Brooklyn based artist Boy Radio released his debut album Pop That in 2019. Genuinely alternative, innovative, sexy, witty and often resoundingly queer, it quickly became one of The Queer Review’s favourite records of the year. We also like looking at the stunning images he shares on Instagram and the often rather sensational outfits he sports (including some mirror ball inspired disco dildo pants by designer on the rise PHALLIC CUNT). He’s just released a dirty dance track Lights Out with producer Dads Mayo and promises more new music and live shows are in the works.
The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann recently met with Boy Radio on Manhattan’s Lower East Side to find out how his interest in music and performance first manifested, how the creation of Pop That unfolded, what it was like to open for fellow independent New York based queer pop artist Bright Light Bright Light, when his tattoo addiction started and which LGBTQ+ movies he connects with (he has a list).
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: Taking you back, when did the musician and performer you first emerge? Were you doing shows for family and friends when you were a kid?
“No, I was actually always really shy so I felt myself connecting to music on my own. I’d dance, but any time anyone was around I’d stop and get really uncomfortable. When I was about ten or eleven I auditioned for a community theatre show of The Wizard of Oz and I wanted to be the scarecrow rally bad, like really bad! So I watched the movie and learned all of the scarecrow’s choreography, every movement to the fingertip. I knew everything that he did from the time he got off that post to the time he got on the floor. I showed my mom, and she was like ‘how did you learn all this?’ And I was like ‘I don’t know, it’s been two days.’ She was so impressed that I knew all the movements. I was doing it side by side next to the TV. My intention was to go in and do the routine, but I got to the audition and I freaked out and I just buckled and I didn’t do any of it! And so they cast me in the ensemble and I was miserable and I ended up dropping out of the play. So I’ve always been pulled to it, but I kinda had to break out of my shell at a young age.”
Being in the ensemble when you knew that there is a star performer in there somewhere must have been frustratating.
“Oh, I was so mad at myself.”
Do you know why you picked the scarecrow?
“I think mainly because he moves the most in the original The Wizard of Oz movie and then in The Wiz it’s Michael Jackson – and when I was younger, before all the accusations and scandalous things happened – I was drawn to his energy, and his dynamic and his star power. So I think that’s why. I was like ‘I can do that, that’s me!’ So I was so disappointed in myself when I didn’t do it.”
And in the Judy Garland movie the scarecrow is her favourite isn’t he?
“Right! She’s like ‘I’m going missing you most of all’ And he’s like, ‘just Venmo me bitch.’
What about getting into singing, was that something you were doing at school, did you train formally?
“Yes, it all felt very academic at first. I didn’t grow up in church like a lot of black Americans I know who find their voices there. But because I didn’t do that, I found myself drawn to movies and TV and live performances. My mom used to play records a lot and then we’d go see shows like Music In The Park or whatever, I saw Luther Vandross at a certain age and I was like ‘oh, I love this!’ I think I was pulled to the musicality of it, I would always sing, but like I said I wouldn’t really share it. So I was honing those skills by myself and then doing things like talent shows, and then hear people say ‘oh, he can actually sing, he can actually dance.’”
After what happened with The Wizard of Oz it that must have taken a lot of courage to audition again. What age were you when you started doing talent shows?
“I was probably in middle school by then, so 12 or 13, something like that. I met one of my best friends at the time, we hit it off and we shared a love of music. We decided at the end of the year that we were going to do this talent show. We made up the choreography and did this whole thing, so I think that was when I started to realise this is really fun and it’s more about putting in the work and then sharing that work as oppose to showing off.”
And you grew up in California, when did you make the movie over to New York?
“When I was nineteen.”
What was it that drew you to make the move?
“Well, I’d never been before and all I ever knew about New York was from MTV, from TRL. I moved here maybe two or three days before my school session started. This was post-911 and I wondered why I was being drawn to New York and I think it was because it was the one place where I could really use my introvert personality to hone my skills as a creative. I felt like I couldn’t do it in LA because it was home and also I didn’t know what those channels were. Also growing up in suburbia I didn’t really have the outlets. I had creative friends, very avant-garde people, but we didn’t know what to do with it.”
So you did’t grow up in LA itself?
“No, Rancho Cucamonga. It’s just a suburban city about forty five minutes from LA. Nice town, pretty diverse, but very basic in a way, still very culturally bland, but at the same time there are little pockets of really cool things happening. So when I turned 18, and thought I’ve gotta get out of here, I went to college for two years in California. I was not really feeling it and then I took this moment and I thought if I go to New York and figure out what this whole musical art life is from an academic perspective, in the same way as I did when I was younger, I might actually gain something from it and break out of myself a little bit.”
Which school did you go to in New York?
“AMDA. Recently I’ve been finding out that more and more successful people have gone there. Janelle Monáe went there, she dropped out. Jason Derulo went there. I liked it, I got a lot from it. I went in and became an introvert even more than I thought I would be because I realised that I had to figure out who I was in order to be anything else.”
Let’s move forward a little to your most recent album, Pop That. How did that come together and what was the inspiration behind it?
“It came about over about two and half years. I sat with a bunch of songs, I had Trust already written, I had Life in Pink written and I’d had to put it on the shelf because I didn’t have a place for it. Goldsen, the artist I was working on it with and I had a bit of a disagreement on how to mix it and master it, how it was supposed to sound. After about a year I went back to him, I wanted him to understand that my intention for sharing the song was to elevate and connect everyone to this really avant-garde, avant-pop, alternative queer sound. He’s such a good producer and a good writer and he was like ‘fine, I trust you, just do what you want with it.’ Once I had Life in Pink and was able to put that out as a single I looked at everything and thought ‘I have an album and I know that it’s because I have two completely different sounds.’ I had Trust, which is this kind of play on commercial pop, mainstream sound and then I have Life in Pink which is very much an avant-pop, alternative kind of sound. So I had two directions to go in, and the question was how to use those two directions and make a full circle album and I just kept writing. So there are songs on Pop That which lean into that more alternative R&B kind of pop sound and then there are songs that are very much on that Trust level, where there there’s a definitive verse chorus, verse chorus structure.”
In terms of writing and producing the songs who did you collaborate with on Pop That?
“Goldsen is the producer and artist who wrote Life In Pink with me. Blu Mystic and I have worked together on a lot of different sounds, we just have that open conversation where a lot of different things come up which we play on, there’s a song called Strobe which he produced and I wrote on. I was in London for the first time and having tea with my boyfriend and then all of a sudden I started hearing that song in my head. I texted Blu Mystic and said I know how to finish the song now. I went home and I recorded it and I sent it to him and he was like ‘how did you do that?’ I just heard it all of a sudden. Amusium and I wrote Trust together and then there was Brody Blomquist, he wrote Home Late. Those are people I have in my pool that I always hope I can go back to, but for the most part writing and mixing and mastering and putting Pop That together as a cohesive album, was me sitting by myself. It was very lonely, but I had to do it based on the previous project.”
There is definitely a cohesive sound, even though it goes to so many different places. Who are the other producers you’d like to work with?
“I’m glad to hear you think that. Well, I’m open to meeting new people. It’s hard as an independent artist sometimes to imagine big. I mean I want to be like ‘I want to work with Pharrell’, and I do want to work with Pharrell one day in my life. I don’t know if it’ll happen, I don’t know how to make it happen, but I want it to. As far as the songs that I grew up listening to that have inspired some of my sounds, that have given me the base of an idea that I can turn into something else, there’s Pharrell, Timbaland and there’s a production team called Danja, they’ve made a lot of Britney’s dance stuff. I’d love to work with those people. But there are people out there who are making those kinds of sounds who aren‘t mainstream and I’ve been fortunate enough to meet some of them.”
Britney has had some incredible producers work on her albums hasn’t she? And I think it’s often been underrated.
“Yes, as far as the dance music that she’s made. Rolling Stone actually put an article out saying why Blackout is one of the best dance albums ever created and if you go back and really listen to it, it’s just so good. I just wish that she had more to do with it, but at the same time that’s the perfect example of artist and team, and she’s the one that they put the song around.”
I love that you’re clearly singing about men on Pop That, we hear you using he pronouns in the love songs, tell us about that choice.
“For a Boy Radio project it was important for me to do that because the music I’ve listened to from male artists that identify on the LGBTQ spectrum, a lot of times has been ambiguous. A lot of times they’ll use ‘me’, ‘I’, or ‘we’, and I just wanted to challenge myself to write a good song from a male perspective, but also be talking about my relationships. I’ve written songs from other people’s perspectives where I’d say ‘she did this’ because I’m talking about someone else. But I was like ‘how do I communicate and open myself and be vulnerable to people listening to these sounds, listening to these stories and talk about something that I’m actually relating to and experiencing?’ The only way that I can do that is to talk about people that I’ve actually been in relationships with. As far as the gay and queer conversation, it’s cruising and flirting and being positive about what it is to communicate with someone that you love or someone that you like who happens to be a boy or a girl or whatever. Using those pronouns sometimes helps us to understand that the song is about someone specific. I just felt comfortable doing it. I think with Pop That there’s a few songs on it like Life in Pink definitely uses he pronouns and Robot Love uses he pronouns, but it’s a robot! I think I was more intentional with that with this album because I wanted to make a point to be open, but also I did have moments when I asked myself ‘let me just make sure that I’m being authentic.’”
What pronouns do you use yourself?
“He pronouns. But I don’t mind. I stay open. Especially in the wake of Sam Smith identifying as gender queer and fluid, I think it’s important to ask that question. But I love being a boy, I lean into it. When I was a kid I used to wear long shirts and belt them and spin in circles and do all those things, but I never really had a moment to think about it. I can communicate with my feminine, but I don’t necessarily feel my most comfortable as my most feminine self.”
Who are the artists who’ve had the biggest influence on you?
“I’ll keep it contemporary, because I think that’s important. In pop music and the alt-pop and R&B world I’m listening to a lot of girls, like Kim Petras. Let’s be real, it sounds nice to hear those voices. I just recently got into Zayn Malik. I really like his stuff a lot. I think he’s so interesting based on his music, but also he perpetuates the tortured artist aesthetic which I think I’m over. There are so many people who are artists, especially in New York City who are dealing with depression and loneliness and sadness and general blueness, and they don’t really know how to express themselves or pull themselves up through it. And I found myself listening to Zayn Mallik and Fiona Apple and listening to Frank Ocean and feeling sad. Incredibly, increasingly more sad. The music is so good, but their lyrics on top of their story… I love all those artists, but I’ve leaned away from those sounds now and I’ve been listening to a lot of instrumentals. I’m just trying to hear new sounds and get new ideas. I just press random on the new music playlists so there a lot of songs in my head right now. FKA twigs, I just listened to her album. I love it, so sad. It pushed me over the edge. It was raining when it came out and I was like ‘well, great, let me just turn off my phone!’
I love your looks on stage and the photoshotts I’ve seen you share on isntagram.
“I have a sponge body which is weird, I’m 6’5” which is tall by most standards, but in the times where I did try to pursue some modelling what I would always get from all the agencies was ‘I think you’re too tall, I don’t think you’re going to fit into these stock sizes, I don’t think the client is going to vibe with your height’. So I found myself being a bit disheartened, but I feel like I look good in anything, so if an outfit is presented to me or if I see something that would be really cool I’m always inclined to try it on. As far as stage looks go, that’s my favourite part about it, being able to play dress up and wear something that I’d probably never otherwise wear and just feel the power from what it is. I had a show at the end of last year where I was wearing these red lace chaps. This artist Phallic CUNT made them. And I felt good in it, but you’re not going to see me walk down the street in it!”
So do you don’t tend to dress up in those thigh length red boots to go out on the town, or those mirror ball disco dildo pants to pop to the shops?
“I think New York is a bit more conservative than that.”
It is now, sadly.
“Suzanne Bartsch and RuPaul that whole generation and the Club Kids, they’re still out there and the fashion kids, but it’s almost cooler to have your low-key version of that same look. If I’m going to an event or if I’m going to something where I’m going to be around similar people then of course I’ll wear the disco dick outfit, that’s great! But if I’m just going down the street to Rite Aid or to get some coffee or something I’m less inclined to do that. And it’s not like the paparazzi are waiting outside for me like Gaga or Cardi B. If I came out of a hotel wearing the disco dick pants I might get on someone’s blog, but I don’t know whose! Subway Creatures or something like that.”
I don’t think there’s much in the way of creative fashion most of the time on the street in Manhattan these days. Most people look like they’re either on the way to or have just left the gym.
“Yes there’s a lot of ‘ath-leisure’. It’s like I’m going to wear these Addidas sweats all week!”
Do you find it different when you visit London?
“It’s a mix. I have friends who work in fashion, so there are people who really show up every day, but it’s not too eccentric or edgy.”
I guess in 80s as epitomised in Working Girl, people would have their sneakers for the commute and change into the heels for work, whereas now people don’t bother with the heels so much, it’s just the sneakers!
“To each to their own, but there’s something powerful about someone who knows how to dress and there’s something powerful about someone who dresses more edgy because you’re drawing the attention to you in a positive way.”
Who are designers you particularly like wearing?
“Phallic CUNT, who I mentioned, Alec. They’re just really cool. They’re coming up, they’re designing, they just got a few grants so they’re doing some great things and utilising their imagination in the best way. I’m just so happy that I have a relationship with them and that they allow me to pull from their closets and wear things for shows and for photoshoots. I think there’s something powerful about pushing your level of comfort with your fashion.”
In Decemeber you opened for Bright Light Bright Light in New York, how did that come about?
“I met Rod Thomas, aka Bright Light Bright Light, a few years ago when a friend of mine opened for him and then I know he’s coming out with a new project this year which he’s really excited about and he’s making it a point to bring in a lot of different queer artists. He’s bringing their voices in to give that mix, that new sound and to give other people a platform which is really cool, especially someone like him who’s on more of a major platform. So it was great when he asked me to open for him. His music is a little bit more dance pop orientated, adult pop orientated than mine and his last project Choreography was super cool and well-orchestrated and visually stunning. I was happy to warm up for him because I have a lot of songs that are more down tempo, more chill, more vibrational, slower. He asked me before he left on tour with Cher! My show was a mix of a lot of things I’d been doing throughout the year. My hope for 2020 is to be doing more festivals and opening for more artists. My current live show is very sexy, it’s very intimate, the projections and the visuals that I’ve put together have been compiled from things that I’ve gathered over the past two years.”
What new music are you going to be putting out?
“I recently put out a new song Lights Out with Dads Mayo. He’s fantastic, he’s a dance music producer, so it’s the first club track that I’ve ever really made. I’ve been sending it to all my DJ friends. I did a project with LA artists Big Dipper, I don’t know when that’s coming out. But these are singles and then as far as a new EP goes, I’m definitely working on a few new sounds and I’m just figuring out what’s next.”
Let’s talk tattoos…? How many have you got now, what are they, are you a little addicted at this point?!
“I love them, yeah! I have maybe 36 plus now I think. I could definitely keep going. I’m probably going to get more over the winter, it’s tattoo season, it’s the best time to get a tattoo; you’re covered up, there’s not a lot of sun, you can heal better, you’re not inclined to go to the beach.”
Which tattoo did you get first?
“I was 17 and I got a dragon. Then I got a radio the next year and then I kept going and I have not stopped. The radio imagery has always been in my life.”
Have you got a favourite?
“I have two favourites, which are actually the most visible. My left inner forearm, I’ve got lavender and then my Tom of Finland on my right forearm. I think they are a good mix of my masculine and feminine. So my left arm is all basically ladies and flowers and Bart Simpson in heels and crystals and very soft things, and then my right arm is Tom of Finland, I have my radio, Ferdinand the bull, more like power totems.”
Is the Tom of Finland tattoo from one of his original artworks?
“Yeah, he’s got a whole mass of unfinished sketches and in one of the books it’s his unfinished sketches with different scenes. In my tattoo the legs aren’t done, it’s just line work and I kind of fell in love with the idea of it being unfinished and then wanting to do more. So I’m probably going to get more guys. I already have two penises on me.”
What is your favoutite LGBTQ film or TV series, book, piece of music or artwork and why does it resonate with you?
“Well, let’s pick LGBTQ films. I have a list of my top ten actually. I watched The Celluloid Closet a while ago and I fell in love with it and with all the movies that it examines. My mind was blown by it. I think a big part of writing from the perspective of Boy Radio is that I have always really loved characters and creating within the landscape of imagining myself in different ways. I don’t have to be myself when I write, I can be a version of myself that is elevated or something else. Anyway, so after The Celluloid Closet I watched Hitchcock’s Rope, not intentionally queer, but it is. Then Stranger By the Lake is one of my favourite films, it’s so well done. It’s the most explicit kind of creative movie from a queer perspective where it’s never explicitly about drugs or AIDS, it’s a new story. Friedkin’s Cruising I also love, but I’ve only seen once. I would never watch it again.”
Well, this is year is the fortieth anniversary of its release so I’d say if you get a chance watch it on the big screen you should rewatch it.
“It’s just gruesome. It’s just dark and so scary and I don’t like scary movies. Comparing the two, to have Stranger by the Lake in one theatre and Cruising in the other; with Stranger you have a similar story, there’s a murderer on the lose and we know who it is, we see the whole thing happen, but there’s also sexual elements and the element of it being out on this beach, so there are moments of calm and joy and fun and the there’s moments where it’s like ‘what the fuck’s happening?’ With Cruising, it’s so specific to an era, it’s so 80s New York gay leather bar scene. Any time they are in the club and people are in their jockstraps it’s such a vibe that still happens. When I was 25 I went to Berlin and I stayed there for three months and I went to leather bars and I got a chance to lean into what that was. It’s safe and it’s also unsafe and that was pre-PrEP of course, so to watch it on film and know that the underlying story is this murderer going around is terrifying. I think I just wasn’t expecting it to be so gruesome.”
But you’d put it in your top ten?
“100% it’s in my top ten, yes. There’s a movie called You and I that’s really good. I think everyone should watch A Very Natural Thing, it’s on Amazon Prime Video. It’s a movie that I watched when I had just broken up with my first major boyfriend. I don’t know how I found it, it’s from 1974 and it’s about this guy who decides not to be a monk anymore and comes to New York to find himself. He goes to a gay bar, he’s exploring, he sees this guy who’s cruising him hard, so he goes home with him. They start a relationship and the guy that he’s with is a little bit more aggressive and says ‘let’s go to this sex party’ and he’s like ‘I don’t know about that’. So they start doing those things and opening up their relationship and it gets a bit complicated and then eventually they break up, which is a really big moment for this person because it’s the first time he’s been in a relationship with another man and you watch him go from that journey to what it is to be single in 70s New York and to have gay friends. At the time that movie was like a bright light in my life, because I didn’t know what to do after breaking up with my boyfriend and this movie from the 70s was touching on all of the emotions that I was feeling and giving me lessons that I could put into my life. So that’s a movie that’s in my top ten. And Moonlight, it’s so good, but it is in a way gruesome too. You have someone who is pushed to the edge at a young age to the point where he defends himself and ends up going to jail for it. But at the end of the day it’s so beautifully written, so beautifully shot and you’re so connected empathically to this character that you just want it to turn out well for him. I wanted to see more intimacy between the two of them in their adult life though.”
Boy Radio’s debut album Pop That is available to purchase and stream here. He’ll be appearing at NYC’s Club Cumming’s Viva La Diva night this Thursday January 16th from 11pm. Follow him on Instagram @Boy.Radio.