Interview: CN Lester
Ciara Maguire interviews musician, writer and activist CN Lester.
Tell us a bit about your musical background.
My parents raised me on a steady diet of David Bowie, Leonard Cohen and Lou Reed – I suspect there was a fair amount of rebellion in my desire to train as a classical musician? I started at six on the piano, went on to do my BMus and MMus in performance and composition, train as a classical singer and concentrate my research work in music psychology and gender / sexual dissidence in music history. Sadly, I had a horrible wrist accident when I was a teenager – after numerous surgeries and treatments I had to give up my dream of being a professional concert pianist. So I started playing piano and singing in a band – and kind of wound up as a singer-songwriter? Opera by day, alternative by night – sometimes I feel like a really nerdy, limited superhero.
You also curate Transpose. Could you tell us more about that and what it involves?
It’s a semi-regular night to showcase trans (and trans-supporting) artists of all kinds, and to raise funds for LGBTI charities. Our last show was at Tate Modern, we’ve featured film makers, rock bands, photographers, performance poets, erotic storytelling – it’s always a varied line-up, and there are only two rules: “Don’t make assumptions” and “Don’t be a dick“.
To be honest, what I’m most looking forward to is experiencing the different kinds of audiences / show vibes across the tour. Each show is so individual, and that aspect of performance – of being able to submerge yourself in a environment mutually created and sustained between the audience and the performers – never gets tiring – there’s always something new to learn.
I’ll be playing at Pride shows around the country – notably Norwich Pride on 26 July, where I’ll be debating with Peter Tatchell and giving a lecture on trans activism, as well as performing. The next Transpose is part of the London Pride line-up – we’ll be at the Hackney Picture House on 28 June, where I’ll be premiering the next music video from Aether [CN’s latest album].
How has your music evolved since Ashes, your 2012 release?
Ashes felt like a tremendously intimate project – I whispered my way through most of it, and recorded it in my living room with my childhood piano. Aether is rowdier – I could let go with it, and just see what happened in a way that was just plain fun.
Who are your main influences musically?
This is always a bugger of a question to answer. I could give you a list of musicians I’d like to count as influences, but I’m not so sure that they’re the only ones. R.E.M. and Patti Smith are conscious role models, and the musicians I always end up returning to – but I suspect that a childhood of listening to Dire Straits on repeat has left quite a mark.
How have you found the experience of being genderqueer in the music industry? Are people generally accepting or has it been a challenge?
Oh, god – this is where I try to craft a diplomatic response! The majority of people don’t necessarily understand at first, but take the time to listen and give it a go. Some people are absolutely brilliant, and supportive in ways I wouldn’t have expected. And, inevitably, there are those who are awful – a mixture of outright hatred, dismissal and those people whose ideas of what a trans person should be seem culled from a sleazy tabloid. It’s always a challenge to present yourself honestly in a world that rarely acknowledges that truth – but I don’t think I could do it any other way.
What has been the most exciting part of making the new album?
For sheer heady excitement – shooting the album art and music video under and in the water. I don’t think I’ve ever been so soggy in the course of a project, and I loved every second.
For more on CN Lester, visit their website.