BWW Interview: Our Lady J Talks Representation, Poetry, and The American Dream
On February 15th, Our Lady J will return to her musical roots and the New York stage by participating in Lincoln Center's annual American Songbook series. Along with her long, prosperous career in music, she is the first out trans person to write in a Hollywood writers' room.
She currently writes and produces POSE on FX. She previously wrote on Amazon's Transparent, which concluded with a feature-length musical finale this fall. In 2013, she released her first studio album, "Picture Of A Man," and toured to sold-out audiences all around the world.
The multi-hyphenate artist took some time to talk to BroadwayWorld about her work, her life, and her upcoming performance.
Get tickets to the American Songbook series here.
Transparent is one of my favorite shows of all time - I've never felt better represented as a millennial American Jewish person. Can you talk about representation, and how working in that room and on Pose has empowered your own storytelling?
I guess when I started out as a young artist in New York, my storytelling felt very personal, but also more introspective, and as I grew into a storyteller representing the trans community, I learned that I was gonna have to listen to the world a little bit more and really be more aware of what was happening politically and the stories the community wanted to tell. So my storytelling became more broad in a sense, where it became less about what I was necessarily going through, and more about characters and the world around me. And it was definitely informed by my own experience. It still remains personal, but I guess it just expanded.
What is it like to write for characters who look like you? What about characters who don't look like you?
On Transparent, one of my favorite things was to write for Josh. It was just fun to write for a straight, cis man, and to kind of leave my own experience. As writers, we tend to get a little exhausted by our own minds and our own narcissism. It's really fun to jump out of yourself and write for someone else. It's the same with Pose. I love writing for Elektra. She's one of my favorite characters. When I first began writing for her, I thought we didn't have much in common, but now I think we have a lot in common, actually. I love writing the comedic, bitchy reads that come from her. It's really fun to get out of myself and into these characters, but it's also been so mind-expanding to realize that someone who looks like me and someone who has been through my experiences in the world is no longer being obstructed in television and film. So it's been not only validating as a human being, but it's reminded me of the vastness of possibilities in representation. It's an important message to younger audiences out there who don't feel represented to keep going. There is a time and a place for all of us, and as long as we persevere, those things will come through.
You're the first out trans writer in a Hollywood writer's room, and you're public about your status living as a person with HIV. How has that visibility been challenging, and how has it been rewarding?
I guess the challenge in that comes from a big fear. Coming out is difficult for anyone, and I really commend anyone who takes that step, and the same goes for putting my stories out there, my personal stories, like being HIV-positive, being trans. It's a challenging thing in the initial weeks, and the mental gymnastics we have to do to come out. But the rewards have been so incredible, and so worth the risk to have the world embrace the stories and also to have the hardship held by the world and felt by the world. It has been really, incredibly validating. I've never felt more at peace.
You work across television and music, and in so many genres. Where do you feel most at home in your work?
My return to music has been a return to poetry, really. There's so much educating that I've done in my writing for television that has to be literal in order for society to understand trans people, for society to understand the struggles of people living with HIV and AIDS. There's been a lot of educating that I've had to do, and I've really enjoyed that process. But I also found myself wanting to speak through metaphor more, and that's what my songwriting has been about. Songwriting, for me, is about returning to poetry and returning to metaphor. Creating a painting and a landscape that allows the audience to reflect whatever experiences they've had onto that without having to be so literal.
Have you always written poetry?
I have, yeah. When I was a kid I started writing - I didn't really know it was poetry at the time. I felt so unseen and that was really frustrating, so I found that writing helps relieve that frustration. I went to Interlochen Arts Academy to study classical piano in high school, and I had teachers who encouraged me to write. So that was really the beginning of my writing.
What was the first piece of art that made you want to make art? Who are your biggest inspirations?
My first inspirations in music were the classical greats. Every time I played Chopin, or Beethoven, or Tchaikovsky, I felt like I was being transported to a different time, knowing that my hands were forming the same movements as someone else's hands two hundred years ago. Feeling the same vibrations from the piano, hearing the same sound. It felt like I was being transported to another place, which is really just a fantastic, wild ride. I grew up on a farm, so we didn't really have access to a lot of the media that the rest of the world had access to. So those were the first artists who really inspired me.
How have your collaborators impacted you and your work?
I've been writing this music with Justin Tranter to create an album. We're working on an album, so this is the first time we'll be debuting these songs. I'll be performing a couple songs from my first, independently-released album. Working with Justin, who is from the Pop world - it expands his experience to my classical, weird experience, and my experience as a lyricist, and puts it onto songs that have more of a Pop format but still have a classically-driven sound. It's been wild. I also have a song that I've written with Sia that I'll be debuting, so she's been a huge inspiration. I love collaborating with people. I really enjoyed my work as an accompanist - I was an accompanist when I was in New York because it meant that I didn't have to be alone in a practice room. I could show up and work with other artists and just do the best work. I think that's why I'm not a novelist - that's why I'm a television writer.
What does it mean to you to be included in a series called the American Songbook?
It's really an honor to have Lincoln Center represent so many different songwriters, and to be a part of that representation. I can't believe I'm in the same festival with some of these people who have been inspirations of mine for a long time. It's kind of weird to think of myself as an American songwriter, but I guess I am. So often people who haven't been represented feel like they're not part of the American dream, but, in reality, we are the American dream.