photos by Alexis Penney & Hether Fortune
What does it mean to be a modern artist? In an age of obnoxiously short attention spans (present company included) & a general “we don’t care” blase attitude toward everything, it’s hard to pinpoint what gets through and to whom. Now I’m just speculating here because I don’t know much about tangible success, but it seems that to be successful as an artist is to somehow capture the attention of a large group of people and to connect with them in some kind of deeply subconscious, meaningful way. To challenge an audience and get a palpable reaction, maybe even their approval. Enter Alexis Penney, a self-described “artist, writer, drag priestess, and yogi” currently based in Brooklyn. Add “prolific as hell” and “punk goddess” to that list of descriptors, per my request. The poster-child for an evolved, post-everything, humbly fantastic society, I see Alexis as a figurehead in post-apocalyptic Utopia. Since the apocalypse is a constant, why not today?
In 2013 Alexis released their* first novel and first full length album, both entitled Window. The former is a collection of short-stories and anecdotes strung together stream of consciously, a sort of collaged memoir ripe with lush imagery and painfully earnest truths and self-reflection. At the still somewhat-tender age of 27, Alexis’ life has been no snooze fest. The album is a pop/dance/emotional behemoth – with grand, sweeping gestures that swing wide & hit deep both musically and lyrically. It’s a one of a kind ride, as atmospheric as it is hard-hitting. Songs like “Praying for Rain” and “I Remember” are dance anthems, simultaneously inclusive and introspective, while “Lullaby” is an exercise in sonic spell-casting, complete with a spoken-word invocation of various archetypes. Along with the aforementioned bodies of work, 2013 saw Alexis release a string of visually jaw-dropping music videos and perform at countless events around the country while maintaining (and continuing to maintain) a boisterous internet presence, working a full-time “straight” job at a restaurant, and enduring hardcore yoga training. This is a person who never stops working. Things that come to mind as I sit here trying to write about Alexis are: multi-media mediums of expression, creative transgression, an ability to converse with your inspirational lineage, staggering rates of growth, the delicate balance of humility and arrogance/ naivety and insight, casual intensity, vulnerability without fear & Joni Mitchell. And now I’m rambling.
As an artist who occasionally writes about other artists, my only objective here is to bring more attention to someone that I find to be extremely inspiring and important. Alexis Penney is someone that we should pay attention to. I personally believe that it’s more effective for an artist to speak for themselves, through their art and their own words. So with that in mind, Alexis and I decided to sit down and discuss their past, present & future endeavors as well as indulge in some existential and philosophical tangents. Full disclosure: we were very stoned.
Window – the novel and the album – do they fit together as a unit, a pair? Do they go hand in hand or are they separate entities?
Alexis: They are definitely complementary. I did that on purpose, naming them the same name. I didn’t set out to do that though.
It’s not like the record is a soundtrack for the book.
A: No, not at all.
Why Window, by the way?
A: It became very clear that I was trying to do the same thing with different material and mediums. They’re still really similar attempts at giving some transparency, so you know where I’m coming from. Living on Mission St (in San Francisco) I was spending a lot of time sitting at my window looking at people, but I also felt like I was on display. The way that I was putting myself out there, the way that I act on the internet…
A window does also imply a barrier. (*Joni Mitchell song comes on*)
A: You should know this song.
A: No this is her live record from 1974. It’s really amazing. She’s crazy, man. So anyway, for me a window is also a metaphor for my personal relationships. I’m super open and I’m super transparent. I always seem to know people super well but at the same time, I tend to be behind a pane of glass emotionally. That’s a defense mechanism because I’m really sensitive. When I met Seth (Bogart aka Hunx aka Alexis’s former boyfriend of several years), I’d been putting myself through and experiencing a lot of trauma. For me to fall in love, to let that in, I had to let all of that other (painful) stuff in too. I’d burst into tears. It’s kind of like a balance. But that’s how a lot of music makes me feel. Like “Season of Glass” by Yoko Ono (points to the album cover hanging on the wall), there’s her dead husband’s blood stained glasses on her record cover. It’s fucking bonkers! And she’s talking about this. She’s saying “Goodbye, goodbye sadness” and that makes me want to be able to talk about and process my own shit. I wanted to speak to that experience.
(photo of Hether taking above photo of Alexis by Alexis)
I think it’s really inspiring the level of vulnerability that you’re willing to show through all of the different mediums that you use while still, like you said, maintaining a bit of a wall. The fact that you’re aware that the pane of glass is there but you’re still able to be so transparent in so many ways. Your record is VERY emotional but it’s very uplifting in a lot of ways. Whether you want to be or not, you are a very uplifting person. Just by the sheer weight of your existence. I think you’re subconsciously aware of that & it really comes through in your art and in your music.
A: It’s funny because I don’t usually feel like I am that vulnerable. This is how I activate my strength. I invoke my experience.
Well vulnerability doesn’t necessarily imply weakness. Society tells us that it does but that’s not how I see it.
A: That’s true. I guess I am super vulnerable but l also feel very strong. That doesn’t mean that I don’t forget my strength all the time. That’s what The Birth Grave (one of Alexis’ favorite sci-fi novels, discussed earlier that night) is really about. Limiting yourself and forgetting how strong you are and how much you can do. It’s so easy. Especially in the privileged, more developed world. It kills people. Because it’s not like we’re scrounging for survival every day but we’re faced with a lot of really insane existential things that take lives. We both know several people…
Ya, when the weight of it becomes too much. The weight of existence.
But even the awareness of that kind of existential crisis that we are talking about, in and of itself feels like a form of privilege.
A: Oh ya, we’re only able to be aware of that have this conversation because we are in such a position of privilege. It’s hard and I think it’s really hard to accept. I think that’s what really killed Grant (Martin, Alexis’s close friend & writing partner who passed away in 2013, pictured below) in the end. That’s something I’m learning through this project. How to deal with how much harder it is to look around objectively and subjectively when you basically feel like you’re on the edge and you’re free-falling. Other people have it just as hard, if not harder. There’s always someone that has it worse.
That’s so true. I say that all of the time.
A: There is always someone else who is there as a lesson for you and you are there as a lesson for others. I think that’s another side of the concept of “Window”. You can see me, I can see you. It’s sort of an invitational thing. We’re all looking now. And a window can reflect as well.
I always end up looking at myself anyway. (laughs)
A: (mutual laughter) Yes, and who are we really looking at? So much of my work up until this point has been so masturbatory. It’s just me processing my shit. And my performance, especially my drag, it’s SO masturbatory. I don’t really connect with my audiences. Through learning to teach yoga, I’m realizing how closed off I am as a performer. And some people really respond to it.
I do. Because you’re creating your own universe.
A: Well you’re processing in front of people. It’s like when you’re masturbating in front of someone. Its really intimate and intense. Right now I’m learning to masturbate with full eye contact (laughs) – at LEAST I need to be looking these people in the eye.
A: It’s like the hardest thing. But I think it’s a good journey for me to be on. It’s definitely the basis of my teaching and it’s affecting my relationships in a good way. Beyond just being an Aquarius, the human condition is sort of this idea that we’re separate and we’re going through it alone. No matter how close you get with your loved ones.
Well I think the idea is that you can never be as close with anyone as you are with yourself, as you can be with yourself. *talks about blah blah nihilism* .. nobody else can have your experience but you. Reality only exists as we perceive it.
A: I think that’s what art really is. The struggle to convey YOUR experience.
How do you take an experience, feeling, or an idea and turn it into something that somebody else can receive?
A: You can do your darndest and come your closest but it’s still so individual.
If you had a message to convey to the people reading this interview, in lieu of the invitation you offered with the release of Window, what would it be? Is there something that you are actively trying to reveal to or illuminate for your audience?
A: I don’t necessarily have the answers but I can maybe show you an alternative way of asking questions.
Ok so, we clearly got really off-track during the course of this stoney interview. Oh well! The following night Alexis performed at a drag party in Chelsea hosted by some mutual friends of ours. With our conversation in mind, I noticed that Alexis was making a lot more eye contact during her performance than she used to. She also smashed a glass on a table full of onlookers. Like I said, punk as fuck.
(photo by Hether Fortune)
If you’re intrigued by any of this and want to check the artist out for yourself, I’ve some options for you. If you live in New York, do yourself a favor and go to the album release party for WINDOW on January 27th. Click HERE for more information.
You can purchase a copy of Window, the book, HERE.
And a copy of Window, the album, HERE.
or on iTunes HERE.
*pronouns shift throughout due to a gender fluidity understanding between the artist and the author