How Drag Queen Musician Trixie Mattel Became a Cross-Over Country Star
Brian Firkus (left) and his drag queen persona Trixie Mattel album cover for Two Birds.
During the day and out of costume, internationally famous drag queen Trixie Mattel – also known as Brian Firkus- looks like any other 27-year-old redneck from Wisconsin. Sporting black overalls, a faded black muscle tee with a wolf on the front, flea market cowboy boots and a backwards hat to cover a shaved head, his rural garb drastically differs from his alter ego’s evening appearance.
Trixie’s 6-foot-2-inch frame mimics Barbie with a large Dolly Parton-like wig, cartoon makeup and handmade pink dresses. His charismatic showmanship can captivate the attention of women, queens and everything in between, whether he's performing on stage for his popular “Ages 3 & Up” comedy show or online via his YouTube show with fellow “RuPaul Drag Race” contestant Katya Zamolodchikova. His scream-laugh-cry performances have grown in popularity due to his crass jokes, rebellion against stereotypical drag queen club music, making fun of his own “parade float” appearance and breaking through comfort zones by touching on darker topics like depression and suicide.
Keeping the drag superstar on the road across the world for the last three years, “Ages 3 and Up” blends comedy, storytelling, and most recently, original folk songs from Trixie/Brian’s debut album “Two Birds,” self-released on May 2. Southern California fans will be able to witness “Ages 3 & Up” and hear “Two Birds” live on Wednesday and Thursday at San Diego’s Martini’s Above Fourth.
“Two Birds” is a digital-only album under Trixie’s moniker while revealing the human being behind the great and powerful Oz’s curtain – Brian Firkus - who has been a multi-instrumentalist country songwriter long before he created his pretty, pink persona.
“Earlier on in my drag career I was timid and knew that lip-syncing goes with drag like bread and butter so that’s what I thought I had to do,” Mattel said. “Music has always been a hobby for my own fulfillment and something I did before I was a flaming cross dresser.”
Primarily a breakup album and not to be considered drag or “gay music,” Trixie said he was at a turning point in his career when he was burnt out from work, traveling nonstop, gained 30 pounds and was dating someone who he had thought was “the one,” but evidently the relationship didn’t work out. Without WiFi, air conditioning and a refrigerator in his small seaside cabin in Provincetown, Mass., last summer, writing songs on either his Gibson Hummingbird or Dove guitars – which inspired the name of the album - is all he had to pass the time to recover from the heartache.
“Dating becomes a challenge when you do what I do for a living," Mattel said. "You travel; you don’t sleep; you eat only at airports; you drink a lot; you only go home when someone dies; you can’t keep relationships. On top of that, I was experiencing the worst of the combination and wrote this for my own emotional release expecting nobody to hear it.”
The original country chords and lyrics, the music videos, costumes, cover art concepts and funding behind those costs were all conceptualized by the entertainer, but producer Brandon James Gwinn brought the full sound of a country album to life with the help of Broadway-trained fiddlers, auto harpists and bassists. Song like “I’ll Wear Your Ring,” and “Bluegrass” are filled with sparkly metallic sounds of such instruments and universal emotion, staying true to his grandfather’s country legacy and winning over the admiration of his devoted comedy fans, making “Two Birds” No. 1 on the iTunes singer-songwriter chart and No. 2 on overall sales the day of release.
“I didn’t think my music was something I could charge money for because I always did it for fun," Mattel said. "People like me for being a comedian, not a musician. But I learned if you build it and it’s polished, disciplined and well done, audiences are willing to go with you anywhere.”
Resonating with true northerners and traditional country fans is a different challenge, although he isn’t expecting any kind of acknowledgement from the country world –both fans and industry members - or even from his immediate family who he feels is too country to be remotely impressed by Hollywood.
“I know I will lose people who can’t stomach a person singing country music who isn’t a full-blown Christian, heterosexual, white male for the same reason people can’t handle Darius Rucker," Mattel said. "I already have a name and a platform to share because of what I do as a comedian and visual artist so I sincerely doubt anyone who is in the country music business would see me as a safe investment. But I don’t even think of myself as gay; it’s just a wig and this is just music.”
Being in an environment unwelcoming to outsiders isn’t new territory for Trixie/Brian having grown up in a rural, impoverished and conservative area of northeast Wisconsin. Learning to survive through a cycle of broken circumstances as a homosexual teenager in such surroundings was a lesson in failure, but also perseverance. Those dark lessons are what he now brings to the surface in his album and in comedy as an international star.
“None of my shows paint me as the winner," Mattel said. "I’ve exposed the darkest parts of my life where I talk about broken families, depression and suicide, a breakup, if there is a God or about getting an STD. These are all stories painted around unfortunate events and people resonate more with a story of being a loser than they do of being a winner.”
Talking about these painful truths while looking like a child’s toy takes away the brunt of the awkwardness and allots him a lot of power to go different places comically.
“I think the world makes everyone get in emotional drag every day because it doesn’t encourage people to go around saying what they really feel," Mattel said. "For someone who looks very produced to crack a joke or sing about it makes people laugh without exposing their own selves. I believe we can laugh through anything.”
To purchase a copy of Trixie Mattel’s album “Two Birds,” visit iTunes. Tickets for Trixie’s “Ages 3 & Up” show in San Diego start at $25 and can be purchased online via Martinis Above Fourth or via ShowClix. Full disclosure: Firkus and Mattice are childhood friends.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Orange County, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.