Against Cultural Norms: An Interview with CN Lester
Laura Macdougall talks to CN Lester about activism, what it’s like to be openly genderqueer in the music industry, and the issues facing the trans population today.
(Click images to enlarge)
CN Lester is a classically-trained musician and singer-songwriter whose new album, Aether, is out now. Comprised of eight songs, Aether is, like CN’s debut album Ashes, driven by a powerful combination of intensely personal lyrics, CN’s skill at the piano and an ethereal voice. The musical arrangements are moving and immersive, the words deeply poetic – elusive and allusive – offering something new on each occasion; it is rare to find lyrics of this depth and quality. Aether is an album from an artist who is not only an incredibly talented singer and pianist but also someone aware of the power and subtlety of language. It’s an album about relationships, but those relationships include that between performer and audience as well as friends and lovers and, of course, the one we have with ourselves and the self we present to the outside world.
I spoke to CN about the process of making a second album, about their activism (they co-founded the Queer Youth Network and the UK’s first Gay-Straight Alliance) and what it’s like to be openly genderqueer in the music industry, and what they think about the issues facing the trans population today.
How different was the process of making a second non-classical album? Did you find it easier having produced one before, or does it really depend where you are personally?
It felt lot more relaxed, a lot more playful. I think part of that was experience, and part was the different emotions behind the songs.
How would you say the two albums Aether and Ashes are different? Do you feel you’ve grown and/or changed as an artist since recording Ashes? I noticed more use of other instruments on the second album, not just a piano; is this something you’re looking into doing more?
I hope I’ve grown and changed as an artist – it would be terrifying to be stuck making the same music over and over. Ashes was very specifically built around the experience of bereavement – it was a quiet album, and I wanted to keep it deliberately small, like an antique miniature. Aether was always going to be a bigger sound – bass and guitars played in odd ways, screaming into the piano body and recording the strings vibrating, breaking out the crockery and glassware and trying them out on the instruments. I’m determined to get a harpsichord on the next album – that and a mandolin.
Lyrically, your songs are quite poetic. Is poetry something that’s had quite a big influence on you and you find that it does inspire your writing?
Absolutely, although I’m a terrible poet – writing lyrics and writing poetry feel quite, quite different to me. The music comes first and the words kind of melt into that – without the musical framework I’m lost. Even when writing prose it has to come from a musical position: beat, rhythm, mouthfeel and word colour.
Your lyrics are also very open and honest. Is that the only way you personally can approach music? Do you find songwriting a difficult process or something that – in the end – can be cathartic?
Not just music – it’s the only way I’d want to approach life. Maybe it’s having been in therapy for so many years – or maybe it’s because it feels like playing hooky from classical practice – but songwriting has always been an easy process. You just turn your conscious mind off and shake it to see what falls out.
You’ve said in the past that music expresses what we can’t express through words, so how do you conceive of songwriting and of marrying music to lyrics? Is this, for you, the main difference between producing classical albums and albums like Ashes and Aether or are there many other aspects where they diverge?
I think that a vital part of all music with words – pop songs, art song, opera – is that the music itself allows us to express the heart of the emotion, the reason why the song is created – and then the words add detail and anchor points to that. Singing other people’s compositions is different, but I find that the more I can feel as though the words I’m singing in opera or art song are my own, the better my performance becomes. I never thought my alt. music would improve my classical music!
You didn’t make any music videos for your first album, Ashes, but you have for Aether and you’ve just made another one with which you invited members of the public to be involved. Why the decision to make videos for the second album?
Money! Ashes was made on a shoestring – the funding campaign for Aether managed to cover the costs of a video or two.
How involved were you in thinking about the feel, image and theme of the Aether video and how did you find the process?
It came about in a fairly organic way. I’ve worked with Fox before, and trusted him to know what kind of mood the song was expressing. The whole of Aether has a fairly underwater feeling to me, so I wanted to be by the sea – everything else just happened as it happened.
What was it like filming the latest video with members of the public and are you excited about making more videos in the future?
Profoundly moving – that people were willing to give up their time and show their vulnerabilities in a public way.
Despite my fear of the camera, I’m definitely hoping to make more videos in the future – again, it all comes down to money. Damn it.
Is it very different being genderqueer in the classical as opposed to popular music industries? Is the music industry particularly difficult for non-heterosexual artists (as opposed to other sectors of the arts world)?
Not especially different, actually – both the classical and popular music industries are a lot more conservative than they like to let on. Any industry where the goal is to shift product – ticket sales, album sales, product placement – struggles when the ‘brand’ you’re selling goes against cultural norms. I’m hopeful that the way the music industry as a whole is unravelling will ultimately prove helpful to artists of all kinds who weren’t able or willing to be packaged up under the old system.
You’re very active on social media, with a couple of Twitter accounts, Facebook and a very open and detailed blog. You also crowdfunded your albums. Social media and the internet can be a great resource, but they have their downsides, too, and abuse etc. can come not just from those who are transphobic and/or homophobic (or just ignorant), but also from within our own communities. How would you describe your relationship with social media, and what are your thoughts about communities that ought to be supportive actually being exclusive or abusive (if you have experienced this)?
Using the internet as a tool of activism has been something I’ve done since I first started out as a teenager, so it feels very natural – but, at the same time, I like to keep my private life private. That might sound disingenuous, when LGBT blogging and activism often rely on personal narratives – but I don’t feel that sharing some parts of your life online means that you need to share it all. I think one of the problems we have when it comes to inter-community arguments and harassment is that we forget the whole person behind the sliver of persona we see online – we sometimes don’t allow each other to have failings, or struggles, or burdens we can’t see. I think the greatest strength of social media is that it can allow us to really appreciate a stranger as an equal, as a fellow feeling subject – but when it fails there it fails hard.
Writing a proper answer to a question about inter-community criticism is an essay in its own right – for me the touchstone is always that anger never has to mean cruelty. There’s an excellent post on the Nuclear Unicorn blog that says it better than I could – it’s a great read.
Do you find the posts on your blog difficult to write?
I’ve been pathologically honest ever since I was little, so I wouldn’t really know how else to be? I have a horror of being misrepresented – I came out in my GCSE English class because I wanted to get it over and done with. That’s what I struggle with most with blogging – that fear of being misconstrued, deliberately or by accident. Maybe that comes back to the compulsion to be honest – I can live with being hated for who I am, but being hated for something I haven’t actually done or said is pretty unbearable.
You are involved in activism, are a role model and are very open and honest about your identity. Has this always been a conscious decision or something you gradually realised was important to you? What projects are you involved with at the moment?
At the moment I’m focusing most of my trans activism energy on the Transpose series, and writing up my book on gender/sex/sexuality – Transgress/Transcend.
I went to an event a few months ago at which Evan Davies claimed that we’re seeing a move away from someone’s sexuality being the most interesting thing you can say about them because attitudes are changing and being gay is just not that exotic anymore. He thinks the trans population is where the gay population was twenty years ago: if you’re Paris Lees, it is still the most interesting thing about you. Maybe in another twenty years when more trans people are in the public eye and the public know more people who are trans it will become casualised, as he sees it has become for gay people. What are your thoughts about this and do you agree?
I don’t think I want to live in a world where the most interesting thing about Paris Lees is her gender history! I think Quentin Crisp certainly had a point when he said that familiarity breeds boredom, but I actually think that getting the mainstream to engage with more interesting parts of who we are is a great strategy for wider acceptance and understanding. How much good has Ian McKellen done, not just by his activism alone, but by being Gandalf and also being gay?
What would you like to see change in the media’s representation of and reporting on the trans community? I’m thinking particularly of Laverne Cox recently appearing on the cover of Time magazine and the opinion pieces this gave rise to, though of course there is a great deal of other coverage, or lack of coverage of such things as violence towards the community and issues of mental health and provision of healthcare in general.
That the media see us firstly as whole people – as equals – not specimens to be examined and discussed by ‘normal’ people. When the majority of the debate centers on why we exist, whether we’re crazy, whether we’re deluded, if we should be ‘allowed’ our fundamental rights, it ends up legitimizing lack of interest in the actual day-to-day problems of living in a transphobic world. If we could start from the basic point that we exist, that we are telling the truth, that our lives are not up for debate, that would be something.
Following on from this, do you watch Orange is the New Black and, if so, what do you think of the character of Sophia and of the (lack of?) representation of the trans population in popular culture in general?
I’m utterly in love with Orange is the New Black – and with Sophia most of all. It’s so rare to see a trans character who isn’t a cardboard cut-out of stereotypes created by cis people, exploited by cis people, fed back to cis people. I just want more.
I know you’ve spoken passionately about education in the past, and how important it is for everyone to learn about different people in terms of communities, sexualities and genders. What would you like to see happen in and outside of the classroom and in society in general in terms of teaching people about the importance of (non-binary) language, about gender, about eradicating systems of discrimination and hatred. Do you think there is a big difference and/or gulf between homophobia and transphobia?
We could start treating ‘personal and social education’ as a foundational part of the school system, rather than as a doss subject students can sleep through. Not just how people exist in the world, but how we examine ourselves and others, how we process media, how confirmation bias works, how we stereotype each other and how we can challenge that.
I don’t believe there is a gulf between homophobia and transphobia – research into homophobia and transphobic bullying in schools doesn’t demonstrate one. I think it ultimately comes down to gender policing, misogyny, and fear of the other.
How do you feel about Stonewall’s continued exclusion of the trans community?
It’s been pretty shameful in the past – but I have my fingers cautiously crossed for a meeting Stonewall is having with a large number of trans activists at the end of the summer. We shall see.
Photograph © AbsolutQueer
You’re curating another Transpose event at the Hackney Attic as part of London Pride this week. Where did the idea for these events come from? Can you tell us a little bit about what to expect from the evening?
Three years ago, a good friend was having to deal with a shit load of transphobia in the NHS. He needed money for a new wheelchair. I love curating events so I thought I’d do a fundraising night. It went so well that it’s just kept on going; we raise funds for a different trans/LGBT cause each time.
There are two rules at Transpose: don’t make assumptions, and don’t be a dick. Everyone is welcome – there’s always a lot of baking, a lot of laughter and all kinds of flirting. That and music, poetry, spoken word performance and glorious outfits. It always feels like I’m holding a party in my living room – just that my living room got a lot bigger.
Finally, what can we look forward to from you in the future in terms of your music, and what are you looking forward to?
I’ll be touring the rest of the summer with Aether and taking part in Pride festivals around the country, finishing with a London show on September 11, with The Indelicates and The Mechanisms. I’m just finalizing details for an August live-streamed show, which I’m really looking forward to. I’ve started writing the next album – Coming Home – songs from that won’t be appearing until next year, but I’m certainly looking forward to it.
I’m trying to find a home for my first novel at the moment, so my fingers are crossed for that, and writing the next one. What with that, and a classical music project promoting works by women composers, what I’m most looking forward to is my first non-working holiday in six years in July. I’m not going to check my email once; it’s going to be divine.
CN Lester’s website can be found here.
To listen to tracks from both Aether and Ashes, visit CN’s Soundcloud page here.
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