Photo courtesy of Father/Daughter Records
Sir Babygirl On Her Brand Of Surrealist Pop, Covering Kesha & "Being A Little Elf Playing Flute In The F**kin' Forest"
There's a lot that goes into being a D.I.Y. pop prince(ss), and Kelsie Hogue would know. The 27-year-old Brooklyn resident and New Hampshire native writes, performs and produces cartoonishly exuberant bubblegum pop under the name Sir Babygirl. After studying musical theatre in college, spending time as an absurdist stand-up comic and playing in numerous rock bands in her early 20s, Hogue developed an unusually multifaceted understanding of creative expression. All of those disciplines, and her love for both Britney Spears and My Chemical Romance, can be heard leaping and bounding throughout her debut album, Crush On Me, which was released back in February of this year via San Francisco indie Father/Daughter Records.
In the time since its release, Sir Babygirl has been covered in nearly every major music publication, lauded as a must-see act at this year’s SXSW, featured as a main stage act at L.A. Pride, and sold out both of the headlining shows she played in New York. However, with no major label backing or external income source, Hogue's journey to pop stardom is being entirely carried out on a D.I.Y. budget. "I want to be able to make it to the big leagues and I believe that I can because I have what I call a healthy delusion," she says with a confident chuckle while calling from her home in Brooklyn. "I'm basically trying to instill what I imagine pop stars do within a budget in my control."
Flamboyant costumes, backup dancers, colorful makeup and unparalleled energy are all central to the Sir Babygirl performance, and Hogue recently completed the first leg of her first-ever headlining tour—which was just her and her tour manager Flynn Hannon out on the road together. "I've done some headlining dates but that was the first tour so I have nothing to compare it to and it’s a very isolating industry so I don’t really know what other people's first tours are like," she says. "So I have absolutely nothing to go off of, which is essentially how this industry works: you have nothing to go off of every step of the way and you're just stabbing in the dark and hoping that your gut is the superior gut."
On Nov. 8, Sir Babygirl will be releasing Crush On Me: BICONIC Edition, a remastered version of the record that also features a cover of Kesha's "Praying" and a bombastic acoustic rendition of her song "Pink Lite." In advance of that, we talked to the generously transparent Hogue about her busy 2019, the bonus songs on BICONIC, and the struggles and emotional triumphs of learning to become a queer pop diva on her own terms. Our conversation has been condensed for clarity.
A lot has happened with Sir Babygirl in 2019. What are some of your most memorable moments since Crush On Me came out back in February?
I made Rolling Stone print, that’s f**king insane to me. I got to play L.A. Pride, the main stage, which was crazy. I sold out both headlining shows I did in New York. There's just been some really cool milestones that are kind of shocking when I actually say them out loud. Because when you’re inside of it you’re just trying to fucking hussle to f**king get the job done. I think what’s so cool about the fact that I've been able to tour is that that’s been the most concrete, like, "Okay, we're all present here, there are real human beings in the room showing up for me. It's not just likes on an Instagram post. I'm living, breathing with these people.
I was so taken aback at the support that I got on this tour. The size of the rooms changed every night. I had some packed rooms I had some f**kin’ ten people in a room, but the dedication and the energy was so intense at every show. At one of my smallest shows in Raleigh, there were probably like 15 people there but almost everyone that was there at the end came up to me and was like, "We drove two hours to see you. We've been waiting for this for months." And it was random queers in the South who were from little towns that nothing ever comes through.
So it's very exciting to be able to have these rooms where it is really the queer people are centered but there's also straight people there supporting. That's my whole point: I'm trying to be accessible. I'm not trying to create an underground closed-off space where it's just the queerest of the queer people. I don’t believe in queer elitism or separatism; I'm really into inclusivity and accessiblity and so I just want anyone to be able to, at the end of the day, come and shed a little bit of their snakeskin from the day that they had to use to protect themselves and be able to relax into it and have a f**king good time.
Beyond being a space for queer people to congregate, your live performance is a pretty spectacular thing to witness. For someone who hasn’t seen you, describe what a Sir Babygirl show consists of.
Well, rule number one is that it's never the same. I am a student of the element of surprise and I call it controlled chaos. It’s not like GG Allin where you go and you're literally not safe. I want it to be exciting, not scary. You don't know what’s gonna happen next but whatever happens next is gonna be a fun surprise, not "I'm gonna kill you." [Laughs.] I do a lot of live banter where I'm very, very interactive with the audience. But I think I really work to gain trust with that.
So at my shows I feel like I lose my mind on stage to allow other people permission to lose their minds in the audience. There’s a lot of different D.I.Y. costume changes, you might see a strap, you might see a guest DJ. I like to bring on my friends to DJ for me who have no DJ experience and just let them go off on my Ableton. I love to have dancers that aren't actually dancers. . .So it’s kind of a big circus, it’s a f**king gay circus and I’m the carnival barker and I’m just kind of gonna dominate you for 45 minutes and you're gonna love it. Or you're gonna hate it and that’s f**king cool, too, at least I got a reaction out of you.
You mentioned the strap, which I see all of the time on your social media posts. When and why did you start bringing that on as part of your costume? Does it represent something to you or relate to your music in any way, or is it merely for the shock value or the silliness?
The thing is, to me it’s not shocking. I’m kind of trying to play a little game with you all. This is my whole big comparison. Britney Spears 2001 VMAs walks on with a Python, a very phallic symbol; she’s gyrating with it. What is so different and shocking compared to that and me wearing a harness around my pelvis that intimates the fact that I’m going to f**k someone? It’s just that it’s gay and hence "subculture," hence "not the norm." And my kind of mission is to just f**kin' bring that queerness into the mainstream and just normalize it.
And also yeah the humor is intended where it’s like, yeah it’s f**king funny. I'm wearing this f**king strap. Because there is this level of intimacy that I really have with the audience where I want to poke fun at in that literal way where it’s like, "Yes, you are in the bedroom with me. We are in the bedroom together." And not in sexual way but you’re seeing me in this really intimate, vulnerable space, but at the same time the strap is so cool because it’s intimate but it's f**king power. Because it's like, "I’m gonna f**k you."
I know you have a pretty rich history and a background in musical theatre, so you've been performing on stages for a long time. But I'm wondering what you've learned about yourself as a performer since you started touring regularly as a pop musician?
The level of stamina it takes to be a pop artist is, to me, unparalleled. I had respect for pop artists, obviously a deep reverence, which is why I got into it. But I could truly spend days and fill novels about it: I am shocked at the level of stamina it takes, the level of health you need to be in. It’s very expensive to be healthy and to be in the level of shape that you need to be. And I don’t mean shape as in fit, I mean shape as in functioning health. So I think that's been a big thing for me. I deal with a lot of chronic health issues and it is a trip.
I feel like I have really good vocal health, I started taking vocal lessons when I was 14. So I have been studying the voice for 13 years and I would say that it is my strongest instrument and I play a lot of instruments and have been playing instruments since I was nine, and it is the most challenging, vulnerable, easy to damage instrument that exists. It's the only instrument that can be past the point of repair. And we’re in this industry where we don’t really take vocals seriously as an instrument. We kind of act like it's this accidental thing like, "Oh, someone can just randomly belt and you should be able to do that like the Energizer Bunny every single day."
There's a lot of things that take stamina. Like knowing how to deal with sound dudes, and knowing how to give a good set when the sound isn't working. The thing with tours is that it’s not a question of if everything is gonna go wrong, it's just what level of grace can you bring to the chaos? Its just kind of moving chaos. Like I said, I love controlled chaos and tour is uncontrolled chaos, and I am trying to bring this circus around the U.S. essentially and maintain my composure.
One of the new songs on Crush On Me: BICONIC Edition is your acoustic rendition of "Pink Lite." What I like about that song is even though it’s a very stripped-down version of the track, it actually sounds like you're singing harder and louder than you do on the full version of the song. Do you want your acoustic songs to be bangers as well?
I've gotten a lot of comments that are deeply flattering in a very funny way where people will be at my show and be like, "Oh, I literally thought you were kind of a robot voice on the internet, I didn’t think that that was actually your real voice." And I’ve even gotten people at live shows before thinking I was lip-syncing and then I start ad-libbing and they realize that I’m not. I wanted to do the most stripped version possible to be like, yeah that's my voice, that’s how I sound.
I'm very proud of my instrument and I've worked really f**king hard. I worship vocals and I'm just so inspired by so many female vocalists that came before me and so to me, I just wanted to share that kind of passion and have people really hear the nuances of my voice with all the production stripped away.
Another song on the reissue is your cover of Kesha's "Praying," which is an incredibly powerful and vulnerable song. What sort of relationship do you have with that song and why did you want to bring it into the Sir Babygirl universe?
I think we're at a point where it should be pretty implicit that if you are someone who has been socialized as a girl—slash anyone—a lot of people have been assaulted, have been raped, have been sexually abused. It’s just a rampant systemic reality and I didn't really want to make it a big part of the campaign, I did not want to have to talk in interviews about my own trauma, I don't always love that marginalized people are there to be a spigot for their flowing trauma. But at the same point it just kind of got to this point where I was feeling so consistently retraumatized by experiences being in the music industry, and I have always related to Kesha.
I experienced my sexual trauma when I was 19 and I wasn't able to even come to terms with approaching it until I was 25. And "Praying" came along when I was just starting to accept my trauma and I honestly there’s not a song I can relate to more. The way that she writes it, it’s just like holy sh*t. I can’t be really poetic or articulate about it, it just floored me when I heard it. I listened to it on loop and cried and was like, "Holy sh*t." That feeling of "I'm not alone" and someone specifically in the industry I want to be in has gone through this f**king insane, horrific pain, and is going to experience it for the rest of their f**king life.
I’ve always played that song at shows in and out and just in my room and it just got to this point where I was, like, “F**k it." I really want to do my own spin on it, it’s really cathartic for me to do. And I just wanted to put it out there that yeah, this album is deeply informed by my trauma and my recovery. But that's not the point of the album, it just exists. And so I kind of wanted to make it a clean, clear statement like yeah, the trauma exists. It’s there, I don’t want to talk about it all the time, but I want it to be understood and I want you to understand that this is a part of me. I don’t need to tell you the details of it for you to take it seriously, for you to believe it.
I saw you perform that at South By Southwest and it was very moving to watch. What I find most striking about it is that it's a very serious song and you perform it in a very sobering way, but the songs in between that are very playful, theatrical and sometimes humorous. Do you think by playing the song has opened up a different creative side of you that maybe you weren't tapping into?
I think I just wanted to carve out a little more nuance for myself. It's very hard for me to be fully serious, like ever. I would say humor is my biggest defense mechanism and biggest survival mechanism and it’s also a great thing and I love it and it does so much for me. I did want to give myself permission to take up that kind of space because I’m really afraid to. And maybe it doesn’t look like this from the outside but I can get very self-conscious about being really big and being huge on stage and being a clown is easy but being like, “No, you’re gonna f**king stand here and listen to me go off about a serious f**king thing," is so scary to me.
So yeah I like that challenge and right now I'm in the process of doing a lot of writing again and I'm just trying to not be so clever. Just understand that that’s just gonna exist cause I’m a little f**kin' imp, I’m always gonna be a little elf playing flute in the f**kin' forest pulling tricks on people. But that’s my whole thing, I just like the dichotomy. Let me be funny and sad. Just let it all be a joke and all be f**king dead serious, and that’s what I'm really trying to get people to latch onto. They don't cancel each other out, it just deepens the world.