Sometimes out artists won’t give interviews to LGBT press like us because they don’t want the “gay” or “lesbian” label to interfere with their art. “American Idol” runner-up Adam Lambert, who still won’t confirm or deny the gay rumors, probably knows what we’re talking about.
But Namoli Brennet’s bio begins with “transgendered singer-songwriter” because, for her, there’s no escaping it.
“It’s an asset,” she says of being in an LGBT publication.
“There’s a community that will give you a chance, whereas if you’re just a folk musician, you’re out there struggling. It’s difficult anyway, but I guess it makes up in part for being a little bit marginalized.”
People would ask. They’d label her themselves. So, instead, she saved them – and herself – the trouble by blatantly silencing inquisitive minds and ending any guessing games with a title that didn’t need much elaboration: “Boy in a Dress,” the name of her 2002 debut.
“Being in the closet was not an option,” admits Brennet, “because no matter what I looked like, as soon as I got up to a mic, it was obvious that I had some kind of gender thing going on.”
Seven years after the husky-voiced folkie dropped that disc, Brennet’s released her seventh album, “Until From This Dream I Wake,” on May 30, just days before she takes to the Motor City Pride stage a second time (her first was in 2003, she says). Melancholy muses emerge again, but the source of inspiration this time is a two-year period of time that involved an anxiety relapse just before she headed out on a solo tour – all alone – in her unreliable clunker, an ’87 Volvo.
“It was a really dark and difficult time,” recalls Brennet, who spoke with us from her hometown of Tucson, Ariz. She hesitantly trekked through the South, performing in places like Oklahoma and Nashville, completely unsure about how she – as a trans person – would be received. “It’s hard for me to describe my mental state,” she continues, looking back, “but let’s just say it can get a little agitated.”
Her long battle with anxiety, which she once conquered with a combination of yoga and meditation, didn’t help. Mental illness – a friend’s, not her own – is the fodder for “Marie Antoinette.” The situation mirrors her own, though: “(She) was fine and then something happened in her life and it totally came back, and she had to be institutionalized. I haven’t been institutionalized yet,” she laughs, “I’m not crazy!”
Musically crazy, definitely. She’s put out one album each year, playing the majority of instruments on her last. All have been released on her own label, Flaming Dame Records.
Just before releasing her debut, she picked the East Indian-influenced name Namoli (which people commonly confuse as a word that rhymes with cannoli), after much deliberation, because she didn’t – and still doesn’t – feel like she could fit into any box. She’s the prime example of an anomaly. One morning she woke up in a dream state, contriving different spellings for a slew of names and then, “I just hit on it and it had a nice rhythm to it.”
She felt pressure to transition at a lightning-speed rate, but when realizing that wasn’t a reality – this would be a much slower process, she thought – Brennet decided to be out … to everyone. “Boy in a Dress,” she says, is her “trying to turn something that could’ve been a deficit into an asset.”
Brennet still hears a man every time her mouth opens – “that’s, like, my own paranoia,” she says – but she admits her struggle to transition was less severe than that of other trans people. She had known she was a woman since she was 10, when she would chill out with the girls. Then, one Christmas, she got a tool set. “I was not that disappointed,” she laughs.
She was an aspiring musician then, too, watching ’80s bands like Duran Duran on MTV and imagining herself in their Chuck Taylors. She received a music degree and scored some music-related gigs: a job at a record store, playing in top-40 wedding bands and a position as a church’s musical director, which she was later released from when they found out she was trans.
Brennet stayed on course, though, following her dream to become a singer-songwriter up until college, when she switched gears. She gravitated toward jazz piano, abandoning songwriting completely. In her late 20s, she returned to her roots.
“It’s easy to get steered away from your true desire and to choose something more practical,” she says, “but if it ends up making you completely unhappy, it’s not worth it.”
4:30 p.m. June 7
Motor City Pride, Ferndale
8 p.m. June 10
The Ark (Open Stage Night)
316 S. Main St., Ann Arbor