Rascal Miles on music and gender identity
Spotify: Rascal Miles
First off, can you tell me a little bit about who you are and how you got started making music?
I'm a queer kid from Florida that moved to Portland, OR in 2011. I'm inspired by predominantly indie and folk music, and I have an extensive musical background.
I remember when I was in 1st grade, I was in music class, and my teacher made each of us try out for the solo in the school play, and when it was my turn to sing, everyone in the room fell silent. That was when I realized that my voice was unique. Singing quickly became the tool that I used to escape all the bullying I experienced in school from an early age (I cut my hair off when I was 6 because I wanted to be Peter Pan, classic, I know). If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me "Are you a girl or a boy", I'd have a mansion like that kid bought in the movie "Blank Check".
I got my first guitar in 6th grade and started playing bass in 7th, which was around the time I started writing my own songs; I took orchestra classes and was also in choir from elementary through high school, and I even stayed for an hour after school every day for the elite high school choir. I was a total nerd, but I was also nominated for prom queen, which now as an out trans man is hilarious to me. I picked up drums in college (English degree) and started playing open mics singing my original songs when I was living in Gainesville. I remember there was this cute little purple house called "Tim & Terry's", and upstairs was a music shop and downstairs was a tiny bar and a living room where every Thursday was Open Mic Night. That's where I met the group of dudes that I ended up moving out to Portland with.
Since moving to Portland, I've stumbled over and over in finding my way, both as a musician and as a person. I was quickly adopted into the folk punk underground music scene here, and played drums in a couple bands, and my life consisted of going to a creativity-stifling day job in the morning, driving straight to a show at a dive bar and staying out partying way too late, then waking up and doing it all again. But instead of growing my music career, I was growing my alcohol addiction, numbing my pain, and hiding my trans identity from myself. About a year and a half ago now, I got sober, had gender affirming top surgery, and publicly came out as trans. Since then, I've been going to therapy on a weekly basis, learning to love myself, and fueling my energy into making music.
What does music mean to you? Is it a way for you to make sense of the world, to express yourself?
Music is how I understand everything. Music has always been the friend I went to when I didn't have any. For as long as I can remember, it's been the outlet for my emotions and the best way that I know to express myself. It's magic; it's alchemy. You take energy and turn it into something else and give it life and form and a world to exist in.
As a queer person from the South, I've spent the majority of my life not feeling safe to just be myself, and music has become my way to create that safe space and to make it what I wanted it to be. Music now has developed from being more of a release and a place to escape to to also being a tool that I know how to use. I have a voice and a unique perspective, and I love figuring out how to convey those. What are my metaphors going to be? What do my feelings sound like? Which musical "rules" will I follow and which will I intentionally break? How can I get my point across but still leave room for the listener to relate and step into my shoes? What can I do to say what's already been said but do it in a way that you've never heard before? How can I say the things that are right there but no one is talking about?
Over the past year and a half I've taken some engineering classes and built myself a portable home studio, and being able to be in charge of my recording has given me everything I need to really develop my musicality.
Something special about the music I'm making now is that I not only write everything, but I also play all the instruments and record them all too. The instruments I play on my upcoming album include guitars, bass, drums, keys, cello, trombone, banjo, mandolin, lap steel, glockenspiel, percussion, and I often work in at least 4-8 harmonies to each song. Being able to do all of this makes it so that I can be that much more specific in the creation of my musical worlds, and that has made all the difference.
Trans musician Kim Petras stated that she hates “the idea of using [her] identity as a tool”. She said she wants people to listen to her music for the music’s sake, not because of her identity. Can you relate?
I can absolutely relate to that quote and perspective, and I think that one day I will also embrace that, but for right now, since the album I'm releasing next is literally my personal story about my journey with gender throughout my life thus far, my music is about my identity.
My favorite part of my identity besides being a musician is being trans, and I'm choosing to vulnerably share this next album (Tailor-Made) with the world because I want to change the world with my story. A lot of my songs are told through metaphors, so I do think it's possible for someone who has no idea who I am to listen to my music and just like it as is, and then later figure out that I'm trans and put the pieces together, but my main goal with my message as an artist right now is to help pave the way for kids who grew/are growing up like I did.
There is so much legislation happening in the United States right now that is targeted at trans children, and those individuals already have so much against them, so I figure if I can make music about my experience, that might be a glimmer of hope to someone who needs it.
Music is such an intimate thing, too, and I picture a kid out there being bullied at school and shamed by society and told by the government that they aren't valid, and if that kid heard one of my songs about my struggles, they might feel that they have a world to feel safe in just by putting on their headphones.
Can you expand on how you feel your gender identity plays a role in your music and in your life as an artist?
I wrote an album this past year called "Tailor-Made" that is a chronological telling of my life through the lens of gender. There's a song about being thrust into the gender-binary as a child, about struggles with fitting in, about dysphoria, top surgery, and more. So that's the obvious answer. But I guess another way to see that my gender identity plays a role in my music is to look at the EP I put out last Halloween called "Songs for the Graveyard", which was also self-recorded and I made in two weeks from start to finish. For that project, I was practicing the art of writing songs by stepping in to other characters, and I happened to have this last-minute idea to write songs from the perspective of traditional Halloween figures. I realized that I related to them more than I realized when I started writing it, and subconsciously found parts of myself in them and that totally came out in my writing. Being trans, I've often felt misunderstood and misjudged by my appearance, and I've obviously felt trapped in my body, and that's a theme that's super prominent throughout the songs. Zombie is worried he'll scare his crush away before he gets the chance to speak, but he's really just this hopeless romantic, "just a pearl trapped in a shell".
Two tracks that I absolutely loved were “Dead Legs” and “The Mental Health Express”. Can you give us an insight into what inspired these two songs?
Both of those songs are ultimately about my battle with drinking. "Dead Legs" is about being hungover especially in the first verse - "I am hard to know sometimes. I learn everything the hard way". And then there are parts to it also that reference my fears of death and not having enough time with the ones we love, which I think in particular I was thinking about my dad at the time. I haven't lived in the same state as my family for 10+ years now, and that often comes with a sadness and a deep longing to spend time with them and tell them that you love them. I think if you care about someone, you should tell them you love them as often as possible. We live in a world that is often isolating, cold, and treats us like machines, and it's important to hear that you are loved. To be honest, I think about death a lot; I always have. Now it gives me perspective and helps keep me in the present moment, but at the time I think it came up more from hangover anxiety, and this song was me facing the time that I was wasting and the moments I wasn't remembering because of drinking so much.
"The Mental Health Express" was written from a visualization I had. It's a black and white movie in my mind, and I'm on a train that's always running, but it's just going in a huge circle, and there are these sort of creepy skeleton demons that sneak up on me throughout the song. They cling to me and tear at me and haunt me, and I know that I want to get off the train, but the more I try to, the more they dig in. It's a huge metaphor for addiction, essentially, and not knowing how to want to quit when I was so dependent on drinking for coping with my other mental health struggles. How can I be charming and feel confident enough to fit in without my liquid courage? The ending sums the cycle up pretty nicely: "We're chugging along at impossible speeds, but time won't slow down to cater to your needs. Oh how do I survive in this space I have realized is who I am?" Meaning: The alcohol was running me, and I no longer had control of the train.
Speaking of mental health, have you ever experienced discrimination in the music industry? And if so, what tips do you have for other young trans musicians?
Yes, I have experienced discrimination in the music industry. I cannot tell you how many times I have had a cishet man talk over me, mansplain my sound to me, ignore me during sound checks and ask other people in my bands about the sound when it's MY vocal they're talking about. The music industry is just like most industries right now - it's run predominantly by straight, cis, white men, and that often comes with a lack of awareness for marginalized experiences.
Tips for other young trans musicians - be unapologetically yourselves and try not to lose sight of your gooey center when you're building up your thick skin. Don't forget, you alone are in charge of your humanity. No one else can take that from you. Find your community and stick together, walk home together after shows, and be gentle with yourselves. You are beautiful just as you are, and you are deserving of love, and if everything you're hearing in the world and everything you're seeing online is challenging those things, then turn off your phone and pick up an instrument and express yourself however you want.
Those are very inspiring words! Who was someone who had a profound impact on you or who continues to inspire you?
Esme Patterson. I started doing a weekly songwriting mentorship with her last June or so, and she's helped me hone my creative practice SO MUCH. I really don't know where I'd be today without her influence. She's taught me how to separate my creative brain from my editing brain; she's given me the validation that I needed to continue pursuing what often feels like a thankless career; and she's believed in me so consistently that I believe in myself too. Every time we chat, I leave feeling refreshed and motivated to approach music from a new angle. I am so grateful for her time and commitment to my growth as an artist, and for her friendship. It's been one of the main constants for me during the pandemic, and to be able to have someone so brilliant coaching me in my creativity while so much chaos and hardship looms around us these days has been a true gift.