I did something new yesterday, which is cool because finding new things to do is becoming more and more rare as I get older and older. What I did was listen to a guy sing a song, and then hear a girl sing a song, and it was the same song... and it was sung by the same person.
Let me explain. The new album What Chaos Is Imaginary by LA-based band Girlpool was released on Friday, and I’d been a low-key fan of this lo-fi band since I first heard them maybe five years ago. After hearing their name around town for awhile, I recall seeing and enjoying the two young ladies who made up the band, Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad, on an NPR Tiny Desk concert in 2015, and then was impressed by them while watching the live stream from Coachella in 2016. Their 2017 album Powerplant expanded their sound by adding drums and more involved arrangements. They’ve definitely been on my radar since then.
As you may know, I have a weekend ritual along with Christina; on Saturday mornings along with our coffee, I listen to as many new indie/alternative music releases as conveniently possible, and I noted that the new Girlpool was out. When I played the first track on the album, I immediately knew that the direction they’d taken from a musical perspective was going to be right up my alley. Chaos is a sonically rich, textured album that goes far beyond the fun yet simplistic vibe with which they’d began.
A Different Voice
I was slightly perplexed, though, about one thing, as I played the phenomenal opening track “Lucy’s”. It appeared, by the sound of a lower-register voice taking the lead vocal, that there was a boy in the Girlpool. My first inclination was to assume that the band had a guest singer appearing on the track, which I thought — especially for the opening song on the album — was kind of bizarre. And yet, in a world where guest appearances on albums are hardly rare, I didn’t think too much of it.
But as I progressed through the album, and took a closer look at the recent photos the band had posted, the truth became more apparent to me. Cleo Tucker, at some point, had begun the process of transitioning gender — now preferring the “they/them” pronoun set — and the hormone treatment had caused their voice to deepen, as one would expect.
It should be obvious to anyone who knows me well that I am completely supportive of people who choose a non-binary or gender fluid direction in life. But this was an area, as a musician and performer, that I’d never previously considered. One’s voice is a huge part of one’s identity as a singer… the main part, it could be said. There have been other well-known musicians who transitioned genders; Wendy Carlos, the hugely respected synthesizer music pioneer, was born Walter Carlos. But her gender change had zero effect on her ability to compose and perform on keyboard instruments, while Cleo’s transition — as a singer-songwriter (key word “singer”) — resulted in a massive change to the way the audience would perceive their music.
Before I say anything else, I do want to state that I listened to the whole new Girlpool album and felt it was the best thing I’d heard from them by far. I like the sound of Cleo’s new voice, and feel it works well contrasting against Harmony’s harmony (sorry, couldn’t help myself). But still, the thought of undergoing such a drastic sonic change is unnerving to me as a music creator and performer. It would be, as I mentioned to Christina, like my having to abandon the guitar entirely and only having a bass to play, forever. I do love playing bass, but I feel I’d miss the guitar.
To make matters even less clear, I’d heard that many of the songs on this album were those that the two members of the band had done on their own, and some were several years old. With the awareness that Cleo’s transition had begun pretty recently — in the last year or so — I did some Internet sleuthing and sure enough, Cleo has a Soundcloud page that includes several demos that ended up on the album, including that lead track I'd liked so much, then known as “Lucy’s in the Sky”. So I clicked to play the track and there it was; a slightly less-polished but still very good version of the song, but sung a full octave up, in Cleo’s pre-transition voice.
"Lucy's" from What Chaos Is Imaginary (2019)
"Lucy's in the Sky" from Cleo Tucker's demo (2016)
Side note: I just freaking love listening to demos of any kind, by any band. It’s super neat to hear how the song develops between the initial idea and what happens after it goes through the process of working in the studio with producers and so on. I’m seriously considering gathering the demos from the They Stole My Crayon album and offering them as a free download companion piece. I should probably ask Christina and Bunny about that at some point. I also dug up Harmony Tividad’s solo demos, by the way, and enjoyed hearing what they became on the Girlpool album, which seem very similar in process to the acoustic demos Bunny did that we eventually turned into Crayon songs.
Anyway, now I had a whole other question of sorts: which version of the song that Cleo created, pre- and post-transition, was the more enjoyable of the two? I’ll start by answering that question from my role as a fellow musician and music producer... while both versions are generally similar (meaning the song was well developed before they started the new album), the album version is a way better recording and has a ton of texture and vibe that had yet to develop on the demo. But as a listener, I had always enjoyed the clear tones of Cleo’s feminine vocal range, and I had to ask myself if the experience of listening to this song had been negatively impacted by it now being in a male vocal range, an octave lower than that of the demo.
I found that the answer was more clear than I’d originally expected. Cleo’s voice is that of a person who knows how to impart feeling to a song, and the song is performed extraordinarily well regardless of the vocal range. The voice Cleo had used for the demo was great; the voice Cleo used for the album version had changed, but was also great. And perhaps that’s something we can consider whenever we start comparing and contrasting anything in life; different doesn’t have to mean better or worse. It just can be different. Is yellow better than blue? Is the brie inherently superior to the camembert? Is a labradoodle a better dog than a Boston terrier?
Subjective tastes being what they are, I wouldn’t fault someone who simply preferred Cleo’s old voice to their new one, or vice-versa. You can listen to both versions above and decide for yourself. But I can tell you one thing: when I first heard “Lucy’s” and wasn’t at all sure who was singing, I knew I genuinely liked the song a whole lot, right away... and that should probably tell you that art is independent from chromosomes or testosterone or anything else that really has nothing to do with one’s creative soul.