Will the real Du Blonde please stand up?
Beth Jeans Houghton has always known who she is. Even when she was younger, and without the words to describe how she felt, she stayed true to herself. It resides deep within the essence of everything she’s ever done creatively, including her third outing as Du Blonde, but - while she may have always had this information - she’s now ready for the world to know too.
On new album Lung Bread For Daddy, there resides a gospel of truth; a statement within itself. Its DNA lies in depression and dealing with mental ill-health. It’s a document of radical honesty and self-ownership; a trash chute down which Houghton has thrown humiliations and anxiety, realising that neither serve her or her journey.
Sitting across from Houghton in her bedroom/photo studio in Stoke Newington, London, instruments and artefacts litter the surfaces. With the scattered remnants of the photo shoot still prominent, she begins rolling a cigarette. “It was the start of 2018, the first time in my life I’ve been genuinely suicidal...” she trails off, pausing to gather her thoughts while taking a drag from the now-lit cigarette.
While our conversation is about giving Houghton a medium to tell her story, its full form comes in several components. Lung Bread For Daddy is one major piece of this new chapter of freeing truth. The album artwork is a self-portrait from the depths of a full-blown period of depression she found herself in, to which she’s admittedly no stranger, but this time things proved to push her too far.
“I guess I’d thought about it in the past, but not in a way that I would do it.” She continues, with a tangible resolve in her face. “I finally got to a place where I was like ‘Shit. I’ve got to go to the GP round the corner right now because I’m going to do it’; I’d been looking up the most painless way to kill myself. I was going to go through with it, and I had this moment of clarity. I can only describe it as something outside of myself blowing a hole through a cloud, and I could see the good weather on the other side just for a moment, and I thought ‘on the off chance that three days down the road I would have regretted this, I need to seek help and I owe myself that.’”
“My doctor prescribed me Citalopram, and I woke up three days later feeling more emotionally stable, productive and engaged than I had in ten years. I realised a huge part of my depression was simply a chemical imbalance. I cannot adequately impress upon anybody struggling with depression how common this is, how important and okay it is to seek help, and that genuinely life can and will get better. I have been in the place of no hope; the place where even your loved ones become peripheral to your need to cease existing. I understand how very real the benefit of death can feel in that moment, and I made it out, and so can you.”
The brutal honesty with which she talks should come as no surprise. Houghton has never had any issue in finding both the comedy in life and its seriousness; keeping a sturdy rack of subjects lighthearted, especially throughout our conversation. Moments of past relationships often shape her back catalogue, but most importantly it is her own understanding and struggles with mental health that have always lit the creative fire inside that remain strong.
“I’ve had anxiety and depression my whole life,” she continues. “I didn’t have the words for it until I learnt about it later in life and I was like ‘Oh, that’s what this feeling is!’ At the time, I felt very ashamed, like 'I have a mental illness, and that’s a bad thing, and no one else has it,’ and all of this stuff. Very gradually I found people who experience similar things - which is mostly everyone!” She breaks, cackling. “And through talking it out with them it just normalised it for me, and I felt more secure, even in myself, to look into it, own it, and overcome it.”
Various figures in Houghton's life - the ones pushing and pulling her between the path she envisioned ahead and that which they'd decidedly built for her - have been a common occurrence. They even questioned her choice to bare her mental health struggles to the world. With such encompassing and suffocating opinions and directions, Houghton found herself falling into a rut-cycle of album releases and delays as her creativity fell by the wayside. As she astutely puts it: “by the time a record would come out, I’d be a different person.”
Naturally, laying down such trauma as an album didn’t come with a smooth start. “Holiday Resort”, her confirmed favourite track, came as the result of encumbered creativity, and from feeling the necessity to touch upon romance once more, mostly thanks to her admittedly solitary nature. With classic Houghton resolve, however, she eventually broke through and reached a point of writing “about whatever I’m feeling right now. The lyrics are ‘spoke to my doctor / he said I’ve passed my peak / all my eggs are dying / In my twenties I’m antique’.” She once again breaks into laughter, leaning back against her headboard.
“I am not a ‘woman’, ‘lady’ or ‘girl’. I’m trans. I’m non-binary, I identify predominantly as male. The truth of my identity is not up for discussion."
In terms of actual musicality, Lung Bread For Daddy finds itself in a far more confident place that Houghton’s previous outings. There are elements of every Houghton to have surfaced, but it finally feels like an amalgamation of everything she’s been working toward, creatively and personally. There are those tracks that surrender themselves to the tales within, but there are also those that fight back against the story for attention. Often crunching guitars fury on while Houghton bares even more of herself, never concealing anything for a single moment.
With the conversation surrounding her album reaching its conclusion, it’s time for us to move onto the second major component to our discussion today: “So here I am,” she begins, proceeding to roll another cigarette. “I want to take this one opportunity to say I am not a ‘woman’, ‘lady’ or ‘girl’. I’m trans. I’m non-binary, I identify predominantly as male. The truth of my identity is not up for discussion.”
The look upon her face inhabits one of relief and finality. Between us lies a crumpled white duvet, upon which rests Snoozy, her childhood bear and life-long confidant, an admittedly inanimate object that houses more sentience that most beings Houghton has found through her journey of life. Snoozy has been a rock for Houghton’s growth and understanding, who without, she would’ve struggled both understanding and experiencing all that she has, and is.
The battle between Houghton being the person she is and the person people assume she is, has been a long one, in no small part for the fact she’s had to roll with a never-ending series of gendered assumptions. Over the years, she’s been repeatedly asked the age-old question of ‘what’s it like to be a woman in the music industry?’ For Houghton, it’s not as simple just answering.
Her experiences, on all levels, means having to approach such a targeted question with a self-preserving tact. Being transgender means misidentifying herself and perpetuating the idea that she is cisgender, as - most worryingly for her - answering truthfully and honestly would’ve involved coming out to a complete stranger, one she didn’t know she could trust, and allowing them to come out to the world on her behalf. “I began doing interviews for this new record, naively thinking I could just deal with the misgendering and the sexism in return for my own privacy. It turns out it’s really damaging to my mental health.
"I had my ways of saying it, like to my mum when I was a kid; ‘I feel like a drag queen in a girl’s body’ - which is still how I feel.”
“It’s something I would’ve been happy never having to address,” she continues, chuckling wryly. “It isn’t a big deal to me. I don’t do things differently because of it. I don’t make music differently because of it, and it’s not an influence - for some people it is, and that’s great! But for me, I’m just me.
“I’ve always known I’m non-binary, I just didn’t always have the words to describe it” she admits. “I always felt uncomfortable with the ‘woman’ or ‘girl’ thing, or ‘lady’, or whatever. I had my ways of saying it, like to my mum when I was a kid; ‘I feel like a drag queen in a girl’s body’ - which is still how I feel.”
The subjectivity of a topic that involves such personal insight is almost impossible to explain on a universal scale. Everybody’s story is different, and Houghton’s has been writing hers since her formative childhood years. “Some of my first sort of queerer experiences lay in my discovery of other queer people and characters, even when I didn’t know the difference between queerness or anything else. My first crush…” - she takes a moment to recall the name - “Tim Curry, in Rocky Horror. And I was always super drawn to guys wearing women’s clothes. I was super young; it wasn’t in a sexual way, I was just like ‘who is this fantastic being?!’ I realised it was less of a crush and more a case of seeing a character I identified with.”]
The terms “non-binary” and “transgender” can cause perplexity to many, as they can be defined in myriad ways depending upon the person’s own identity. Houghton is quick to offer a wealth of knowledge on the broader subject, while always reinforcing that she’s not speaking for others. For additional clarity below, the term “cis” is a contraction of cisgender; meaning someone whose gender-identity aligns with their biological sex.
“Non-binary as a term describes anybody who does not identify as wholly male or female, neither or both. Most people fit in-between, even if we’re talking personal traits and the person still identifies as cis. Some non-binary people don’t identify as trans, and some do. I do.
"Gender shouldn’t be assumed and if you’re unsure and would like to know in order to respect that person’s identity and pronouns, it’s best just to ask."
“It’s important to understand that gender shouldn’t be assumed and if you’re unsure and would like to know in order to respect that person’s identity and pronouns, it’s best just to ask. For a while, I didn’t identify as trans because, mistakenly, I was like, ‘I’m not trans enough’ - but trans is an umbrella term for people who don’t wholly identify with the sex they were assigned to at birth. There’s a lot of transphobia in the queer community as well as the cis world. People who feel like one subset of people claiming a term diminishes their own claim on it. It took me a long time to realise that how I identify cannot be dictated by anybody else.”
Taking a brief sip of a long-forgotten cup of coffee, she continues, offering more insight into her own experience of being trans: “I think many trans people, myself included, are like ‘I need to find my label, and figure out who I am’. Two or three years ago I identified as genderfluid - sometimes I’m a boy, sometimes I’m a girl - more recently [however] I’m just like, ‘no, I’ve always been a boy on the inside’, and so I came to the term ‘femme-presenting trans boy’. Sometimes a person can take a while to find the term that they identify with best, and sometimes they genuinely were one way and then changed to be another. Both are valid, neither are a choice.”
One of the major topics around a conversation such as this comes to the use of gendered pronouns and how to appropriately address people. Houghton clarifies the pronouns she is comfortable with personally: “and this doesn’t go for all non-binary or trans people…I’m fine with she/her, I’m also really happy with he/him. To me, ‘she’ doesn’t hurt me, ‘he’ fits well. The problem I have is with the specificity of ‘woman’, ‘lady’, ‘girl’. Basically, any term used to describe a cis woman.”
The musical side of Houghton’s life has always entailed the tribulations of being assumed female and hyper-feminised. “I’ve been in meetings where I want this certain thing to happen, and I believe that this is the way that this album should be, and it’s like ‘Well …you're being very emotional and sensitive…are you on your period? And I’ve experienced sexual harassment…I’ve been on the receiving end of what it’s like to traverse a world and an industry that treats anyone who is not a cis heterosexual white male as less worthy, less knowledgeable, less deserving.” Adjusting herself on her bed, she continues.
"Du Blonde...is a high-octane vehicle of kitsch I get to drive through a world I don’t always feel comfortable walking through."
“People so often assume and include people’s gender, sexuality, race, religion et cetera. when proposing questions. Just ask me what my experience in the music industry as myself, no need to add ‘as a woman’, ‘as a trans person’ et cetera, because even within those groups of people, experiences will differ wildly.”
The subject of Du Blonde’s purpose soon comes up. “Someone asked me once, ‘Is it an alter-ego?’ and I was like…in a way?” she says with a perplexed smile. “It’s not like Du Blonde is a character that I’ve created, and at home, I’m someone else - it’s just another limb of the same monster. As Du Blonde I’m just a distilled collection of specific traits and priorities. It also gives me the option of feeling powerful when off stage maybe I’m feeling lost. As Du Blonde I can present myself in one way while sticking up for my more vulnerable self. It’s a high-octane vehicle of kitsch I get to drive through a world I don’t always feel comfortable walking through.
“I can go and do something and be like ‘oh that was Du Blonde’!” Giggling at this concept, she continues: “Whereas I’ve got to think about things a lot more if I’m going out and presenting myself as ‘Beth Jeans Houghton’ because, at some point, I could leave Du Blonde behind," she adds with a grin. "It’s a way to compartmentalise because my birth name will represent me forever, and in all ways.”
To further express the depths to which she has gone in order to execute her artistic vision for Du Blonde, she’s in the midst of building a computer game, ‘GardenBoy’, due to be released to the public not long after her record drops. Showcasing her skills as a game designer, along with Zach Bodtorf her “coding wizard”, it will be ever-growing and ever-lasting.
“It isn't a game so much as an experience,” she says. “Game elements will come later as it continues to adapt and grow throughout the years - until I die and Zach erects a memorial site in the game so I can be buried in CGI while I'm cremated in real life!”
With ideas worthy of even the most tenured games designer; GardenBoy includes a CGI art gallery, the walls adorned with her real-world artwork. Buildings and objects resembling moments in Houghton’s life are scattered throughout the landscape, and as the player nears certain areas, songs from Lung Bread For Daddy come in and out of earshot.
“It’s a new way to experience an album, designed with the sole purpose of immersing the listener inside a world built to house the visual elements and influences of the record, alongside my own memories and belongings.”
Houghton proceeds to show me some brief gameplay. The world she's currently creating inside is a vast island expanse, navigable by way of an avatar of Houghton, complete with an anatomically correct vagina. You can’t help but imagine the tools and grid design busy at work on the screen in front of us taking up a similar space in her head as every aspect of her artistic delivery intricately pieces together.
This is it for Houghton. She’s in control. The next exciting chapter in both her professional and personal life is in its final form, and with one final drag of her third cigarette, she concludes with an air of disbelief: “I don’t think I have any secrets anymore! Which is nice, and to some people that might seem like a really scary thing, but I think that once you do it, it’s super freeing. It’s a lot harder to pretend to be someone you’re not for the benefit of other people…and even if I get a bunch of bigots being ‘you’re a girl!’ No. I’m not. And if the gender identity of a person six thousand miles away is enough to ruin your day, you’ve got bigger problems.” Taking down the final dregs of coffee, jokingly slamming the cup down, she exclaims with a wide-eyed smile on her face. “And I’ll wake up, have my coffee and have a great day!”