Justin Vivian Bond 'Dendrophile' interview: V good
Cabaret messiah and twenty-first-century gendernaut Justin Vivian Bond is bringing v's new album, 'Dendrophile', to the brand new Soho Theatre Downstairs. Oh, and reshaping language too
Justin Vivian Bond turned 48 on Mother's Day (May 9 in the US). That evening, clad in a slinky Champagne, black and midnight blue number, the cabaret icon was on stage at Joe's Pub in Manhattan musing on the occasion. 'A friend called me “the mutha of all muthas”, which I took as a great compliment. Although those of you with mothers will know that cuts both ways.'
In a typically eclectic and electric show, Bond roamed from dainty bluegrass to apocalyptic gospel in a voice that conjured cracking bark, creeping tendrils and rising sap, interspersed with fierce and tender anecdotes about life, love and a recent queer retreat in the Tennesse mountains featuring a ritual cocktail of recreational drugs. 'This year, as my contribution, I slipped oestrogen into the punch…'
This has been something of a watershed year for Bond, who has not only started taking hormones but has adopted a new middle name, the honorific 'Mx' (as opposed to 'Mr' or 'Ms') and the pronoun 'v' (as opposed to 'he' or 'she'). 'The importance of it is not so much that people acknowledge that I demand to be called a different pronoun,' v says over coffee a couple of days later in v's East Village apartment. (Yes, v's is the possessive form of v.) 'It's about opening a dialogue so we can come up with a common language that expresses a reality that many people experience and that we haven't found the proper words for.'
It is, Bond says, 'definitely a political act. Too many people are invested in a gender binary which is wholly constructed, as far as I'm concerned. But it's also highly personal. When I was young, I didn't have a way of articulating my identity and if I get older and my communication skills are diminished, I don't want to experience the same frustration. Now it's a matter of public record. That was the real motivating factor. It wasn't like, “I've gotta get my tits and pussy in for Christmas!” Although, of course, the oestrogen has physical effects. I just call it “the softening” because it makes your skin nicer and boobs flesh out. And I'm a lot calmer, which should reassure a lot of people.” For the record, v isn't planning surgery.
It's also a big year for Bond as an artist, with the release of v's debut solo album, 'Dendrophile', including many original songs. 'A dendrophile is a person who gets an erotic charge out of nature,' v explains. 'I don't literally fuck trees but I definitely get turned on when I'm around them. Most of the songs were written while straddling a moss-covered log in the mountains of Tennessee. You spend so much time in the city surrounded by constructed things that you start to think everything's constructed, including yourself. When you get into nature, it puts you in touch with the rhythms of who you are and the genuineness of certain feelings. It's an erotic thrill when you can be in touch that way. Not only was [the album] inspired by nature but it was a way of getting in touch with my own nature after portraying a character which was almost the opposite of me for a very long time.'
Bond shows little sign of missing Kiki & Herb, the partnership with Kenny Mellman that took the duo to Carnegie Hall and Broadway before ending a few years back. 'I'd been basically in a monogamous performance relationship,' v says, 'so once I had my own freedom to do whatever I wanted, the first thing I did was start working with tons of fun people. It was certainly a lot less depressing and isolating.'
The resulting album bears this out. Bond's own songs include 'Equipoise', which jauntily evokes unfolding feelings of queerness ('A bird that has no feet to land can only just aspire/To breathe more strength into its wings and keep on climbing higher'); 'The New Economy', which regards recent upheavals from the perspective of a perennial outsider ('They say it's the New Depression, so why am I filled with glee?/Everybody's coming down quickly - now they can all join me!'); and 'Crowley à la Lee', which melds Aleister and Peggy with a dash of Van Morrison.
There are also new takes on Scott Matthews's 'In the End' (with which Bond closed the movie 'Shortbus') and Bambi Lake's achingly gorgeous 'Golden Age of Hustlers', along with a mash-up of Joan Baez's 'Diamonds & Rust' and the Carpenters' 'Superstar', featuring vocals from Beth Orton. 'Superstar' has particular resonance: 'I sang the song in third grade behind a TV set, so not only was it my public singing debut, it was my quote-unquote performance-art debut.'
The poet Essex Hemphill posthumously provides the lyric to the first track, 'American Wedding', which opens, over a droning sax, with the defiant lines: 'In America, I place my ring on your cock where it belongs.' Bond admits, 'I almost didn't put it on the record because I knew it would upset my mother. And it did. I got a lot of grief. “So, when you gay people get married, do you put your rings on each other's… [audible gulp] cocks?” [Beat. Sigh.] “Yes, mother…” She listened to the album and sent me an email saying she and my father enjoyed some of it.' At least she listened to it - a case of one step at a time? 'Two steps forward, a punch in the gut back. That's how it's always worked…'
'Dendrophile' will underpin the set for Bond's two-week run at the brand new Soho Theatre Downstairs. 'The last time I was in that space was when it was an Indian restaurant and I was getting bombed with Siouxsie Sioux,' v recalls. There could be trouble ahead. 'People in London get a lot more fucked up than people in New York, so I have to be careful because I can get dragged into some unhealthy practices which I enjoy very much. As a person of a certain age, I have to be a bit wiser than I used to. No more stealing boats and taking sunrise trips down the Thames. Well, a morning cruise sounds lovely but not in a dinghy with a bottle of Jack and three grams of coke.' V laughs. 'Actually, that still sounds good. Never mind, I'm open to anything!'
Justin Vivian Bond plays the Soho Theatre Downstairs Tue June 28-July 9 and Duckie Sat June 25. 'Dendrophile' is available to download now.