Trixie Mattel, 'Now With Moving Parts,' Stops at House of Blues on May 4

click to enlarge PHOTO BY JEFF NIESEL
Photo by Jeff Niesel
This is how to describe Trixie Mattel to someone who has never heard of Trixie Mattel. Think Barbie, but if her eyes, the shape of a rounded rhombus, took up a third her face and her hair was so tall it grazes the ozone layer it helps destroy with the amount of hairspray needed to keep it upright. Think Dolly Parton circa 1975, but it’s a drawing of Dolly by someone who’s only seen her face a few times and maybe took a hallucinogenic a couple hours before.

Then, there’s the business of explaining why Trixie Mattel is famous, why she’s amassed millions of followers on social media, why people are willing to wait hours in lines at convention centers to meet her and take a selfie, and why a webseries she appeared in became so successful that Viceland came calling, making her and cohost Katya the first drag queens to headline a talk show since RuPaul.

It may be easiest to say she won the third season of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars.

There’s also her music. Like many Drag Race alum, Mattel capitalized on her time on the show (initially on season seven, then on All Stars) with an album release. But she went a different route. While most drag music leans toward dance/club music, Mattel’s first album, Two Birds drew from her love of classic country and folk.

"Drag is what gets people to pay attention to me, but it's also what makes people initially convinced there's no way I could be a proficient musician. It's sort of like if James Taylor was in a chicken suit," Mattel says in a recent phone interview. Mattel embarked on the nearly 50-city Now With Moving Parts tour, which comes to House of Blues on Friday, May 4. "If Two Birds didn't work, then it was a vanity project, and everyone laughed at me."

Though she exists in an industry of artifice, Trixie Mattel's personal life and past—or more accurately, that of her out-of-drag persona, Brian Firkus—are inextricably tied to her drag, her comedy and her music.

Take her name. Though "Mattel" is an homage to the creators of Barbie, an obvious visual reference, "Trixie" entered Firkus's life as an insult hurled at him as a young man when his stepfather felt he was acting too feminine.

“I think of myself as a comedian and a musician who happens to be in drag,” Mattel says. “But I love drag and the license to kill that drag gives me… There’s something compelling about a crying clown, looking like a wind-up child’s toy and singing some clever and surprisingly poignant folk music.”

Two Birds is made up of a succinct six tracks, meant to mimic the songs of old country radio Mattel grew up around. It's a product of the time she spent, as if her life was the first verse of a country song, being taught the basics of guitar by her grandfather in the middle of America.

"At 13, I was sitting in a tree in Northeast Wisconsin learning to play guitar barefoot like a wild animal," Mattel says. "I never started with music because I thought I could be a professional musician."

Somehow, the draw of the crying clown — of James Taylor in a chicken suit — turned Trixie Mattel into a professional musician. She had transformed fans of a show about grown-ups in extravagant makeup, playing dress-up into country music devotees. Two Birds sold well enough to propel the album onto the Billboard charts and to the peak of iTunes top albums following its release.

The success of Two Birds was enough to convince Mattel to create its follow-up, One Stone, released last March, timed perfectly to coincide with the night she won All Stars. While the first album was made up of what Mattel calls "melodramatic breakup songs," One Stone finds the artist casting out further into her expanding musical universe.

"One Stone is a little more folksy, it's a little more like maybe you're not the protagonist in every story," Mattel says. "I wrote all the music on One Stone for just my own human development."

One Stone's highlights include "Little Sister," a gentle plea written to Mattel's younger sister to venture out of the small Wisconsin town where they grew up. There's also "Red Side of the Moon," about the challenges Mattel has faced maintaining a relationship as a touring performer, written from the perspective of Dolly Parton's rumored lover Judy Ogle.

Once again, plumbing the depths of her own anxieties, heartbreak and the other aches of being an adult proved a success for Mattel. The album charted on Billboard and scaled the Top Albums on iTunes, propelled partly by the attention she received as the winner of All Stars.

As if she had released a genie and was cashing in her final wish, Mattel also received glowing messages from some of her favorite figures in modern music. Miley Cyrus and Kacey Musgraves each mentioned wanting to collaborate with her. Michelle Branch—Mattel's all time favorite artist—reached out to her over social media.

"These are people that shouldn't even know if I'm alive. I'm not sure if my mom knows if I'm dead or alive, but Kacey Musgraves knows I'm alive and that's way more important," Mattel says.

Mattel wrote, sang and played guitar for every song on One Stone, a project she financed herself. She also recorded the entire album in three days to accommodate filming episodes of the Viceland series, The Trixie and Katya Show.

"I make all my music for my own human fulfillment. There's no grand scheme. There's not a cabal of people devising this business model," Mattel says, before we get any ideas about a cushy life after Drag Race success. "I'm a drag queen. I'm lucky if someone pushes the handicapped button on the door, so I can get through with my suitcase in full drag."

Although her face can be recognized just about anywhere from just about any distance, Brian Firkus, currently in his late twenties, doesn't expect to be dressing up as Trixie Mattel in his fifties. He's interested in exploring characters outside of Trixie, like the closeted Vietnam War vet art teacher with Bob Ross hair introduced in the "Little Sister" music video.

But for now, Trixie Mattel, the television star, the heartland Barbie that slipped past quality control, the crying clown, is as viable as she's ever been.

"There's a million and one white guys with guitars. Who cares?" Mattel says. "But there's only one Trixie Mattel."
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