Interview: Mykki Blanco on Identity Changes

Mykki Blanco has been making waves as a musician, tastemaker, and model since their debut over a decade ago. Over the course of this expansion, they’ve been labeled many different things for their iconic performances and gender presentation. Through this, they helped push taboo presentations and identity forward, but with their new music, they’re looking to redefine.

We had the pleasure of speaking to them about the present and the future of Mykki Blanco.

As someone who has been a fan for a decade, I am very familiar with the evolution of Mykki Blanco in sound and personality. You’ve been labeled everything from rebellious to diva, but what do you want people to see when they see Mykki Blanco?

I think, at this point, I would say that I feel that I’ve entered definitely with the last record and where I’m going with and from this record, I don’t know how much of my early work relates. My early work depended on social media networks like Tumblr and Twitter and the beginnings of Instagram where so much of my music was shared around these platforms to queer communities all over the world and so I would tour a lot, and that’s how an artist coming from the underground like myself how I would share my work. Yeah, the singles helped, and the music videos I had a lot of, but it was really when I got out there and started sharing my work on these networks was when I really started connecting with people.

I put so much emphasis early on in my career about being this dynamic performer. Creating an experience that people would hopefully never forget, and it would make what I was doing with expressing my gender and playing with drag while doing this really aggressive punk style of rapping, it would make this cornucopia of things I was doing with my live show really make sense to people.

What I feel happened for me as a musician was that I really wanted to feel like an artist who had this seminal album. They would talk about it and talk about this music and talk about this synesthesia experience where you see colors and feel really transported to another place in a way that so many of my favorite artists have done for me. Artists like Joni Mitchell, or Joan Armatrading, or David Crosby. So I felt like I just had to get to this place in my career where I could be like “huh, what do I want to be? What do I want to be remembered for?” and how do I produce a body of music where people will want to talk about it in the way I talk about my favorites.

So I thought, OK, maybe I need to redefine. I’ve already proven myself to be a memorable performer and to be someone who is really pushing performance and pushing queer narratives from the underground more and more and more forward, almost touching the mainstream. I don’t want to say that it’s mainstream, but there’s so many things that made me taboo in my early career that now became mainstream.

To answer your question more directly, who do I want people to see Mykki Blanco as? I think now, instead of me caring so much more about persona, it would be people really connecting with the message and the musical journey that I’ve brought to my craft sonically.

I think that’s amazing. How have the last two nights been opening for Florence + The Machine? What was getting that opportunity like?

You know, I met Florence in 2020. In February of 2020, we were both in the lawn for Fashion Week doing stuff for Gucci, and I had been a fan for so long and Florence is so down-to-earth and really so benevolent. My band and I did a concert in Wales that was live streamed and video recorded and they played it on the radio and what I learned was that Florence lives in the countryside there and actually heard this concert of my band and I playing new material and she said it really impressed her.

Then I was just recently in Greece and I ran into her. I was on holiday and she was also on holiday and two weeks ago she asked if I would join the tour, and it has been so amazing. I didn’t realize there was such a synergy between us as artists and as performers, but I definitely see a thread going through me and going to this powerful energy she exudes while being on stage.

One of the most recent evolutions of Mykki Blanco was the Broken Hearts & Beauty Sleep mini-album, where you found yourself in a much more exuberant sound. It was joyous, humorous, and lovely while staying true to yourself. Now with Stay Close To Music, you take on a bit more of a brutally honest take, examining relationships with yourself and others in a much more critical light. What was it like switching from one side of the reflection spectrum to the other end?

Well, it’s so funny, because I will make this analogy: If Broken Hearts & Beauty Sleep is the sun, Stay Close To Music is the lunar opposite. This music was all made very close together but there was something different. If Broken Hearts & Beauty Sleep had elements of escapism, and wanting to blindly run into these feelings of joy no matter what, Stay Close To Music is definitely the more introspective album.

When I went into the studio during the songwriting process with FaltyDL, who produced both of the records, when we were collaborating, I never went to a fixed idea or a fixed aesthetic. It was just a kind of ethereal sound that came from these loose jam sessions. There was always more of this element of stream of consciousness thought that ran through a lot of the conceptualization of Stay Close To Music. There was also a lot of editing and a lot of freedom with time that gave us the opportunity to smooth things over. There’s a journal-like quality to a lot of the songwriting that I was aware of only after the fact which made me edit it more in a certain direction to kind of nail that.

Working with FaltyDL on both, what was working with him like? What was it like jamming in the studio with him?

Years ago, I guess he had sent me music because for a while we were label mates in a way, when I joined a label group called !K7, so we were both kind of under the same umbrella, but I didn’t even know that. I think something happened where I downloaded it and it sat somewhere in my iTunes, and it just sat on my laptop. Then one day, I was just sitting and listening to things that I had downloaded that people had sent me but hadn’t really listened to and one of the tracks I was playing that I never knew was there was from Falty, and sonically it was so in sync with the ideas I was having at the time I was like, “Who is this?” because this sound and this narrative arc that these instrumentals are taking me on are so coincidentally in line with where I’m wanting to go and what I’m wanting to experiment with.

It really was this serendipitous relationship that started, and I feel like we’ve really grown to understand each other as songwriters, and there’s this really good symbiosis between us as songwriter and producer.

So you said you have this library of songs on your computer. In the past, when you chose producers for songs, did you usually have a more hands-on approach and work on structure together, or did you usually select more finished products and work from there?

I have never, ever selected a completely finished product. In the past, maybe before I knew better or knew where I was at, and in the very beginning stages of my career, maybe I relied more on the production and I took more of a backseat and was writing to the production rather than finding out how it could be a more collaborative experience. I think as soon as I learned that I could speak a language where producers could understand more of what I was going for, it became more of that collaborative process. I have had a specific direction for what I wanted, and what I want for a melody or a harmony, and so when that comes into play, I usually have a large role.

Another thing with collaboration is you have a lot of features, and you have had some since you started, but Stay Close To Music is particularly stacked with features. For such deeply personal songs, what led you to work with so many other people on them?

The pandemic had a lot to do with that because, when I think about Broken Hearts & Beauty Sleep and Stay Close To Music, I think that it wasn’t in my initial plan to have so many features, but when I was given so much time to work on these records, in a way two and a half years, I was able to fine-tune these songs. I have never done this many features; on my mixtapes I had a couple features; on Mykki I have no features, so it was new.

Maybe it was one of those things where maybe it’s a bit feature-heavy and maybe on the next release I won’t do so many, but I really think it was a circumstantial result of the pandemic and having so much time. I do really think I was never able to do this whole community aspect thing to the best of my ability, so maybe this was the time for me to draw in other artists from my community and share my platform.

I do definitely get that communal aspect from the records and I think it comes across really special.

I think one of the best things about it was, I was able to bring together unlikely collaborators, in a certain sense. I think a lot of people would pick up this record and think, “Mykki Blanco and Devendra Banhart on the same song? What does that even sound like?” or “Mykki Blanco and Jónsi from Sigur Rós? What does that even sound like?” But bringing together true artists like Saul Williams and MNEK, or me and Michael Stipe, these were so many unlikely and blessed collaborations. There’s such a sense of spirituality in this music because so many of the collaborations I never would have foresaw happening. At the time, it was a record where we followed our own path.

The kind of vulnerability you’ve shown can be intimidating at times. Were there any songs in particular you found to be more hard to record than others? What was your experience with that like?

The lyrics in “Carry On” I had a poem that I had for actually about four or five years, you know?
Black and gay, I wonder if they’ll ever claim us. HIV, I’ve got HIV, can I still be famous? Will they wait ‘til I’m dead to give me credit? These thoughts run through my head, I try and dead ‘em and just bless god instead.”

Those lyrics I had had for a while, and I feel like when that song comes on, those lyrics never cease to get your attention, which I think is good. I really feel good about that song. I love that even though I’m not on the track that much, I feel like the maestro behind the track.
I love the song I wrote, “Your Feminism Is Not My Feminism,” because it’s such a simple message, but when it becomes a chant, how it is in song form, where it almost sounds like an incantation, I like playing with that at that moment. I like it becoming almost trance-like.

You also love to do stunning visual works for your music. Full of theatrical performance, complex storylines, and beautiful locations, what makes this visual part of your musical experience so important to you?

I feel like this is so important to me because early on in my career, that was really the cherry on top that allowed people to envision who I was as an artist. So many things that made my debut and put me in the public view as my character were kind of taboo, but in the video I could worldbuild. I think in worldbuilding I was always able to construct myself as these unlikely characters, or I am always trying to create queer narratives that are not in the LGBT mainstream.

When I did my video for “High School Never Ends,” I told my director we were gonna do this Romeo and Juliet motif, but Romeo and Julio were a nazi skinhead and a queer, anarchist punk, and I had never seen queer, anarchist punk and a nazi skinhead in love before.

When I did “Coke White Starlight,” I was a showgirl who denounces everything and decides to be this showgirl survivalist who lives in the woods and forages for herself but all done up in drag.

That aspect of worldbuilding has always been an opportunity to build out these queer worlds because I feel like growing up in the punk scene and being influenced by riot grrl, and being influenced by anarchist punk, that there were large parts of the queer community that were normal to me that weren’t in mainstream LGBT narratives, and that was erasure of the fringes of our society and the fringes of the queer community itself.

An inspiring thing about you for a lot of people like me and other queer people who grew up in weird, Southern cities or religious upbringings is your relationship with and presentation of gender. I have always been curious, what is your relationship with gender like? What does gender mean to you?

I would say my relationship with gender has been very spiritual, and it’s definitely been a multifaceted part of my character that I really didn’t know existed until my mid-20s. The birth of Mykki Blanco is actually so intrinsically tied to my real journey with gender and my identity. I would say for me, it’s been like a rollercoaster, and sometimes it’s been like bumper cars, but I think that so much of how I felt about my gender has changed, and it’s been a very spiritual experience and has been one I’ve played out because of my age and the climate socially. I played it out on social media, and now reflecting, I feel like there are some things I wish I would have kept private or would have kept private longer.

I feel like what I discovered is that no matter what, I learned that my journey with gender is personal. Even though I appreciate that sense of community and that understanding, how I feel about my gender and my journey should always come from my own self and my own self-esteem and how I feel about myself and my place in the world.

Finally, who do you want to hear Stay Close To Music most? It can be one person; it can be a group of people; it could be anyone; what would mean the most to you?

Oh gosh. Who should it be? It would be so awesome if Oprah heard Stay Close To Music. If somehow Oprah heard the album and was touched. I’m a big Oprah fan.

Photo courtesy of Irakli Gabelaia

You can pre-order Mykki Blanco’s new record, Stay Close To Music, out October 14 via Transgressive Records here.

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