Country Queer

Lifting up LGBTQ+ voices in country and Americana.

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ISMAY: Ziggy Barndust

By Dale Henry Geist

Ismay, photo by Aubrey Trinnaman
Photo by Aubrey Trinnaman

ISMAY is out to free your country soul.

The musical project of Avery Hellman (they/them), ISMAY’s seeds were planted over seven years ago, on a long horseback trek through the quintessentially Western landscape of the Klamath River country in northern California. Like a honeysuckle in a Klamath meadow, ISMAY has grown gradually, sending out roots, shoots, and branches, and is now, fittingly for springtime, in full flower.

I spoke to Avery recently, on a phone, rather than the Zoom interviews that are more common in my line of work. You see, the Internet is iffy up in the hills. We explored the artistic evolution that began with 2018’s EP Songs From a River, ran through early gigs, saw further growth in 2020’s LP Songs from Sonoma Mountain, continued through more frequent and higher-profile gigs over the course of the past year, and reaches its fullest flowering yet in the upcoming album, Desert Pavement, due out this fall. The first single, “Stranger In the Barn,” is out tomorrow, May 2nd (and premiered on Wide Open Country last Friday.)

From the outset, Hellman has pursued a singular artistic vision. While deeply rooted in the landscape and culture of the American West, ISMAY eschews the traditional tropes – the ‘Western’ in Country and Western – in favor of a highly personal approach that has, at various times, incorporated symphonic elements, quasi-Flamenco fingerpicked guitar, longer lyrical lines, a light, soprano vocal approach, clear enunciation, and a close observation of plants and animals.


A Honky-Tonk of Our Own

ISMAY, in short, brings us a fresh experience of “country.” Not surprising, perhaps, for an artist who’s never bought into received notions, not even, growing up, society’s neat little pigeonholes for gender.

“I just see myself as gender non-conforming,” says Hellman. “My whole life, I always felt very confused by people identifying with like, ‘I’m a man,’ or whatever. I didn’t understand that. So growing up I just felt like an outsider. I felt like, ‘I guess everybody else feels a certain way, and I just don’t feel that way.’ I see me as just myself and haven’t really felt comfortable being grouped by gender. I think a lot of artists, because they’re more open-minded, understand how I feel, whether or not they use the same terminology.”

Non-conforming. There’s nothing deliberately confrontational about Avery or about the world of ISMAY. ISMAY simply exists, sui generis, like an unusual plant you may stumble upon, which has insisted upon growing according to its own exigencies, and from which you may, if you like, take inspiration on your way to realizing your own unique identity.

Spring Blossoms

It’s not surprising, then, that ISMAY was recently featured on My Kind of Country, an Apple TV+ singing contest based on the premise that great country music might be found anywhere in the world, made by anyone in the world. Executive produced by Reese Witherspoon and Kacey Musgraves, and hosted by Mickey Guyton, Orville Peck, and Jimmie Allen, the show scoured the world for talent…and found ISMAY. (The entire season is now available for streaming on Apple TV+.)

“They said country music should try to reach out to people from different cultures and different backgrounds and invite their contribution. I was like, ‘That’s fantastic!’” Hellman continued, “I think the coming together of different musical traditions and cultures is one of the richest places for creativity and interesting music to happen.”

And there are some recent and upcoming gigs that might, at first blush, seem surprising for an artist who’s a regular at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering: an appearance at SF Jazz (granted, it was during their “Americana Roots Week”); a Midwest run opening shows for rocker Chuck Prophet and his band (Chuck’s an old friend from the Bay Area music scene); and, soon, opening a slate of California shows for folk-punker Sunny War’s tour supporting her new Anarchist Gospel LP.

About War, Hellman says, “She was saying ‘I really like outsider music, like Daniel Johnston.’ And I was like, oh, wow. I didn’t realize she was an outsider fan. That’s really cool because that’s more what I’m into these days. You know, if somebody says they are into outsider music, I think you can trust them,” Hellman laughs.

Desert Pavement

Inevitably, talk turned to the upcoming ISMAY long-player. Produced by Andrew Marlin (founding member of Watchhouse, née Mandolin Orange), Desert Pavement signals a further evolution for Hellman’s project: sonically, it’s noisier, groovier, and unafraid to nod toward more familiar aspects of folk, country, and even rock.

I asked about the vision for this record.

“I met it more with a sense of curiosity. Like, ‘What if I bring these two styles together? What if I work with this person whose music sounds different from mine and is much more based in bluegrass and rhythm music?’ And I think also just the fact that I as an artist am very open-minded. Being from California <laugh>, we’re very open to experimentation.”

Coincidentally, when Hellman approached North Carolina-based Marlin about producing their next record, he had just begun transitioning his own project (as a duo with wife Emily Frantz) from the more traditional Americana sounds of Mandolin Orange to a new, more experimental vibe with Watchhouse.

“I think when you’re in the studio, it’s super important to always just try it. Cuz you never know how something’s gonna work unless you try. I just kind of leaned into that more groovy sound.”

What about  the results? “I’m really excited about it,” Hellman effuses, “because I feel like I was able to come up with a more rhythmic driving record, but in my way. I just did it ‘cause I love doing what I’m doing.”

Lyrically as well, Desert Pavement represents a progression: as the title itself suggests, human beings play a larger part, receiving equal billing with nature.

“I think I’ll always want to engage with these sort of human-horse <laugh> stories that are based on my experience, living on the ranch,” Hellman says. “But a big element that has contributed to my ability to write differently is that I’ve been doing a lot of research into Lucinda Williams. And I think when you’re an artist and you’re trying to find your voice, it can help to see in somebody else, ‘Oh, they’re able to be authentic and be unique and still broach what is so great about country music, which is the simplicity and the relatability of the stories.’ So I think studying her songwriting really deeply over the last five or six years has very much contributed towards me being more comfortable with writing about these human relationships. And it doesn’t have to be cliché and it doesn’t have to feel like I’m just copying somebody. It feels like, ‘Oh, I can really approach this the same way that I approach a poem about the ranch.”

Photo by Aubrey Trinnaman

A Splash of Color

Again and again, that theme emerges: striving, always, for originality, for an authentic expression. It’s clearly an obsession. I asked Hellman about a Madras plaid suit I’d seen them wearing on the socials. It’s a splash of unexpected color in the muted, rustic settings of the photos.

“I think one of the challenges as an artist is to– we’re all trying to find where we belong and we’re copying, but you have to find a way to step out of it. And I recently became really fascinated with these like seventies polyester suits that were this matchy matchy pattern. And I felt like, oh wait, I don’t need to do the Nudie suit thing. Like, my thing is these weird matchy matchy suits, it feels like me.”

And there it is again. The drive to keep bringing forth, like a Western bush brings forth spring flowers, whatever’s inside that’s authentic, unique, and beautiful.

“I want to embrace more creativity and fluidity. I want to be seen as who I am, as myself. I’m just trying to be my own person, my own creative force, and try to step out of copying, and step into the unknown. And, uh, I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m trying really hard.”

And succeeding. I left Hellman with the idea that they were, perhaps, “the cowhand version of David Bowie.”

“Oh, that’s great,” they said. “I love it. That’s what I aspire to.”