2015: A Year’s Worth of Memories (Tica Douglas)
by Steven Spoerl
One of the quietest surprises of 2015 was a miniature masterpiece of self-dissection offered up by Tica Douglas in Joey. A masterful take on gender and general identity that was laced with as much endearing self-deprecation as bruised hope, it remains a startling listen (and few records packed a 1-2 punch as powerful as “Black & White” and “All Meanness Be Gone“). Easily one of 2015’s most notable — and heartening — records, it also expanded the attention Douglas’ music was receiving, both on a critical and commercial basis. Below, Douglas talks about rediscovering some childhood advice to find the courage to perform some extremely personal songs in front of a group of people who’d been there since the beginning. Read it all below.
Last June I booked a tour to celebrate the release of my newest record, Joey. Compared to my last tours, this one was short and sweet. The whole thing took only about two weeks and the farthest North I went was Portland, Maine — my hometown. Joey’s my most up-close-and-personal record yet; it explores the joy and melancholy of my lifelong gender confusion. I hadn’t really thought about what it would be like to play these revealing songs live in front of my family and friends until the drive north, the day of the show.
I was hungover. I’d played Burlington, VT the night before. It turned out that my cousins who lived there worked at the big sports bar right in the center of town. They were kind of the dual queens of the whole operation. That meant that after playing a low-key set at the quiet art gallery next door, I sidled up awkwardly with my guitar between dudes playing Buck Hunter and Darts, and watched as my cousins gracefully fielded this crowd, handing me free shots and beers in between quick catch-ups.
The next morning, Andrew drove while I sat in the passenger seat, my head swooning in and out of nauseous aching. What a weird scene last night, I thought. Andrew interrupted my stalled thinking, asking if I was psyched to play Portland tonight. My stomach twisted a little. I remembered a text message I got from my mom earlier in the week: “excited 4 show. all aunts r coming, grammy too. plus gina told everyone. should be a big turnout!!! ms. fox will be there.”
I closed my eyes and placed my head against the cold window. Suddenly, the full weight of what was about to happen descended on me. I would be onstage alone, without a band to hide behind, singing personal details about the complexities of growing up in-between to the people I grew up next to. I don’t exactly know why that prospect was so daunting, but it was. I’ve always found it easier to play for strangers.
Luckily, I was too brain-dead at the moment to overthink it. Mile by mile we got closer to home, while Andrew and I flipped through his middle school CD jacket.
But as we drove over the big green metal bridge, the only southern entry “To All Maine Points,” my body faced what my brain wouldn’t, every part of it tied up with nervous energy.
My anxiety peaked as we loaded into the venue. I called Gracie. I told her I didn’t know if I could do this. I didn’t know if I wanted to. I wasn’t even sure why. It just felt loaded, and really awkward.
I paced back and forth outside a bit trying to calm my body down. I smoked a cigarette in secret. I talked to myself. I focused on my breath. Then, right before it was time to go on, I remembered some advice my mom gave me when I was a kid. I had terrible separation anxiety and I was scared to go on a field trip with my class. She told me: whenever you start to feel anxious, like you’re spiraling, focus on someone else. Do something for them, make them feel better. It will take your mind off you. It will help.
It was time to go on. I went to the stage and looked out at the crowd. My family — old teachers, middle school and high school friends, people I hadn’t seen in years — they were all there, smiling up at me, yelling little cheers, whistling, waiting for me to start. Things moved in slow-motion in those first seconds, as I scanned the crowd and saw each of the many faces in perfect clarity.
It hit me that these people are the reason that I, in all my mixed-up in-between-ness, have been able to access joy in my life. Whether or not they knew the details I was about to sing to them, they always understood me, always loved and encouraged the me that I was. I know how lucky that is. This performance wasn’t about me, it had nothing to do with me. Fuck feeling awkward. What a small feeling. This was about expressing my deepest gratitude to my home, to the people who raised me, who allowed Joey to exist.
I was momentarily and unexpectedly overcome with emotion seeing these faces. Especially my mom’s. When I was five, in the car on the way to my first day of kindergarten, I confessed to my mom that I felt like a boy, without fully even understanding what that meant, and I asked her if that was okay. She didn’t seem caught off guard. In fact, it felt like she’d been waiting for this question my whole life. She told me: It’s more than okay. It’s a special gift. Even though it will be painful at times, always know it’s a blessing. You were made special. That moment determined the rest of my life. My mom made me feel special and not shameful about how I didn’t quite fit, and I’ve carried that confidence alongside my confusion everywhere since. I’m thankful for this moment everyday. I recognize how incredibly rare it is.
I closed my eyes and started playing. I thought of my mom. I thought of everyone in the audience. I tried to give them this performance in my deepest thanks. My anxiety disappeared. It was the best show I played on tour, possibly all year.