Dubbed, “Among the best folk-rock artists in the US” by the Tucson Weekly, singer/songwriter and trans* woman Namoli Brennet has been touring the US and Europe for 12+ years. A 4-time Outmusic award nominee who was featured in the inaugural Trans 100 list, Brennet has self-released an astonishing 13 albums since her debut in 2002. Her music has been featured in The Advocate, on NPR and in the Emmy-award-winning documentary Out In The Silence which details the struggle of a gay teen growing up in rural Pennsylvania. Brennet’s live performances spurn typical singer/songwriter fare, opting instead for incorporating loops, delays, keyboards, foot percussion and vocal effects to create a one-woman soundscape. Pride.com included her performance in Las Cruces as “One of the most iconic pride performances of all time,” along with Nikki Minaj, Arianna Grande and Tegan and Sara. An artist whose music has evolved along with their gender into something sophisticated, powerful and moving that defies categorization.
She's a top-notch songwriter who's known for her insightful lyrics and poetic language, but it's her live performances that set her apart from the conventional label of singer/songwriter. On stage she reveals deft acoustic guitar chops, often incorporating foot percussion, loops, vocoder and Kaki-King style tapping to create a broad, layered soundscape. Namoli's 2012 Release, "Live" was recorded over the course of 6 months and 10,000 miles. It shines an intimate spotlight on a performer who is at once arresting and vulnerable, someone who, in the words of Keith Jarret, is willing to "Go deep into the cave to come up with the light."
A 4-time Outmusic award nominee who was recently named in the inaugural Trans 100 list, Namoli was also the recipient of the Tucson Folk Festival Songwriting Award and a finalist in the ISC songwriting competition. Her 2010 release 'Black Crow' garnered critical acclaim and was named one of KXCI FM's top albums of the year. Her music has been featured on NPR, PBS and in films including the Emmy-award winning documentary "Out in the Silence", which details the struggle of a gay teen growing up in rural Pennsylvania. She spends 5 to 6 months a year on the road touring both the US and Europe and is currently at work on a new album with a release date in 2017.
I started playing music when I was just about 3 years old and was gifted a small kid's drum set. After banging away for a few months I had the bright idea to jump through and turn them into hula hoops which I think simultaneously relieved and horrified my parents. After that I wrote a little sketch of a song when I was 5 or 6 but if I’m honest it was really just a snippet of a chorus. I got my first guitar when I was 8 and took lessons for about 6 months from a multi-instrumentalist named Dave Parasz who I idolized and probably also had a little bit of a talent crush on. In addition to classics like Go Tell Aunt Rhody, he transcribed a lot of the Beatles catalog for me and also popular movie themes. It was the 1970s and one of the rock/blues songs in book 4 actually had the musical instruction, “Go Man, Go!”
It was around this time too that I had the first inkling that there was something different about me. I didn’t have words for it at the time, but a few years later I would read something about a transsexual and feel like it was the closest I could come to describing myself. I grew up in a very strict Catholic family and was even an altar boy for a while, so I filed this revelation away under “things I should probably keep to myself.”
In high school I played the saxophone and picked it up pretty quickly, along with the piano. I also started messing around with drums again and loved to play along with 1980s radio hits blasting through my headphones. I moved out of my parents home when I was 18, leaving them in Canada when I moved in with my friend Sandy in Waterbury, CT and slept on a cot for a couple of months until we could afford an extra bed. We worked at McDonalds, smoked menthol cigarettes and spent our afternoons on the beach at the lake.
I joined an original band playing keyboards, saxophone and a little guitar. I had an inkling that I could sing but absolutely no confidence so I stuck to writing melancholy indie-rock songs. I had my first experience in the studio and instantly fell in love with recording. The band broke up, I went to a community college, transferred to a University and graduated with a degree in composition and jazz piano. I became enamored with academics and respectability and moved to Arizona to get a Masters in choral conducting. I arrived feeling like it was a huge mistake but tried it for a year before dropping out to play in bar bands. To a lot of other people this also looked like a huge mistake.
Around this time I had been slowly accumulating the symptoms of what a therapist would later identify as a pretty serious anxiety disorder. All I knew at the time is that I was freaked out, uncomfortable, not eating, losing weight, jittery and in a pretty bad tailspin. Something in me said, you should look at those feelings you had back when you were 8, the ones you filed away to deal with at some later time. I would describe how I felt about myself as fake, unexpressed, pretending, out of touch and that’s a pretty lousy place to try to create meaningful art from.
It was the late 1990s, the dawn of the internet and I started finding more information about trans people. And I also started getting back to songwriting. The recovery of the self and the recovery of creativity are almost impossible to separate and I was on some kind of a quest to find both. I bought another guitar, found myself at the end of a relationship with an apartment by myself and started to think really hard about who I wanted to be and what I wanted to do.
The answers were, I want to transition and I want to be a songwriter.
The first songs, like the first steps in transitioning, were cautious and awkward. I didn’t know myself well enough to write the songs I wanted to and I hadn’t figured out how to navigate the transgender voice. (I sang baritone in concert choir.) I thought maybe I would either have to sing in falsetto or give it up altogether, but reading Kate Bornstein’s book Gender Outlaw kind of blew the roof off that whole idea and made me realize I could be something a little harder to categorize. Anomaly. A Namoli.
In early 2002 I decided, carpe diem, I have to use whatever resources I have to give myself the things I need to create which meant a computer, some microphones and a recording interface which all went on a credit card. Along with thousands of dollars in electrolysis. By the end of the year I had a collection of songs and a yogic astrologer encouraged me to finish them up and put them out as a CD. The result was an album called Boy in a Dress.
This is where things really started for me, I think - my first tour, which was 2400 miles and 5 shows in my friend’s van. LA, San Francisco, Portland, Minneapolis, Philadelphia. I started networking and meeting people and would take any invitation to play anywhere. More plane tickets on credit cards, small Pride festivals for free or next to nothing, coffee houses, clubs. I lost money pretty solidly for 5 or 6 years but I was creating a body of work, I felt like I was growing as a performer and I was trying in the only way I knew how. By 2007 I was able to do my first 2-month tour which meant I was finally able to connect the dots between cities in a way that made that possible.
I was also dealing with the return of some of the worst anxiety I’ve ever experienced. Mental Illness and creativity don’t always go hand in hand, but being an incredibly sensitive person with a healthy intellect and imagination is pretty fertile ground. I was also a semi-passable trans person touring through the Deep South in a 23-year old Volvo with no air conditioning in late summer. By the end of that tour I felt like death and I felt like I wanted to die. Not for the first time and not for the last. I meditated, tried to be kind to myself, found a therapist and tried some meds with varying results. My mantra was Stay Present, Lighten Up, Trust and Enjoy when you can.
I wanted to give up music, was having vocal problems and felt like I was unable to tour because of my intense anxiety. So I backed off a little bit but kept writing. I got in a relationship, found some happiness and stability, and wrote one of my favorite albums to date, Black Crow. It came together so effortlessly and magically, a complete gift. The next album came together as a relationship dissolved and that stability turned into 2 1/2 years living without a permanent address. But the anxiety that had plagued me just didn’t hold up all that well in the face of a universe that seemed eager to provide me with apartments, couches, places to stay, friends. I was groundless but doing OK, it was sad and beautiful at the same time.
And then, finally, I found my place in beautiful Iowa and sank into it like a soft bed at the end of a hard day. Since then this has been the place I always come back to, the place that nurtures me, where I find peace and where in my way I can thrive. I need so little to be happy and I find the simple things I do need in such abundance in this small town where I feel so lucky to have landed.
I’m still writing, recording and playing as much as I’m able. I’ve recently read a few books, The Inner Game of Music and Effortless Mastery, that have helped so much to reconnect me with the pure joy of making music. Something that can be difficult to hold on to after playing a song 3 or 4 hundred times. But I feel like I’m starting to get back something that I had forgotten, to commit to the song and the moment and to open up and let something greater than myself take over. To aspire to cross the boundaries of myself every night, to accomplish more by trying less, to trust, to take risks, to open up, to have fun.
I feel like I’m closer to being who I have always wanted to be than ever before and I feel fortunate to have been able to rediscover a sense of value in who I am and what I do.
I used to think that awards, reviews, opening slots, venues and a certain amount of recognition and success would bring happiness. All of those things are wonderful gifts but pale in comparison to the moment when music takes over, you close your eyes and play the perfect note at the perfect time and know that in that moment something meaningful is taking place and you’re privileged enough to be able to deliver it.
That, to me, is what success feels like right now.