Image: Helen Bartlett
This article first appeared on the The Oxford Student website on 20 March 2015. CN Lester was another interview subject who was terribly patient with me, and a lot friendlier than they might have been – the best kind of interview. The style of my interviews was still quite rough at this point (and I’ve edited out a couple of the more cringe-worthy bits), but I was getting there, and I was very lucky in the type of interviews I got.
CN Lester, musician, writer and activist, gave a spoken word performance at Queen’s College in 8th week entitled ‘What We Know To Be True: Trans Lives and Mental Illness’. I was lucky enough to talk to them in advance of the show, and our conversation began with the performance itself: “It’s about several things really. It’s kind of an intertwining of popular narratives around trans people and mental illnesses and personal reflections of how that works both within trans communities and also in my own artistic practice. So I’ll be looking at various different experiences of trans life using the Scottish Trans Alliance mental health service, which I think is [from] 2012 as a jumping-off point, but I also want to look at some popular misconceptions of what it is to be trans. Kind of ‘It’s all in your head’ or ‘you’re all making it up’ or it’s some kind of hallucination, and to see how that ties in with real experiences of mental illness, and my own experiences of both being a bipolar person with OCD and being trans, and how those work through the crucible of music and literature.”
As well as their work as a musician, Lester has also worked extensively in the world of LGBTQ activism – they co-founded the Queer Youth Network and the UK’s first gay-straight alliance. I asked them whether their work in each field has impacted the other. “I think it makes me more honest, which can only be a good thing, even if it’s not always the easiest thing to learn. I sometimes worry that if I had just been born a cis, straight guy, maybe I would have found it much easier to stay in the musical mainstream, rather than finding alternative ways of expressing myself. And while that’s not always been easy, it’s definitely been more interesting. I think it sends you down sort of dark avenues and little twisting pathways, and that turns up some really exciting stuff.”
In performing at Queen’s, Lester has sought out a student audience; is this their usual demographic? “I actually do tend to play to quite a lot of student audiences, which I find interesting. I’m a postgraduate student now, but I remember when I was an undergraduate, really not having any access to this kind of stuff. There was a lot of pushback to any ideas of exploration and creativity around gender and sexuality. I find it incredibly heartening that I now can come along to an event and meet so many undergraduates who can teach me so much in terms of ways of looking at things, at theories of society and gender and sexuality, and how we revolt from assimilation. It’s very exciting, and it feels like a university environment is an ideal place to do that – you’re meant to be stretched, you’re meant to be challenged. Often the only things that I found I was challenged with within the university environment itself were homophobia and transphobia. I think some of these student groups, they’re challenging students in a way which is supportive, but also deeply revolutionary.”
The conversation turns to Lester’s musical work, specifically their last album, Aether. “I’ve been really bowled over with the reception, the critics have been very, very kind – I haven’t had a bad review yet. I worked with Jack Byrne, who I worked with on Ashes [their last album] and we crowd-funded the production, went up to a studio in Leeds and worked for four days, of sleeping underneath the piano and just cranking the whole thing out. I wrote Aether mostly after gigs, or travelling to and from gigs. It’s mostly about relationships – between me and my audience, friendship, romantic relationships, the relationship between your mind and your body. All those sort of weird, strung-out thoughts that you tend to have on a train at 11:30 at night, going across the country, and you’re a little bit drunk and just trying to work out what the hell just happened to you on stage. I’ve been really happy with it. We took it on tour to London Pride, Norwich Pride, the Tate Modern, lots of little bars up and down the country, and I was really proud of it.
“I’m currently working on my next album, which is called Coming Home, which I’m hoping to release at the end of 2016, fingers crossed! That’s going to be something a little more folksy, and a little more sideways. That and my PhD.”
Lester has a lot more up their sleeve – other upcoming projects include an opera to be premiered this summer, an ongoing tour and continued writing for their popular blog, A Gentleman and a Scholar. They describe themselves as having a “portfolio career”, and they handle that portfolio with confidence and style.