Trixie Mattel Balances Genre, History And Humor On 'Barbara'

Feb 5, 2020

If you ask Trixie Mattel — the winner of RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars in 2018 — her success as a drag queen isn't worth as much as you might think. "Being one of the most famous drag queens in the world is still only about as much fame as going home first in The Voice in like, 2010," she jokes.

Still, she's got her fingers — with those long press-on nails — in a lot of different pies. There's a Netflix show called I Like To Watch with her Drag Race co-star, Katya, and a popular YouTube series, called "UNHhhh." She's also got a book, a makeup line, a live comedy tour, a documentary and a successful career as an earnest country singer. Her third album, Barbara, is out this Friday, and it combines her earlier folk and country work with some pop and rock influences.

Mattel sat down with NPR's Ari Shapiro to talk about changing up her style and the influence of Barbie dolls on her album and life story. Listen to the full conversation in the player above, and read on for highlights from the interview — including a web exclusive, live in-studio performance of "Jessie Jessie" — below.


Interview Highlights

On adding pop rock songs to her country-heavy catalog

I mean for a cross-dresser selling folk music — that's got to be the hardest thing to sell, right? So I was like, if I can sell that, plugging the guitars in isn't going to be that far-fetched. I mean some of the tracks even have like a B-52s vibe on the record. I knew I was going to do a lot more mod, a lot more Austin Powers-beach-party and '60s — but therefore kind of '90s at the same time. Think about "Walkin' On The Sun" by Smash Mouth. That sounds like '60s music.

I think the key here is — yes there's a genre shift, yes I've stepped a little to the left — it still has my fingerprints all over it. I started playing guitar around the time of Avril Lavigne, Michelle Branch, Blink-182, so I've always loved rock music that has really sugary, sweet harmonies and lyrics.

On the meaning behind the title of the album, Barbara

It's the name of America's favorite 11-and-a-half-inch fashion doll. It was sort of her name before she moved to California and became Barbie. She's from a fictional city in Wisconsin called Willows, Wis., and I'm from a real city in Wisconsin, so it's sort of based on that. And also the etymology of the world: I believe it's Greek and it means "strange woman." What's more of a strange woman than a drag queen?

YouTube

On covering "I Can't Shake The Stranger Out Of You," originally recorded in 1971 by gay country pioneers Patrick Haggerty and Lavender Country.

In 1971, Patrick and his band of kind of misfits — there's a queer woman in the band, there's Patrick, who's gay as the day is long — he puts the record out, he puts it for sale in the back of a magazine that's like a gay rag, where you can send in five bucks and get a vinyl mailed to you. They pressed 1,000 of them, the 1,000 went like, overnight. People loved it, but get this: The critical response from the masses was so anti-gay, it basically got him blacklisted from music and even from finding a day job for like eight years.

I feel very privileged. [Patrick and I are] sitting there and I'm like "I'm worried about selling my record. It's my third record and I hope people like it! I hope they buy it!" And he reality checked me so hard. He was like "Really? Cause I had friends be murdered by police for being gay and no one said anything." It was a very enriching experience, because Patrick kind of reminded me that there's more of a mission to this than getting likes and making money. Now don't tell anybody that I had a feeling and I had a sincere moment.

NPR's Lauren Hodges and Sarah Handel produced and edited the audio of this interview. Cyrena Touros and editorial intern Jon Lewis adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

On the radio, you can't tell who's wearing drag - that is, unless you hear them brushing their platinum blonde bouffant wig, cranking out the hair spray. That's drag queen Trixie Mattel, who dropped by our NPR West studios to tell our co-host Ari Shapiro about her new album.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: I don't usually ask guests what they're wearing, but for Trixie Mattel, I made an exception.

How big is the wig that you're wearing?

TRIXIE MATTEL: It's big. There's a few feet off my head. Today I was in a Uber Black SUV, and I still had to sit on the floor.

SHAPIRO: Trixie Mattel won the "RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars" competition in 2018. And today she's got her fingers, with those long press-on nails, in a lot of different pots. There's a Netflix show called "I Like To Watch" with her "Drag Race" co-star Katya.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "I LIKE TO WATCH")

MATTEL: "The Crown" is an incredible show where we're changing lives by bringing correctional dentistry to rural areas.

SHAPIRO: There's a popular YouTube series called "UNHhhh."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MATTEL: Hi, I'm the presidential candidate who's also an optometrist - Trixie 2020 Mattel.

SHAPIRO: There's a book, a makeup line, a live comedy tour, a documentary and also albums.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAMA DON'T MAKE ME PUT ON THE DRESS AGAIN")

MATTEL: (Singing) Mama, don't make me put on the dress again. I can't stand the way it opens when I spin.

SHAPIRO: Trixie Mattel came to our studios at NPR West to talk about her new album "Barbara," and she was in a reflective mood.

MATTEL: Being one of the most famous drag queens in the world is still only about as much fame as, like, going home first in "The Voice" in, like, 2010. You know what I mean? Like...

SHAPIRO: I'll confess I can't remember who that was.

MATTEL: Exactly. Like, we don't get special treatment.

SHAPIRO: I mean, you get a hundred thousand dollars, if I'm not mistaken.

MATTEL: What is that going to get me in LA - Age Rewind concealer and a Vitamin Water?

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

MATTEL: That's it. Doing drag is great, but you never are really a real celebrity.

SHAPIRO: Let's talk about your album "Barbara," which, for the first half of it, at least, sounds totally different from everything else you've done. You've always been in kind of like a folk country mode, and you kick this off with a song called "Malibu," which is pure bubblegum pop.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MALIBU")

MATTEL: (Singing) Been around for a long time now, I guess. Came around for a one-night thing, and I never left.

I love it.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

MATTEL: I mean, I think the key here is, yes, there's a genre shift. Yes, I've stepped a little bit to the left. It still has my fingerprints all over it.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

MATTEL: I started playing guitar around the time of, like, Avril Lavigne, Michelle Branch, Blink-182. So I've always loved rock music that has really sugary-sweet harmonies and lyrics.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MALIBU")

MATTEL: (Singing) Malibu, I want to go.

SHAPIRO: So tell me about the experience after writing a couple albums of Americana to try on a different look musically.

MATTEL: Well, I mean, for a cross-dresser, selling folk music - I mean, that's got to be the hardest thing to sell, right?

SHAPIRO: Right (laughter).

MATTEL: So I was like, if I can sell that, plugging the guitars in isn't going to be that far-fetched. I mean, some of the tracks even have, like, a B-52's vibe on the record.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE GOT THE LOOK")

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) We got the look.

MATTEL: (Singing) We got the look, yeah, yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) We got the look.

MATTEL: (Singing) We got the look now.

A lot more mod, a lot more Austin Powers beach party and '60s but therefore kind of '90s at the same time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE GOT THE LOOK")

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na. Na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na.

MATTEL: And then the B-side is this, like - most the people have left the beach. It's around the campfire. This is, like, the soft music that you get a little stoned to.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOLD")

MATTEL: (Singing) Put our hands together.

That's me singing.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOLD")

MATTEL: (Singing) Key into a cage. Every story started when I found you on the page. And I still remember where I was...

I don't know if you're allowed to like your own music this much, but...

SHAPIRO: You are.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOLD")

MATTEL: (Singing) How I burned my tongue when the ceiling caved in. Where do you go when the gold is gone, when the old front lawn is turning gray?

This lyric right here's so good.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOLD")

MATTEL: (Singing) Will you grow from those cold blood wrongs?

Will you grow from those cold blood wrongs? Oh, my God.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

MATTEL: Emily Bronte - scalped.

SHAPIRO: Walt Whitman rolling over in his grave.

MATTEL: Forgotten, canceled.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOLD")

MATTEL: (Singing) They start to play. Doo, doo, doo, doo, doo.

SHAPIRO: Tell me about the title of the album. "Barbara" - what - where does that come from? Is it a coincidence...

MATTEL: Well...

SHAPIRO: ...That you have an enormous Barbie collection?

MATTEL: (Laughter) Yeah. It's the name of America's favorite 11 1/2-inch fashion doll, and it was sort of her name before she moved to California and became Barbie. She's from a fictional city in Wisconsin called Two Willows, I think - or Willows, Wis.

SHAPIRO: Is this true?

MATTEL: Yes. And I'm from...

SHAPIRO: And you're from Wisconsin.

MATTEL: ...A real city in Wisconsin. Yeah. So...

SHAPIRO: Wow.

MATTEL: ...It's sort of based on that and also the etymology of the word. I believe it's Greek. And it means strange woman. What's more of a strange woman than a drag queen, right?

SHAPIRO: I mean, fair.

MATTEL: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: You've got this gorgeous, pure white guitar.

MATTEL: Beautiful, right?

SHAPIRO: As the driven snow. Will you pull it out and play something for us?

MATTEL: Sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR STRUMMING)

MATTEL: Oh, there's this great cover on the record.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. It's...

MATTEL: Oh, my God.

SHAPIRO: Tell us about it. It's by a band called Lavender Country, which I had not heard of before this.

MATTEL: Yes. Lavender Country - this gentleman named Patrick...

SHAPIRO: His name is Patrick Haggerty, right?

MATTEL: Yes.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

MATTEL: In 1971, Patrick and his band of, like, kind of misfits - there's a queer woman in the band. There's Patrick, who's gay as the day is long. He puts the record out in the back of a magazine that's, like, a gay rag where you can send in, I think, probably five bucks and get a vinyl mailed to you. They pressed a thousand of them. The thousand went, like, overnight. People loved it.

SHAPIRO: Wow.

MATTEL: But get this - the critical response from the masses was so, like, anti-gay. It basically got him blacklisted from music and even from finding a day job for, like, eight years.

SHAPIRO: Wow.

MATTEL: Patrick was with me in the studio. We talked about the meaning of the song. And Patrick was like, well, you have to understand I was the first batch of gay men to come out. So we didn't know how to be intimate and love one another and look each other in the eye and be honest.

SHAPIRO: Wow.

MATTEL: We only knew how to, like, hook up. And I was like, well, I hate to break this to you, Patrick; gay people are still like this.

SHAPIRO: So this song, "I Can't Shake The Stranger Out Of You," is kind of an homage to those who paved the way.

MATTEL: Yeah. It's great. He let me kind of put my own spin on it. I added some ooze. It's one of the best tracks I've ever made, I think.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR STRUMMING)

MATTEL: Can you hear me?

SHAPIRO: It's gorgeous.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR STRUMMING)

MATTEL: Well, you're not saying ooh (ph) and ahh (ph), so...

SHAPIRO: Oh, I'm supposed to say the ooh and ahh right now?

MATTEL: You're supposed to be like, oh, my God.

SHAPIRO: Oh, Trixie, you're the best guitar player I've ever heard.

MATTEL: Thank you.

(Singing) I see you stepping high with your tight blue jeans on, strutting like a buttoned-down paragon. I reckon you're looking for some necking. Yes, I do. Climb right up into my manger, but let me warn you about one small danger, babe. I can't shake the stranger out of you - not you, now to you, now to you.

I know. You're crying.

SHAPIRO: That's so beautiful.

MATTEL: We're sitting there, and I'm like, you know, I'm worried about selling my record. It's my third record and hope people like it, hope they buy it. And he, like, reality-checked me so hard. He was like, really? - 'cause I had friends be murdered by police for being gay, and no one said anything. So, like, it was a very enriching experience because Patrick kind of reminded me that there's more of a mission behind this than getting likes and making money.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

MATTEL: Now, don't tell anybody that I had a feeling and that I had a sincere moment.

SHAPIRO: We'll make sure not to put this part on the radio.

MATTEL: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I CAN'T SHAKE THE STRANGER OUT OF YOU")

MATTEL: (Singing) Now to you, now to you.

SHAPIRO: Trixie Mattel, congratulations on all of your great success. It's been so fun talking with you. Thank you.

MATTEL: Of course. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I CAN'T SHAKE THE STRANGER OUT OF YOU")

MATTEL: (Singing) Now to you, now to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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