Nine Songs: Trixie Mattel
The original Barbie Girl, a comedian, songwriter, cosmetics CEO, author, drag star, and undeniable pop culture icon, there's not a lot that Trixie Mattel aka Brian Firkus can't do.
As she heads out across the UK for her long-awaited rescheduled tour, we chat about the music which has been with her through her own musical journey and ascent to stardom. Fresh off a plane, navigating her way out of the airport following one of the final shows of her joint tour with Drag Race alumna Katya, it's no wonder comments on her Instagram ask "When do you sleep?" on posts about new music, touring, book announcements and palette reveals.
"It's crazy," she tells me "after two years of not touring I'm going from the Trixie/Katya American tour and then four days later into the UK solo tour, so it's going to be a little aggressive, but it's going to be good." At the heart of the show is stand up, which Mattel has definitely missed, but there is of course going to be some music thrown in for good measure.
If you're not aware of Mattel's songwriting prowess and musical career, then let me get you up to speed. Since 2017, she's released three albums including her debuts Two Birds and One Stone which act as companions for each other. 2020's Barbara, a double-disc affair, features the punchy country-pop anthem "Malibu" and her 2021 EP Full Coverage Vol. 1 even features masked cowboy casanova Orville Peck on standout single "Jackson".
Her latest single "C'mon Loretta" is the first of a string of new releases which are all locked, loaded, and ready to go. "There's going be new singles coming out while I'm on the road on tour," she reveals, "and they're going to be integrated into the show as they come out." Part of a new double album project split between Blonde and Pink sides, Mattel says the forthcoming record "feels really core Trixie, it's hard to really describe. The music is really bubbly and fun and fuzzy, but it's acoustic guitar-driven, warm and honest, kind of funny. I wrote a lot of music because I was home for so long. So instead of my album being usually like seven or eight songs, this time, it's double that."
Speaking about how she narrowed down her Nine Songs choices, she's clear that "it's the songwriting for me," that's what draws her into a specific song, or an artist and that's what ties all of her choices together – whether it's the depth or relatability or the ability for the words to evolve into something abstract or simply be fun, Trixie loves lyrics.
"I'm always impressed with the songwriting. It's like, 'How can we make the listener feel like they're hearing something totally fresh, but pack it with enough comfort food for their ears and things they recognise, you know? And all these songs are them."
“I’m obsessed with Fountains of Wayne and this song is just so beautiful. There’s nothing like it. The story of the song is reflecting on somebody you used to be with and talking about your connection to that time when you knew each other. Every time I move or every time I end a relationship or every time I have a major life change, I get this sombre feeling about leaving things behind.
"We lost one of the writers from Fountains of Wayne in Covid, and I think they’re everything. So I had to pick a Fountains of Wayne song and it was hard for me to pick. I love “Barbara H.”, “A Dip in the Ocean” and I love “Stacy’s Mom”, I love so many Fountains Of Wayne songs, but I think “Hackensack” is just so beautiful.
“It’s mid-tempo, but it’s kind of a ballad, the tone of it is so sweet and honest, and the way they rhyme the words is so amazing. They do something that Aimee Mann does, who I’m also obsessed with, where they pick really perfect rhymes and they pick words that don’t get used every day without sounding pretentious or clunky.
“I don’t know who the song is about, but the song is about someone you used to be with, who is now famous and how that also makes the relationship weird. If it’s anybody you have a weird relationship with and they’re famous, you get reminded of them, you see them all the time. It’s weird for people I’ve broken up with, because it sort of keeps you in their lives in a way. You’re on their TV, or especially in the gay world, at this point if you’re gay you have to actively avoid me, right? So you know, my gay friends, people I’ve had fallings out with, ex-boyfriends, they’ll see me on the magazines or on TV or on YouTube, I’m kind of like haunting them.
BEST FIT: The first time I heard this song was actually Katy Perry’s MTV Unplugged version and I was blown away.
“I love Katy Perry. I’m a big Katy Perry fan from her One Of The Boys days. This is not a read, and it’s not like Katy Perry will read this, but when Katy Perry was writing all her own music it was so much better. Before she had all the money and resources like One Of The Boys, that album is so fucking good.”
“You know what’s funny? I do drag for a living, but the most played songs on my iPod or whatever are not drag songs. I do love house and dance music from DJing, but that’s a different thing, I really love good songwriting and Aimee Mann, she’s one of the best songwriters of our generation.
“I was at lunch with Michelle Branch two weeks ago. She’s on my next album on a track called “White Rabbit” and when she heard the song for the first time, she said it reminded her of Aimee Mann and I was like ‘oh my god, that’s the biggest compliment ever.’
“I think Aimee Mann is a wizard with lyrics and melodies, she is so fucking good. Her writing really reminds me of Fountains of Wayne, which ironically kind of makes sense considering they’re two of my favourite bands of all time.
“That song “Charmer” is so beautiful. It has guitar pieces that are doubled, there’s a guitar melody which is doubled with a keyboard melody and it’s doubled with humming and it’s got these nice, fat chugging power chords. It’s basically about the type of person who thinks they can put on the charm, talk their way out of anything and that the world revolves around them. It’s very condescending.
“She’s like ‘when you’re a charmer, the apples fall’ and everything’s perfect for you, but she’s also right. People who are really hot, or people who are really rich or really famous or whatever, are really charming and everything just happens for them. It’s frustrating to know people like that, and people like that are often monsters, so I just love that song.
“I don’t know where I was when I first heard it, but I was like ‘this song is fucking lit,’ then again it’s Aimee Mann and it was so hard for me to pick one song from an artist like Aimee Mann. Her song “Rollercoasters’ and that album Mental Illness which came out four or five years ago and won Folk Album of the Year at The GRAMMYs, I listened to that album top to bottom every night in bed, when I went to sleep, probably every day for three years.
“I just did a comedy show with Fred Armisen, who knows her really well, and I told him 'I know you know Aimee Mann and I’m so jealous because she is like my Beyoncé.' She really is everything and she loves comedy, she loves stand-up, so I hope that someday I get to meet her, because I just lose my mind for her.
“The video is amazing too. It’s her saying she’s been overwhelmed, she sees an ad in the paper which asks ‘Are you overwhelmed? Get help today’ and she orders Laura Linney, who plays a robot of her. She trains the robot of herself to play guitar, do signings etc and then the robot starts to do it so well it takes over her life. That whole music video reminds me of how exhausting this can all be sometimes, but you take it for granted, because it’s also magical. So, in the music video she learns not to take her life for granted.
“The way she writes, all the words are perfect and they make sense. I love her singing. All the metaphors used in that song – it’s very condescending and patronising. There's a lyric where she's like “you're quite the little collector” – that’s so rude, you know? The whole song is basically saying 'You think you're really great, don’t you?' And I love that.”
“This is a song I used to play with my Grandpa, when I was learning to play guitar, we’d be at the kitchen table at my Grandparents’ house. I’m a mega June Carter fan. I love Dolly and I think everybody thinks Dolly is my favourite, but June Carter is absolutely my favourite. I would do anything for June Carter... her solo acoustic records in her older age, I love her storytelling.
“I’ve always been insecure about singing. I like singing and I have a nice voice, but I could never sing like other people can just blow like when I’m judging Queen of the Universe, it’s like 'These people can sing.' June Carter, she can sing, but she also worked out that you can bring comedy into music, and that’s what I ended up doing and I always found her very inspirational. It’s the same way Sarah Silverman is a musician who does comedy. I love people like that.
“The Anita Carter version of “Ring of Fire” – that's sung by June Carter’s sister – I love that too and the Johnny Cash version is great, it’s obviously iconic. Anita is an amazing singer and her version is a little more sad. This is a song that compares being in love to being on fire. It’s not a happy song and the Anita version, it’s just her and the guitar I think, and her sister’s backing her up and it’s so beautiful. No-one’s heard the Anita Carter version, that’s the original and Johnny Cash’s is the cover and a lot of people don’t know that.
Have you ever played “Ring Of Fire” in your sets?
“When I’m touring with my autoharp, that's one of the songs that you have to bust out and play once in a while for the audience. I did it once, when I did an album release show when Two Birds came out and that was fun. It’s one of those songs like “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’” where it’s a classic and you can just turn to your band and say 'This is what we’re playing' and everyone knows how to play those songs.”
“Clueless is my favourite movie of all time. I just think of myself when I was six or seven years old, watching Clueless and watching Alicia Silverstone flip her hair and draw lipstick on that mirror. You gotta understand that I grew up in rural, rural Wisconsin in a trailer, and this movie is about this perfect sweet teen girl in Beverly Hills. I found that everything about that movie is like a magic trick every time I watched it. I couldn’t blink.
“That song will always make me think of when I was a chubby, gross, gay little kid from the woods, literally the woods. I don’t know what it was about her, I felt like I wanted to be her, because I had no business entertaining the idea that I was anything like this person. It’s one of my favourite movies because it’s one of the only movies where the main character is rich and beautiful and a good person. When we were younger and we were really broke, I would just assume that everyone rich was horrible, but to assume that everyone rich is horrible and everyone who is broke is nice? It's just not fucking true.
“There’s obviously some lyrics in this song that I think are hilarious, that are maybe a little offensive. Like when she says ‘I’m not going to eat today, I’m not going to eat tomorrow, I’m going to be a supermodel,’ but as someone who is not very good with food myself I need that sort of inspiration. On this tour between Katya and all the dancers I am the biggest one on stage every single night. I just don't have a great metabolism, everybody in my family is big. It takes a lot for me to stick to it, I have to work out constantly and be careful with everything I eat just to stay mildly thin.
“It's a joke about how people in magazines appear to not eat. This wasn’t an earnest plea for help from the singer Jill Sobule. I’ve always wanted to cover this song too, so I hope someday I can cover this song.”
“It was so hard for me to pick one Hole song. This song is so good and so short. The song is like two minutes and thirty seconds, it’s like nothing. The video is amazing. I discovered Hole right before the pandemic, so I spent the whole pandemic listening to Hole constantly and that album Celebrity Skin is so amazing. I was like, 'Do people know about this?' And my friends were like 'Yeah everyone knows about this, you stupid idiot.'
“I didn’t know anything about Courtney Love or Hole’s music until a couple of years ago, so I started listening and the more I listened the more I was like 'This is so good and that song “Celebrity Skin” is just so good.' She’s actively a glamorous celebrity, but this song is about rejecting the idea of being a glamorous celebrity. It’s kind of ironic.
“It’s aggressive girl rock music – and I love The Donnas and The Runaways. This song is just perfect and when you think of the words “Wake up and make up” you think of this song.”
“I love The Donnas, but the problem with The Donnas is that they aren’t together anymore, so when you love a band that’s not together you run out of music. I love “Take It Off”, I love the whole Gold Medal album and I love so many of their records top to bottom, “Get Rid of That Girl” was so good, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Machine”. There are so many good songs, but I love that song “Friends Of Mine” the most.
"It starts with that rolling guitar riff. I love the singer’s voice, and it’s a great guitar solo and such a great sound overall. I don’t have a deep relationship with every one of these songs, some of them are ones that I have loved for years, but every time I hear this it’s a banger.
“There was something about me seeing girls playing instruments as a little gay boy that really spoke to me. I remember I was working in Provincetown, I was single and it was my first summer doing stand up. I heard this song while I was on a treadmill and I was like 'Oh my god, this song is so good.' It was so catchy. But I think the drummer had issues playing the drums, with physical pain, and the singer went to college.
“With guitars around that time and in 2004 when I started playing guitar, it was so male, but all of a sudden you had people like Michelle Branch, Sheryl Crow, Avril Lavigne and The Donnas show up. All these women playing guitars suddenly really changed the scope of things, and I wanted to try that.”
“Mama! I could not pick one! Again, it's so hard to pick a song and I know that they have a bunch of hits and “Love Shack” is their big one, but for me “Roam” is the one, it’s so catchy. I think it's about fucking whoever you want, like traveling and having sex with whoever you want to have sex with which I really love and I've really taken to heart.
“The singers, it’s like their voices are made to go together, and as somebody who's constantly traveling, it's always relevant to me. I fucking love The B-52’s, “Private Idaho”, that song always gets me together too. I love it, because honestly, they don't take music that seriously. Their songs are often about nothing, and I guess I always get up my own ass and try to make sure everything I do means something. And with The B-52's it's like sometimes you can just make music for fun and everyone can love it, because it's enjoyable.
“And they’re gay icons. They were doing drag before anyone. Think about “Roam” being on the radio, and then going to promote it in wigs and mini dresses and shit. And everyone was like, 'You guys are weird.' They still go out and play in drag at their age now, which is so fucking cool. They invented the male/female call and response, I don’t know if we would have had an Aqua without The B-52's.
“I probably could’ve put “Barbie Girl” on this list because obviously, that song holds a special place for me.”
“I don’t why, but I was at an age where this person’s music made me ask 'Who writes this stuff? Who decides what the singer sings?' I guess I’d never really thought about it that much and then something about the writing, and the fact that the person might write and play their own instrument at the same time – it totally changed everything for me. I never really cared about wanting to be a singer or a guitar player, but I always wanted to be a songwriter and I thought 'That’s the trick here, there is somebody who writes all this stuff.'
“When I heard “Goodbye to You” for the first time I thought it was so beautiful. I asked Michelle how she figured out how to write this shit and she said she felt like she was almost downloading the songs from somewhere else. She was more like a vessel. She just re-recorded that album for the 20th anniversary, and she was saying it made her wonder how she had so many good ideas when she was so young.
“I learned to play guitar around the time of listening to these songs, so the way she played and the way the songs are built structurally had a big impact on the way I started playing guitar. She writes music like The Beatles – verse, chorus, verse, chorus, and that’s the way I learned to write music.
What’s it like having such an influential figure from your own musical journey be a part of your new record?
“Surreal! First of all, I must have been a little drunk or something to have the guts to say 'Hey, here’s a demo of a song I wrote, do you wanna be on it?' She said it sounded like this Aimee Mann song she liked and that she’d do it. It really wasn’t written as a duet, but I wanted her on it because I thought it sounded a little like older Michelle Branch music and I could really hear her on this. It was so crazy. I wanted her to be in the music video, but she just had a baby a couple of weeks ago, a newborn, so she couldn’t do it.
“Goodbye to You” was the lightbulb, it was the song that turned on the light bulb that someone writes music, and that I want to record music.”
“Come on, that song is unreal. That song is like a religious experience. I don’t know how she did it. All her songs are so fucking good, but I think I heard in an interview somewhere that she sat down and wanted to write a song from three voices acapella, because her two backup singers are twins, and they all sound really similar.
“You don’t have to have any relationship to that song to listen to it and think that it’s about you. The opening lyric to that chorus “I wrapped your love around me like a chain,” Oh my god, it chills every time! Unbelievable. That bitch is so wild. Every one of her songs is so good. She’s very famous now, but I think if “The Eye” had come out now it would be on the radio.
“It makes me think of Imogen Heap's “Hide and Seek” or something, it doesn’t really fit the profile of a radio single, but it’s so powerful that it could be on the radio. And Brandi and her guitar players follow me and I just love her.
“When I first heard that song I was freshly broken up and I was working on my first and second records Two Birds and One Stone. The way she writes is just unbelievable. The guitar is an arpeggiated, repeating thing looping over and over again, like fingerpicking style, and the way that her guitar players play is so good. I know that she writes the parts and it’s just so good.
““Blood Muscle Skin & Bone” is so good. “The Mother” so good. What's good about her records is even the B-Sides are fucking lit. She's like Joni Mitchell or something. There are no bad terms. Her voice is so good. The guitar playing is so good. Her songwriting is so good. She's phenomenally talented. So there's nothing to miss really, you know?”