Namoli Brennet, a transgendered artist hailing from Tucson, Arizona, has played hundreds of performances and independently produced and released five CDs on her own label since 2002. Her smooth soulful voice, conjuring images of Tracy Chapman, pairs with a multi-instrumentalist folk-rock acoustic edge. Her achingly wistful arrangements include guitar, mandolin, harmonica and even trumpets, all self-played and complemented by her personal, heartfelt, lyrics.
Namoli got her first drum kit aged three. "I was definitely never someone who wondered what they would do when they grew up, I just always knew I'd play music." From these beginnings she eventually started producing her own albums: "I had no idea what I was doing, I just had to try it and trust my ears. I thought for sure the mastering engineer would tell me it was awful!" As she's progressed her technical and songwriting proficiency have grown. "I have definitely reached a place where I think that less is more. I don't feel like I need to have as much going on in a song and I'm really into trying to capture good performances. I've learned a hugely important lesson, which is to not overthink things and to be very instinctual when I write and record."
It used to be difficult for her to analyse how being trans influences her music, although now she says, "For me being trans is so much about trying to be as authentic as possible, and I don't think you can make real, honest, intense music if you're not authentic. Maybe that's how it ties in?" Performance-wise it has been more of an issue. "In the early days I wasn't trying to pass as female and I was doing more gender-variant stuff, it was really difficult. On top of worrying about how I would be received and understood musically I was pretty much terrified about how people would react to my gender. I'm just this really sensitive, somewhat nervous, person and I don't tend to do really well in those kinds of situations." The number of performances and miles on the road seem to have helped. "I'm definitely much better than I was, but it's still an issue sometimes if the venue isn't overtly queer-friendly." She mentions vulnerability, "because I feel like my voice is pretty ambiguously gendered, so it feels like coming out, you know, on stage." While this vulnerability sounds nerve-wracking, so far things seem to have worked out for her, "either because people don't know I'm trans, or because they don't care."
She says it's really hard to choose which gig has been best from "lots of really great nights, sometimes involving big crowds and sometimes just five people who are really, really listening. [However] I was once hired to play a college gig that turned out to be in a really conservative, rural area, and I realized that they had no idea I was trans when they hired me. Oops."
Regarding her new album and songwriting, she "stylistically wanted this album to be a little more cohesive; I wanted to make the arrangements fuller than the more sparse and acoustic previous two CDs. Songwriting for me is a really organic process, it usually just happens as I play guitar and stumble across what sounds like a song. I have to really feel something deeply though. A lot of good songs come out of very difficult times."
As a trans musician she definitely feels connected to the wider trans community, "but I think my thing is also trying to show people that the trans experience is not so different from a lot of other human experiences - it's this struggle of identity, authenticity, overcoming fear and adversity in ourselves and others. I think a lot of people who are not trans deal with those same issues on a daily basis, and it's a way to connect ourselves with the larger human experience and not be so marginalised. I think if I can inspire anyone, that's a great thing."
When asked where she sees herself in five years time she says, as somebody into Buddhist thinking, that it's the same place she's in now, "which is being as present as possible in this moment. Whatever you want you still have just this moment, sitting in front of you right now, with whatever it has to offer. To realize that is an amazing thing."