This piece was meant to be an interview. But as luck would have it, an hour-long Skype recording of a conversation with NYC artist Alexis Penney, who released his debut album, Window, on Ecstasy Recordings August 5, won’t play. It’s probably a good thing because as the name of the record implies, Penney is a vision of transparency when it comes to sharing his feelings, however embarrassing, scandalous or, as in this case, painful.
Probably best known for his twitter account, where he unfailingly shares his thoughts, unfiltered, with thousands of followers at what feels like every waking moment, Penney’s personal life is an open book, expressed across countless platforms, from his drag performance and party hosting to music, photography and writing. His Sore blog features intimate analogue snapshots of Penney and his friends, his forthcoming book, the homonymous supplement to Window, out via Peradam on September 19, is a memoir so honest that Penney’s mum won’t be showing it to her friends. When I spoke to him, it had been only five days since his guitarist, friend and soul mate, Grant Martin of Icewater passed away.
Window, then, takes a whole new, much more intense meaning than was originally the intention. Conceived as an elegy to a busted relationship, an exorcism of the heartache left behind, words like “You know I miss you, do you miss me too?” in ‘Another Life’ and “I’ll try to hold on,” in ‘Never Home’ suddenly become imbued with unimaginable tragedy, the regretful process of forgetting in ‘I Remember’ is all the more poignant.
Produced by Nick Weiss of Teengirl Fantasy and written by Penney, along with Weiss, Martin and likeminded Sheffield-based performer Jamie Crewe (aka Poisonous Relationship), Window constructs a dreamlike state, altered by an unsettling sense of loss, as cheesy 90s synth presets are set off by hollow delays and an insistent kick in ‘Your Eyes’, a muffled ambience liquified beneath a synthesised tabla in ‘Lullaby’.
Inspired by the synth-tinged rock-gone-soft of the late 80s, as well as Marianne Faithful’s Broken English, Steely Dan, YES and Crystal Waters, Penney’s oeuvre is of but not exclusive to the drag realm, going beyond camp and into high drama. The nostalgic revelry in kitsch borders but never quite oversteps the bounds of the grotesque. In the same way that Liza Minelli plays out Sally Bowles’ outrageous melodrama to the ominous backdrop of the impending holocaust in drag touchstone Cabaret, Penney’s dreamy fantasy exists in its own omnipresent unmentionable of a very personal tragedy.
Notably, producer Weiss is also responsible for production on Lauren Devine’s emblems of New Sincerity, ‘This is How We Do Dubai’ and ‘Just A Little Ready’. She shares an earnest distance similar to Penney’s, in her genuine appreciation of her subject, while still marked by a certain self-awareness that not even post-irony can explain away. It’s a penchant shared by SSION, except that a dark humour and horror at life’s absurdity prevails; a distant echo of laughter permeating as the gender-bending performer emulates his idols, whether it’s Joni Mitchell in her electro phase or Kate Bush’s shamanic habitation of her fictional characters. Because, as Penney observes in one insight I managed to salvage from our lost conversation, “everything is a performance and by that same token, nothing is a performance.” **