Two Hotshot Pickers Talk About Gender Identity, Trans Representation, and Stompboxes
By Mya Byrne, Contributing Writer
Ellen Angelico is a familiar face on the Nashville scene. Sure, Ellen’s a killer guitarist, with recording credits that would make any Nashville cat jealous and appearances at the Grand Ole Opry. But more that that: Ellen is the face of Fanny’s, a women-owned music store in East Nashville that’s easily the most comfortable place to buy an instrument in the world. When I tour Nashville, I spend an entire off day there hanging with Ellen and the rest of the staff.
This badass butch is one of many openly queer artists to be nominated for a 2020 Americana Music Award – Angelico is up for Best Instrumentalist. I caught up with Ellen on a quiet Sunday to talk about queerness, transness, representation, and utter gear geekery. I only wish that text could capture the laughter and emotion peppering this conversation.
MB: Hi Ellen! Would you talk to us a little about your identity in the queer world, if you don’t mind?
EA: I think my own gender identity is kind of a moving target, and it’s changed a lot over my adult life. My gender identity is a bird in flight, ha! I anticipate that it will continue to change, because I am a very lucky human being and I feel like I have the personal space to do that and to explore gender for myself. So all that said, I grew up identifying as a woman. That’s still a really important part of my life. I still identify in some way as a woman. And I use she/her pronouns professionally. But when it comes down to like, well, how do you call yourself, what do you think of yourself? I probably look and act the most like many of my friends who are non-binary, but I don’t necessarily use they/them pronouns.
For a lot of my trans friends, pronoun use is such a big emotional component of how they identify and it isn’t as much for me. I do really kind of feel pronoun indifferent. I also find that people’s choice of pronouns for me is more reflective of the space that I’m in than like anything about me or anything about them. If I get she/her, maybe it’s somebody that I’ve worked with before or somebody that I know from from Nashville. If I get they them, I’m probably in a queer space or among queer friends.
And if I get he/him, I’m at a gas station in Georgia, you know what I mean? So that’s my experience of identity. And I feel like the reason I have to qualify it to you so much is just because I know that’s not every trans person’s experience with identity. It’s really important to ask what people’s pronouns are. That’s totally valid.
MB: I think it’s hard for a lot of people. There are a lot of people who had a very strong woman-identified upbringing who are now treading more in the direction of transness. And for a lot of them, I feel there’s pressure to conform, or that they are not entitled to claim butch/dyke identity.
MB: I think that anybody who wants to continue to claim their dyke identity, no matter how they’re presenting, has every right to. I think that’s a reason why this interview, for me, is important, because I think you’re representative of a different kind of trans person, who doesn’t necessarily get their story told very often. When I first met you, and all through our friendship, I’ve been like, “I just want to affirm you, ‘cause you’re so badass.”
MB: It’s odd for me too; because I’m a butch trans woman and a dyke I often find myself feeling somewhat alone. I mean, I get a lot of butch love from cis butches, but I know exactly four butch trans dykes!
EA: Speaking of stories that don’t get told! Butch trans women, I mean, it’s such an underground identity, I feel like.
MB: Indeed. Well, let’s get back to you. I am super, super fucking proud of you. This year’s Americana Award nominations include an unprecedented number of openly queer artists, many of them women. As someone who’s been in the scene for many years, how does that feel to you?
EA: It feels amazing. I’m very heartened to see the number of women and queer people that are represented in the Americana Music Awards. I also feel like my work as a human in the world isn’t done until that extends to BIPOC as well. This is a problem I see across Americana, and I’ve reached out [to the Americana Music Association] and started a conversation, and I hope that we can come up with some concrete solutions about how to get BIPOC represented in that traditionally white male field.
MB: Right on! As far as I know, you’re also the first openly trans-identifying artist to ever be included in the nominees. What does this say about Americana to you? As a trans musician myself, that certainly gives me a lot of hope, as it’s been difficult to carve out my niche in Americana since coming out as a butch trans woman.
EA: Well, I would say, first of all, that the stakes of my experience are pretty different from the stakes of yours, right? As an artist, you are the product, so to speak; your identity is your brand. Not just because you’re trans, not just because you’re butch; that’s true with every artist in every genre, especially in an era where people want unprecedented access to their artists via social media. Your life, Mya’s life—everything is on full display. And that is maybe asking an audience that themselves isn’t necessarily queer and is largely white to accept that quote-unquote “divergent identity” in an artist? It’s really hard. It’s getting them to accept. In the non-sarcastic way, a queer identity might be a challenge, but for me, as a sideman, my job is to necessarily fade into the background, And it genuinely makes me happy to support other artists. I like bringing other people’s work to life.
EA: So, of course it feels like a victory for trans people, I guess? But I think that there’s a big gulf between your experience and my experience, because there are lots of times that my identity does not come up. If I’m not singing, or I’m not the only person singing where an average audience member can isolate the fact that I have a “female” voice, there aren’t a lot of ways for them to know that I’m trans necessarily. I’m wearing the same clothes as the guys in the band. I have maybe the same haircut, the same glasses; I’m a pretty average masculine-looking human being, you know? [Laughs.] And I noticed that a lot when I was playing shows with Wheeler Walker Jr., who is this super-inappropriate comedy country act that is sort of defunct right now. I would get a lot of after the show [encounters], like, “Hey, can I have your pick, man?” And as soon as I would respond and [say], “Sure, let me grab one,” that’s when they realized what my identity was, you know? So my identity doesn’t play out as much in the front lines of my job, or at least onstage.
I don’t know. I don’t mean to downplay it [the nomination], you know; it is a great thing. That I’m on anybody’s radar at all continues to blow my mind. My fame continues to spread farther and wider than I ever wanted! [Laughs.] It just blows me away. So I guess to answer your question, it feels like a victory for queer people and trans people, and I know that the trans people and the trans musicians that I have seen in my circles are the people who give me courage to move forward and to be public about my own kind of gender journey. Representation breeds representation; hopefully this will mean that somebody is willing to take a chance on someone with a trans identity as a member of their band.
MB: And I think you’re right. One of the things about my own career that’s difficult is of course I have this dual identity of being a frontperson and a sideperson.
MB: And I get a lot of sideperson gigs in all sorts of different bands. It’s different for me because I’m obviously in a different kind of musical community than you. But I have no doubt if I were in Nashville it might be a different situation. On that note, what would recommend for someone young, queer, possibly trans, who’s coming up as instrumentalist right now?
EA: I would recommend reckless unfettered, totally unchecked self-confidence to anyone.
EA: I would recommend [denying] obstacles, like just not being aware of them. I would recommend not being aware of other people’s emotions. Yeah. Sociopathy has worked great for me. [Laughs.] I’m just kidding.
I’m the luckiest person in the entire world. And I also have a lot of privilege. I have a non-cis gender identity, but I’m also a white person. I’m also a non-disabled person, and I’m not fat. And so I have all of these qualities that people who are putting together “mainstream” bands are looking for in their members, you know? So I feel like it’s a part of my calling to recognize that privilege and to create opportunities for people who are like me, in that maybe they are queer or maybe they’re assigned female at birth. But maybe they are fat, and they are not getting looked at for bands because of that, you know? Or they are BIPOC, and they’re every bit as good as I am, but they’re not being asked to do the things that I’m doing because people don’t see them; because, like I said before, representation breeds representation. And so if BIPOC are looking at a genre, not seeing themselves included, even if they’re a behind-the-scenes person, like a musician or a tech or a sound engineer, they are going to go to where they see themselves included. And there’s no reason that someone doing great work in pop or Americana can’t do well in country. I just think that the skills of being a professional musician tend to kind of transcend genre.
MB: I completely agree.
EA: Yeah! So you can pull talent from different areas, you know? And I want to bring people to people who want their bands to be more diverse and inclusive—I want to always recommend people who can make that a reality. If they’re asking me to recommend someone for their band, that is what I’m thinking about in the front of my mind, every time.
MB: That’s badass. What are some of the recent projects you’ve worked on that we should be listening to?
EA: Kyshona’s record, Listen. That came out at the beginning of this year. It is a record that has meant a lot to me in this year. Not just because I played on it, but because the music challenges me to be a better person and to listen to other people. Nashville got hit by a tornado in March. And so I was dealing with that with Fanny’s, and then all of a sudden, all my gigs started canceling, and COVID happened and now we’re balancing tornado recovery at Fanny’s with dealing with COVID: “How do you sanitize a guitar?” Plus, I watched the Black Lives Matter movement explode. I’m heartened by that, while also processing layers and layers of grief and tragedy. And Kyshona’s record has been a light and a refuge for me while I’ve been processing those feelings. That’s the only thing I’ve been listening to that I’ve worked on.
MB: How have you been dealing with the pandemic, especially coming so soon after the devastating tornado? I know Fanny’s has recently reopened.
EA: I am a project-oriented human being. I am a very job-oriented person—like a border collie! [Laughs.] So when the tornado hit and then Nashville processed the pandemic a week or two weeks after that—well, it became clear that I wasn’t going to have any shows for a long time. I wasn’t going to have any new music projects to work on. So having Fanny’s to work on rebuilding, which could be accomplished with social distancing fairly well, has been a lifeboat. Having that to stay focused on has really helped my mental health. The tornado and COVID has meant a steady series of pay cuts at one-and-a-half-month intervals for me. And that sucks, but I am incredibly lucky to still have my day job, basically, and I know I’m not the only person that Fanny’s has saved. Fanny’s is a guitar store and a vintage clothes store, but it’s also a mission; it’s a safety net that I fell directly into and that’s to the owners’ incredible credit.
MB: Let’s talk about a little more about your work at Fanny’s. Heck, let’s talk about Fanny’s in general.
EA: Uh, you mean the greatest music store that got ever made, Fanny’s House of Music?
MB: I do mean the greatest music store ever!
EA: Like I said, it’s a music store and it’s a vintage store and it is a community gathering space in an era where those spaces are not prioritized in communities. It’s like the mall, for people in East Nashville.
MB: Like when we were kids!
EA: Yes, exactly. It’s like the mall for me. It’s an amazing place. And the owners, Pamela [Cole] and Leigh [Maples], have worked really hard to cultivate this appropriate image of them as “Nashville’s most comfortable music store.” It’s just a place where there’s no judgment and you can come there and you can learn, and you can access knowledge that you may not have had access to in a store where you didn’t feel welcome. I’ve worked there on and off for a long time now.
MB: As someone who has a successful career outside of the store, what’s kept you working there? I ask this knowing full well that if I lived in Nashville, I’d probably want to work there, too!
EA: Well, obviously, they always take me back when I get off tour [Both laugh], and that’s huge. Fanny’s has been my home in Nashville. It’s what has kept me afloat in harder times. And they sing my praises in good times. So I don’t know how I got so lucky. But yeah, Fanny’s is awesome. And it’s for everybody! Everybody is welcome to be a part of the scene that we’re cultivating. What keeps me working there is I feel like it’s an investment in my future. Fanny’s is where I’m going to meet the next person who is going to push the music industry to become better and more inclusive. And it’s where I’m going to meet the young kids who are making a big difference in Nashville. I want Fanny’s to always be there, because a young Ellen could have really used a Fanny’s.
MB: A young Mya could have really used a Fanny’s, too.
EA: Yeah, totally! And so I feel like no matter what I end up doing in the music industry, no matter how much money I make, I am still going to want to put time into cultivating Fanny’s and making it a place where I can meet the next Mya, you know?
MB: Aww. I really wish I could come visit Nashville right now!
EA: Stay where you are! Boy, it is particularly bad right now, I’ll tell you what. And there is a sizable percentage of this community that does not believe in that.
MB: Out here, too. “Oh, well, we reopened, even though the governor has said there’s a mandatory mask law? Well, screw it.” You know? And so it’s really hard, especially because I want to be active now in the world; I want to play music. And I want to go to the music store and fucking play guitars and shoot the shit with my friends and visit my loved ones. We don’t have to devolve into the political, but it sucks that people are not taking the precautions that I think a lot of us are. And I think it’s going to keep the music industry from reopening, which really affects all our livelihoods so much.
EA: Yeah. And of course, it is disproportionately going to affect marginalized people within the music community.
EA: And that’s an important thing to keep in mind. And I think the thing that I feel the saddest about, that is hardest for me on a hard day, is knowing that an iota of leadership from any political party would have saved lives. And that just feels like such a tragedy to me. And it has reinforced my belief in community spaces, and taking care of the people that we can see around us. Or the people that we’re in proximity with.
MB: I feel you there. Well, let’s get back to Fanny’s. On a lighter note, I love “Ellen’s Favorite Thing at Fanny’s of the Week” [Fanny’s YouTube series, in which Ellen geeks out on instruments and clothes in the store]. It’s so fun. How did that come about?
EA: I just started doing it! Again with the reckless and, um, possibly ill-advised, self-confidence…
EA: …and just started doing it! I just stuck my phone in the strings of a lap steel guitar and just yelled at it for 15 minutes and edited it down to 5. I mean, I love watching gear demo videos. I’m a total gear nerd. But not a lot of them are any fun.
MB: I think it’s one of the coolest things.
EA: Thanks. It’s been super hard to actually get episodes done with all this tornado stuff. We only just opened up, and I mean, it’s just been constant. Like, “Somebody’s gotta be there to meet the AC guy,” and the siding took two weeks to do, and it’s just…when you place gets hit by a tornado, you just get a lot of crap to do! And then my fledgling YouTube show became very low priority very quickly.
MB: It is a fun thing, though. I do hope that you’re in a place where you can do that at some point.
EA: Thanks. Me too.
MB: Speaking of gear, for all the geeks in the room, what’s your current rig or favorite equipment?
EA: [Singing] Oh my god, I love gear! Well, it just depends on who I’m playing with. I build different pedal boards for every gig, which is so fun. My go to guitar was made by Dismal Ax, a builder here in Tennessee. A trans woman [Gwen Forrester] makes those guitars, and they’re just the most fabulous guitars I’ve ever played. So when I had enough money to commission one of my own, I did. I am in love with that guitar. Everything else is just kind of piecemeal acquired. Sometimes from Fanny’s, sometimes from friends; I go to a lot of stores when I’m traveling; I go to guitar stores and pawn shops and peek on local Craigslist and stuff. And then, I am really into pedals in a weird way. I started building them a couple years ago, and I just get into that! And that’s all I ever want to post on Instagram, just pictures of the inside of a pedal.
MB: I saw you doing pedal mods on IG, but I didn’t realize that you built pedals too.
EA: Yeah. I feel like I haven’t ever had a hobby, and now I have a hobby and that’s it. It’s so fun. I love doing it and there’s always more to learn and I feel like a mad scientist. And I’m into the super analog side of why stuff works the way it does, but I also have a Line 6 Helix [digital amp / effect modeler] that I use, especially when I need to have a quiet stage sound and it’s inconvenient to isolate an amp. So I am into the super digital side of it too. And I have an absurd collection of amps that I need to start paring down if it’s going to be a global pandemic for awhile. I’m a proud owner of a 70s Bassman that I use all the time. It’s a great pedal platform. But I’ve recently picked up a 3rd Power Dream Weaver amp, also made by a trans woman! So now when I play my Dismal Ax into it, it’s an ALL-TRANS RIG!
MB: THAT is fantastic. Can you talk a little more about your main guitar and Gwen of Dismal Ax? I love her work. Let’s get nerdy.
EA: I knew of her work and there were some guitars of hers that I wanted mine to be similar to. For instance, I knew that I really loved her approach to humbuckers. [Gwen winds her own pickups.] So I wanted that in the guitar. I also knew that I wanted to have a guitar with a Bigsby; as far as vibrato systems go, that is the one that best corresponds to my own style and the sounds that I want to make. And so Gwen had suggestions based on those things that she felt would really make that guitar come together. So she was like, “Well, if you want this and this, then you’re also gonna need to use a Mastery bridge and you’re going to need locking tuners and you’re going to need some type of synthetic nut.” She also had some great ideas for the look of it, the design and kind of the layout that I didn’t care as much about. She does this really beautiful milk paint finish that looks kind of weathered from the second you get it on. It still looks really clean and crisp, but it just looks old, somewhere between relic’d and a new guitar is how that finish feels to me. And some of those finishes are really striking. Really, really beautiful. But I knew that for my job as a sideman, I don’t mind having a guitar that looks a little unique, but I also need to be able to fade into the background. For instance, I’m obsessed with the Music Man St. Vincent guitar. I think it’s the most innovative guitar design in the last 10 years. I think they’re all built impeccably. I’ve not played a single one I don’t like. I just find myself in a lot of work contexts where if I don’t have something resembling a traditional instrument, it will be too much of a visual statement for a sideman to make.
MB: Oh, I hear that. My absolute number one, go-to recording guitar when I’m doing recording—in my home studio, especially—is a 1985 Fender Performer.
EA: Great example!
MB: It’s a fantastic guitar. It’s the best built guitar I own, but it’s pointy and weird and I never play it on gigs, even my own gigs. I can’t bring it out to the studio when I get a call or to any of my sideman gigs because it just looks out of place. I have a great Strat, but it’s all psychedelic painted—I didn’t do it!—and it’s, again, one of my better guitars. So I either bring my Telecaster or my Gibson SG because that’s what people want.
EA: Yup. And I don’t think it’s naive or shallow to choose guitars based on how they look, at least a little bit. We always say this at Fanny’s: The three most important things are that you have to like the way it looks, you have to like the way it sounds, and you have to like the way it plays. And those three things are equally weighted, you know? So if you like the way it plays and you like the way it sounds, but you don’t like the way it looks or it doesn’t fit on stage with you and your band or whomever you’re playing music with, you’re not going to play it. So when Gwen was working on it, my only requirement visually was that it not make any screaming visual statements.
It’s salvaged elm barnwood, and it’s hollowed out. The neck is walnut. And the fingerboard is Osage orange, a native wood to Tennessee that combines properties that I like of rosewood and ebony. It’s not quite as hard as ebony and it’s not quite as soft as rosewood, and it almost has some of the brightness of maple. It’s just a cool, unique wood for a fingerboard.
MB: What’s your practice regimen like? You are one of the most kickass shredders I know!
EA: Well, I’ll tell you what. I feel like I finally have a practice regimen again, because I’m not constantly learning music for a new thing; I’m not constantly learning people’s tunes. So that has been great—to focus on things that I want to focus on and reconnect with what I loved about learning guitar in the first place. It’s like listening to something that sounds like magic and figuring out how to do it. There’s nothing more gratifying to me. So I’ve been trying to find stuff that I think is unplayable, and then teach myself how to play it. I just knocked out this Nuno Bettencourt solo. That’s the most over the top style of guitar playing, and totally out of my wheelhouse. And it was so fun to observe and to absorb the minutiae of how that incredible solo was played, almost by osmosis, instead of having being under the gun and having to do it for a gig that is tomorrow or the next day. If you’re psyched enough about learning a thing, you will do it. You will create the practice regimen. For this solo, I just became obsessed with learning it. And so I would work on it multiple times during the day, much to the chagrin of my very understanding patient roommate, from half speed in 1% increments all the way up to a hundred percent speed.
MB: What kind of calls do you get the most?
EA: Up until fairly recently, it was mostly singer-songwriters, playing shows around Nashville. And then for the touring side of it, like the longterm, like you play with someone and you kind of commit yourself to them because they have enough shows that warrants that—that’s mostly been pop-country; also because that’s the kind of person that makes more money, and can afford to have a band on salary, and is playing enough shows to keep people committed to them. But most recently I have been playing with the country artist Cam, and if we ever get to play shows again, she’s who I’ll be playing shows with for the foreseeable future. She’s amazing. She’s such a great human being.
MB: What’s your favorite part about being in the Nashville music community?
EA: Just the people, the commitment to excellence, and incredible songs. I mean, I can’t believe the talent of my friends. It blows me away. And sometimes it’s sneaky, you know. You’ll be doing a gig at 3rd and Lindsley [a venue] and somebody will just mention to you, “Oh, Kathy Mac running sound, she’s got a Grammy.” And you’re like, “What?” And then you look it up, and she was in a kickass, all-girl country band in the nineties called Wild Rose that was nominated for a Grammy for best instrumental. And those kinds of stories are everywhere in Nashville. The talent is just off the charts and it makes me want to be better. It just makes me want to be as good as everyone around me. And also access to heroic talent, players that I idolize and people whose solos I’ve dissected. I just bump into them! And just having the chance to say like, “Hey, your art has meant a lot to me.” And then just, you know, go on and play at the Opry or whatever. And that’s magic to me and I don’t feel like it happens the same way anywhere else.
MB: What’s your least favorite part and what are some of the obstacles you’ve had to overcome?
EA: Seeing systems fail talented people who really deserve success. I’ve played for a lot of artists that I have really believed in and that still continue to have great careers and make awesome music. But they get failed by the system at some point; maybe if they are BIPOC, they don’t even get the meetings that you need to get to get a label deal. That’s kind of a really simplified way of putting it. So, maybe that’s not the best way to say that, because that’s not always how it works. You know, it’s not always like, “We took the meetings and then we got a label deal.” Or seeing an incredible artist who is on a label that isn’t promoting them. And that’s a story that is as old as the music business in Nashville, that has been happening the whole time. And I think it’s up to people like me to make the existing systems more equitable, but also to create our own systems that prioritize inclusion. So to that end there’s a show I do every year that—if you’re ever in town in February, I would love to have you be on—called “She’s a Rebel”. The show is produced and run entirely by women, and it’s become a really cool thing in Nashville and people pay attention to who is singing on it.
So that’s what I mean by creating our own systems that prioritize inclusion, just making space for ourselves where the existing music industry doesn’t make space for us. And you know, just to like zoom out way far, to get really meta about it, the music industry is really young in human history. It hasn’t been happening for very long. And it’s going to change and it might collapse. I might be living in the only time in human history when a tiny, kind-of-dykey guitar player can make a living playing guitar. And trying to make Nashville a better place, trying to make the music industry a better place—it’s been a challenge, but it’s been the most important challenge and I am really passionate about it. And I just really hope that I leave the music community a little better than I got it.