For someone whose first two albums existed comfortably within the folk/Americana space, Trixie Mattel – a lifelong fan of acoustic singer-songwriter fare – didn’t foresee that in just a few years, she’d be trading in her Carter Family feelings for B-52’s and Go-Go’s vibes and going full-band rock. Then again, back in the day, a Milwaukee-based singer-songwriter named Brian Firkus didn’t exactly plan on becoming an internationally renowned drag queen either.
“Songwriting is something I’ve loved way longer than I’ve loved drag. I wanted to be a songwriter up until the moment I submitted that Drag Race audition,” Mattel, who competed on season 7 of RuPaul’s Drag Race in 2015, tells Billboard. “I was lip syncing at clubs at night for money and then doing songwriters showcases on the other nights, trying to get my songs heard.”
A victory on the third season of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars in 2018 helped push Mattel’s musical career to the next level, with second album One Stone debuting at No. 1 on the Heatseekers Albums Chart shortly after Mattel’s coronation. And as her wildly successful drag career – from comedy to cosmetics – began to take over her life, Mattel’s approach to music changed, too.
“Left to my own devices, my sound is more ‘This Town,'” Mattel says, referencing the gentle, contemplative collaboration with Shakey Graves on her new double LP set The Blonde & Pink Albums. “Somber folk music is my vibe. Lyrical metaphors, mid-tempos, that’s my home base. But because I’m in drag I try to give it a little more sparkle to match the person I am when I do the show.” Hitting the stage in a sky-high blonde wig and makeup painted for the nosebleeds, Mattel found herself writing songs like the beachy rave-up “Love You in HiFi” and the bratty, surf rock-indebted “New Thing.” “These are songs I would never write for yourself out of drag to sing,” Mattel tells Billboard. “Some of the writing, like on ‘Who Loves You Baby,’ I’m like, ‘This is some Blink-182 s–t! Did I really write this?'”
Lockdown gave Mattel more free time for songwriting than she’s had in years, so the singer-songwriter decided to make the follow-up to 2020’s Barbara a two-in-one album affair. Plus, it suits her proclivities. “I’ve always been interested in duality,” Mattel says. “Two Birds went with One Stone, Barbara was a side a/side b concept. It’s probably because I perform and live as two people.”
“Two people” might be underselling the lives Firkus is living these days. In addition to music, comedy and makeup, the drag queen added ‘home renovator’ to her resume recently with the Discovery+ series Trixie Motel, which follows the drag queen and her partner as they renovate a run-down motel in Palm Spring, Calif. True to Trixie Mattel’s love for vintage kitsch, the motel comes with a library of vinyl records, available for all guests, that you can spin thanks to each room housing a record player. While Mattel doesn’t listen to much radio these days (she pronounces Charlie Puth’s last name as “Pewth” when giving an example of a contemporary artist she’s heard about but has never listened to), some contemporary LPs will be on hand, in addition to a slew of classics by the Beach Boys, Sonny & Cher and Dolly Parton.
Speaking of the 2022 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, Mattel thinks Parton was “being extremely modest” when she turned down the Rock Hall nomination (a move the RRHOF summarily ignored, announcing that she had been voted into the Class of 2022 regardless). “I think at this point, most people care more about Dolly Parton than the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” Mattel opines. “I’m happy for her and I get why she declined, but genre is also whatever, right? ‘Islands in the Stream’ isn’t exactly country. There’s an EDM remix of ‘Jolene’ from a few years ago. Genre is all make believe, in the same way that gender is make believe.”
Mattel herself learned not to categorize too rigidly when she unexpectedly struck up a friendship with acclaimed Americana artist Shakey Graves, who “left me a copy of his vinyl with a long note about how much him and his girl love Trixie and Katya” when they crossed paths on the touring circuit pre-pandemic. “Not to be close-minded, but I don’t expect a celebrated heterosexual Americana musician to love UNHhhh,” Mattel says, referencing her long-running online comedy series. “I got to sing with him and we became friends. He’s not gay but the energy is there. He’s just one of the girls. We’re just jerks who like to drink and make fun of each other. We just saw each other in Austin, and I gave him a necklace I won at Dave & Buster’s that says ‘winner’ and he gave me a necklace that says ‘bitch.’ I still wear that.”
Another collaborator who pops up on The Blonde & Pink Albums is a personal hero of Mattel’s: Michelle Branch, who joins in on the bouncy “White Rabbit.” Referring to Branch as a “national treasure genius,” Mattel says it was the 2001 album The Spirit Room that made a young Firkus pick up a guitar in the first place, and the collab came out simply because “I talked about her in enough interviews, [so] she DM’d me.” When Mattel sent her “White Rabbit,” Branch agreed to duet on it, adding that the song reminded her of Aimee Mann. “You couldn’t have told me more flattering feedback,” Mattel says.
With Mann’s name coming up in this interview, perhaps the alternative singer-songwriter could end up guesting on a future Trixie Mattel album. “I don’t even know what I would do,” she says. “I’m obsessed. I’m in a blonde wig playing a guitar: at this point, I’m doing a very bad Aimee Mann impersonation.”