feels right. I kind of spent a few years there, in that space. Boy in a Dress being part of that. I wasn’t 100% sure that transitioning medically was necessarily the right thing for me and I kind of evolved into that. In some ways I think it’s getting better. I think it’s still scary also, how quickly things can go backwards.
JD: Yeah, we took a lot for granted didn’t we?
Namoli: Yeah, we were kind of coasting after Obama and gay marriage. There’s that quote that the moral arc of universe is long but it bends towards justice, so I think we all felt hopeful that these kinds of rights would begin to be extended to other groups and issues and then it was like “wham!”
JD: How did this happen, where did we go wrong and how do we do better? I sometimes feel like the answer is so simple, it’s to start listening to each other, but we don’t really know how to do that. Maybe real listening is about mutual vulnerability, to vulnerably dialogue with one another long enough to take in the experience of the other that we don’t yet fully know or understand.
Namoli: I have this story that I’ve told a lot of times about when I transitioned. I was working at a church and so I transitioned basically in front of the church, and people got opinions really fast. I was rejected by a lot of people and kind of loathed. Then after a little while we sort of built these bridges, and it made me realize it’s important for me to try and leave room for the understanding of others. Just because someone is Republican or they voted for a certain person doesn’t always mean they won’t sometimes make a genuine attempt to accept you. Although, with Trump, I kind of feel like that went out the window.
JD: So do you mean you were able to build bridges with people in that church again later on in life, or around that time?
Namoli: It’s kind of a long story, but it came to a head because, within the church, the music we were doing was great, the church was growing because of it, and we were sort of getting along within the music department, but then the larger church body stepped in and decided they could get rid of me because I didn’t share the church's beliefs. So I ended up getting fired because I was trans. But the happy ending of the story is that all these old people who ended up voting for Bush, who were on the board, voted to not fire me, so I kind of felt like we won in an important way.
JD: That’s striking and beautiful. I mean, in a lot of ways, it was because they knew you, right?
Namoli: Right. I mean the thing is I was directing the choir with all these people who were in their 70’s and I’m still funny and personable, and when you’re making music with people it’s kind of an intimate experience and you trust each other and it’s hard to keep those walls up. When you’re forced to see each other as human beings, then all those clichés and tropes kind of start to feel hollow.
JD: That’s a beautiful living example. It’s always easier to hate someone you don't know or haven’t spent any time with. How do we combat toxic cultural attachments, where parents withhold their unconditional love for their children based on sexuality. It’s a big wound for many people, and these things feel like the most difficult things in the world to talk about and fix. I don’t know how we bridge that. If parents put what they think the bible says before embracing their own children, or to just deny that inner instinct to know how alone your child must feel in it. And then on a society level.
Namoli: It’s hard to even realize how it impacts some of us because it’s almost in our DNA. Just the sense that it’s natural to be ashamed of who you are. When you absorb that when you’re four or five or six years old it just feels like breathing or something.
JD: Naturalized shame, that’s awful.
Namoli: That’s a hard one. I didn’t grow up in the worst family experience, but I grew up Catholic and we moved around a lot and I think my parents just weren’t able to really parent, you know? There were five of us and we were just kind of left to our own devices. Sometimes I wonder if you can fix that. That sense of feeling like you don’t matter to the people who are supposed to love you the most. I don’t know that you can go back and change that.
JD: There’s a line from your new album that I really love, where you sing that “despite what you’ve been told / the bridges that you burn / they still hold.”
Namoli: Did I write that? That’s not too bad.
JD: That line sort of sliced through me. We’re talking here about the primal letting down of our parents and can we ever truly repair those bridges. But I guess I’m also thinking of those older people in the church you mentioned, that voted for you to keep your job. It reminded me that it’s never too late or impossible to reexamine an older situation, or to say we’re sorry, that door doesn’t have to be completely closed. Often I’m an all or nothing person, or I’m too in my experience, if I’m in turmoil with someone, to realize that there’s still a bridge there. That struck me as very powerful, the way you put that.
Namoli: I love language for that reason. There are all of these side roads to open up through it. It helps me, in some ways, to try and make some sense of it in the present. Malcolm Gladwell once pointed out how people who struggle with certain things, in this case it was dyslexia, ended up being proportionately more successful because they had to develop a certain skill set to cope with it that ended up being really useful. So I think living in a household where I don’t know what’s going to happen, my parents have a temper, you’re just sort of wary and checking out your environment and pinging it all the time. You know, that’s what I do on stage with an audience, that’s how I read a room. A very similar skill, absorbing facial expressions and body language and the overall feeling of an environment. I think in some ways it helps getting out of being stuck in victimhood, to realize, ok, even though they may not have meant to teach me to be this hyperaware, it has proven useful to me in my life. But then again, I think most people mean well, they simply don’t have the tools to do better. So you have to carry this thing of like; yeah, some less than ideal things happened to me, and I can’t undo that, but maybe the people who did it couldn’t do any better. I wish it didn’t happen though, I’m still traumatized by it. It can take a while to let go of that stuff I think.
JD: You talk about reading the room like you would growing up, where you bring your inner child up on stage in a way. But it’s a powerful reclamation too, because you’re making art from your experiences, you’ve survived, and you’re able to draw hope from something that was very painful. Whatever that thing is in our lives that was a hindrance, we’re somehow able to turn it into something nurturing, beautiful and helpful, to ourselves and other people. It sounds like that’s the sweet spot you’ve found as a musician. Not that it’s easy, not that you’re not filled with nights of self doubt, self recrimination, all of that. But that part is kind of the saving grace of the present making good on the past. I heard this beautiful analogy once where someone wrote that a desert tour guide had told him that a cactus will branch out where it’s wounded. His takeaway was that we branch out from where we’re wounded. And something else begins to grow from that that is kind of our saving grace.
Namoli: I think I heard a Rupaul interview from a couple of years ago where he was talking about the stuff he went through as a kid and mentioning that it makes you a deeper person. Sometimes when I walk through the world, and I see people who seem to have a really good, easy life, I wonder what it would be like to be that person. To be that beautiful and to kind of have this simple life and a normal family and inherit some money and buy a house or whatever it is normal people do. But then I have to remind myself; “don’t forget that you also have been given extraordinary things.” You might not have this and this and this, but I feel lucky to be able to have the ability to process the world in the way that I do. Just to see it and hear it and let it come through me in whatever form. It’s no small thing to be able to make profound stuff.
JD: The pain gives us deeper instinct in knowing about ourselves and others, but we wish it were easier.
Namoli: And empathy too. When someone talks about suffering it’s not some esoteric concept. I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of talking to someone about something really hard, whatever it is, and having the feeling that they sympathize but can’t really relate to it, you know?
JD: What would you say to young people struggling with their gender identity, struggling with their sexuality, growing up with that feeling in a family of knowing you’re not going to be accepted. What would you say to the younger you or to someone who needs to know that there is some kind of hope out there?
Namoli: That’s such a hard question to answer. I feel like I never know how to answer this without saying “hang in there,” don’t give up.” or something like that. This is not answering your question, I’m filibustering here, but I remember one time I was driving, I was moving from Arizona to Connecticut, and driving through, and I stopped at this bar in Texas, and I saw this trans woman across the street at this club, and I was just staring at her. And she probably thought I was staring at her for the wrong reason, but I was staring at her because I was thinking: “how did you do it?” How did you find the courage to tell all these people something that they might not want to hear and to push back against the people who said you weren’t allowed to do this or that it wasn’t ok and that it was something you should be ashamed of? And I think, for me, maybe it was just this idea that you don’t have to have it all figured out to undertake the process, you can just start and let the process teach you. You don’t have to be as brave as you need to be to do it. I don’t know, this sounds a little like a greeting card; “you become brave by doing it.” (Laughter)
JD: (Laughter) But you put it in a beautiful way, that you didn’t need to be as brave as you needed to be to do it. You saw someone else doing it, you know what I mean. Sometimes it’s just that other people are doing it and that other people are out there like you and maybe that’s it. You see that there’s someone else and that you’re not alone in it.
Namoli: I guess there’s this idea that when you’re going to undertake a risk you need to store up your bravery and then when you feel brave enough, do it. And sometimes you just have to do it and learn to be brave by doing it, I guess. Ooh, that sounded good, didn’t it? (Laughter)
JD: It’s like being in the recording studio and going “that’s the take.”
Namoli: I know, right. “See, let me tell you what it is, it’s not the number of breaths in your life, it’s the amount of life in your breaths,” or something like that. (Laughter)
JD: Laughter is really good medicine. We need both to make sense of ourselves in the world, the serious stuff and the lighter stuff. I’m glad we ended on that note.
Namoli: Me too.
Visit Namoli Brennet's website for more. Her latest album is Light it Up, and can also be purchased via her website.
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