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Trauma and truth with Alexis Penney

New York writer/singer/drag priestess Alexis Penney speaks about his searing debut album

“I would play this game where I would pretend I was an alien and I was beamed here into a body to experience the richness of human emotion.” Self-described “writer/singer/drag priestess” Alexis Penney is sat in a macrobiotic restaurant in Manhattan’s East Village, detailing one of ways in which he dealt with the break-up that is written all over his debut album ‘Window’. An anthemic listen, it’s a record that deals with lust and loss in equal measure. “That’s the most eloquent description of my two driving forces ever,” he laughs. “It’s kinda the same experience, too. To want something so badly regardless of whether it’s here or there, attainable or not.” 

Check out the first look of Alexis Penney's new video, "Never Home"

Later I discover he framed that feeling in much more potent terms in the memoir that accompanies the record release: “I still feel it now, a weird nostalgic nausea, a hot itch in my stomach of wanting to be with someone who isn’t there.” Also titled ‘Window’, the book tells Penney’s life story in a vivid patchwork of memories that are often raw, always touching, and impossible to put down. Eschewing linear chronology, stories tumble out of him in such an open, comfortable fashion it’s as if he’s confiding in a best friend.

“That’s what ‘Window’ means to me: transparency,” he explains. “Let me show you what’s going on but by you looking in, I can also look out.” While the idea of being “open” has sunk into stock persona descriptor territory - like GSOH and “creative” - to Penney it’s a legitimate way of life. You only need to skim through his Twitter to get the picture. Crushes, connections, skin conditions: it’s all there and in liberatingly lurid detail.

“When you watch someone spill their guts, the reason it makes you feel uncomfortable is because you start to think about yourself,” reflects Penney. “I think it’s why anything I do strikes a chord with people. Even the pop stars you think of as confessional, like Madonna - it’s still measured out in very controlled doses. Even at her rawest, she was very calculated about it.”

“I always said, way before I had any concrete dreams about singing, that when I’m a pop star I’m going to be so all out there,” he continues. “I don’t want any press releases, I don’t want to smooth anything over. I don’t want anything that is a disservice to your audience and yourself. You can make things beautiful and still be real.”

‘Window’ is a testament to that. Produced by Nick Weiss of Teengirl Fantasy and co-written by UK singer-songwriter Jamie Crewe (who also releases music as Poisonous Relationship), there’s a thrilling abandon to tracks like Your Eyes and I Remember. The hooks are as ecstatic as the lyrics are anguished, and much of the record’s power comes from Penney’s willingness to name feelings others shy from. It is precisely that contrast between the sharpest pain and the sweetest melody that makes a good pop song. Penney nods: “It’s like anthemic sadness. We are all feeling this.

Musically, he spirals from house to synth-pop via rock with ease. “Nothing exists within a vacuum. There’s always so much cross-pollination between the genres. I think it’s an idea that on a cultural level we’ve all moved away from - the connectedness of everything - even while ratifying it physically via the internet. We’re still like, no, no, no, everything’s these separate little parcels. I’m like, that’s not real. For me, the reason I wanted to make records was listening to someone like Grace Jones’ ‘Nightclubbing’ - it’s like what are you doing? New wave, reggae, disco - you took it weird. The first time I got that vinyl, I was like I want to make a record.��

As a kid growing up in Kansas City, music was an escape from a volatile home life. While he and his parents are now in a good place, Penney and his sister attended therapy from a young age. “They sent us to therapy almost arbitrarily just because you should talk about your feelings.” During high school he met pop genius SSION who was attending college in the area: “I definitely grew up under his wing.” Then came a move to San Francisco to be with the man that inspired ‘Window’. While the relationship didn’t work out (the break-up was “stratospherically life-altering”), being in San Francisco proved to be the making of Penney. He ran a weekly night called High Fantasy and established a career in drag performance and DJ-ing. “It was amazing because I was supporting myself as a performer but I wanted to do so much more than I was.”

I’m a mess but I have such a grim certainty in the survival instinct in people

That desire got him to New York where Penney is now based but while he should be celebrating the completion of his debut album and first book, he’s dealing with something none of us want to experience: the recent death of his best friend, Grant. “He was my total rock throughout this whole crazy time of change,” he says. “I moved in with him, he gave me a place to live, gave me a bed. He let himself be someone I could build my home around.” Grant is on the record - he played guitar in a band called Icewater that features in the video to Your Eyes. “He was supposed to be here, y’know. And he was so excited.”

While on the bad days the grief is impossible to scale, on the good days he can see a way through. “I’m a mess but I have such a grim certainty in the survival instinct in people,” he says. “It’s almost spoiled to look at this life that you’re given and not experience it as much as you possibly can.”

‘Window’ is out now on Ecstasy. Alexis Penney’s memoir ‘Window’ will be published by Peradam on 18th September 2013.