Patrick Haggerty is wary of calling himself a queer icon. Lead singer and musician of Lavender Country, which only released one full-length album, 1973’s self-titled, he was simply existing. “We’re all icons. That’s who we had to be,” he professed in an interview. Nearly 50 years later, songs like “Back in the Closet Again” and “I Can’t Shake the Stranger Out of You” refocus Haggerty as a pioneer for queer-focused country music. A new generation is discovering a legacy that was almost erased.
Third winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars, Trixie Mattel – the drag persona of Brian Firkus – embraces the spotlight as one of today’s most vital queer voices. Alongside other notable country musicians as Mercy Bell, Karen & the Sorrows, Orville Peck, and Brandi Carlile, among numerous others, Mattel shoots from the hip with razor-sharp lyrics and a bold, perfectly-teased aesthetic. She’s a ‘60s beach bunny with a keen eye for humor and heart-baring imagery.
Mattel’s new album, Barbara, pairs the original vision of Trixie with a more mature, more playful, and wittier songwriting sheen. It’s guitar-fizzing pop music gliding side-by-side rootsy folk music. Her version of “Stranger” bookends a double-sided release with as much poignancy and sorrow as the original. “When I heard the song, I had to record it. I was in love with it,” says Mattel over a recent phone call.
“The way [Patrick] wrote it was to be sad but also a warning. You can hear him say, ‘Oh yeah, we can hook up, but just so you know, this could be more to me than it is to you,’” Mattel continues. “Patrick is one of those people, who was openly gay and no one around him was, and people wanted to have sex with him but didn’t want to actually commit.”
Never one to cover other artists, Mattel found herself immersed in a 50-year-old piece of gay history. It was a no-brainer to make the album. “When I started singing it at home, I would sing it a little softer and faster. I was listening to a lot of Brandi Carlile and Jason Isbell,” she recalls. “There’s some movement in the way you sing it. It’s very forward-moving. Patrick’s version is longer phrases, slower movement. My version is more like you’re telling a secret. It has an intensity like you’re leaning into someone’s ear giving them a warning before you take your pants off.”
“Well, I can hit the sack like an aristocrat / If you’re looking for a trick in a box of crackerjacks / But I can’t shake the stranger out of you,” whispers Mattel. The lyrics carry both a bubbly cheekiness and a solemn weight. “It’s a great way to honor somebody. I couldn’t be doing what I’m doing without people like Patrick,” stresses Mattel, who first met Haggerty when recording the song in Seattle. “He was coaching me through it. He talked to me all about his experiences.”
Mattel adds, “I honestly don’t have gay men in my life that old. Hearing directly from someone like that was really something.”
Now 30, Mattel finds Barbara as her first proper “adult effort,” she considers. “Everybody knows me as a Barbie, and it ties directly into the tour.”
As the story goes, in published 1960s novels from Random House, the 11.5-inch plastic figure Barbie (full name Barbara Millicent Roberts) is from the city of Willows, Wisconsin. It wasn’t until she moved to Los Angeles and sought fame and fortune that her name was shortened. Mattel built her entire brand on such folklore (and Firkus’ own Milwaukee roots), and 12 years later, she allows her self to explore and uncover richer layers.
Musically, her habits have shifted from straight-ahead folk music to include the guitar-driven power-pop of Blink-182, Fountains of Wayne, Avril Lavigne, and early Katy Perry. “[This album] made me want to go back and see how far I’ve jumped from that. What was the look, sound, sense of humor, energy, and color? How do I revisit it? I made a conscious decision to time travel a little bit with my vision,” she says.
Even more, Mattel rewatched early seasons of “The Brady Bunch,” “American Bandstand,” and “Hullabaloo” to further focus her vision. “I was listening to a lot of ‘60s radio music, too,” she says,” The hooks and meanings are light and sweet and glittery – not every song is the end of the world.”
Mattel’s “We Got the Look” (written by Ashley Levy, of the Blah Blah Blahs, specifically for Mattel) is electro-teased Martha & the Vandellas, and “Girl Next Door” is Lavigne-meets-Perry with a glossy, lip-locked pinch of “Stacy’s Mom”). “As a drag queen, I’m like a blender. Whatever I throw in ends up coming out in the work,” she laughs.
“Early on, when I was making records, I felt like I had to prove myself – especially since I have a wig on, I have to prove I’m a serious musician. On this record, I took my foot off the pedal a little bit in that way. I trust my instincts more now.”
The 1960s burst in vibrant rainbows across the entirety of the new record – including the Jesse Eisenberg love song “Jesse Jesse” – owed in large part to spending summers on the beach in Provincetown, Massachusetts. “It was perpetual summer, and at nights, I’d spend time around the campfire in Cape Cod with my guitar,” she says.
Barbara’s second half remains rooted in folk music, calling to Mattel’s Two Birds and One Stone. “I Do Like You” and “I Don’t Have a Broken Heart” are sturdy additions to her catalog, but it’s “Gold” that shines as a career high. She paints on a relationship’s roller coaster motions: “We’ve been going for a while / We’ve been going strong / Harder to believe in all the years have come and gone,” she sings over a lonesome guitar work. “When we put our hands together / Key into a cage / Every story started when I found you on the page.”
She continues, a teary flutter in her vocal, “And I still remember where I was when the feeling changed / And how I burned my tongue when the ceiling caved in.”
Shimmery production bubbles in contrast to the lyrics’ indelible sadness. The hook hits straight to the core: “Will you grow from those cold blood wrongs when those old love songs start to play?” she prompts.
“When you’re hurt in a relationship, it just feels like somebody did it to you in cold blood. That line is patronizing, too. You’re calling it ‘cold blood wrongs,’ when really it’s just part of love. But it feels like the end of the world,” explains Mattel. “The thing we love about a relationship while we’re in is turned into, over time, if it didn’t work out, a trick…. they all start to feel like a trick that was played on you. Every part of that relationship starts to feel like pig’s blood being thrown on you at the prom. It’s humiliating that you believed in it. It’s sad that you think it’ll never happen again.”
“Gold” also references boyfriend and filmmaker David Silver. “I didn’t want to say ‘Silver’ in the song, but it’s that feeling when a new relationship is coming and you think, ‘Am I going to be that person? Is it bad to hesitate in a relationship? Does that mean you’re holding back? Or are you just being smart? Are you just being a person who learns from their mistakes?’ There is a fine line. That song is a reminder not to live too far on the safe side.”
Later, Mattel marks out her feelings with “weirdly specific” songwriting, as she puts it. “I said there to the junkman / ‘Have you seen my heart?’ / He said, ‘Not for a while and any pile of heavy parts’ / I said, ‘Now, not to worry / Thank you all the same’ / Since my heart’s been beating like a kitten on parade,” she sings.
“Kitten on Parade” is “the name of an eye shadow with Sugarpill,” she notes. “I love lyrics that allow people to put on their own meaning. ‘Kitten on parade’ paints a picture on its own.”
Barbara, predominantly produced by Nick Goldston, is an absolute blowout of beachside boogies, delightfully esoteric songwriting bits, and burning guitar confessions. Trixie Mattel wrestles “growing up and trying to grow up in the right ways,” she reflects, and these eight songs feel not only intensely personal but exuberant, fresh, and universal. This is her moment.
Photo Credit: Albert Sanchez