Astrud Aurelia subverts the expectations of what it means to play jazz music.
Astrud Aurelia subverts the expectations of what it means to play jazz music.
Bill Goodman

Astrud Aurelia Is Bringing Queerness to the Phoenix Jazz Scene

Phoenix is bustling with LGBTQ+ musicians. QueerSounds explores how queerness affects the underground Phoenix music scene and the musicians who are part of it.

Astrud Aurelia is a lady with many different faces. At Club Volt and other gay bars and queer spaces around town, she lip-syncs to Die Antwoord, Björk and Erykah Badu. Her drag performances are associated with polished, kitchen-sink type looks and energetic, twitchy performance. She associates the word trashy with her lip-syncing.

Astrud is also a classically trained jazz bassist. She plays in a solo project where she utilizes those bass skills, a history of songwriting, and vocals all while in drag. As he's known outside of drag, Marcus Leatham has been putting in the work all of his life. In the eighth grade, he transferred to the Arizona School for the Arts to pursue musical theater. While there he had to pick up a musical instrument and he chose violin. Marcus' father was also a musician, and he had a "band room." Thus, Marcus thought it was only appropriate to utilize the space, so he made and joined local bands and picked up the drums.

Before long, Marcus moved on from musical theater to fully pursue music. He switched from violin to cello but ultimately auditioned for the Arizona State University jazz program as a drummer. After a few years of that, he changed instruments once again because he was unsatisfied with the lack of harmony that most percussion instruments afforded. Now, he attends classes as a bass player, often feeling excluded from the heavily straight and heavily male-dominated world of classical music.

So, Marcus found his own space and invented Astrud. Now Marcus searches for where his music intersects, whether that be the trashiness of his stage performance, the intellectualism of his performance, or the training he brings as a musician. He keeps himself busy and he's still young to the scene, but he's already paved a name for himself in the Phoenix drag community.

When first getting started, Astrud competed in three seasons of BS West's competition Star's Choice. Instead of lip-syncing, she would sometimes sing and play the bass. Now, she's a member of casts all around the Valley, and a staple in Phoenix's alt-drag scene. She usually leaves the bass at home, or brings it to special gigs, like her upcoming show at The Trunk Space, 1124 North Third Street, on Tuesday, May 8.

Astrud spoke to Phoenix New Times about these intersections between her identity, music, and drag. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Phoenix New Times: How does your gender identity, sexual orientation and queerness play into the music you make?
Astrud:
I write songs about my gayness and my experience with love. I often use songwriting to document moments in my life, so I have songs that are as personal as being about me coming out. I have songs about my first sexual encounters and my response to that and the way it has made me feel about prior moments of queerness. Like, reflecting on me coming out to myself after now having sexual and romantic encounters. My gender identity is a more recent exploration of mine, so more to come with that in the future.

What does your identity mean to you?
That's a hard question. As it relates to my art?

Sure. Or in the way you carry yourself and the way you choose to live.
I think it's starting to mean much more to me. I think there was a time where I had a little bit of an awakening about a year and a half ago. I was fed up with everything, I was fed up with my friends and the people I was surrounding myself with. I didn't feel like I was representing myself properly or following who I was. I remember looking at myself in the mirror and being like "I'm going to blow up. I'm going to make this happen for me. I'm going to be the one." And, I felt like I had something to say. Ever since then it's been me diving into myself and diving into my identity, wearing it on my sleeve. And, the results of that have been really positive, not just for myself, but with other people. I feel like I connect to other people artistically a lot more. I have more people coming to me, telling me how much they appreciate me more than anyone in my life. Even as a musician.

I think that's because of my identity, because before people were only recognizing me for my technical skills on my instrument. It was more technical and surface level. Now, by being more of myself I can help people explore themselves.

What are some of your biggest queer influences?
Some of my favorite drag queens: Sasha Velour, is an absolute favorite of mine; Vander Von Odd; Naomi Smalls, only because I'm unbelievably in love with her. She's the most beautiful human I've seen in my entire life. There are so many. Evah Destruction is a really big influence of mine. She hasn't been in any TV shows, but she's one of the most incredible performers I've ever seen in my life. Musically, I don't have a lot of queer influences on my music. The closest I can say is David Bowie. St. Vincent would count, I'm kind of obsessed with St. Vincent. Nina Hagen, but there aren't a lot of visibly queer artists. There are people who come out: Frank Ocean, but he doesn't bring that queerness forward.

David Bowie's last album, Blackstar, had a really big effect on me. I've been looking into this idea in music history called gesamtkunstwerk, which is German for "the total artwork." It was a term coined by Richard Wagner in the 1800s, where he was trying to blend narrative, music, dance, performance, and visuals into one product that encapsulated every multimedia thing. So, I'm really into any artist that really creates a world around their concept. That's what I like about David Bowie's last record: It was a concept album about him dying. His video for "Lazarus" has him in a hospital bed with blindfolds over his eyes, singing about how he's going to be free just like that bluebird. Then, he dies from cancer two days after the album comes out with this idea of the "black star" and him coming to terms with how people will perceive him after his death and the religion of David Bowie that will follow.

Is that something you worry about? Like, self-preservation?
Yeah, absolutely. And impact? 100 percent. I like the idea of immortality, I'm not going to sugarcoat it. I don't want to be forgotten. I'll feel like I've wasted my time a little bit if I don't make an impact and I don't have a lot of people who will remember me after I die. It doesn't have to be a lot of people. In whatever field I do, I don't want to forever be forgotten within the history of that.

So, do you see this as an artistic stage of yours? Do you think there will be longevity to Astrud?
Oh, it's absolutely a stage. I don't know how long she's going to live. I'm still investigating the idea of characters and having multiple characters for myself. Going back to David Bowie, he's done this. All of those stages, he comes back to multiple times. I'm still in the beginning stages of Astrud. Astrud is my maiden voyage, sort of experiment of what can happen with that. Maybe there will come a point that I'll want to do something completely different than what I've done with her and I'll have to set her aside because it might be too much work to turn her into this new concept.

How will you know when it has run its course?
It'd probably have to be bookended by an event. It could either be an accomplishment or a time in my life that calls for a change. I always figured that after I did drag for a while, I'd quit and continue playing music as Marcus. I'd explore my boy side more after exploring this side of me.

Astrud Aurelia is performing at The Trunk Space, 1124 North Third Street, on May 8 at 7:30 p.m. She's playing with Eliza Rickman and Paula Tesoriero. Ticket prices are yet to be announced but can be purchased at the door.

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