Aja & Merlot Talk Nonbinary Identity and the Music Industry

 
Full looks  LORDELE .

Full looks LORDELE.

AJA and MERLOT talk candidly about identity, visibility and artistry. Photographed by Stevens Añazco. Styled by Sean Santiago. Hair by Sean Bennett. Makeup by Yanni Peña. Special thanks to Witchhouse PR and Lola Grand.


 

SEAN SANTIAGO:
How do you navigate being a performer and also making time for yourself?

AJA:
I feel there’s this kind of obsessive thing where if you’re a performer or you’re a personality of some sort, people think that you’re always turning on this personality or character. I think that’s a big misconception, because I’m really just the same person 24/7. When I’m on social media it’s really just a direct reflection of who I am. As far as making time for myself, I feel like I have all the time in the world. I pretty much enjoy myself in everything that I do. I don’t really feel stressed or pressured to be anything else at any point specifically.

MERLOT:
I’m still in the beginning stages of becoming recognized and getting my work out there, solidifying myself as someone who is an artist and not just someone who goes out a lot. But at the same time, I agree with Aja—I don’t think there is a disconnect between Merlot the entertainer, Merlot the nightlife personality and Merlot behind closed doors. I don’t think that I ever really turn on or off.

 
Dresses  SANDY LIANG . Accessories  JAMES VELORIA .

Dresses SANDY LIANG. Accessories JAMES VELORIA.

 

SS: Do either of you feel that you’re not given the space to add to your story as an artist?

M: It can be hard to remind everyone sometimes that you’re an artist and that you still have these goals, even though you’re not like, constantly releasing music. Sometimes you just want to post a cute selfie. But at the same time, there are people who are bored by anything that’s not art and constantly seeking for you to only make posts about art, like—“When’s the next song coming out?” or “When’s the next show gonna be?” They don’t really care about anything other than that. It’s about finding a balance with what you’re comfortable with and, at the end of the day,  yes, we are artists and we’re working to try to have our work out there and be recognized for what we do. But it’s totally your decision and totally up to you to decide how you’re gonna run your life. At the end of the day, as the artist, all of it is your brand, your art, your life, it’s all just one thing and if people aren’t here for all of it, then they’re not really here for you.

Dress and coat SANDY LIANG.

Dress and coat SANDY LIANG.

A: I feel like there’s this pressure that nobody ever really talks about, especially people who come from our industry and our bracket. People often expect you to deliver a look and this persona and personality, and I think that it’s such a silly expectation. People are constantly looking at queer culture as entertainment in and of itself when it honestly is more complicated than that. Through social spaces and through social media and nightlife, it becomes increasingly difficult to be in charge of your narrative. Because people who are interested and involved usually want to create that narrative for you. And I know, as someone who’s been on reality television and in the public eye, I do see that there’s this sense of entitlement that people have; they expect you to be accessible all the time. And we do want to be accessible as people, as people our fans look up to, and that’s something that I signed up for. But one thing I didn’t sign up for, and that none of us sign up for, is for other people to control our destiny. I think we have to not forget that we’re the ones who truly tell our stories. That’s a very hard part. The more you try to create your own narrative—especially as a queer figure, public or not—the more it makes people uncomfortable, because people can’t dictate who they want you to be.

 
The more you try to create your own narrative—especially as a queer figure, public or not—it makes people uncomfortable, because people can’t dictate who they want you to be.
 

SS: What is your creative process like?

A: When I’m working on my music, I do find that a lot of my point of view comes from where I grew up and my experiences. And, you know, I kinda forget sometimes that a lot of people who listen to me don’t really understand that background or where I’m coming from. There’s also this preconceived notion with people who listen to my music that it’s gonna be about, like, “Yes I’m that cunty bitch, I’m gonna steal your man and I’m wearing Louis Vuitton, blah blah blah blah blah,” you know? Which again goes into the whole narrative thing. Which I get. But at the same time, I think it’s pigeonholing queer people as a whole because it’s saying that as a queer person you have to come off a certain way just for other people to feel comfortable.

M: That’s something that I’ve noticed a lot, too. As a queer person releasing music, for some reason, I think people automatically underestimate you. Anyone and everyone thinks that not only they can collaborate with you off the bat, but they can also give you advice that’s unwarranted. And I feel like if I put my song out and I was some straight cis guy, half of the people in my DMs wouldn’t be there trying to give me advice or tell me what to write about next or what to do and who to collab with. I feel like sometimes a queer artist becomes diluted. People just assume that you don’t create at all, or maybe you didn’t write the music. It is very interesting to see sometimes the people that will just come out of the woodworks to try and tell you how to do your job, basically. 

SS: I feel like that speaks to the idea of access again. Boundary setting is an interesting part of this conversation; the idea of who you are and how you get that out there. Fans want to know how they can work themselves into this whole world you’ve created. How do you channel your identity into your creative output?

“I don’t think there’s a disconnect between Merlot the entertainer, Merlot the nightlife personality and Merlot behind closed doors.”  Top    KENZO   .

“I don’t think there’s a disconnect between Merlot the entertainer, Merlot the nightlife personality and Merlot behind closed doors.” Top KENZO.

A: Sometimes I’m like, you know what, I just wanna be a little ratchet and give them the, “Ya, I took your money bitch.” But sometimes I wanna put a little depth into it. Regardless, when you’re a queer person, your music is extremely criticized. Personally, I don’t need to be told that my music is good. Part of my process is knowing that I put so much work and so much of myself and my heart into writing and making music that I don’t necessarily need the validation of someone else to know that it’s good. It’s good because I put work into it. It doesn’t mean people are gonna agree, but I’m not making music for other people, I’m making music to talk about my experiences. You don’t go to therapy for other people, do you? You go to therapy for you. And music is my therapy. So that’s my process.

M: I think the times that I have gotten into the studio and I’ve started to have everyone else in mind, that’s when I’m not making good music. Any time that I go in and I think, “What would the people who listen to me want to hear?” or “What would people who I want to listen to me want to hear?” It’s never going to be authentic, whether you’re queer or not. The creative process of solely writing about what I’ve been going through, or collaborating with the producers in the room and just having fun and forgetting about the expectations, is when I make my best work. And then at the end of the day, I feel like that just so happens to be what people are gonna appreciate more. If I was trying to cater to certain people it would defeat the point. And I think that anyone who’s gonna show up and listen to Merlot is there because they like what Merlot wanted to make and not, like, what Merlot inauthentically threw together to please the masses. So, yeah, my process always starts with listening to myself and listening to what’s going on in my head and obviously working really hard and tirelessly over creating that kind of space that I want to make.

 
On Merlot: top JAMES VELORIA, skort SANDY LIANG. On Aja: top SANDY LIANG, bottoms  HARDEMAN .

On Merlot: top JAMES VELORIA, skort SANDY LIANG. On Aja: top SANDY LIANG, bottoms HARDEMAN.

 

SS: I’m wondering for both of you in terms of being in these spaces—and we’ve talked a bit about whether it’s a physical space or online or just existing in the world and putting yourself out there—going beyond visibility, how do you feel about creating safe spaces and spaces that allow for gender expansiveness and expression? How do you do that in your work and how do you deal with people who are not on that level with you? 

A: I don’t just make music for men or women or for queer people. I want to make music for everyone and I want everyone to feel comfortable. I always let people know, too, anywhere that I am—if I’m performing somewhere or if I’m in that area––I don’t care if I don’t own the place, if I’m under your roof, your roof is gender inclusive. It’s a safe space. Because I will go off on someone. I’m just all about dismantling patriarchy, but honestly speaking I can’t do that by myself. But if I do what I can do as an artist, even if it’s just one small room of people who see that, that’s enough for me, because I know that at least I’ve impacted those people.

 
On  Box Office , Aja’s debut album, the artist grapples with gender, race and even religious syncretism. “Changó was this African king deity who was worshipped through the image of St. Barbara. That idea of being able to pray to a male god through a female image—that really stuck out to me. I really wanted to put that idea into that song and into my album, because that song is 100% who I am as a person.”  Dress by KENZO .

On Box Office, Aja’s debut album, the artist grapples with gender, race and even religious syncretism. “Changó was this African king deity who was worshipped through the image of St. Barbara. That idea of being able to pray to a male god through a female image—that really stuck out to me. I really wanted to put that idea into that song and into my album, because that song is 100% who I am as a person.” Dress by KENZO.

 

M: I feel similarly in that I don’t want people to think about the gender of it all, so much as they just think about the art. I’m inspired by like Grace Jones, where it’s just simultaneously glamorous and feminine, but also at times super masculine. It flows and ebbs. It feels authentic to remove gender from the equation, which is what I feel like I do in my day-to-day life as someone who’s non-binary. In that sense, I don’t truly pay attention to the way gender influences my art and my music, because it’s so post-that in my day-to-day life and in my relationships. I don’t feel like I’m making music for a specific audience, queer or otherwise, or a specific gender, sexuality—anything. I think that if my music reaches you and touches you, that’s the entire point.—