Tica Douglas falls in between

Sasha Geffen

Within the first few seconds of Joey, Tica Douglas cuts right to the album’s core: “If I were born a boy/ They were gonna call me ‘Joey,'” goes the record’s first couplet. Tica sings over quick, punctuative guitar strums that soon open up into something like a swing. More instruments join in, and the song opens up. The guitars trail the vocals, which sweep and tumble in on themselves. “I hope I don’t exhaust you like I exhaust myself,” Tica sings.

The directness of the lyrics reminds me of another tremendous opening couplet: “Your tells are so obvious/ Shoulders too broad for a girl,” from Against Me!’s last record, Transgender Dysphoria Blues. About halfway through our phone conversation, Tica names the punk band as one of their influences. You don’t exactly hear it in the music — Joey is gentle, melodic, and soothing next to Against Me!’s brisk punk gaits — but you can hear it in Tica’s lyricism, their openness to hashing out cross-sections of identity and gender and the confusion that tends to cluster around both.

Tica’s in Brooklyn when we talk about Joey, the self-released, full-length album that’s out this week. We geek out about Against Me!, and we talk about the liminal spaces that have always informed Tica’s songwriting — and how Joey marks an evolution into a more natural, comfortable way of making music.

When did you move to Brooklyn?

I moved to New York in 2010, which is when I graduated from school, and I lived in Harlem for a year. I’ve lived in Brooklyn, Greenpoint, for going on four years. Wow. I can’t believe I’ve been here for almost five years.

Where did you go to school?

I went to Dartmouth. I stayed up in the North for a while, and then came down here. But during school I spent a good amount of time in Edinburgh, Scotland. I did a study abroad thing there. I loved it so much, I ended up staying, because I found a really cool musical life over there. That was a good break from Dartmouth.

What kind of musical life?

It was sort of amazing. I started writing at the end of high school, but it was never really that serious. It was just something that I loved to do. When I got to Scotland, I decided to play open mics and stuff. I responded to an ad in the newspaper for something called “Doctor Ruby’s Coconut Surgery,” which is so weird. I was like, I guess I’ll give this a shot, because the other open mics weren’t really fulfilling. Most people weren’t playing original songs. I ended up finding this collective called Doctor Ruby’s of Scottish men and women who were older than me, for the most part. This Irish promoter would put on these shows a couple times a week. It was just a really magical thing. They’re some of the best songwriters I’ve ever met. We started a band, and I took time off from school and stayed for a while. I ultimately got in trouble and wasn’t allowed back in the country.

Because you stayed too long?

It wasn’t that I stayed too long. I came back when my visa was up, but I was so obsessed with that life  I had found that I decided to go back, and when I tried to go back, they stopped me at the border. I was really naive and also privileged, and I had no idea that this could be a problem, so when they asked me what I was doing, I said, “Oh, I’m here to see friends and play music.” Those were the wrong words, so they detained me and fingerprinted me and read my journals aloud to me. Even though I was making no money at all, it was just a no-no to be playing without an entertainer’s visa. It’s a long story, but I ended up making my way back because I was so determined. I reapplied to school and I got in on another student visa. It was intense for a lot of reasons. It was really surreal. All I said was “music.”

It’s cool that you found such a community there. Have you found anything similar in New York?

I have a really close friend from college, Ryan, who plays in his own band and also is really a good friend and ally with my music, just a good listening ear. Through that, I have friends, but none really that I’ve met in Brooklyn. I found it a little bit more difficult in New York, actually, than in a place like Edinburgh. I’m not sure why that is. I guess New York’s just a hard place in general to find something as low key. It’s hard to find people who aren’t super driven here. It’s really competitive and really scene-y. Edinburgh was not like that at all. It was so community-based and so supportive. I know that exists here. I have community through friends that I knew before, and I’m very happy with that. But I don’t think it will ever be like Doctor Ruby’s. It was just a really special thing.

I said, “Oh, I’m here to see friends and play music.” Those were the wrong words, so they detained me and fingerprinted me and read my journals aloud to me … All I said was “music.”

Does Ryan appear on the new record?

Yeah, Ryan plays bass on it. And he helped produce it, too. He’s on it, along with some other buddies of mine who I brought up to Maine to record it. They all came up with me.

I don’t know if you would call this a concept album, but you called it Joey, and the first song dives right into how gender shapes the way we navigate the world. What made you turn to those subjects after your last record, Summer Valentine?

I think Joey is a concept album. That’s a fair thing to say. Joey really is more similar to my early, early stuff, which is to say that it’s more intimate, both in production and in the lyrical style. Summer Valentine is a little bit of an anomaly. Before that, I would constantly write and record bedroom recordings. I’m constantly writing down thoughts and observations and little musings about my life and what I observe of life in general. I am also constantly playing songs and finding melodies, and I would sort of fuse them into a song. With Summer Valentine, I was experimenting with lyrics that weren’t quite so confessional and were maybe a little bit more fitted to the melodies specifically. I was really at that time inspired by Sharon Van Etten’s melodic wonder, how she would just go off on these soaring chord progressions and then tie it together. I was experimenting with that. And then with Joey, I wanted to return to a more intimate feel.

My gender confusion, which has been present since even before I was aware of what gender is, has completely shaped my life. Before, in my early stuff, I assumed these gender extremes. In my really early stuff, I fit into the boy category, whatever that means. It doesn’t really mean anything, but that’s how I felt. I would write really simplistic lyrics, like, “you’re pretty, I wanna kiss you.” That sort of simplistic language to describe one extreme. I guess the fact that I was a female-bodied person singing that does allude to complexity, but that wasn’t explicit in the lyrics. For Joey, I felt ready to exist in that in-betweenness, and write lyrics from the perspective that has always been mine, which is, I don’t know, whether you want to say liminal or containing multiplicities or whatever it is. Just a little bit confusing. I felt ready to write about that.

How does writing about it inform the feeling of it? Is it something that becomes clearer to you when you write about it, or does it become even more complicated once it’s out there in song form?

I think it does become more complicated, actually. My gender identity, which I don’t really have adequate words for, has always been very much known to me. I was very little when I asked my mom whether it was okay that I felt like a boy. I don’t think I even had any idea what it meant then. So writing it out, in some ways, was illuminating, because I was writing about things that I had felt for a long time. But I think it did further complicate things. I had a song that I cut from the record called “I Could Be a Good Father to Your Kids.” I cut it for a bunch of reasons, but one of them was just, I wasn’t sure that was exactly what I was trying to say. I seemed to be disrupting the binary only to put myself back in the binary. It really confused me. Because I didn’t feel that that was exactly what I wanted to say, I cut it.

I think one thing that this album did help with was illuminating a link between my in-betweenness and the in-betweenness that I feel about the whole world. I shy away from ideas like truth and things like that. I believe there’s infinite realities, if any. That philosophical thinking, since writing this record, whether it’s accurate or not, I linked that with my own liminal space.

I think being in a position where people make certain assumptions about you that aren’t really true to your internal experience, that sets you up to see more liminal spaces in other things, to some degree. Things aren’t always what they appear to be categorically.

Exactly. I think that link became really clear.

The music itself on Joey is in some ways very traditional. The lyrics are obviously plumbing these spaces that are pretty new in music, but your songwriting and production and the instruments you use, these all have longstanding roots in American culture. What draws you to this folk rock sound that you use in your music?

I’ve been thinking about that. I am influenced for sure by music that I hear now. When I was writing Joey, I went to see a friend of a friend play at a venue nearby, and I loved this guy’s music. I went home and wrote the song “Ease.” I didn’t write it in one sitting, but I came out with this almost dragging, monotonous singing style, which is fairly new to me. So I am influenced by what I’m constantly interfacing with. That said, I think that’s all filtered through the music and the sounds that were so important to me growing up and throughout my life. I was obsessed—I mean, obsessed—with certain music as a kid. I was obsessed with the Beatles. I used to make my friends go to Beatles school when they came over, which was awful, I’m sure. And Bob Dylan. Just really classic stuff. Everybody loves these people, but I couldn’t stop listening.

In high school that extended to more folk punk type stuff, like Neutral Milk Hotel or Against Me!. Those became very instrumental to the sound that I liked. All of these early influences are still what I look for. Or maybe not even what I look for, but what I present, what I write, what comes out of me. A structure that’s pretty straightforward. With Joey, I really tried to keep the instrumentation sparse, because I wanted that intimate feel. I almost wanted to do the whole thing as a bedroom recording, but I also wanted to have some arrangement. I don’t have the skill or chops as of now to do that.

I think one thing that this album did help with was illuminating a link between my in-betweenness and the in-betweenness that I feel about the whole world.

It’s cool that you mention Against Me!, because they were such an important band for the queer kids at my high school. It’s funny, because we were all listening to someone that we didn’t know was a woman yet, a queer woman. Maybe there’s a subliminal undercurrent in that music that made sense 10 years later when Laura Jane Grace came out. Do you think there is a queerness in music itself, not just in lyrics, but in the way that people think about writing songs?

I don’t know. I really tripped out about that exact thing, because in high school I didn’t have any idea that she was a woman at all. And I loved it so much. It just filled a need of mine that I didn’t even know was there. I don’t want to generalize too much, but I think that being queer does for a lot of people complicate the binary, language, the world that they are living in, and also just the world that they see. I don’t exactly know how, but I would be willing to bet that living within this complexity must manifest in music. I think that must have been a huge reason for why Against Me! did resonate with those communities.

You sing in a way that is very immediately recognizable. Is that something that has always come naturally to you, or is that a vocal style that you developed?

It’s so funny. I think about what my voice would sound like a lot, because I have no idea. Nobody really knows what they sound like to other people. I know that when I first started singing, I tried really hard to sing really low in my range, because I wanted to present as a boy. Or not even present as a boy, but… I’m speaking in overly simplistic terms because that’s how my brain always works and I struggle to transcend the bold lines in my brain. When I was younger they were very much there. I tried to sing really way below my range. I remember one day my friend Matthew, my best, oldest friend—he’s queer and we go way back and I love him, and he’s very honest, and he said to me, “You write great songs, but you can’t sing well enough. So get on that.”

I didn’t really think that much about it. I mean, it didn’t feel that good, but I think after that I started to let myself actually sing a little more. Only with Summer Valentine did I really go into my higher range. Then Joey feels a lot more natural in my range and in my style. It feels like I am really comfortable with what I’m singing and how I’m singing it. It may be what it is because of certain stylistic choices that I’ve made in the past, but it doesn’t feel that way now. It feels like I’ve settled into something. But who knows? Maybe on my next one I’ll recognize that this was just another stylistic choice.