Alexis Penney has never met an urban underground music scene he didn't like. Growing up as a classically trained pianist in the suburbs outside of Kansas City, Penney found himself entrenched in the city's burgeoning collective of queercore bands that called the city home, before moving to San Francisco and becoming one of the city's most notorious drag party hosts. He then moved to Los Angeles and fell in with Teengirl Fantasy's Nick Weiss and singer/songwriter Tamaryn -- while connecting across continents with UK beatmaker Jamie Crewe -- to begin recording what would become his debut album, Window, out now on Ecstasy Records.
A two-year labor of love, Window is a syrupy concoction of house-infused R&B that turns years of emotional turmoil into fuel for slow burning, high-drama epics set to four-on-the-floor beats. And now, after decamping to yet another city -- New York -- to complete the album's recording and release, Penney is also ready to publish his debut book of the same name (out on Peradam September 19th), a "true life vignette memoir" of his experiences growing up gay in Kansas, and the subsequent wild years he relished in San Francisco's drag scene. We sat down to talk him about his debut album, how Kansas City parties were like a scene from Midnight Cowboy, and the unexpected emotional resonance of Rihanna's "Diamonds."
What was it like for you growing up in Kansas City? Were you trying to get out at a certain point or did you appreciate your surroundings?
I definitely had a lot of plans to leave, but they always seemed distant and impossible. But growing up in Kansas City was actually really cool. Like Cody [Critcheloe] from SSION was around and there was a whole host of really cool, talented, older artists and musicians doing things in the city proper. I took for granted that every city was like that, that there was always some crazy, really interesting scene happening. I kind of wanted to leave, but I wasn't very direct about it, until I met my ex, and he was the one that moved me to San Francisco.
So it wasn't a cultural wasteland growing up in KC?
No, not at all. My parents were really cool -- they have really good taste in a really classic way -- so I was raised with a lot of jazz, and they took us to a lot of musical events like opera. And the bands that I was in in high school showed me that there were so many punk kids and kids into music. We would have a house show and 150 people would show up. The first time I ever played with a band in high school was with an already established, goofy electro-rap thing that had been going, broke up for a while, and got back together. When they [got back together], I was asked to join so when I started playing with them, a lot of people would come to the shows. I would get recognized at the mall and stuff like that and I thought it was like that everywhere. We would go to New York, or go to Chicago, and it seemed like we were just a part of this pipeline of cultural stuff. It was way bigger back then -- now, I don't know so much, because we've all kind of splintered off and gone our own ways.
When was all this happening?
I graduated high school in '05, so this all happened during the early 2000s through 2008. That was a crazy time -- I remember when we got to open for The Chromatics in a basement of a club, and I really felt like we were a part of something national. Glass Candy would come through, and they'd play at some loft with a ton of people just losing their minds. It was an exciting childhood. I was like, "This is what I wanted, this is what it's like in movies." You'd be at parties populated with the weirdest, strangest people who had all congregated there at that moment. It felt like that party scene in Midnight Cowboy.
You were pretty involved in the drag scene in San Francisco as a party host of High Fantasy and the Hot Boxxx Girls Revue.
I kind of fell ass-backwards into drag in SF. All of us punk, gay weirdos in KC, we would go to drag shows non-stop. Like that's just where we would go to get drunk, because there were so many drag shows. But I never had any drag aspirations in KC, or I just never admitted it to myself that I did. But when I moved to San Francisco, my boyfriend at the time hosted this drag night at Aunt Charlie's, one of the most famous drag bars in the country and he was like, "I'm not into this, I can't host this anymore, you should do this, you need something to do, it will get you out of my hair." So that's how I got into it.
It happened totally randomly, and over the course of two years, it kind of snowballed from, "Oh, I'm just doing this to distract myself from this relationship" to "This is what I want to do. I'm a performer." I needed to be away from the people I looked up to so much in KC, and I needed to explore my own expression on stage, and the music just evolved out of that. My boyfriend at the time was really inspiring. He had broken from his band, and just did his own thing. And that kind of attitude helped me understand I could just do whatever I wanted to and people will eventually get into it. I got really into the drag scene, and I was doing three to five shows a week. I was really wasted the whole time. But I was just kind of off my rocker in SF, doing a ton of shows, and working, and I had a lot of disposable income, but I didn't have any clear vision of productivity.
At what point during those experiences did you decide to start recording your own music?
I'd only been working casually. I recorded a couple singles that Jamie [Crewe] had sent from the UK -- we had been talking on the Internet for a while. And then I connected with Nick [Weiss of Teengirl Fantasy], and said to him that I wanted to make a record.
I thought about doing it for years, specifically after discovering Grace Jones' album Nightclubbing, which was such an experience for me -- that whole genre-bending thing. And Marianne Faithfull's Broken English was a huge turning point for me in the way I listened to music and albums, rather than just MP3s that I downloaded. Nick and I realized that if we could produce the singles with Jamie halfway across the world, what if all three of us sat down in the same [place] and tried to write? So Jamie came to L.A., and we all kind of converged there, and from the first second it was just like pure magic: all the songs fell out of me, and every time I was stumped, Jamie had the exact lyric or exact melody we needed.
We wrote four of the songs during that 10-day session in LA, but [the rest of the time] we were all spread out. I was still in SF and a fucking mess at that point, Nick was in LA on tour with Teengirl, and finishing the album became this glimmering dream. I realized I had all these songs and we just had to finish the record. And then when I met Grant [Martin], who was the guitarist on the record (and who actually passed away two weeks ago), he offered this room in NYC, and I had this epiphany that I really wanted to live with him, and I really wanted to get out of SF. Then suddenly, Nick was moving to NYC, and he moved in down the street from me, and we finally finished the record. It was just kind of serendipitous in that way.
What was your creative vision for Window when you started writing and recording it?
I was really into a lot of weird stuff. The jumping off point when I started making music with my first single "Lonely Sea" was that I wanted to be a gay, punk, Crystal Waters. I want to do some nostalgic, '90s, club-house music, but my tastes are all over the place. I'm not necessarily a pop or house singer. I don't have that pitch. But I grew up singing in church choir, so I always had this weird, gospel-y slant. I just wanted to do something really well-rounded, and really lushly textured in the vein of something like Madonna's Ray of Light, which, yes, she's this pop singer, but she has these established modes in which she works. I want to be in that place. I'm not only in the drag club, I'm also going to punk shows, and sitting on my roof listening to ambient music watching the sunset. And I wanted to bring the whole language of these divas to the table.
The album is very dark and devastating in places. Did you inject the darker moments of your life onto it?
It was a really crazy, traumatic experience for me leaving KC and at 21 going into my first adult relationship with someone who's seven years older than me. And I mean, my ex, who was a really supportive, amazing person, basically said I was on my own when we moved to SF. We got there, and he basically told me he wasn't going to live with me and he had his own shit going on. And so I sort of just cast around and made my own reality there. And then when we broke up, it was like so much of my identity was cast into his identity. When I had to find my own identity, it was really scary but also one of the most constructive experiences of my life.
And the only thing I have for a reference point that is similar to that climactic breakup is the recent death of my best friend, Grant. So Window has taken on this double meaning for me, because it's all about my ex, and the break up, and the expectations that I poured into that relationship that I maybe shouldn't have. And that's kind of the way I felt about Grant. It was like I built up all these expectations about the life we planned together, so it's kind of insane how the timing happened and that it's taken on these double meanings.
But I think that's kind of how music is. Like, Rihanna is such a bullshitter and such a product of the factory -- Grant and I would argue about her all the time, he loved her -- but at the same time, so many of her songs are so relatable. Like that fucking song, "Diamonds?" I totally get that. I'm stirred by it.