THE MISS EDUCATION OF ALEXIS PENNEY
Everybody in San Francisco knows Alexis Blair Penney. Whether you see her out at a drag show or you’ve woken up dazed and demented on his bedroom floor, Alexis is a familiar citywide force: a menace to the monotony of nightlife, an emblem of unabashed experimentation, and a hostess and performer so vital, it hurts. (S/he also has a killer Twitter profile.) Rising electronic musician and producer Nick Weiss of Teengirl Fantasy, recognizing the magnitude of his voltaic persona, stepped into Alexis’s gossamer world to co-write a series of lush, adult-contempo anthems fit for—what else?—a queen. One such artifact is the artist’s debut single, “Lonely Sea”, released last week on Honey Soundsystem, accompanied by surf-and-turf video playing off of the dualities of Alexis’s character (and, quite likely, Madonna’s video for “Cherish”), directed by Justin Kelly. V took a few minutes to chat with the budding musician to discuss inspirations, fashion DON’Ts, and Everything But the Girl.
Alexis Penney “Lonely Sea (Ecstasy Mix)”
PATRIK SANDBERG What are you doing right now?
ALEXIS PENNEY Laying in bed reading comic books, listening to Everything But the Girl.
PS Is that where you draw inspiration?
AP Comics? A little. There’s a lot of deification of women in them. I definitely pull from that when I’m on stage. A lot of really severe posing too.
PS A lot of your performance history has been more physical than vocal. How is the transition?
AP It’s interesting, because I’m really, on a base level, just not that good of a dancer. So many drag queens operate on this really high level of dance and performance. I always relied on my face and my emotional connection to the song to come through, so singing is just kind of giving voice to that. It actually works really well in my mind, I’m not sure how it comes across. It’s nice to actually have something to do on stage and to actually give voice to my own emotions rather than trying to convey my emotional connection to someone else’s song. It’s weird, though. You want to give a really dynamic performance but when I sing I really just want to hunch over the mic and wail without moving, so I’m trying to reconcile both of those notions. I’m going to get some backup dancers to make me being mostly static a little more powerful, something to add contrast.
PS Who do you relate to in terms of performance?
AP Hmmm… Bette Midler, in a weird way, because I do find a lot of like, humor in what I do, and she was always just so fresh and relaxed about making fun of herself, because on some level she was just some big weird dork with a great voice and some good ideas and I feel like there is a similar joke in me—some alien drag weirdo, singing and pretending to be some diva. Also, Courtney Love. I love the way she hunches over a mic stand and just gives it. I read somewhere she stole that pose from Ian McCullouch from Echo and the Bunnymen, but it’s a good one.
PS She made it hers, though. I think most women have issues acting like a man. Even when Gwen Stefani tries it, doing kung fu kicks, it’s somewhat prissy.
AP Aw, Gwen. She’s so sweet. I read this interview where she talked about just copying all the chola girls in high school, the way they dressed and did their makeup and brows. So real. It’s funny, the drag queens or female illusionists that I know who are the most womanly and effective as a women try to distance themselves so much from that character when they’re off stage. I get it on one level. But for me, I’m just always trying to be myself, I think it comes down to whether you think in terms of gender binaries or not—which mostly, I don’t.
PS But you aren’t exactly a “drag queen.”
AP Well, I draw a clear distinction. I do perform drag out and do lip synchs regularly at the drag shows, which was really my only performance outlet before I developed my music so I do “traditional” drag, but I keep that separate from my music, but the two inform each other for sure.
Alexis photographed by Danielle Levitt for Candy Magazine
PS Do you think most men, even heterosexual men, have a compulsion to behave in ways that are feminine that they suppress? Once you see them go for it, they really get into it, like on that recent episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race featuring all of the straight jocks.
AP I actually get a masculine thrill from being in drag, like, I’m taller on heels. I have this freaky warpaint on my face, it’s like I have this weird sense of belonging in drag, even when I’m actually sticking out like a sore thumb. I think it’s a societal thing, like your parents and your peers and your teachers want to be able to define you from an early age, but in reality people are way more complex than a simple definition or archetype can ever do justice to, so I think conforming to that ideal people lose a lot of what is naturally there.
Like, duh, every dude can queen out if he really wants to. Also, overblown jock-bro-dude is definitely a form of drag. Nobody acts like that naturally. [Laughs] Really, if you’re out in public, you’re acting. Nobody wants to admit that, because it sounds like we’re all big fakers, but that’s just the nature of human interaction.
PS So who are you REALLY?
AP [Laughs] I ask myself that every day! Every week I look back at the person I was last week and go, whoa… that was weird how I was feeling that week. And my look changes constantly. It can get confusing.
PS What was the inspiration behind “Lonely Sea”?
AP I got dumped by my boyfriend maybe a month before we wrote that song and spent a lot of time on drugs, just lying in bed or pacing around my room just tripping so hard. Because up until that point I had completely defined who I was by that relationship. The first few lines of the song I just like sat bolt upright in bed one evening, walked to the other side of the room, wrote them down, then forgot about them. Before the breakup I had planned on making some music with Nick [Weiss, of Teengirl Fantasy] and he sent me a snippet of the instrumental he was working on based on what I’d told him I wanted to do. Then when he got into town and set up the stuff, I flipped to that lyric and it just fit, so it kind of went from there. I was feeling so abandoned at that point, by this person who had only weeks or days before told me that he was going to be around with me for the long haul. I was just so desperate to get back to that sense of normalcy. I don’t feel that anymore, though. The song was tremendously helpful.
PS You once told me you wrote the song imagining what it would sound like if Jennifer Aniston recording a song about Brad Pitt leaving her.
AP Oh God, yes. [Laughs] I was so the “Jen” in that breakup. Well, honestly, only time will tell. I relate to her though. I have a collection of pictures of her in my file folder. [Clicks] I just sampled her new fragrance at the store the other day and it actually works for me! Like I could see myself wearing it?! So weird. She’s so normal but I totally get her. I see that she is a total dork, I just will always side with the woman in a situation, or like, I get the role that she is forced to play in the public’s perception of Hollywood romance bullshit. It sucks for her that she had to play the loser.
PS What is her fragrance called? “Lonely Sea”?
AP Haha, yes. [Ed. Note: No it isn’t.] I like the illiterate versions of the name “Lonely Sea.” It’s like “lonely, see?!” Or it’s almost another word for loneliness, lonelysee.
PS What was it like making the music video with Justin Kelly?
AP I’d read this Liz Taylor quote that said you have to make the camera man fall in love with you. I think she said that. Someone said it, and I totally seduced the guy shooting the video and we slept together that whole week. The scenes in my room, I like to have a Miss Havisham vibe to my bedroom. There’s that Nancy Sinatra song “In My Room,” inspired by her, about a girl who got left and never takes off her wedding dress. For the beach scenes, the water was frigid. It was off and on raining and hailing on us. Halfway through the water shoots I was getting really fucked up, like numbness, shaking like crazy, and we were all just trying to get through it. I started shrieking “I can do this, I’m Alexis, queen of sex!” and they all thought that was really funny.
PS Let’s talk beauty. What is your favorite lip shade?
AP Burgundy. I love dark lips. Burgundy, plum, and mahogany. Black is cool, but too costumey.
PS Describe your fashion mood for 2011.
AP My fashion mood is really weird. I’m wearing a lot of men’s shirts as dresses, and a lot of robes and flowing things. I’m feeling Old Hollywood, like Norma Desmond if she were a young man.
PS Which trend would you like to see die?
AP Too. Many. Accessories. I’m liking a lot of simplicity, I’m not into all this Gaga shoulder pad bedazzled nonsense. It’s like, take 5 things off please.
PS Is this a particular concern in the cross-dressing realm?
AP Yes. Especially in San Francisco where everyone gets soooooo accessorized. I guess that’s what separates me from a lot of drag queens, because for me I’m not layering on all these things to become something I’m not. I try to be more real about it, like this is just me, and no I don’t need 700 bracelets, an eye patch, a bandana, and a grill.
PS Maybe it’s because they are trying to create caricatures of women so the more accessories, the more ridiculous they are making women seem, which is sort of misogynistic. Maybe you prefer simplicity because you are, at heart, such a feminist.
AP Haha, yeah!
PS Where would you like to hear your song end up?
AP I would like to hear it in a gay coming-of-age movie. The full-length record I have planned will be way more atmospheric. I would love to have my music in movies because I love film soundtracks, I love setting the mood. If something I created could be as powerful as some of the iconic film soundtracks I love then I’d be really happy.
PS So what will you attempt next?
AP I am sitting here listening to the new KD Lang record and it’s really good. I want to finish up this dance album so I can make a country record.
More brilliant musings by our favorite muse are available at www.soresoresore.com.