As much as I love how widespread discussions of gender have become in recent years, I'm often irked by the nuance that's lost in translation—as if mainstream discourse cannot help but erect new binaries in the rubble of those demolished. Take Zara's new line of "ungendered" clothing, for instance. Despite its claims to androgyny, the normcore-y collection of tee shirts, jeans, and hoodies is notably lacking in any garments traditionally worn by women (i.e., skirts and dresses), a slight that reinforces the age-old notion that masculinity is neutral and only femininity is gendered. How revolutionary is that?
This is all to say that I really appreciate it when people incorporate gender into their work without sacrificing ambiguous gray areas in order to do so. Musicians like PWR BTTM, Jay Boogie, and Years & Years have caught my attention in recent months for creating work that explores the alleyways of gender, and not just its avenues. Another is XO Jasen, a non-binary singer-songwriter from Portland, Oregon, whose music I've recently gotten really, really into.
I first heard XO Jasen (aka 31-year-old Jason Mampel, pronouns: they/them/their) thanks to the February 15 episode of Homoground, a podcast series that spotlights queer artists. One thing led to another, and I soon found myself downloading their self-produced Four Love Songs EP (released January 25) off of Bandcamp and playing it on repeat. Gender is present throughout Mampel's music, but it exists less in definitive answers than as an ongoing conversation. What must we unlearn in order to learn more about ourselves? And what must we destroy in order to build anew? I called up XO Jasen to find out.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
John Walker: Hi. Sorry to start with something that's probably super obvious, but why did you call the EP Four Love Songs?
XO Jasen: Well, there are four love songs on it. [Laughs.] They're love songs, but they're also all about a social issue rather than just love between two people.
I was wondering about that. Like on "Princess," it sounds like it's about a person at first, but after listening to it I realized that maybe the "Princess" figure wasn't a flesh-and-blood person after all.
Yeah, that one actually is about a person.
[Laughs.] She's an old friend of mine. I thought it would be interesting to include a song about a woman so that I could play with gender pronouns throughout the EP. It makes gender kind of elusive and I think, confusing to the listener as to the which gender I'm singing about.
That kind of gender fluidity courses through every track on Four Love Songs. Why was that important to you when crafting the songs?
When I started, I really wanted to make a political EP that said something that I could put my soul behind. The songs evolved through many different phases until I arrived at this lens of gender and queer identity. That thematic focus just felt natural to myself and what I'm feeling in my life, my relationships, and my gender identity.
I don't want to ask you, like, "Explain gender in 10 words or less," but what is your relationship with your gender identity?
It's an evolving thing. I don't have a definition for it, and I'm not sure if I will. When I started Four Love Songs, I was sort of coming awake to this gender identity and a non-binary way of looking at gender, and I was exploring other artists who are doing that with their work.
Who are some of the artists that have influenced you?
Baths, Perfume Genius… I mean, I can tell you an embarrassing one from middle school.
Orgy. They were pretty much the first band I saw that were wearing makeup and all this strange, androgynous clothing. I was, like, obsessed with them, which is very telling of where I am now. I like combining masculine, feminine, and non-binary elements, and I want to experiment with that in my visuals. The "Kiss Me Dark Destroyer" video, and the other music videos I've got planned, give me a space to explore these things that I still struggle with sometimes.
Is that related to opening track "Unlearn"? What are you trying to unlearn?
It's about unlearning the shame surrounding queer identity and stereotypically queer things. The idea for the song came from a conversation with a friend about the shame they felt around their gay accent or gay lisp. This is someone who I never thought of as having shame about any part of themselves, but they didn't want to hear their voice because they thought it sounded "too gay."
Was there ever a time when you would "cringe at the sound" of your own voice or try to "hide your flailing hands," to paraphrase the lyrics of "Unlearn"?
No, I personally never really have. I always enjoyed those things about myself in a campy way. The song's more about this conversation I had with someone else. It's about empowerment, how to get through the shame associated with those stereotypically queer things, and embracing yourself so you can just be happy.
You evoke the process of unlearning in order to relearn and destroying in order to build anew a lot on Four Love Songs.
Oh yeah, in regards to gender for sure, and also thinking about what it means to be me. Masculine, feminine, male, female—I mean, "Kiss Me Dark Destroyer" is just about me realizing the construct of it all.
Do you find the idea that "this world is a construct" to be restrictive? Liberating? Frustrating?
I guess I feel like it's exciting because there's so much possibility. Possibility in shaping your own reality in the way that you think and the way that you look at the world. It feels exciting. There's a lot of potential for discovery in that.
Bad at filling out bios seeks same.