Despite winning the just-wrapped season of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars on VH1, Trixie Mattel insists that she considers herself “a musician first, drag queen second.” Known for her exaggerated, high-camp style (she describes her look as “a caricature of a caricature of a woman”), she acknowledges that it’s tough to be taken seriously as a musician.
“Drag is great way to get people to pay attention to me, but it's a difficult way to get people to take me seriously as a musician. So it's a weird Catch-22. It's like a gimmick that gets them to pay attention, but when they see my image, they're like ‘There's no way this is going to have any legitimacy to it.’ “
But under the layers of foundation and eyeshadow, Mattel is a 28-year-old, autoharp-wielding folk singer from deep-country Wisconsin -- one who can count fans (or at least Twitter followers) in country faves Kacey Musgraves and Jason Isbell.
Mattel’s 2017 debut record, Two Birds, reached No. 16 on Billboard’s Americana/Folk Albums chart. Its campfire-ready follow-up, One Stone (“I'm gay, we like themes,” she explained of the album titles), just debuted at No. 1 on the Heatseekers Albums chart -- which is especially impressive considering it notched just one day of sales in the Nielsen tracking week.
Mattel was inspired by her grandfather to play the guitar as a pre-teen. “He was a country-western singer and he was a super funny guy. I always wanted to be just like him -- and then I grew up to be a folk-singing comedian,” she laughed. “But he always said that being a performer was 40 percent how good you are and 60 percent how good you look doing it. Obviously as a drag queen, I take that very seriously.”
The first song Mattel learned on the guitar was “Goodbye to You” by Michelle Branch. “I would ride a two-hour bus ride to and from school every day. The driver would play top 40 radio, which at the time had a lot of guitar-driven pop music. You know, Sheryl Crow, Melissa Etheridge, Michelle Branch... So I would just listen to that for hours every day and then go home and play what I heard. I don't think gay guys are in touch with how many fabulous divas we have that actually play their own instruments and write their own music too.”
But Mattel’s taste in music occasionally expanded past guitar goddesses. “I remember being obsessed with Christina Aguilera’s Stripped. That was her peak, and she is such an amazing singer. Plus, I was a little gay boy, and the music video for “Beautiful” existed, so obviously I was affected. I remember jerking off to that video. Like a one second cut of two fully clothed men kissing on a bus stop was enough for me to nut at nine years old.”
While several Drag Race alum specialize in parody singles, Mattel takes her music very seriously; so much so that she’d consider leaving her drag career behind to write songs for the stars.
“I want to literally quit drag and go live in the woods somewhere and write music for my favorite female singers, like Miley Cyrus or Kacey Musgraves. I would love to be able to write music for them and hear these women I admire sing my songs. That would be like doing drag without having to get into drag myself.”
She added, “I'm a good singer and guitar player, but I think I'm a great songwriter. I want to be the Max Martin of gay ass folk music.”