For practical reasons, Hayes was hoping the big changes would hold off until after the show: There simply wasn’t enough time to transpose five albums worth of material into new keys.
But since then, he says, it’s been so far, so good. He sings every chance he can. He uses Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire” to test-drive his new voice as it downshifts.
“I went to [the key of] B, and then to C and then to B and then to A,” says Hayes. “The last time I checked I could sing it in C but not in A, so it’s moved a couple of keys.”
Hayes is excited by the change. “My voice pissed me off,” he says. “I would feel like there was a chick singing my songs.” He’s psyched he’ll finally be able to hit all the notes in his favorite Bright Eyes songs.
Still, the transition period is “terrifying. I get really freaked out. I don’t have a backup plan necessarily. I work small jobs and I play music. I make my records. That’s what I do.”
“I [think], ‘I’m a singer. No, I’m not a singer, I need a job!’” He laughs. “Oh shit, I gotta go to college!”
Hayes doesn’t have to worry about being fired from a day job, but as a musician, you can be fired from your audience.
“How’ll [transitioning] affect how I’m perceived?” wonders Hayes. “I spent up to 36 [years] in women’s music or being a women’s artist, whatever that means.”
On one hand, Hayes feels the transition may help his career, in that the songs will “make a little more sense.”
“I’ve always been frustrated because I’ve always written from a male point of view since I was a kid,” he says. “I had this character in my head that I was writing from … It took me a long time to realize it was me.”
No one knows how it will all play out, but his fiancee recognizes the potential for fan backlash. “In the lesbian community there sometimes is a problem with it. There’s a sense of, ‘OK so you’re becoming a strong woman. Why do you have to go identify as male? Why can’t you be comfortable being a strong woman?’” explains Majesta. “[Some people] don’t understand that it’s deeper than that.”
The transgender movement is where gay rights was a generation ago—the relative dark ages. Many Americans don’t understand the difference between gay and being transgender, and if the backlash and threats against Chaz Bono for simply appearing on Dancing with the Stars is any indication, then Hayes has good reason to be concerned.
“Am I completely screwing myself? Like will it be so frickin’ weird for people to know that I’m trans? Is that going to put me in a category? Cause you know what? I don’t mind talking about being trans. But I also don’t want to play just gay pride festivals.”
Hayes has already been down that road.
For all the stereotypes and common wisdom about GLBTQ people’s tendency to work in the arts, you wouldn’t know it from the mainstream commercial drek pumped out by Hollywood and what’s left of the music industry.
Performing professionally as an out lesbian singer-songwriter is a double-edged sword. Though there’s a rich scene that celebrates and promotes lesbian musicians (and by extension, female musicians who don’t go out of their way to court the hetero-normative male gaze), it’s relatively small, and artists embraced by that community rarely cross over to a broader audience. A well-known lesbian artist recently interviewed for a forthcoming feature in a music magazine on gender discrimination in the music industry calls the division “soft homophobia.”
Hayes got an up-close glimpse of so-called soft homophobia during the Stargazer Lily’s heyday: Though Hayes being a lesbian didn’t dissuade Arista Records from signing the band in 2000, the suits demanded the band keep it a secret.
“We weren’t supposed to have anything to do with it other than that everyone that came to see our band play knew … I was never closeted for them.”
“They said, ‘We are not marketing a lesbian band.’ I was like, alright, now I know where I stand.”
The discrimination was just one part of an experience that Hayes took as a wake-up call.
PW's Summer Guide 2014