Last we spoke to Alexis Penney, they were still living in a communal house in New York with what they call their “queer family” of artists and performers, most of whom made up the drag collective called Chez Deep. From that there came a 2015 series of videos, produced by aqnb and Video in Common, which included conversation and performances with members Colin Self, Sam Banks, Bailey Stiles, and Penney themselves, together inhabiting their home and exploring their creativity. It’s a year and half later and a lot has changed. ‘Casa Diva’ still exists but Penney now lives in a new house, in a new city, having relocated to Los Angeles, and released a second solo album, Sapphire, on December 25, 2016.
The record features instrumentals from Michael Beharie, percussion from Yahoteh Kokayi and backing vocals from Self, among other contributors, and picks up where 2013’s Window left off. The 80s and 90s synth-tinged, soft-rock inspirations of Marianne Faithful, Steely Dan and YES of three years ago, has now been replaced by the 60s and 70s folk songwriting of the likes of Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. “I wanted to reinterpret a rock band record through a queer lens knowing that I couldn’t truly reproduce the experience of being in a band and playing the material out, over and over,” writes Penney in an email of typically intimate answers to questions about the record and the accompanying video for ‘The Soul, premiering on aqnb — and coming with a nudity warning from us.
This film, along with the record and the short conversation with Penney to follow, explores a number of themes familiar to anyone aware of Penney’s extensive oeuvre spanning music, photography, and drag performance. Yoga, astrology and mental health; dealing with personal tragedies, queer visibility and sexual taboo, they’re are all things covered in a highly personal portrait of the artist at their most vulnerable.
**Tell me a bit about this ‘The Soul’ video… who filmed/cut it ? where was it being filmed?
Alexis Penney: Artist and soulmate Amy Wilde shot that on my phone and I just sort of put it together on iMovie lol. I’m just dipping my toe into editing with the Sapphire cycle. She was staying with me during my exile / episode in Berkeley and we are very close so it felt like an intimate conversation between us that we could show the world. She has an amazing eye and instincts.
**I’ve been following your Twitter account for years now and get a sense that you’ve had a bit of break with your old life, do you want to talk more about what inspired this move?
AP: Yeah, it was really all centered on the yoga program I had been working for for many years. When I left I had been teaching full time for two years — which is like 20 classes a week — all in donation-based community studios. I was also on staff for their multiple annual teacher trainings, personally mentoring a bunch of teachers, and managing a studio that saw 600 students on average a day. It was a lot and incredibly powerful but, just like anywhere else, there is ugly shit lurking in the unexplored corners of people’s egos and psyches so I left in a sort of wave with many of my mentors and peers in the program.
I’m in the middle of my Saturn return [an astrological transit that happens at 29] so it made sense that I would also ‘lose’ my queer home and family at that time and wander in the wilderness for a while. I’m also an intuitive empath (bipolar), so I had a pretty gnarly series of episodes, put into perspective by those of many neurodivergent peers of mine with less grounding and support who had similar experiences this fall, and, of course, in context with the episode our culture is having. Life just seems to be in tumult for most people human and non right now and I think that’s the way it’s going to be for a while.
**Is this how the album came about?
AP: We actually worked on Sapphire for three years, total. Starting right on the heels of Grant’s death and Window‘s release in 2013. I had been fantasizing and conceptualizing this record in my mind throughout the making of Window and when I met Michael Beharie – who produced and cowrote Sapphire with me – he was just totally with it when I presented him with my ideas. He just totally heard where I was coming from and where I wanted to go it was beautiful.
**I’m getting a bit of an affirmations/mediation CD vibe from the titles and artwork, does your segue into yoga have anything to do with it?
AP: It’s definitely very spiritual. As was Window. I think teaching yoga has changed my approach to music in showing me that it doesn’t actually always have to be about me. I approached this record wanting to channel a more universal story through the lens of my personal experience, rather than just focusing on telling my story. Teaching was so powerful in asking me to center the experience of the students rather than my own, and that really did shift my whole artistic focus. I wanted to give voice to more than just myself and this was a first attempt at that.
**Are you still doing yoga, being healthy and all that?
AP: Haha, yes. I will always practice yoga or some form of body-centered movement and care for myself on a deep level. I’m an intuitive empath with autoimmune issues so that is a physical necessity for me. It’s been over four years since I quit drinking and three since I left behind hard drugs, and those aren’t things I plan to return to.
**So there’s nudity in ‘The Soul’ video. I remember once you telling me the title of a webcam video on which you masturbated and was intrigued by the fact you didn’t care if I saw it. Everything about you is very ‘warts and all’ (so to speak), can you tell me a bit more about where this comes from?
AP: I think it’s a need to be seen and witnessed. I grew up in a time and place where people ‘like me’ and their stories weren’t enshrined in the mainstream, institutionalized narrative. And what I’ve realized is that it’s not really just queer people, it’s everyone. All bodies are denigrated in our culture. All sexuality is repressed and commodified only when it fits a narrow and fictive idea of what’s accepted and valuable. So I always told myself growing up that if I was ever ‘famous,’ or given a platform, I would bring all of me along and never try to scrub any part of myself. Aquarians at our strongest are really gifted connectors, making connections between elements of life that can sometimes seem disparate based on a western mechanized world view. I try to exist as holistically as I can in every way.**