Featured Interview: Mina Caputo on gender identity, the new album, and the Indiegogo campaign

Mina Caputo
By Morgan Y. Evans
Photo by Tammy Cedar

Feeling trapped within or helpless with an aspect of your own body is no laughing matter. Many performers and artists have had to deal with it over the years in one form or another, from metal vocalist Karyn Crisis detailing asthma and food allergies on the song “Corpus Apocalypse” to Chris Conley of Saves The Day or Mike McCready of Pearl Jam struggling with Crohn’s Disease to Kalmia Traver of Rubblebucket recently announcing she has ovarian cancer. But what if you feel like you are in the wrong body in the first place? Modern society can debate all it wants to over whether people who are transgender have psychological problems or valid rights, but anyone with a sense of empathy should realize that it must be hell for someone who struggles with gender identity and feels scared to do what feels right to them. Can you imagine being told you can’t be a boy or a girl?

“People really need to grasp the understanding that there is a whole world within themselves and stop searching outside themselves to find the answers,” says vocalist Mina Caputo. “A lot of people reach a point where they really need to look within and follow that for guidance, instead of judging others or themselves because of social expectation.”

Mina Caputo

Mina Caputo is a transgender woman who was known for years as Keith Caputo, the brooding, poetic voice of legendary alternative hard rock band Life Of Agony. Caputo identifies as female, male and neither, a gender fluidity that was extremely confusing growing up in a strict Sicilian household in New York City. Subsequent success in a hardcore scene with a terrific band that nonetheless had a primarily macho fan base made Mina feel like she had to lead a double life for years until she finally couldn’t take it anymore and transitioned to great public shock in 2011. Incidentally, Caputo’s bravery was one of the things that inspired Tom Gabel from Against Me! to transition into today’s Laura Jane Grace.

“It got to the point where I’d exhausted every part of my life and I just couldn’t bear to live another day in my own skin presenting myself the way I was,” Mina confesses. She is incredibly soft spoon yet her voice holds a sense of perhaps long sought after self-aware confidence. “I was a certain somebody to so many people. If I wasn’t in the public eye it would have been a lot easier for me to kind of come out and say “Hey,” y’know? I was born anatomically a man but, listen…when the doctor pulls you out of your mother and there’s a penis, it doesn’t necessarily mean, y’know… that you’re a guy! (laughing) Genitals don’t distinguish soul. That’s what they want you to think. It’s part of our system in a way to put things in boxes but life is so much more complicated and diverse and amazing.”

Many records have struggled with loss and death or personal upheaval, from Lou Reed’s incredible Magic and Loss to Chan Marshall of Cat Power’s great post-hospitalization for depression record Sun (an album that brilliantly married poetic vulnerability and cathartic release to an impartial electronic soundscape). These records still don’t come close to the level of soul bearing reached Caputo’s first solo album as a woman, the bracing and eventually joyful As Much Truth As One Can Bear. The album, co-produced with Andy Kravitz, is powerful, refreshing and raw.

Real fans of Caputo know that her range is amazing and not just limited to heavy rock. Caputo has certainly been part of some amazing heavy rock songs, from Life Of Agony’s “Weeds” to the big hit team up with Within Temptation on “What Have You Done”. Caputo has also had a great solo career featuring much dynamic growth. Solo Caputo song “Brandy Duvall” from Died Laughing is one of the saddest and most graceful songs about heroin I’ve ever heard while “Bleed for Something Beautiful” proved once and for all Mina can handle stunning quiet songs. As Much Truth As One Can Bear is a whole other level, her pop rock and poetic side really blooming with influences ranging from Plastic Ono Band to Bowie. “Bastard Angel” is a particularly haunting new song that almost sounds like it could have been from Bjork’s Post era.

Fans can support Caputo’s efforts to physically release her new album via an awesome Indiegogo campaign full of great rewards.

“I have this Indiegogo campaign for the album,” Mina says. “I want to work with my fans. One of the rewards is send me your lyrics. I’ll write music or cover a song you pick, whatever. I’ll write melodies around your lyrics. One of my fans loves Michael Jackson’s “Man In The Mirror”. I started tracking it the other day and at first I started kind of like ,”No one should cover Michael Jackson.” I was out of my comfort zone. A couple days later after I threw down six or seven vocal tracks and put on drums and electric guitar and two acoustics…piano and organ I lay down. I didn’t expect it to get to this point and now I’m listening back, like ,”Holy fuck!” I pretty much nailed it. I kept the integrity of the song and the melody. That’s what the kid wanted. I’m working for the kid’s happiness, in a sense. Left alone I would do my own twisted up version. I like to do interpretations. I like to do covers to, but…my point is I didn’t have any expectations. I was pleasantly surprised I was able to pull this off. I completely surprised myself. Yesterday I spent the whole day tracking vocals from 6am to 7pm.”

Mina Caputo’s Indiegogo campaign:

Caputo is a firm believer in holding a quality, tangible release in your hands and has taken it further by creating a gorgeous collage/lyrics book inspired by the new album. It will be a limited edition book and include the CD with funds from the Indiegogo campaign going towards production. Autographed copies of the book are part of the campaign as well.

“My favorite part of the whole Indiegogo campaign is I do really directly interact with my fans. I am kind of an anonymous figure. Even in my personal life I’m very shy and coy,” says Mina. “The book idea…during my breaks and stuff making the album I just started writing lyrics down and doing pictures in my art book and doing collages. It started turning into this really gorgeous book. I’m just like,”Holy shit! I wanna release the book with the CD.” It’s obviously really expensive. No labels are spending money. I’m waiting around to get a good label deal until I hold my breath and die. I just didn’t want to wait around anymore. Normally I just fund everything myself. Hometown Scars and Hearts Blood. Much of what I’ve done I’ve always put out myself but obviously the climate is very different. I’m not making as much money. I can’t make 1,000 units if only 300 people are gonna order vinyl. I can’t afford to have 700 vinyl sitting in my closet if the people don’t want it. If they want the book and don’t want a cold, dry release online, this is how. I’m one of those artists that go against the grain and am trying to preserve the romance in holding something of quality in your hand.”

Caputo gushes for a minute about being a music and literature fan herself.

“I’m still going to my favorite music shops and going vinyl hunting. I’m still supporting all of my favorite artists, locally and internationally,” she says. “The last thing I bought was the band Peace. Their album is called In Love. I saw them on Jools Holland and I thought, “Oh my god, I have to stalk them.” I had to order it special from the UK. I bought Bowie’s album. Bowie doesn’t need anyone to buy his album! But I bought it. I bought the new My Bloody Valentine. If you ever came to my apartment, my biggest possession are my books. From Charles Bukowski to Herbert Selby, Jr. to Yoko Ono to Lawrence Ferlinghetti to Jim Carroll. You name it, I have it. I wanna fuckin’ read a book and hold it in my hand. After working all day the last thing I wanna do is start playing with the internet and being on my phone. So, I’m one of those people and that’s where I think this book came from. It actually came from… Antony and the Johnsons released an art book that came with the release the record Swanlights. It was a collection and included the latest album. I wanted to do that, so I did. It’s expensive! To order 1,000 books will cost me…maybe I’m overestimating this a bit but, about $7,000 dollars. If the kids want it they can help pay for it.”

“The format or release is probably going to be fuckin’ downloaded anyway,” Mina adds. “My last album Hometown Scars…before it was even released it leaked and there were like 5,000 downloads. My drummer was big on stalking torrent sites. He told me it had 5,000 downloads before my album came out. I’m glad people liked it but that fuckin’ hurt me so much. I’m not Radiohead. That’s kind of the point of this Indiegogo campaign. Who does love me and want to support me? That’s why I did it and we’ll see how it goes. It’s actually going pretty good. I’ve got about $9,000 and we still have about 40 days left. I’m quite happy and grateful. I think nearly 100 people want the book. That’s great. I’m blessed. I didn’t even expect that, to be honest. I expect the worst. I’m like ,”Oh my god, really?”. The point of this is getting in touch with my fans and even helping them make songs and bringing their lyrics to life as a perk. I love to speak to the fans and it gave me the idea that I don’t think I want to stop writing this way. If fans want to play the game with me it’s a different road for me to earn my avocado salad, y’know? It’s a great way to work with people. In the past I did shit for Grolsch Beer commercials. I did shit for Mentos commercials. I’ve touched upon that side of the business when I was living in Amsterdam years ago. It was kind of fun but you’d get pressure from all these commercial companies. That wasn’t fun. But the fans are so loving for me and they are so amazing to me. I have three more songs to do directly for fans right now through this Indiegogo campaign’s rewards. One cover, which I haven’t spoken to the kid yet. And two kids sent me lyrics to put to music. Make sense of their lyrics. Cut and paste and use what I want how I want/. I’m gonna blow people’s minds. That is a guarantee.”

It’s such a great idea because these people are never gonna forget that they got to directly collaborate, in a sense, with an artist they admire. They can reach out and interact with Mina and see her take something away from the experience as well. That’s a priceless thing.

“This “Man In The Mirror” cover is this guy’s girlfriend’s favorite song and I’m actually delivering it to him on July 25th, which is her birthday,” Mina says. “Normally I wouldn’t do it so quick but I wanted to really make him happy. So I tried to make it the best possible expression I can. Every atom and cell of myself.”

Mina is an inspiring person and a true artist with so much integrity. There was some controversy already for the new album when Mina released a new video for lead single “Identity” that showed her being intimate with a man. It is interesting to contrast with the video for older song “Bleed for Something Beautiful” which featured a woman. “Identity” has some kinkier scenes, for sure, but both videos emphasis is on the moments of tenderness between subjects.

To briefly detour into the personal, Caputo has been a huge inspiration to me in many ways. I’ve been a rock singer 20 years (currently in a band called Antidote 8), mostly in hard rock and metal genres. Caputo more than nearly any other vocalist (surpassing even Acid Bath-era Dax Riggs and Burton C. Bell) made me feel like it was ok to embrace my own voice and not have to worry about sounding like other singers. I was a heroin junkie using needles early, between the ages of fifteen and twenty and struggled with bad depression for years after I finally kicked. I was once even in a psych ward around 2002 after a failed suicide attempt. I had smuggled in a tape of Life Of Agony’s River Runs Red, a record that deals with wrestling against suicidal thoughts. I would sneak into a common room and listen to it on a hospital stereo during the time I was there and it gave me immeasurable strength to get my shit back together. I also have been a closeted bi-sexual and only told people a year or so ago. I didn’t feel “right” claiming it because I am much more attracted to women but at the end of the day it is still a side of my sexual being. I also feared judgment that I’d held it back for so long but been outspoken in other matters, like politics. I felt like a hypocrite. Talking to empowered musicians like Otep Shamaya or seeing Caputo transition was very inspiring. It blew my mind that Mina, someone who has helped so many others through her lyrics, had lived in such pain and secretive agony to the point where she almost committed suicide herself!

“I had an amazing feminine soul and every day I didn’t express that femininity it was one more day closer to putting a bullet in the fuckin’ gun. My Russian Roulette,” Mina says. “The more bullets I put in the chamber the more likely I was to lose my head. That’s how much distaste I had for my own existence. I’m just happy that I have no more dirty secrets in a way. I can really blossom now as a flower in this world. It is hard for some people to understand it, but…the smart people do.”

As the Life Of Agony song “Method Of Groove” once said,” Never compromise and you will never live a lie.”

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