WHEN an artist gives an album the same title as their name, it’s usually to make some kind of statement.
Fleetwood Mac (album #10): Introduces Stevie Nicks.
The Beatles (album #9): Dispatches alter-ego Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Blur (album #5): Disengages from Britpop.
Britney (album #3): Surname no longer necessary.
The Libertines (album #2): Documents the demise of The Libertines. Madonna (album #1): “I have arrived.”
In Evelyn Ida Morris’ case, there’s a personal announcement. Evelyn’s album is the first not to be released under the name of Pikelet, and the first in which Evelyn identifies as non-binary. For reasons they will explain in our interview, they’ve also highlighted their gender identity in that digital affidavit, the press release.
“These new works are lush, post-classical compositions that deal with the experience of being non-binary and making sense of that experience. Evelyn uses they/them pronouns and does not identify as male or female.”
It would be a nerve-racking move, but then, Evelyn has never taken the path of least resistance.
As a multi-instrumentalist, particularly as a percussionist, they’ve stretched themselves by playing with acts as diverse as Ariel Pink, Grand Salvo, Clare Bowditch, The Boredoms, and POND’s Nick Allbrook. As Pikelet, they’ve released four albums since 2007, solo (but for an array of loop pedals) and also with a band.
Their paid gig is working as an engineer at Phaedra Studios, but for years the unpaid gig was spearheading LISTEN – a feminist collective prioritising marginalised people in Australian music.
This initiative grew from being an online space to becoming a powerful industry body, publishing articles, putting on gigs and spawning a label. Most impactful has been the advocacy work. In 2014, LISTEN made its first public appearance at Face the Music with a panel about gender in music. In 2015, the collective co-presented three panels at BIGSOUND – The Great Imbalance, Safe Spaces and Ask a Feminist. And in 2016 it launched its own bi-annual conference in Melbourne.
Its early lobbying for safe spaces and guidelines for venues – alongside Save Live Australia’s Music (SLAM) – flowed into the current Sexual Harassment Taskforce and its venue pilot training and education program.
Evelyn has since handed on that baton, but credits LISTEN with introducing them to gender politics and their own non-binary identity. The tracks on Evelyn Ida Morris – mostly one-take piano pieces with minimal background texture, many of them instrumentals – are an expression of realising that identity.
Evelyn, I’ll start with an embarrassing admission: I have few musical reference points with which to navigate your album. Can you help me out?
Classical nerds can probably tell it’s French composer-inspired, so Debussy and Ravel. I’m obviously not writing anything as complex as their stuff, but there are harmonic choices in it that are definitely hinting at those two. In my 20s I listened to heaps of Debussy. A lot of classical music I found too cerebral, whereas Debussy and Ravel had this amazing emotional quality that I connected with.
You had some classical piano lessons, but you’re mainly an autodidact. Is there an imposter syndrome that comes with putting an album out that’s just you and your classical chops?
Whenever I told people that I was terrified to put it out four years, they were like, why? Partly it was because of the non-binary feels – it was all a bit too intense – but also, there’s this feeling of this is not really my world. All my music before has been pop or experimental and it doesn’t fit into either of those entirely.
We heard forays of this new piano-led style on the last Pikelet album, Tronc, with ‘Dear Unimaginables’.
That song was definitely the first attempt at trying to come at non-binary feelings. It was a song I wrote from an affirmation that it’s okay not to know everything all the time. It was a significant step to this album coming out.
Does the stripped-back format have significance to outing your non-binary identity?
It’s also because I realised that with Pikelet I was overcomplicating things by putting lots and lots of layers on it, like an expression of my confusion over what my identity was. I was trying to make it something fantastic, wild and crazy and complicated, when really I was mainly just sad [laughs]. Music is so often about putting a happy face over uncertain feelings.
Like having lots of layers means layers you can hide behind?
Exactly. It’s criticism that a couple of really good songwriter friends had given me over the years but I was always like, whatever, it’s fine – I like it. At the time I needed that safety. Then I guess after doing LISTEN for three years and feeling like I can do more, and feeling less afraid of being openly contrary in public, it was easier to be contrary in terms of my gender as well.
Does having it under your own name signify a new beginning?
The music feels very close to my internal narrative so I didn’t feel I needed a pseudonym. And the more I think about it, Pikelet does feel like the past. It feels like there are two different versions of me, one pre-LISTEN, one post-LISTEN.
Was LISTEN that life-changing that there was a BC and AD?
It was actually, which is really funny because there have been lots of music events throughout my life that I thought would change me forever, like playing the Boredoms gigs, touring with Leonard Cohen with Clare Bowditch, touring with Broadcast – my favourite band ever. All those things, I thought, “Wow, I’ll be a different person now”, a bit like how you’d expect to feel after going backpacking overseas. But having those three years of LISTEN, of nose-to-the-grind looking at everything critically, changed everything inside of me. My non-binary existed in me before that only as depression. Finding the language through LISTEN meant I could be this thing.
So reassessing your identity coincided with being involved with LISTEN.
From the beginning of LISTEN, when I began to meet people who were speaking about their experience as trans people, that was when I started to learn about it. I was really just clueless when it came to identity before LISTEN. I had to learn quickly, because I had to consider people being welcomed to that space.
The thankless task of the Facebook group admin.
I’ve always known my gender was different, I just found language for it through LISTEN. Once I started to learn about it, it was like, this is definitely resonating with me. But I felt unable to be public for a long time because I felt like people would think I was trying to cop out of being called ‘cis’. I was being viewed as a cis feminist and I had to run with that, and I had to speak for LISTEN before speaking for myself. If I was to speak about myself as a non-binary person and try and put that into a hostile space, it would be like I was centring my experience.
When my body appears:
as a list of experiences
A list of sensations
Without others’ assessment:
where do I live then?
‘The Body Appears’, Evelyn Ida Morris
It’s terrifying when you first start speaking out on issues in these online spaces. You very quickly need to learn the language and etiquette.
And you also need to learn the understanding that if people don’t like you, that’s okay. There are other songs on the next album – which I’ve already recorded – that are directly addressing that, like that feeling that I got through feminism of, “I’m saying things and some people don’t get it and they really hate me for it, and having to be fine with that.” That took a long time. There were many times that I was really devastated because I was trying to assess how much people hated me. Now it’s great because everyone can say what they think a little bit more, while also being aware that there are other people they didn’t know about before that they have to be considerate of. All these intersections now are visible. It’s a good thing.
There’s much controversy around gender identity in the UK at the moment, because of proposals to reform the Gender Recognition Act. A person will no longer need a gender dysphoria diagnosis to get their birth certificate changed, and will instead be able to self-declare. It’s brought underlying transphobia to the surface.
We’re in a phase over here where erasure is the problem. Experience as a trans person, and especially as a non-binary person, is not visible to people. But it would just take one thing in mainstream media for more overt transphobia. For example, there was a story about a trans woman [Hannah Mouncey] who wanted to join a women’s football league, and that immediately brought up a lot of transphobia. There is already real everyday violence for transfeminine people. That’s part of the reason it felt it was so important to say this is what this album is about. There are a lot of songs without words, but they represent the fact that I often don’t even have the words to express it. Most interviews that I’ve had to do so far, I’ve had to explain what non-binary is, and say how I experience it. There’s not a real great depth of understanding about it. It’s like, “Oh, so you don’t feel like a man or a woman, okay. So what DO you feel like?”
There’s the view that being non-binary is a political statement.
Yeah, yeah, of course. And in some ways this is a political statement. It’s a statement that it is important for experiences to be visible that are not already highly visible. That doesn’t mean I need to explain what my experience is from A-Z but it’s important that I say, “Hey, we’re here.” I know a lot of musicians who struggle with being non-binary and being public. And it’s partly because we know there are so many more difficult experiences in trans-ness. Transitioning is something that people can understand when they think about it, but it doesn’t make it less difficult for the individual and hard to get through. I guess what I’m hoping for is that it becomes so normalised that it’s more a common practice for people to ask, “What are your pronouns?” So that it’s not just up to the non-binary person to bring it up.
The thing you can’t remember
Is the thing I can’t forget
And you probably can’t remember
Coz it hasn’t happened yet
‘Forecast’, Evelyn Ida Morris
One of the songs on the album, ‘Forecast’, seems to be about the difficulty of having to explain yourself to loved ones, and now you have to do so to the media by flagging your gender identity in your press release. You’re a glutton for punishment.
Yeah [laughs]. One of the difficulties of being non-binary is it’s so hard for people to see it. It’s not like I can dress a certain way and people go, “I know what you are.” That’s true of any identity – anyone’s only going to get the version of you that they perceive you to be. But it’s frustrating not to be able to wave a particular flag that says, “This is what I am”, and then once I’m out I’m out forever and everyone just knows. Instead, you have to come out every time you talk to somebody, so I’ve been looking for methods that in every communication I can tell people somehow, without having to constantly explain.
Like your email signature: “Evelyn Ida Morris uses They/Them pronouns and identifies as non-binary.”
Exactly, that was a real breakthrough for me. I thought, “Holy shit, I don’t even have to tell people.” Same with putting the album out – it’s in my press release. That seems much better. I’ve had to contact journalists after they’ve reviewed the single and ask them to change the pronouns.
Do you ever slip up with pronouns yourself?
Yeah, all the time. It’s often when I’m feeling a bit bad about myself; it will be internalised misogyny when I’m doing it. Or other times you just forget. You’ve been ‘she’ your whole life. I usually just make a joke about it.
Your second album as Evelyn Ida Morris is also recorded and waiting in the wings. Does it have a similar sound?
There are four or five pieces that are piano, and five or six that are guitars, synths, drums, that kind of thing. It was finished at the same time as this record, but it felt important to put this one out first. Because the next one is a lot do with how to be in love with somebody when you are also living in an identity that people don’t get.
Almost like a part two.
Yeah, because otherwise people would only interpret it as ‘It’s a woman in love.’