Ask A Gay Icon: Trixie Mattel Gets Career Advice From Michelle Branch

Trixie Mattel and Michelle Branch
Mattel: Magnus Hastings. Branch: Shervin Lainez.

Trixie Mattel and Michelle Branch

This Pride Month, Billboard connected queer artists with some of their musical heroes and biggest influences

How can you help LGBTQ people succeed in the music industry? One easy step: Share your networks and make introductions. So for Pride Month, Billboard is connecting queer artists with some of their musical heroes — who also happen to be major allies to the community — to get career advice.

Here, RuPaul's Drag Race alum Trixie Mattel — whose latest album, Barbara, fuses surf-rock, country and folk — gets real with Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Michelle Branch, who's working on the follow-up to 2017's Hopeless Romantic (and whose song "Goodbye to You" is also the first song Mattel learned to play on guitar.)

I always run into other gay people who grew up worshipping your records, and many of them have followed every record into their own adulthoods. When did you first realize you had die-hard gay fans, and how has having a strong LGBTQ fanbase affected your career?

Trixie! It’s Pride month — I should be interviewing you! I listened to your NPR interview and was so enthralled to learn about Patrick Haggerty and Lavender Country and what happened to him as an openly gay country artist in the ‘70s. In the grand scheme of things, that wasn’t that long ago! 50 years. We’ve come a long way, but we still have so much farther to go. I had never even heard of his music before, so thanks for that!

In those early days, it wasn’t blatantly obvious. It’s not like I’m up on stage looking out into the audience pondering the sexuality of my fans. As the years went on however, I did start to hear a lot of heartfelt stories where my music was a comfort to a lot of people, who were then young teens, struggling with their identities and whether they should come out to their peers and parents. I feel like I’m the same age as a majority of my fans — we all grew up and went through those turbulent years together. I’m honored I could help, even if it was in a small way. 

You’ve been pursuing your music career since you were a kid. When you won your Grammy for “The Game of Love,” were you like, “I can die now, thank you universe!”? What keeps you inspired?

At the end of the day, I’m a songwriter. I’m constantly writing music. I always will be, whether anyone hears it or not. In fact, I’m in the middle of making an album now. It always feels good to be acknowledged for things you’ve helped create, but there’s so much music that I love that has never gotten a Grammy. I mean, The Beach Boys don’t have a Grammy!

It still doesn’t really seem like it happened because I wasn’t aware that the award was going to be given out in the pretelecast. The Grammys were in New York City that year. There had been a huge snowstorm, and I was stuck in wall-to-wall traffic trying to get to the red carpet to do press. So I never had that moment of going up onstage and making a speech. It just showed up in the mail a few months later!

The early 2000s were a wild time for makeup on young celebs! Do you miss anything about the way they put makeup on you in the early 2000s? What are your favorite products now?

In my opinion, the makeup was way better than early 2000s fashion! Why did I always wear jeans under dresses?! In fact, I can’t look at most photos of me from that era without cringing. I actually wore a lot more makeup back then — I have a port-wine stain birthmark under my right eye. I never really thought anything of it until we were filming my first music video for “Everywhere.” The label had a full-blown meeting about whether or not I should cover it! We decided it didn’t really translate on film and from then on, I covered it!

I was 17 and suddenly so self-conscious and insecure about it. If I met fans without makeup, they’d immediately ask what happened: “Did you get punched in the face?” I remember one time being so mortified ‘cause Jason Mraz, who I was touring with, made an entire post on his blog basically calling me out for being a fake person and hiding a birthmark underneath all that makeup. Can you imagine if that happened in 2020? What a dick. Anyway, I learned a lot of tricks on how to cover it — tattoo cover! — and I love makeup. I can’t live without black eyeliner, but I have long since stopped covering my birthmark and wearing full foundation to leave the house. 

You are my personal iconic diva of beauty and excellence. Which female artists are yours and what do you find inspiring about them?

Wow. Thank you. You should see me right now in lockdown in my workout clothes and roots showing. Very chic. Growing up in Arizona, Stevie Nicks was our local hero and my biggest inspiration. One of my earliest musical memories — I was probably 5 — is being in the backseat as my mom and her friend drove around listening to “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac on the radio. I remember vividly hearing the lyrics “Thunder only happens when it’s raining, players only love you when they’re playing” and it was all over. I was hooked.

Around the same time, there was an entire summer I pretended I was Susanna Hoffs from The Bangles and put on pretend concerts with a tennis racquet as my guitar. When Jagged Little Pill from Alanis Morisette came out followed by Fiona Apple’s Tidal the following year, when I was only 12 or 13, they both completely blew me away. But I was also hugely influenced musically and stylistically by men. I always have liked menswear more. Robert Plant. Mick Jagger. Tom Petty. Kurt Cobain. They all looked amazing in eyeliner, too.

You must have Black Keys music around you all the time — have you ever gotten to meet that iconic dancer from the “Lonely Boy” video?

Derrick Tuggle! He’s awesome. I just met him when The Black Keys last played at the Forum. Yeah, I hear a lot of my husband’s music, and I’m always obnoxiously singing harmonies and telling him what songs I like best. There’s a song called “Walk Across the Water” on their last album that I think is a huge hit, but nobody listens to me!