Trans Singer-Songwriter Finds His Voice In Debut LP
By Rachel Cholst, Staff Writer
Izzy Heltai is, above all things, a man who is deeply engaged with the people around him. Whether as a singer-songwriter, a staffer at an information kiosk in a mountain town, or as an interviewee-turned-interviewer, Heltai thrives off of interaction and connection — it’s a current that runs through all his work.
Heltai has a deep sense of place. Having grown up in Brookline, an academic suburb of Boston, Heltai struck off on his own and has found himself enamored of Western Massachussetts.
Currently living with his mother back in Brookline, Heltai is celebrating the October 9th release of his first full-length album, Father.
“That has been a fun COVID thing. I didn’t think I’d be in my mid 20s back with my mother,” he giggles. But he points out there is something that feels full-circle about this moment, and it makes him reflective on the past.
A fast talker, Heltai speaks with the self-assuredness of a lecturer and the uncontained glee of a truant skateboarding past the schoolyard.
His parents are fans of folk music: Heltai fondly recalls attending sparsely-attended Newport Folk Festivals for 20 bucks (for all three days.) Heltai dove into making his own as a teenager, performing at open mics as a 16-year-old.
“The songs were, like, very bad, as they are when you’re a teenager, but I guess I just kind of realized that even though it was like, pretty bad, I really liked doing it and I processed a lot through it. I started playing out when I was like 18 and then it spiraled into the only thing I really knew how to do.”
As Heltai toured in his late teens and early twenties, he fell in love with the simultaneous acts of traveling and building communities where his journeys took him. “I really honed in on the fact that this was just absolutely all I’d ever want to do with my life; create music, but also create communities and meet new friends.”
On Father, Heltai channels the folk music of the 60s to create a gorgeously full-bodied production with his community. The album shifts from simple folk to a muscular indie rock.
“I feel like folk songwriting, and getting your grip in that type of songwriting in those circles, sets you up to have a really concrete and strong basis for how to write a song in general; how to craft lyrics well, and melodies. I am really in a space right now where I’m really excited and interested to explore how much further those songs can be pushed outside of a genre. So this album is a bridge for me.”
The foundations for that bridge were built in North Adams, a quiet mill-turned-arts town in the Berkshires, just a few minutes away from Williams Town. North Adams is home to Mass MoCA, a huge mill that has been converted into a modern art museum large enough to host monumental sculptures and music festivals like the FreshGrass folk festival.
“I just went to the state liberal arts school — I had no idea what I wanted to do. But what I realized as soon as I got out there, about six years ago, was that I just fell in love with living in a small town, which I didn’t know about myself, because I’d grown up in a city. And what I loved about being in a small town, was the sense of community. I hate being anonymous. What I fell in love with in North Adams was like, you go to the one brewery in town, and you see everyone. Me and all my friends lived in like one of two houses on this street in North Adams, and you never really made plans in the summer because you just run into everyone or they would be at the house you were living at.”
And that’s how Heltai found himself living in a closet — even though he transitioned as a teenager.
“This part was very important to my mother — it’s a walk-in closet. It fit just a twin size bed. And it had a window and then a smaller closet. So then I know your next question is who designed this house? And the answer is: I have no idea. This house was very strange, but many people have lived in this closet. It was clearly designed by somebody who knew students. This house was just meant to be like a generational weird artist house.”
While Heltai has been performing for years, he had not identified as trans in his artist bio until he promoted Father.
“I have identified as trans since I was about 14. I was super fortunate and got to transition in the way I felt most comfortable doing. I got to transition as a teenager, but I never included it in a bio until this release. I never wanted being trans to be the leading story of my music career. I had seen artists that had really pigeon-holed themselves, in a way, by coming forward with this information. And that is all well and good, and I am so happy for those artists.”
“But I think it was something that I didn’t know how to approach,” he elaborates. “I knew I wanted it to be a part of my artistic identity and career in some way. But I also knew that I was very young and new in this world, so that I had kind of time to ease into it and figure out how I really wanted to present that. Because like I said, at the end of the day, it’s not the forefront of my life, I didn’t want it to be the forefront of my artistic career. Having said that, it is a part of my life. And it’s an important part of my life. And so, especially with the subject matter of the songs on this record, it would really be doing a disservice to myself, and honestly, anyone listening, to not include it in the narrative in some way.”
The album opener, “To Talk About Yourself,” delves into this evolution.
“As I’ve grown older, I have gotten a lot more comfortable talking about it, and really love to talk about it. I love this part of me a lot. And I don’t want to not talk about it. Especially with this mass rebellion, I’m a white cis-passing trans guy. I don’t really have much to lose talking about it. I feel safe. So it’s like, ‘why don’t I?’ Because it could make someone feel less alone.”
“I write music because it helps me process a lot of the world. As a trans person, as a queer person, I was just forced to know myself in a way that a lot of people are never forced to. And so that kind of instilled in me a practice of always wanting growth and to always affirm and reflect that the person I am in this moment, is exactly how I want to be and how I want to take up space.”
It’s also how Heltai treats his craft as a songwriter.
“At first I started writing songs because it was a gut thing. It was an emotional thing. It was processing. And as I continued doing this, I became fascinated by it — really looking at it as a craft. And that inspires me in a whole new way.”
For “Songbird,” the lead single off the album, Heltai wanted to play things a little looser. “It was kind of me experimenting with poppier lyrics. That summer I was super into Phoebe Bridgers and artists that have lyrics that are super on the nose. The lyrics sometimes seem like really dumb, but they’re also really clever in a way. And then you’re like, wait, this is just, like, cool. And I did this.”
As the album comes to a close with the title track, Heltai wanted to leave Father with a question mark, rather than a definitive statement.
“I want the last track to kind of leave it open-ended like, ‘Where’s this guy gonna go next?’”
“All I can say right now is I’m really in a Bon Iver stage.”
Heltai points out that Father was recorded almost a year ago, and he’s already readying his next work. While Father is his first full-length album, he’s viewing it as a launching pad for his next chapter.
“What’s honestly been pretty phenomenal about this pandemic — not that anything’s really been good out of it — but I’ve actually been doing all my own production. So I’ve just been in my room at my mom’s house going really heavy and recording my own stuff. And having a lot of fun with that and learning how to build up songs.”
“A lot of my artistry comes out of processing what’s happening around me and reflecting and growth. Reflection and growth, I think, are the coolest things human beings can do.”