April 4, 2019 at 5:00 am EDT | by Keith Loria
Out singer/songwriter Eli Conley relishes roots music, trans themes
Eli Conley, gay news, Washington Blade
Eli Conley is comfortable using his music to advocate for LGBT issues. (Photo by Brooke Porter; courtesy Conley)

Eli Conley

Wednesday, April 10

7:30 p.m.

Vinyl Lounge at Gypsy Sally’s

3401 K St., N.W.

free

 gypsysallys.com

 eliconley.com

Contemporary folk singer Eli Conley found critical acclaim with the release of his debut album, “At The Seams” in 2013, and the central, Va.-born musician and storyteller has become a big success within the LGBT and music scenes in his current home in the Bay Area.

“I describe my music as country-tinged folk,” Conley says. “I do a lot of storytelling and I do a lot of talking about folks like me who were queer kids from small towns, and there’s a lot of harmony in my music. 

An openly gay transgender man, Conley’s music address important themes such as gender, aging and death. For instance, on his newest record, “Strong and Tender,” he has a song about his grandmother’s death called “I Miss You.”

“She recently passed and the songs is about what it’s like at the end of a life when someone is ready to die and we’re not ready to let them go yet,” Conley says. 

On April 10, Conley will perform at D.C.’s Gypsy Sally’s Vinyl Lounge, accompanied by Joel Price on mandolin, violin and harmonies.

“I love coming back to the Mid-Atlantic and the D.C./Virginia area. It’s so special to come back home and the place my whole life I would go on field trips and take family trips,” he says. “I have a lot of friends in the area and it’s just a place I have a lot of connections to.”

As a singer who references where he’s from a great deal in his tunes, a gig like this is important to Conley and feels the audience gets more out of the show than people may in the West Coast.

“Even though I love California, it is kind of a different place,” Conley says. “What’s really cool about Gypsy Sally’s, it features local and touring acts in their smaller room and I’ll be playing two sets of songs on the night, one at 7:30 and the other at 9.”

Plus, as a queer transperson, Conley says he doesn’t often feel like he has a lot of community and doesn’t know how people will feel about him and his music when he’s in a smaller space and that’s a very multilayered thing for him.

“I think there are people who live in D.C., who are maybe from a smaller place, a more rural time, and my music resonates a little differently,” he says. “When I’m writing, I don’t consciously think, ‘This is the message that I want to have,’ but I do find that the characters that show up in my songs do have experiences relate to feeling a little like a misfit or as an outsider, and trying to find out how to fit in to the bigger picture of the world.”

For Conley, 33, the path to coming out as trans was a long one. “I have come out as so many different things over the years,” he says. 

He first came out as a bi woman at age 15. He and some friends started the first gay/straight alliance at Maggie Walker High School in Richmond. Facing opposition from both the Virginia General Assembly, which was trying to pass a ban on “sexually related clubs” on school campuses, as well as their own high school administrators, they persevered. 

“They’d banned a burrito club a year earlier and tried to argue that they couldn’t go approving everything students wanted,” Conley says. “But in the end, we were allowed to do it and I remember we did the Day of Silence … and a big percentage of the school participated. It was a powerful moment.” 

A high school friend came out as a trans man freshman year but Conley still wasn’t sure how he identified.

“He had a much more traditional transgender narrative where he knew that he was a boy from a very young age,” he says. “My childhood was a lot more genderfluid and I liked it that way. My favorite colors were pink and purple and I love dresses for a while. I also loved climbing trees and going around the neighborhood without my shirt off with the boys. By the time I graduated from high school in 2004 I’d come to identify as genderqueer, what many people these days call non-binary.”

It was in college that Conley started going by the name Eli and asking people to refer to him with gender-neutral pronouns and became a trans activist working on health care issues on campus working on issues such all-gender restrooms, non-gender-restricted dorm rooms, etc.

Over the course of college, Conley began to identify as male and decided to medically transition.

“That was 13 years ago now and it never felt for me like a linear process or a switch flipping,” he says. “I was a genderfluid kid and then an androgynous teenager and eventually a young man. My gender identity has stayed consistent since then, but I’m not so young anymore.” 

Conley has a deep background as a community organizer and working on racial and economic justice at events, and feels those themes often show up in his music as well.

“For me, the politics of living in the world as someone who stands opposed to capitalism and stands opposed to white supremacy in this country, particularly in this moment when we see really clearly how those things have never gone away, it shows up organically in my music,” he says. “But I’ll also write songs that have nothing to do with being queer or trans.”

Conley’s father is from the southern part of West Virginia and introduced him to roots music and bluegrass at an early age. When he first started writing music, he had a background in musical theater and classical voice, and married those musical influences to create his sound.

“I listened to a lot of different kinds of music but always felt the songs I wrote came from more of a folk, country place,” he says. “I often found my accent came out when I sang, and though I didn’t grow up in the mountains, my songs seemed to be influenced by what my dad had me listen to.”

Conley has known all his life he was attracted to men, recalling crushes on boys in kindergarten.

“By adolescence, I knew that I wasn’t a straight woman but all the language around gender and sexuality was super binary and I didn’t have many people in my life or in the media who reflected what I felt. … I’m still attracted to people of many genders, but I mainly fall in love with men.” 

Conley isn’t particularly worried his trans identity might usurp his musical abilities.

“I want queer and transgender people to be able to find me and see themselves in my music. I think we are hungry for that and it’s an honor to be a link in the long chain of songwriters who lay our souls bare so that others may see themselves reflected. Straight, white, cisgender men see themselves reflected back everywhere all the time in our culture, the music industry in particular. I think it’s time everyone else was given the space and resources to create art that speaks to our experiences.” 

How up front Conley is about being a gay/trans artist depends on the arena, he says. 

“I love LGBTQ media and I’m happy to talk about my identity in a paper like this because I know your readers get that,” he says. “I feel conflicted about marketing myself as a gay transgender artist in the mainstream media, putting the identity pieces upfront. Straight artists aren’t asked when they first knew they were straight, you know? They get to talk about their music. I find that sometimes being transgender becomes sensationalized and that becomes the whole focus. I have identified as trans since I was 17. It’s not novel to me, it’s just a part of my experience in the world. Of course, it is a huge privilege to be able to say that.”

He knows many trans folks don’t have that luxury.

“I am a white middle class man who isn’t perceived as transgender by strangers. It’s been many years since I’ve had to think about how every piece of clothing I put on will affect how people will read me on street. I make my choices based on what feels good, not how they will affect my safety. Most trans women and trans feminine people and other gender non-conforming people don’t have that experience.”

When not performing live or writing music, Conley is a certified teacher of Somatic Voicework. He and his partner of seven years (they recently married) live together in Berkeley. His husband, whom he declines to name, is an artist and vegan cook who works in research at U.C. Berkeley. 

Teaching, he says, is a joy. 

“I teach private singing lessons and also group classes for LGBTQ folks and allies in the Bay Area and I feel both teaching and performing are very meaningful to me,” he says. “I do think I would like to spend more time on the road touring as things go forward, but I’ll probably always also be teaching because it’s really important to me.”

The music he will be sharing at the show he calls “music from his heart” and feels the songs are great to bring people together.

“I find more and more as I get older, I’m less interested in being this perfect person and more interested in being honest and real,” Conley says. “The more that I do that, the more folks tell me they are crying in my songs and there are places where they really feel connections and have an emotional experience they didn’t expect coming in. That’s what I strive to do as a songwriter.”

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