Introducing The Multitalented Queer Artist Going On Tour With Radiohead
“As a child, I always wanted to be a caterpillar,” artist and musician Colin Self told me over a mouthful of soup. Colin Jr. would be satisfied with his progress, I thought to myself. Flitting seamlessly between genres, genders, and media, Colin Self is an all-singing, all-dancing, composing, creating modern butterfly. For example, he recently helped choreograph the massively successful performance piece “Authority Figure,” featuring the likes of Milk favorites Dev Hynes and India Salvor Menuez, and he and Mat Dryhurst will be performing in their trio band with composer Holly Herndon this summer, who is set to support Radiohead on tour.
I met Colin on a chilly morning in New York’s East Village, having contacted him after discovering his mixtape for Eckhaus Latta‘s FW14 fashion show via his Soundcloud. An 18-minute long mix, it’s an audio journey that begins with a sample from a self-help tape, progressing into hypnotic piano, a crescendo of disco, some pop, chanting, and finally, a wonderfully offbeat injection of Moby. Discussing the collaboration, Self said that the label’s aesthetic “[occupies] a very specific space of honesty and truth to what you’re feeling on the inside… An emotionality that I hadn’t seen in the fashion world before.” The mix characterizes Eckhaus Latta’s vision, but also Colin, his art, and his general approach to life.
Born in Aloha, Oregon, Colin was raised in a small rural community, the only boy amongst three sisters. “It was nice to grow up in a place where imagination was the number one thing,” he told me. When asked if he felt supported in his creativity, Colin laughed, “I feel like my parents were like: ‘Please let us have a gay son!’ I was the most crazy, the weird one of the family.”
When we met, Colin’s appearance evoked an almost Scandinavian freshness, all long blonde hair and smiling disposition, a sunny contrast to his adolescent self, who was apparently a regular at hardcore and emo shows. “By the time I was 13/14 years old, I’d seen people like Le Tigre and Sleater-Kinney perform live, all of these riot grrrl bands,” he said. “Essentially I remember being like: ‘that’s what I’m going to do with the rest of my life.’”
“I often take to the metaphor of different computer programs; when I am in a certain environment, I will adapt myself to be the version I need to be in that environment.”
Colin seems to be achieving this and more. His gender fluidity allows him to express a full spectrum of human experience, even adopting a feminist stance with pieces like his gloriously empowering “You Don’t Fuck With Women” mix. This boppy, uplifting compilation acts as a refreshingly conceptual take on the “girl power” sensibilities of pop stars such as Madonna, the Spice Girls, and Beyoncé.
Delving deeper into Colin’s work, it’s clear he functions across the board as not only a musician and singer, but also a composer, producer, performer, writer, dancer, and more. So which of his many artistic disciplines does he consider to be his primary “métier?” “I’ve never felt the need to put myself in a small container of what my practice is, what my identity is,” Colin said. “Especially at a time when we are so porous to one another. I like the idea of versions. I often take to the metaphor of different computer programs; when I am in a certain environment, I will adapt myself to be the version I need to be in that environment.”
Still, Self resents the idea of being labeled. “Everyone loves boxes, the mentality of ‘let’s contain you so we can understand you,’” he said. It’s an attitude he rightly views as problematic in a world where technology and society are transforming at such a fast, unprecedented pace.
In addition to his manifold art forms, Self is an active member of New York’s drag scene, most notably as part of the group Chez Deep, a drag collective that also includes model, actress, and writer Hari Nef, star of Transparent and the first transgender model to be signed with global management IMG.
A playful element is integral to Self’s identity. One of the things that is most refreshing about his work is the pervasive frivolity that acts as a digestif for the more serious themes he addresses. Despite how “out there” much of it might seem, he remains endearingly self-aware.
“What I do is very silly!” he laughs. “I think about it sometimes—I’m literally getting in front of hundreds of people on a stage and doing weird facial expressions, and dancing and moving these objects around. It’s all very silly—which I think is one of the benefits of doing what I do. I CAN’T take myself that seriously because I look ridiculous! I’m always trying to push other people to feel okay with being a little more ridiculous!”
Having studied writing at Evergreen in Olympia, Washington, much of Self’s music stems primarily from his interest in language and communication. In particular, he identifies with the archetype of the “sacred clown,” a character derived from the history of literature and theater and around which he has based many of his works, including a recent opera entitled “The Fool.”
“Almost every single culture has the character of the sacred clown, a figure who is able to hold a mirror up to society and show people what is wrong without being accusatory,” he explains. “I got really interested in the fool and the trickster archetype, as this kind of person who aims to bring about change though deception; helping be a deceiver but in a way that is effecting positive change.”
It was during this period of his studies that he witnessed the internet’s transformative effect on language and communication. “It was pre-Facebook, in MySpace time,” said Colin. “I became aware of so many different influences that were coming from the Internet and infiltrating the way that I spoke.” This, in turn, helped to inform his musical practice. Recalling this time, he said, “I would go on the internet and come across a forum and hear a sound that I had never heard before, even musically.” And it continues to impact his work today; as he explained, collaborating to make music, as he recently did with Herndon, “is often about creating a form of communication that doesn’t yet exist in the world.”
Growing up, Self took lessons in piano, clarinet, and trumpet, but never studied professionally—something he now sees as advantageous. Now he feels less confined by a rigid academic structure when it comes to composing and making music, and more in line with the riot grrrl mentality, which taught him that you didn’t necessarily need to sing or play an instrument at a professional level in order to make music.
Luckily for Self, a brief listen to his more vocals-based tracks reveal his innately beautiful singing voice, one that seems more suited to traditional choral music than new-age electronics. Certainly, many of his songs possess a liturgical quality.
Raised Catholic, but now a practicing Buddhist, Self is clearly inspired by both the sonic qualities of religious music, as well as its ability to convey feelings and emotion beyond mere semantics. “The voice is very freeing,” he said. “When you get people together to sing there is a kind of magic that transcends words. Religious music is holy for a reason; so much of the basis of communication and storytelling takes its foundations in religion and religious practice. I love church music, and I listen to the Koran a lot too.”
Once our hour is up and his Borscht is finished, Self is off, headed to meet one of his collaborators in preparation for a European trip that will take him to Amsterdam and Berlin. But before he leaves, he offers one last comment. Leaning in to inspect my (admittedly very bushy) brows, he exclaimed, “I’m obsessed with your eyebrows!” I laugh to myself; Colin the caterpillar likes my caterpillars. How very apt.
Photos shot exclusively for Milk by Michael Elijah. Additional images via Colin Self.
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