Country Queer

Lifting up LGBTQ+ voices in country and Americana.

Ismay Country Queer Ad

Avery Hellman: Ismay’s Calm Cowbirl Energy

By Dale Geist, Editor

Back in May, in response to my public plea for Country Queer support, I got an email from an Avery Hellman offering to take out an ad for their album “Songs From Sonoma Mountain” (issued under the stage moniker Ismay.) I recognized the name. Not just the Hellman name – I knew it in relationship to the philanthropist Warren Hellman, Avery’s grandfather, who gave San Francisco the iconic Americana festival “Hardly Strictly Bluegrass.” And not just the name Ismay, which I recognized from my local music scene. But the name Sonoma Mountain: I can see it from my front door and have hiked, cycled and run on its slopes.

I checked out the album and was struck by the originality and organic cohesiveness of its vision: from its theme, to its sound – gentle, insistent acoustic music sprinkled with natural sounds from Hellman’s mountain home – to the lilting meter of its melody lines, the clear-eyed wonder of its lyrical stance and the images of Hellman, windblown and pensive, on the Ismay website. It constitutes a complete package that feels like it’s always existed even if its precedents are hard to pinpoint. (Hellman playfully calls it “cowbirl,” and I think that nails it perfectly.) In it, I recognized the mark of a real artist.

So, after discreetly inquiring as to Hellman’s relationship with our mission (they identify as nonbinary), I reached out and solicited an interview. My editorial duties have rendered this piece inexcusably late – since then, No Depression has gotten the jump on us, putting Hellman in its current issue – but with the virtual version of Hardly Strictly going off today, I felt compelled to finally ready it for publication.

It was a treat to revisit our socially-distanced, in-person conversation, which took place at a picnic table in tree-shaded Sonoma Plaza on a gorgeous June day not long after the BLM protests began. Hellman in conversation comes across as a rare combination of thoughtful, well-versed, and utterly guileless. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I hope you do, too.

(Note: I started recording while we were talking about the interview, before I got to my official first question. I found Avery’s comments interesting enough to leave in.)

Avery:
Well, I was just saying, with regards to Dale’s cool A-S-S project, I think if you have your eyes open and you’re not part of the majority group, you can see these things that nobody’s talking about in the media, or nobody’s covering because someone like you, you see that there’s all these people who are queer in the world and tons of them either live in the country or they like country music. Just because you’re queer doesn’t mean you live in the city or you like city things. It seems that you’re aware of all that, and that you understand something that I understand, and a lot of people understand: there’s this untapped community.

Dale:
These are the things that I spend so much time dealing with, but yeah, culturally, the world of country music, and a little bit less so, Americana, it’s a conservative world. So this is an area that’s exciting to be in, because you can feel a change coming.

Avery:
Definitely. The winds are whipping up the white caps on the sea of creativity.

Dale:
Yeah. So, Avery, how you doing right now? How are things going?

Avery:
That’s such a good question. No one’s asked me that in a while.

Dale:
It used to be an easy question, right? “Fine.”

Avery:
Yeah. I would say I feel very present in the emotional turmoil of America and the world right now, which is that there’s a lot of people whose pain is being deepened and painful things that haven’t been acknowledged are coming up. And that’s true for me, for sure. And in the sense of how I’m doing, I’m doing pretty good, I’m learning and I’m realizing there’s a lot of things about myself that I wasn’t willing to acknowledge. And so the good side of collective experiences of pain is that they allow you to confront and process that pain within yourself.

Dale:
So it sounds to me like you’re referencing the Black Lives Matter uprising, and using it as an opportunity to look inward and examine your privilege.

Avery:
Yeah. I mean, it’s part of that too. And I think that one of the things that I keep thinking about that’s one of the legacies of this movement is that they’re showing that it’s okay for marginalized people to speak up and tell people that they’re not being treated well. And even though the primary activism within that is for Black people and indigenous people and people of color – as it should be – I think it’s inspiring to people like me in all different facets of my life, just to confront the ways in which I’ve been silent to the detriment of others, or to the detriment of myself. And so that’s been causing a lot of emotional turmoil for me, but in a good way.

Dale:
So let me skip to question number eight or whatever I had. You recently came out as nonbinary, right?

Avery:
Yeah.

Dale:
So what was that experience of coming out like for you?

Avery:
Yeah, I mean, the thing that I learned that I think a lot of people experience is, there’s so many stages to it. The first part of it is just coming to the realization that there’s words that match who you are internally, whether or not people from the outside can see that. And for me, the first steps were kind of expressing it in tiny patches when I got in arguments.

And then the second kind of element to that was when I would be going out with somebody – I was dating someone that I’m now married to, so it was really important to me that the person I was with understood that about me from really early on. And so that was something that I was comfortable with and felt great about and went really well. And then the other layers were just the coming out to my family, which is still complicated. And then the important step that I took was more the larger community and people that were into my music and my friends, because social media is now the way we communicate.

Dale:
Sure.

Avery:
So that was kind of more of the larger amount, but as anybody who has to come out as any kind of thing knows, it’s a process and it’s always, it’s so painful because you know that it’s just gonna probably have to be that way for your whole life. You’re never going to be able to just – I mean, I don’t know, there’s always hope – but you’re never going to be able to just be like everybody else where the default is who you are. And so, I guess I just have to accept that and roll it out in different layers, and know that this is – even though I don’t want it to be the way I live my life – it’s just the way I do. Having to disclose that to people in different ways.

Dale:
Yeah. In the society that we live in now, when straight is assumed to be the default, and cis gendered. And so when you identify publicly otherwise you become othered, right?

Avery:
Yeah.

Dale:
And yet I think every time somebody makes that choice, we take another step towards a world where actually there is no default. That’s kind of what – I don’t know about you, obviously there’s an element of, you want people to know who you are – but there’s also, there is also an element of, whether you want to, or not, it kind of changes the culture a little bit. Because you suddenly get people who are like, “Oh, you know, I gotta think about that. Somebody that I know, somebody that I like, is, you know, different from what I assumed.”

Avery:
Yeah. You’re exactly right. There’s this sort of unasked for responsibility of queer people to have to take on – and other marginalized people too – but to have to, in order to be their genuine selves to their friends, but also to change the culture as a whole, and just kind of chip away at the statue of what we’ve built for so many years of what’s quote, unquote normal and right.

Dale:
So you mentioned that it was a painful process. Was there anything besides pain?

Avery:
Oh, good question. I would say there was definitely, yeah, there was a lot of discomfort. I wouldn’t say pain so much as in, like, “it pained me.” Discomfort. A lot of discomfort. That’s what I would say.

But in terms of positive emotions, I think the biggest positive emotion is kind of twofold. One that I could see in the friends that I had that accepted it, that they finally actually knew me as a person. And they understood all these things about me that maybe I seemed closed off before.

And I also think the other positive emotion that came from it was just the sense of being, God, it’s so hard to put a finger on. It’s like the way the birds and the trees all cycle, the same oxygen. These things are hard to put into words. I think the other positive side to it was starting to be able to be proud of being different and sharing that with other people and that the thing that comes from it, and I’ve seen a little bit, is it making it easier for other people like me, I guess.

And that’s a very deeply positive thing for me. Feeling part of something that improves somebody else’s life. And whether that’s a person who’s my friend now, or a child that hasn’t been born yet or whatever, that kind of thing.

Dale:
Do you want to expand on that? Your journey to recognizing and claiming your gender identity?

Avery:
Yeah, I think that’s an important thing to talk about because I think that sometimes I get the sense that people think that being non binary is about making, like, a political statement about gender and how there shouldn’t be gender roles and whatnot. And, you know, it’s related to that, but that’s not really what it is and the reason I know that is because when I was growing up, I remember so specifically in high school, we had sort of like our sit-down discussions about gender and sexism and all this stuff. And I just was so confused why other people weren’t as upset as I was deeply, deeply upset by gender stereotypes. Even if they’re positive, like women are nurturing, blah, blah, blah, that whole thing. I was so deeply upset by that. And I just didn’t feel other people were.

And then the other thing was that, because we had pushed so much back against gender stereotypes growing up, I assumed that everybody else was like me and that they didn’t feel like they had a gender. But then I felt so confused when I was being labeled as a woman. I was like, “How can you be comfortable with that?” That’s what made me, so uncomfortable, and just fundamentally, just deeply knowing I’m not that. And I was so confused by seeing other people that would be proudly, like, claiming themselves as a woman or a man. I was like..oh, we aren’t the same. So it was more so me coming to understand others, and the culture, and that I didn’t fit into that.

Dale:
That there are other identities besides, you know, male, female, whatever. Right. Have you dealt with gender identity in your music at all?

Avery:
Yeah, I mean, ever since I started writing songs, I definitely wrote about it, but initially in a very covert way, because also when I started writing songs back when I was about 18 or 19, even the idea of being nonbinary was not in the popular culture at all. And so I there just wasn’t a way to write about it, really. Other than in covert ways of, like, this sort of frustration. But now I write about it a lot more openly and I’m hoping on the next record, instead of just having my songs, being about “This is what I am,” I’m trying to really get into writing songs, uncovering all these layers of what it means to be different in this way and how it changes your relationships, and telling more stories. Cause there needs to be songs and poems and stories with these subtle things about being a non binary or transgender or queer person there needs to be not just “un-ness”. And that’s great because that’s, that’s important, but there need to be the subtleties of what’s it like to date somebody? What’s it like to get married? What’s it like to have kids? What’s it like to live in a rural place? What’s it like to be a song writer? So many things that people write about as normal straight people..

Dale:
There should be just as many things.

Avery:
Just as many things about not being one of those sort of normalized things.

Dale:
So it sounds like you’re continuing to write and you’re dealing with this in your current writing. Is this something we would hear in the record that you put out recently?

Avery:
Yeah. In “Songs of Sonoma Mountain” I put out one song that was called “When I Was Younger, I Cried.” And that one’s about being nonbinary. It’s about growing up and that feeling that I talked about earlier, which is that just being a kid and you’re crying about this fact that you’re being put in this category that you just don’t feel fits you , and you are in this world – as liberal and as forward thinking as the Bay Area is to grow up in – that still wasn’t a present possibility, to be outside of the gender binary, really.

And those songs also about wanting to be in nature and part of nature, because to me like if I’m alone here in this park, surrounded by these trees, my gender is not an issue and no animal or tree is making assumptions about me and treating me in a different way because of my gender. And more so, like, nature is so dynamic and complex and multilayered. And we have put so many boxes on the natural world because of our really narrow view of gender that I think that people who are queer can actually see nature more as it is, cause nature is queer and weird and all these different elements to it. It can’t be fit into a box and it’s so different from us.

Dale:
So what you’re saying, I think an academic way of putting it is that gender is a cultural construct in a similar way that race is a cultural construct, you know, like there’s really not much you can point to that’s binary. Like there’s just exceptions, there’s a spectrum, ultimately it comes down to people are people and we’ve created these divisions, right?

Avery:
Yeah.

Dale:
So let’s talk about your recent record, “Songs of Sonoma Mountain.” Talk about the genesis of that project. How did that start?

Avery:
So I made my first EP about a horseback trip I took along the Klamath River, and when I was up there, I was just kind of thinking, why did I have to go outside of my home to write about a subject? Why can’t I just look to the place where I live? And the place where I was living was on a ranch on Sonoma Mountain. And so I just thought, I need to look back where I came fromt.

And I also am just really interested in…the ways that we see nature impact everything in our lives, and also having a deeper relationship with nature, because you may live in a place where there is more nature, impacts your vocabulary and your stories. And I wanted to express through the record more of a life that’s based on that connection to nature. A lot of our music and media is very urban based, which is understandable, but it’s missing out on a huge part of the human experience, which is nonhuman. Nonhuman stories, things, symbols.

And I also think that a lot of times the way we talk about nature in our mainstream culture is very much like “Science. Recreation.” And we don’t talk enough about people who live with the land in a more deep, artistic way. The way we talk about land isn’t as artistic. Like it makes no sense to me that art is supposed to be an urban thing. That completely is nonsensical because everybody can make art and you can be very creative in rural or remote or whatever kinds of places. I mean, it’s kind of what you have to do.

So I don’t know. I just really wanted to push back against some of the stereotypes about art and how it’s made and who can make it and where you have to be to make it, and what the subject matter has to be. And I think people who are connected with land in an artistic, rather than a recreational or scientific way, have a lot to offer to our ideas of nature and what we should do going into the future with regards to the natural world. We kind of negate those perspectives and see them as…we see country as ignorant, or we see it as uneducated, or we see it as exploitative. And I think that there’s so much more than that to the people who are more integrated with the landscape.

Dale:
So, the image that you project as an artist through the music and the visuals, the photographs and so forth, is somebody who has an authentic relationship with Western landscapes. When you look at country music, there is a lot of trappings and symbols of cowboy life. There’s stars, cowboy hats, cowboy boots, trucks, guns. And yet what I get when I hear your music and hear the lyrics and even hear the sounds that that are not part of the music, but on the recording (Avery let sounds of birds and animals seep into the recording of their new album), and then look at the images and so forth, is somebody that actually is more like what I would think an actual cowboy is like. Somebody who actually has a relationship with the land, the Western land and life on the range. What is your actual experience with living like that, living close to the land? How long has that been going on and how deep have you gotten into it?

Avery:
I think that the first thing that’s really deeply connected me with the land is horses. I see them as sort of an in between, between people and nature. They’re not fully one or the other. I’ve been riding horses since I was four years old and it’s pretty much the one thing I’ve done the most in my life. So that’s kind of what brought me to landscapes. And the other thing that brought me to a passion for land and for Western landscapes in particular, in addition to the horse thing, was really a deep concern about the way American culture, what it has done to land. And in particular, I saw this opportunity, in ranches and farms and private lands, for change.

So in that sense, it came from sort of like an academic intellectual side, but then came to be more part of how I want to live my life. And I see it as fundamentally important to me as, like, I need to live in the country, where I get to see the same, like, owl all the time, or where I get to know…deer might come out, or things like that. And it doesn’t mean you have to live on a ranch or a farm, but I find those things spiritually very important to me. And I just find the whole history of the West and cowboys and what that symbolizes, and the layers. they’re just so fascinating, endlessly interesting.

Dale:
We’re all fascinated with that! But there’s a relationship between Nashville country music and, um, you know, cowboy poetry, right? And you seem to become more from that (cowboy poetry) angle, and I don’t know much about that world, but it seems pretty male.

Avery:
Oh yeah. Oh, it’s so interesting. God, it’s so great to talk about this with someone actually understands. ‘Cause I love country music. Country, and bluegrass in particular – is so much how I learned to play music. Yeah, the cowboy thing. Gosh, cowboys. It’s just so interesting. My whole cowbirl thing (Avery has coined the term “cowbirl” to describe their esthetic), partly it’s rooted in this seriousness in the sense of… I think modern cowboys are for some people, an arm of environmental stewardship.

And again, this deep relationship with land outside of recreation and science. But there’s also sort of like a silliness element to it because ever since a cowboy became an entertainer, it was a parody of itself. And the whole concept of who gets to be a cowboy, which is mostly a straight white man. It’s so fascinating and so fun to play with those ideas and the symbols of it. And I love the visuals of it, but I also love that – I’m trying to mess a little bit with the perception of what a cowboy is because a cowboy is a creation of culture designed to bring more people to this area probably to colonize it, is probably why it was originally invented –

Dale:
Well, cattle, right?

Avery:
Yeah, totally. Oh, it’s so fascinating. I’m not even getting to the bottom of this. And in terms of cowboys, I went to the cowboy poetry festival, which I think is a fantastic event. And I’m really glad that the rural arts are supported in that way, but it’s also limited. I don’t think queer people are welcomed there, and I don’t feel they’re celebrated in any way. It’s kind of disturbing, and it just goes back to the fact that, just because you’re queer doesn’t mean you don’t like a lot of these things that are cowboy or whatever. It doesn’t mean you don’t like horses, doesn’t mean – it’s just got nothing to do with whether you want to live in the country. It’s just not related! At least in my mind. And it isn’t to discount people who feel safer in different spaces, in different cultural spaces, but I just think, yeah, it’s just so fascinating. And cowboy music too, is just, it’s so interesting how the cowboy esthetic went East after it was West, too. More things to think and write about.

Dale:
Well, we’ll talk further about that some other time. Let’s go back to your album for a second. It sounds like you had a vision for it before you started, or once you got underway . How close do you think you ended up to your original vision? Or was it loose enough that wherever you ended up was going to be appropriate?

Avery:
I think I ended up within the bounds of my vision pretty well. A lot of the songs from the record are about Sonoma Mountain and life there. And I’m surprised I pull that off because it’s hard to write a bunch of songs about one place, to be honest. Not all the songs are about Sonoma Mountain, but a lot of them are. And I feel that I’m really proud of being able to integrate some of the field recordings that I made out there. That’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time in a musical way. And there’s recordings of birds on some of the songs. There’s recordings of wind. And I really, really enjoy incorporating that. ‘Cause I think it gives people a feel of the mountain, and in a way, gives Sonoma Mountain a voice on the record. I think I’m like a lot of artists where once you put the record out, I don’t want to listen to it anymore.

Dale:
Sure. So What is the story behind the name Ismay?

Avery:
So when I was starting this project, I was really looking to some books to get a name, cause if you’re looking for a name, books are a great place to go. Cause they have a lot of amazing words in them. And I was reading a book that’s called Bad Land. And I think the author is Jonathan Raban. [Ed.: Yep] And he was writing about the Badlands area of Montana. Nonfiction book. And it’s about the history and it’s about all the homesteaders there and everything that happened. And in that book, they mentioned one of the railroad towns, which were these towns that popped up as they built the railroad. And the railroad CEO or whatever it was, he named it Ismay after Isabella and May or something. Two of his kids combined their name for that. And I just liked that word. I liked something simple that has a deeper meaning to it.

Dale:
Good. So I’m going to ask you a little bit about specific stuff about music. Your guitar style is pretty distinctive. You have this rolling, fast, nylon string fingerpicked style. Where did that come from?

Avery:
Definitely the influences were from all of the great finger-picking American heroes, like Mississippi John Hurt or Elizabeth Cotton or Doc Watson a little bit, too. And then there’s some more modern, um, people Fionn Regan. I used to listen to his record a lot when I was in high school. And then more recently Leonard Cohen.

Dale:
Yeah. It reminds me of Leonard Cohen, the nylon string. It’s almost the Spanish influence.

Avery:
Yeah. And he actually – there’s a woman in San Francisco who wrote his biography. She’s a great songwriter. And she, Sylvie Simmons, she wrote about him and he learned from this guy that played like a Spanish style guitar-

Dale:
And he was from Spain or something, but he was in Montreal. [Ed. – I read that book.]

Avery:
Yeah, exactly.

Dale:
So you’ve got some influence there, too. It’s a very cool style and it just works really organically with your melodies and your lyrics and stuff. The whole thing, it feels like a very well developed artistic vision. So the melodies that you write, there’s a stylistic cohesion there, too. There’s a lot of, like, stepwise motion in your melodies. And then there’s these melodic phrases that might repeat, or they would repeat as a three phrase, but you’re doing it in four-four time or something like that. So, influences on your melody style…?

Avery:
I would say I really got influenced back when I was in college and I was kind of wandering around and I went to this record store in Cleveland and people were like, “This is the best record store. You got to go. This guy has the best music taste.” And I just said, I don’t know what I want. And I asked for some popular titles, I mean, not really popular, like Captain Beefheart type popular, and that’s not popular, but that was too popular for him. But he, um, he gave me two records and one of the records was Angel Olsen’s record. And I turned it on in my car and I had just never really heard somebody write a melody like that.

And I think that’s really one of the moments that deeply inspired the way I love to write melodies. I really like to try to write things that are unexpected and as simple as I can make them, but still being unique and sort of going places that it wouldn’t usually go. To be honest, if I could write good country songs, I would do it. I just, can’t, it’s a different thing.

Dale:
The whole thing works really well with your lyrical style where you have these – it’s pretty dense. Like you’re not saying like a five- or six-syllable phrase and then holding out the last note and then resting for awhile and then doing the same thing or a variation on it. You’re rolling right along, you know? And the whole thing works really well. I mean, your songs are not carbon copies of each other, but when you take them together, you can say, there’s a style that you’ve got that that’s very well developed and I think is unique. Although, you know, there may just be influences that I’ve never heard.

Avery:
That’s true.

Dale:
So your record has been out since the end of March. And something big happened right before that came out and you haven’t been able to – were you planning on promoting it with live shows and you had a tour set up and stuff like that, or at least a few local shows?

Avery:
Yeah. I was going to go all over the country, but now…not this year.

Dale:
So, how has that adjustment been for you?

Avery:
It’s been, it’s been a lot like what they call it, “The Great Pause.” Time has passed in a different way. I would say at first I was a little relieved ’cause you know, it’s so much work going out and playing shows and it’s so vulnerable and it can be really difficult. And now I’m a little bit mourning that ambiguous loss of not getting to perform. But I think it’s also made me given me the time to work on some more audio stories about Sonoma Mountain to accompany the record. So it’s been a blessing in that way. And it’s also forced me to get more integrated with the farming and ranching stuff going on at home and having to put a little more work into that, and being willing to put foot to the gas pedal and actually do some stuff I’d been putting off. So there’s gifts to it for sure.

Dale:
Sure. Have you gotten feedback on the record? Have there been reviews or get things played on the radio or… How has the reception been as far as you know?

Avery:
I think it’s been good. I mean, I think that, um, if I can get people to sit their tushies down on the ground and actually listen to it, I think for the people for whom it’s their kind of music, I think they resonate with it. I try not to be too attached to the number of records I sell and how big a publication it gets in, everything like that. That stuff is great. But at the end of the day, what matters is if it means something to somebody when they sit down and listen to it.

And my highest reward is, if I hear somebody listened to my music and they were inspired to do a creative thing that they hadn’t done, or had been thinking about doing, that’s the hugest reward to me. I played a show in Ashland last year and I opened for this awesome band. And one of the guys from the band was like, “Oh, it makes me want to write my short stories.” I was like…that’s exactly why I make music, is to bring that same creativity out in other people and know that the things that we create are collective in that I think they come from a collective consciousness and they don’t belong to one another. I mean, that’s what Rosanne Cash says too. Did you ever hear that quote from Rosanne Cash where she says, “If I don’t sit down and write some songs, it’s going to fall down to somebody else, like Emmylou Harris or something.” She says something like that. So I don’t exactly see it that way, but I see that in creativity is the highest form of connection between people. And so that’s the highest calling of the music. And I’m just going to keep making music, see where it goes. Everybody wants their record to do well and people to listen, but…

Dale:
I think it’s really good. So lastly, what have you been working on lately?

Avery:
The two things I’ve been working on is those audio stories. It’s this podcast that’s like a narrative podcast about Sonoma Mountain, about connection to place. And about this interaction between being a creative person, living in a rural place.

Avery:
I have a trailer that’s out and then I’ve got a couple episodes done that haven’t released yet and it’s called “Where the World Begins.” The first season’s about Sonoma Mountain.

Dale:
And I can probably find stuff on your website about it.

Avery:
Yeah. And then the other thing is just writing songs for the next record. I’ve written like 14 songs now, which is – you’re a songwriter, so you know – like I was at zero last December, but – I’m sure you’ve experienced this kind of thing – but once I put the record out, I was like, “I’m ready to write the next songs.” That release. It felt like there was more to say now that it’s been long enough since – because all those songs I wrote are at least two years old now.

Dale:
Is there anything else that you would like to say to our readers, to the readers of Country Queer?

Avery:
For those of you who are marginalized, find a way to radically have pride in who you are. That’s something that’s been really hard for me to do, but I think is the next chapter of growing as a person. Thinking that my differences are actually what make me valuable in the world. Creativity put out in this empty void of feeling like, “I don’t know if people are going to think I’m a freak,” and in this empty void in front of me of, “I haven’t really heard that many people talk about this yet in music, but I’m just going to go out and talk about it, and I’m going to be proud of this difference that I have.” That’s what radically transforms our culture. You can do it.

“Songs of Sonoma Mountain” is available now on all major streaming services and from the Ismay website.