Inside Trixie Mattel's 'Barbara' Album: What Inspired the New Sound

Trixie Mattel
Albert Sanchez

Trixie Mattel 

Considering how many drag queens dabble in music, it's rare to see musical evolution from a RuPaul's Drag Race alum. But after two seasons of Drag Race, a documentary, a slew of UNHhhh episodes, a cosmetics line and No. 1 album on the Americana/Folk Albums chart, it's clear Trixie Mattel has a few secrets hiding in her blonde bouffant.

The revelation on her new album Barbara is that the All Stars 3 winner is as comfortable wielding a massive, sticky-sweet rock hook as she is an oversized eyelash. While her country and folk vibes still manifest here (the former via an affecting cover of pioneering queer outfit Lavender Country), the first half of Barbara is Fountains of Wayne-styled rock through the lens of '60s kitsch.

In a full circle sense, this new iteration of Trixie is actually closer to the early sketches of the character made by a small-town Wisconsin kid named Brian Firkus more than a decade ago. "It's my original idea of [Trixie] but with a higher experience level," Trixie tells Billboard. "Now I can look at that sketch and do a f--king Thomas Kinkade oil painting of it."

From working with an octogenarian LGBTQ pioneer to how Jack Hunter (yes, the adult entertainer) and Jesse Eisenberg influenced this album, here's what Mattel told Billboard about Barbara.

With Barbara, you really expanded from the folk sound to a more muscular, full-band rock sound. Why?

I'm obsessed with chronology. Two Birds was '50s radio country a little bit; One Stone was folk revival, like early '60s; and for this one I wanted to go more post-Beatles Invasion, beach bimbo, B-52s-meets-Blondie-meets-Fountains of Wayne. It's this 2000s sound with a super '60s aesthetic. Living in L.A. for a few years, between L.A.'s perpetual summer and spending my summers performing in vacation towns like Provincetown, where every day is summer vacation, and between being in a great relationship… you can tell the music is very sunny, happy, sugary. I do standup comedy, but I've never had a lot of songs that are feel-good to sing, and this is so handclap-y and sweet and sugary.

After I finished One Stone, I got -- not bored of it, but I was like, "okay I did a folk record, now it's time to move on." I started revisiting a lot of my old favorite bands like Blink-182, Weezer, Fountains of Wayne, and started listening to more of my favorite girl bands like Blondie, the Go-Go's and the Donnas. You can hear that in this record: electric guitar mixed with sweet, girlie-fun melodies and lyrics.

It's certainly a harmony-heavy album. Was moving into that turf comfortable for you, or did you lean on others to acclimate to that sound? I know you worked with producer Nick Goldston.

First off, Nick Goldston is straight. And I know what you're thinking: letting a straight person into my house? What was I thinking? So we're about the same age and we listened to the same music in high school, and I was like, "this is what I grew up on: Avril Lavigne, Michelle Branch, Blink-182. This is where I came from and the music I learned to play guitar on."

I've done folk music; I'm ready to revert here. I'm looking at my first sketches of Trixie and my first idea of Trixie when I was like 20 was this super tan, beach bunny Malibu Barbie. That was my image of her. And [she was like] my favorite TV shows, like The Brady Bunch, so I'm looking at Marcia Brady, Malibu Barbie, all the music I grew up listening to, and I'm looking at a way to marry them all back together. And the way to do it was to go back to my roots of Trixie. The Trixie we see on this record – Trixie in a swimsuit and pumps – was my original idea of Trixie.

Was coming back to this beach bunny starting point the end game all along?

No, but after a decade of experience as Trixie and spending so long doing drag and traveling the world and having different boyfriends, it's my original idea of her but with a higher experience level. Now I can look at that sketch and do a fucking Thomas Kinkade oil painting of it. I know who she is. "We Got the Look" is an anthem of super confidence of being in drag and feeling super-hot; I would have never written that five years ago. It comes from knowing your voice, knowing what you look like in drag, and being aware of the kind of attention I command as Trixie and the material I can do. I was never playing guitar in drag before Two Birds. I wrote all that music for my own enjoyment in my own house because I was sad. That was an album that was never meant to be sold, so it was a growing curve – that was music I never really meant for people to hear. One Stone was like, "wow, people are really listening to this."

Barbara is my best work – the most Trixie thing I've put out so far. The etymology of Barbara means strange woman, and what could be a stranger woman than a drag queen? Also looking at my original idea of Trixie, Barbie's real name is Barbara. So I was thinking, "What's the real Trixie before Drag Race and all that?" And before that, I was more '60s, early '70s Barbie. Sunglasses, swimsuits, pumps and ponytails.

Speaking of Barbie, the Mattel company – have they ever reached out, like, "Can you just… not?"

No, I mean, to be honest, the character isn't based on Barbie. It's like an Elvira/Vampira thing, like 'yes, you were on the collage board, but you're not the thing.' And I think because I have this encyclopedic knowledge of Barbie and this huge respect, at the end of the day, if anything, it's parody from a place of reverence. I never had one, but it was this extreme final frontier: That would be the one thing I would never be allowed to own, I would never have my parents buy one for me. But to answer your question, no, they've never reached out. I mean, people just call me Trixie. Every year I have this monologue, "Is this the year I drop the name Mattel?" Mattel does not make or break the character. You put Trixie in Google and Trixie Mattel is the first thing that comes up. Isn't that crazy? You know when you Google someone and it's a bunch of suggested questions? People are very interested in knowing if I'm a top and people are very interested in knowing how much money I have. I guess people want me to be their top sugar daddy? Everyone thinks I'm a top because I'm tall, I have a loud voice and short eyelashes. And because I look like Burt Hummel from Glee. Gays are so damaged that if you remotely look like a dad it's like "daddy!" If you're not wearing concealer, people think you're a top.

I've always loved your live show, but there's certainly a disconnect between seeing you do this brash standup comedy and then segue to a quiet acoustic song. Do you think having a fuller sound will ease that a bit in a live setting?

Well, we're gonna find out. Part of why I put this record together was with the intention of playing it live, and I knew I'd be playing it with a band. My past shows have been 80 percent standup, and then I throw a few songs in there for the people who do really listen to the record. It's surprised me over time how many people actually do know the record and how they come to my show expecting to hear them. The naïve part of me thought the meat and potatoes of my show was standup, and I love doing standup, and I guess I was surprised people did want to hear the songs. So you're right, I'd be doing these jokes about racy material and then like, "anyway, here's 'Wonderwall.'" So this record is much more live-vibe friendly, party music. "We Got the Look" on the tour has five costume reveals. It's crazy. I can't wait to play "Malibu," "Jesse Jesse" and "Girl Next Door"; this is going to be so much fun live with a full band and these sugary pop songs. I cannot wait.

Barbara also has "Stranger," a Lavender Country cover. I'd not heard of them before, but they're incredible – it's wild to think someone was making queer country music 45 years ago.

Aren't you gagged? That's a 45-year-old song. I became aware of that because with Two Birds, One Stone, fans would be like, 'Do you know who Lavender Country is?' I didn't know, but I started listening. I never really cover music, but when I heard "I Can't Shake the Stranger Out of You," I was shook to the core. I was like, "This song is stunning." It's basically a song saying, "yeah we can f--k, but I'm an open person, I could get attached to you, and you're this closeted person who wants this dark, secret-y sexual experience, but I'm an actual gay person." I think he wrote the song about sleeping with a straight guy. I met [singer Patrick Haggerty] in Seattle and we were talking about the song; he joined me in the studio to coach me through recording it. He's like 85 years old. He said, "I was the first generation to come out, so it was guys fumbling around having sex with no knowledge on how to actually look each other in the eye and have a real intimate connection with any openness; we just knew how to f--k." And I was like, "I hate to tell you Patrick, but that's gay guys now." You listen to the lyrics of that 45-year-old song, tell me that is not the gay experience right now. It's crazy.

When you met him, was he familiar with Drag Race or who you were?

He didn't even know who Lady Bunny was, and when you're too old to know who Lady Bunny is, that's old. He was so gay and loved anything super gay. I was like, "are you okay to go on camera?" because we did a little video together. He was like [affects Southern accent] "Honey, when you turn that camera on, I turn into Norma Desmond!" I made this joke about him being a slut. He was showing pictures of himself from the early '70s. That record, Lavender Country, when he came out with this gay record, he got blacklisted from the music industry and couldn't find a day job for nine years -- to put that in perspective. So he's showing me photos and I said, "You were really cute, you must've gotten a lot of action" and he said, "honey, I was queen slut of the bathhouse." I don't want to be ageist, but once and awhile when you talk to a much older person, you feel stupid because you realize, "this is a young person who was born earlier than me." Age doesn't separate us that much. And this song "Stranger" is a proof that age doesn't separate us that much. How would he know 45 years ago that he was writing a song that would still, sadly, encapsulate the gay experience and what it's like to try to be intimate with people?

In the rock realm, "Jesse Jesse" is fun, with the little "Jessie's Girl" reference.  

You know the porn actor Jack Hunter? My boyfriend is obsessed with Jack Hunter. So originally, I was writing that song about my boyfriend's obsession with Jack Hunter. You can hear the lyrics like "I got you coming in crystal clean on a screen" – it's about jerking off. "I can get your pages stuck together" – that's about jerking off. So I saw Zombieland 2, and I've always loved Jesse Eisenberg, but that made me completely in love with him all over again. I was like, "well now I'm writing it about him," so I married the verses and I thought, "wouldn't it be funny for me as a drag queen to say, 'I want to be Jesse's girl'?' It's a totally different meaning. What do we do in drag? We Warhol things. We take things from popular culture and turn them on their head.

Finally, you have a book coming out, Trixie and Katya's Guide to Modern Womanhood.

We basically wrote a book that is an etiquette guide/home economics book for young women. When it comes to giving advice to young women, definitely trust two gay men in their thirties, right? We give advice on practical things like hair, makeup and dating, and we give you a little more drag queen advice – like, exactly how much to drink without puking. Katya even wrote haikus about getting your period. It's quite a read; we wrote a lot of material. If you thought Katya was crazy before, wait until you read this book. You can pre-order it today on Amazon.