Austrian singer Thomas Neuwirth, better known as Conchita Wurst, is at a turning point in his career. Since winning the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest in a full beard and evening gown, his drag persona has become an international sensation. He’s recorded two albums as Conchita Wurst, both collections of sweeping pop and orchestral torch songs reminiscent of Shirley Bassey and Neuwirth’s idol, Celine Dion.
But with his more recent work, Neuwirth is aiming for a more electronic and experimental sound — and more personal lyrical content. For the first time, he’s releasing music under the name WURST, hoping to integrate his everyday self with the hyperfeminine character he’s created.
Neuwirth was in New York recently for the WorldPride and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. Billboard Pride caught up with the singer on the eve of the historic commemoration.
You were just named a Pride Live Stonewall Ambassador. What does that mean to you? What do you intend to do with that platform?
It’s my very first time here in New York, so that in itself is very exciting. For me, being here for the first time at this specific time is overwhelming. As a gay man being able to be at this celebration where the LGBTQI movement started is overwhelming, meaningful. I’m nervous because I will meet people who have actually been there that night. For me, being 30 years old, being of a generation where so many things already have been achieved—I don’t really have the words. I want to pay them so much respect that I think it’s never enough. I cannot emotionally understand what was happening back then.
I was the EuroPride Ambassador to Vienna this year. So as a follow-up to that they decided to include me in their ambassadorship. It’s even more pressure. I want to pay them the respect they deserve. With everything I’ve done in the past, in terms of activism for the LGBTQI community, they were kind enough to think that I could add something.
What’s it like celebrating Pride in Europe right now with this wave of illiberal populism sweeping across the continent?
Well, in the middle of Europe we live a very privileged life even though there are many things that we have to achieve, being an equal part of society. But I think Pride events themselves are probably not as important for the particular cities where they take place, other than for the neighbor countries where the political situation is different, where LGBTQI rights are not as advanced as they are in Vienna. I think it’s really important to be visible to give members of these communities hope and a place where they could go if they have to.
Myself, I come from a very small village of 3,000 people, and my friends and I, when we were teenagers, we would always go to Vienna, and we came fully recharged from being ourselves. And I think that’s what Pride is these days.
Have you noticed a change this year in the tone of Pride celebrations in Europe this year?
Yeah. Of course, it’s all over [the 50th anniversary of Stonewall]. This is what our community is celebrating. Also, visibility for other countries. I think there is a movement going on in the direction of being pro-equality. That’s beautiful. Also, the situation where people talk about “rainbow washing,” and making money off of this movement—yes, that probably is happening. But I think as soon as something become mainstream, it just gets normal. That’s at least what I would love to see. My sexual orientation, it’s not what defines me as a human being. This is what I’d love to achieve, so that having a Pride season is just part of the year.
I want to talk about your own work, because it seems like you’re in the midst of a creative evolution. How would you characterize your current sound compared to your previous music?
Definitely more electronic. Some songs I think are very avant-garde as well. I always wanted to be Celine Dion, and I had my Celine Dion moment. So, check. My interest in music took another turn, and I evolved as an artist and a human being, and I thought to myself, “Now is the time to do music that I would actually listen to in my private life as well and sing about things that happened to me.” With this record, I experienced the feeling of singing your heart out with every song. Not that I did not like the pop songs that I used to sing. But, you know, somebody had written them and I just sang them. This time I was heavily involved with the people who helped me with the songwriting. They definitely know way more than they ever wanted to know about me!
You had more input into the lyrics, so that must have made a difference, singing your own words.
Yes, that’s definitely what happened.
And you’re releasing music as WURST now. Are you trying to distance yourself from your drag persona?
No, I think I just broke down all boundaries that I had in my head. I reduced myself to being the bearded lady in a dress. And I thought, “This is what I have to do now. This is what will be successful.” But I get bored so easily! And I think evolving is the only thing that keeps me going. So now, I can be in an evening gown if I want to, but I can also be in a baseball cap and a jockstrap. This is what I love; I’m now everything that I want to be, unapologetically. I’m not distancing myself, I’m just adding even more of myself.
I thought it was interesting that you seem to be decentralizing your drag character at a time when drag is more mainstream than ever.
When it comes to my life, I don’t really care about what is trendy. I’m the biggest Drag Race fan ever. I love, love, love, love, love drag. And I love doing drag. But I don’t do things because of somebody else. I do what I need to do. I did drag for a while and I loved it. And now I do a different kind of drag.
You’re also releasing every song on your new album as a single before the whole project drops this fall. It seems like that keeps an artist in the cultural conversation longer than just dropping a whole album without notice.
I mean, yes. I think these days it’s definitely about creating content, and it also gives me the opportunity to reinvent myself song by song. I love that. I love to create a whole new universe for every song I release. It’s really about not following any rules, just what my brain and heart think is the right thing to do.
So, when can we expect the next single? What can you tell us?
I can’t really say anything about the next single. The most recent one I released is “Forward” and that was for the Pride season. I’m just devastated that there wasn’t time to come up with a new video, but we will definitely come up with a new video for that song. I have so many ideas, so that will be the next big release.