BANDSPEAK, Interview

A conversation with Briar Lake of Printing Shed

Queer hymnals, reclaiming religious iconography & unknowns of transition's effect on voice


I sat down to have a chat with the person behind Printing Shed, Briar Lake. (When they play this project live, they’re supported also by Zachary Ellsworth and Tony Tibbetts)

We opened by talking about their project’s name, they tell me that it’s an obscure reference to a shirt sold by Phil Elverum’s (Mount Eerie, The Microphones) label. They explain:

I had the shirt and cut out the shed portion for a back patch for a jacket. About a year later, after I started making music, I found the little sliver of the shirt that had the “printing shed” words on it and my friend and drummer during my live sets, Zachary Ellsworth said ‘that’d be a really great band name’ and I thought ‘yeah it is’ so I took it and it’s a nice little nod to Phil, whose music has been so important to me. The name got a little dicey for a little while because I was in school for print making for a time, which I hadn’t anticipated when I chose the name. But I’m not in school for that anymore and I’m not really a printmaker as the main part of my art practice so I’m in the clear now I suppose.

Their most recent work, Altar Boy, was written and recorded February-October 2017, spanning a period through their last year in highschool and first in College. “A lot of it was about moving, my mother was really awful and I was still living [with her], so a lot of it was about processing getting out of there. I was also dealing with moving away from the family I had created in Boston – which is why I came back here.”

This recording is hugely piano-forward, the tone of the piano is gorgeous with wonderful reverb and an incredible out-of-tune intonation. This hits you immediately on the opening notes of Altar Boy. Briar explained how the recording emerged in a space that was dear to them as an escape from home life:

I recorded the album at the house of a woman who became kind of like a mother-figure to me. I would live at her house for multiple-weeks at a time while she went on vacation and I would watch her dogs. She had a piano in this beautiful large room, it was super out of tune, but in a wonderful way. That’s where most of my album was recorded. In the winter, through a couple snow storms. The rain tracks on the album, too, were me walking outside of the house and just recording it on the night I put down the tracks. It was just this amazing space that I was able to, I couldn’t really record at home.

Catholic iconographies, aesthetics and metaphor run through Briar’s practice. Even moreso in their print work and tattooing Brought up in a conservative catholic environment, they were isolated from seeing other queer figures until they left the church. Trying to suppress this period of their life only really led to internal disconnects and more conflict with their past:

Faith is really important to me not necessarily because of what I believe – I don’t even really know what I believe. But I went to catholic school for like 8 years in conservative New Hampshire, so it was what I was surrounded by for my entire development. There’s no way to ignore how that shaped me.
I came out as trans really young, at like 13, directly after leaving Catholic school. So those two things are really connected for me – not being out and being at Catholic school. My time as a closeted trans person overlaps so directly with my time in catholic school that I process these two things at the same time.

They took the imagery of the church and recontextualized it as a lens into their coming out and journeys as a queer person. Reclaiming the past and reconciling these entwined experiences through their work:

I remember the first time I had heard about it, thinking, “Holy shit there can be queer saints?” I did this piece when I was printmaking more […] just like 12 saints that were important to me either for their queerness or their patronage in the church [or] had gone through gender-based violence especially. From that, I’ve been doing tattoos for queer people from saints that were important to them. [I] think it’s really important as a way to find something human in the Church. So I’ve developed this way of talking about myself through these symbols of faith, so this would come through in my music no matter what.

They explain how, for example, the song “Eden” is about going from the emotionally manipulative environment of the Church directly to an emotionally manipulative relationship, using the idea of Eden and what an ideal space means or looks like.

This reclamatory process is the focus of their print series of 12 queer saints. They’ve also been doing a related for other queer people who have had their lives affected by growing up in the Church:

I did the print series on queer saints, I’ve also been giving religion-oriented tattoos to queer people. So many of us have fucked up experiences with the Church but still hold onto a lot of complicated feeling around [these institutions and traditions]. So I feel like a lot of us can relate to these experiences and this form of retaking imagery for ourselves.

(Briar’s words)

Recently I did a piece where I portrayed 12 saints based on their patronage in the Catholic Church. They’re a loose self portrait, as a reappropriation of Catholic imagery from my past as someone who grew up in a strict Catholic school and family, and they are part of an ever-growing body of work exploring queer trauma, dissociation, and reclamation of faith. Many of these saints had a history I could identify with, as victims of gender-related abuse or as people whose queerness and personal history was erased by the Church. I hung these etchings with nails to reflect this violence and the physicality of many of their deaths.

(Left) This is Saint Sebastian, the patron saint of those who wish to die a saintly death. He was a queer saint who was martyred for his faith (twice) and whose sexuality has been repeatedly erased by the Church.

(Right) Saint Rita of Cascia, the patron saint of hopeless causes. While she’s not a queer saint, she’s a survivor of abuse and has been especially important to me because of her iconography. She had a wound from the crown of thorns on her head for much of her life; the stigmata and it’s various forms have always represented visibility for me as a queer person, and the idea of wearing your own suffering on your body has always held a lot of weight. She is also often shown with the rose, something which represents my own complicated relationship with femininity in a lot of ways; Rose is my given middle name, and I chose the first name Briar because of the thorn, the other side of femininity, a symbol of how complicated femininity has been for me as a trans person. I portrayed her with bees in addition to the roses because there is a story that says when she was a baby, white bees surrounded her crib in a swarm and came out of her mouth without hurting her. Which i just think is fucking beautiful.

We talked for a little while about our experiences of realizing we were trans and deciding to transition, it was a common ground for us but I wasn’t sure if it should make it in. Realizing its importance to their continued practice, Briar said to include it into the article:

Right after I finished Catholic school I discovered the existence of trans people and nearly immediately realized ‘oh shit that’s me, I’ll transition’ – which obviously hasn’t happened yet. But I’m on hormones now, I got there someday.

They started testosterone the monday before we met for the interview. For singers asssigned female at birth (AFAB), masculinizing hormone therapy can present a huge challenge with continuing to sing.
Briar told me about their internal struggle whether to pursue medical transition & having started hormones briefly a year ago:

[…]I went off of them after about a week because I kind of freaked out. I had wanted to go on hormones for like 4 years very consistently. Then I started writing and making music and my project is so vocal oriented. For a long time I wasn’t comfortable using my voice at all, it took my friend Zach [Ellsworth] sitting me down and telling me “Alright we’re going to record together, you write all the time so we’re going to record together.” I could barely talk into the microphone. We have this project that started off as spoken word because I could barely sing.

But after they became more comfortable with it and started recording more and more music, by the time that they turned 18 and could access hormones, the choice was a lot less obvious. Their music had become a hugely important means of expression for them:

[…]There’s a Paper Bee song that become hugely personal to me around that time, it talks about a similar experience. It’s called “A choice to be heard and not seen” and I connected with that a lot. But I ended up deciding over this summer that I think it’s important for me to be seen – and maybe be heard in other ways. I’ll intensely train my voice to try to keep singing. I can already feel my voice changing – which is scary but I think it’ll be okay. I have a lot of other means of expression now, through my tattooing. Whatever my music becomes, I’m not going to mourn what it was.

They explained how they’re taking a low-dosage of testosterone because it slows the ossification (change into bone) of the voice box during the initial periods of hormone replacement therapy (HRT). With the slower ossification, the vocal cartilage and musculature has more time to stretch and adapt to the changing shape of the vocal folds. The overall changes to the voice also come slower and allow the singer additional time to concentrate on vocal exercises and remaining comfortable with using their range and intonation as it changes. Even with slower changes, masculinizing HRT remains taxing for singers maintaining their practice through this period. During the process, the range and fundamental frequencies of the voice will change considerably, the transition pitch between registers may shift constantly during the first years of HRT. Mixed registers may become impossible and overtones can change in unpredictable ways.

(The process of AFAB transition affects the voice in other profound ways. this dissertation, goes into quite a lot more depth for those interested.)

They also are comfortable being on a low dose because of their non-binary identity, outlining the fact that they don’t necessarily want a full masculinization from the HRT. They’ll stay on long enough for their voice to lower and to not be read as fem all of the time.

Afterward, I pressed them on whether they had any new material in the works:

Art school – I dropped out – but going even for a year really fucked up my practice. They really drill having a practice into you so if you have a different one going in, it gets really put off. So I wasn’t writing a lot while I was in school except what I did to finish the album. I wrote a couple songs there and one the other day so I have a few but not many. I think it’s hard to write on this keyboard I have because of my recording style. I want to write on a piano because I tend to record immediately after writing and continue writing through recording. So not being able to do that is really frustrating.

I had access through my roommates to one of the pianos at the berklee practice centers, but it was hard for me to even record there because I’m used to recording in houses. It felt very clinical compared to the comforting environments I like to record in. So I’m trying to arrange getting a piano into the co-op I’m living at

Whether or not their voice holds the way they hope through their medical transition, they’ll continue to be heard through their other mediums. Briar’s work has a ineffably personhood and intimacy to it, I’m thrilled to be able to watch their practice as they grow as an artist.

Come out and see Briar play at Blockbuster Video on Thursday the 22nd. (Ask someone for the address) and check out some of their visual work + keep up with them on their insta.

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