Talking to Ryan Cassata About the Trans YouTube Music Scene
What started in the early aughts as a handful of YouTubers singing about the trans experience has turned into a full-fledged scene.
What started in the early aughts as a handful of YouTubers singing about relationships, love, and being trans has become a full-fledged scene in 2015. Trans musicians are churning out rock, rap, and folk songs.
Take Ryan Cassata. The a 21-year-old trans singer-songwriter grew up in Long Island, watching the videos of Joe Stevens and Joshua Klipp, two trans musicians who were among the first wave of artists to gain visibility and a loyal following via YouTube. Listening to their music, Cassata says he thought "it was possible to be successful as a musician, regardless of my trans identity."
After coming out on Larry King Live in 2009, Cassata has gone on to write and release five EPs, become one of the first openly trans artists to play Warped Tour, and score and star in Songs for Alexis, a documentary film based on his relationship with a girl.
After finishing up his documentary Songs for Alexis in 2014, Cassata relocated to San Francisco. His latest project includes a leading role in director Lauren Wolkstein's newest short film, Beemus, about "a very dirty kid" getting through high school gym class, who also happens to be trans. We sat down with Cassata to discuss the YouTube music scene, Songs for Alexis, and his diverse fan group. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Broadly: How did you learn about the online trans music scene as a teenager?
Ryan Cassata: When I was growing up I really admired Joe Stevens and Joshua Klipp. They were the transgender musicians that had live music videos posted to YouTube. There are a lot of acoustic musicians. Maybe I'm not so in the loop because I look towards other artists that I am most likely to play shows with—acoustic artists—but for me, Joe Stevens led the scene. I got to collaborate on a few shows with Ben Wallace and Joe Stevens. Ben is a new emerging artist. We played a couple songs all together at Boston University, and people seemed to dig it. We fit together well.
What are your fans like?
My fans are really diverse. They vary in ages and backgrounds. A lot of them tell me that they first saw me on the Tyra Banks Show, and a lot tell me that they found me on YouTube. YouTube is a great place for discovering all sorts of acts. I see my audience steadily growing, especially when I am on tour.
Your last album Soul Sounds deals a lot with your personal struggles with drugs and getting off them. Are you sober now?
Throughout my teenage years I spent a lot of time using and abusing drugs and alcohol. During high school it was survival because there was a lot going on in my head with coming out as transgender, being in the media at a young age, unsupportive parents, and bullying at school, among other things. I had a lot of pressure on me and often wanted to escape, and I wanted a quick escape. I realized I needed to deal with my struggles, everyone has struggles, and I need to do it in a healthy way.
In early 2014 I realized that I needed to change my life for the better and I decided to be completely abstinent from all mind-altering substances. I put them down, and I have never picked them back up and I hope that I never will. Growing up I looked up to rock stars who were drug abusers, but I think we should turn that around. I've made these mistakes in my life and I hope that youth can learn from my mistakes and not have to go through the struggle that I had to go through, because it's a quite painful one and I wasted a lot of time being wasted.
What was going on in your life around that time in 2014 that made you realize you needed a complete lifestyle change?
I had just gotten off a national tour that was held together by my manager. I was caught up in the parties most nights and didn't do any of the legwork that a tour requires. When I got off the tour, I realized that I wanted to stop drinking and using drugs, and when I tried to stop, I realized that I didn't have any control over stopping. I had completely lost control. That's when I had to seek out help.
How did Songs for Alexis come about?
My camp counselor used to work at a diner where the casting scout ate at, and somehow I came up into conversation and voila!, the director found her character for the doc. It's a small world after all.
Have you had any trans mentors or peers you go to for advice?
I'm not sure about any other trans mentors besides Joe Stevens and Joshua Klipp; however, I have looked up a lot towards two artists Amos Mac and Rocco Kayiatos—they created Original Plumbing magazine, which is a magazine for transgender men, the first of its kind. As far as music goes in general, my piano teacher Dave [DeFeis] has been a big mentor for me since I was 12 years old. Dave is a heavy metal guy and fronts the metal band Virgin Steele.
What's it like having your personal life on display in a documentary film? You were already an established YouTube personality by the time Songs for Alexis premiered, but did the documentary feel different?
I think I got used to the spotlight pretty young from going on the Larry King Live Show and the Tyra Banks Show. It never seemed weird to me. I just went with it. Our director was so great that she would step away when we asked and if things got too intense. She was really good at feeling out the situation and what was the next right thing to do. It was strange being followed by a camera because people in the streets would do just about anything to get on the film—just because they saw a camera. They didn't even know what it was for.
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You did you end up acting in Beemus?
I met Lauren through another filmmaker, Robin Wilby. I wrote the soundtrack for Robin's film years ago. I've always wanted to be an actor but haven't found the opportunity to jump in until this recent film. They needed someone who can appear pre-transition female-to-male transgender and looks like a high school student—I fit that category perfectly. The film takes place in a dream and focuses around a high school gym class where Kris, my character, and Beemus, the gym teacher, rival and have extreme tension.
What sort of headspace were you in playing your role as a trans high school student in the new film- what was that like?
The gender of Kris in the film Beemus is actually unknown. The audience never gets a definite answer of a gender for Kris—they only know that Kris was assigned female at birth. To play Kris I had to shave my legs and armpits and not shower for 5 days. Kris is a very dirty kid because Kris doesn't want to shower in the gym class locker rooms. It is method to get into the headspace of the character and actually become the character in real life. Prior to the shoot I spent a lot of time listening to angsty music like Nirvana and the Smiths.
What's your artistic process like? Do you get relaxed?
To be honest, I don't relax much at all. You should ask my close friends. They always say, "I've never seen someone work as much as you." Occasionally, I'll take a break to watch a television episode, but that's extremely rare.
What's changing or evolving in the trans music scene, especially as trans visibility is at the highest it's ever been?
More transgender musicians are being able to play mainstream shows, and that's a good thing. For example, I got to play two dates on the Warped Tour. I think I'm the first openly transgender musician to do that.