Meet the Sultry Miss (Coyote) Grace
Photo: Trev McKee
When you see the queer folk duo Coyote Grace perform live for the first time, you can't help but walk away feeling good. Made up of one part sultry femme, Ingrid Elizabeth, and one part hunky transman, Joe Stevens, Coyote Grace is one band to keep your eye on—which by the looks of them, shouldn't be hard to do.
Both musical and romantic partners, the two have perfected the recipe to a great live show: equal parts profound lyrics and sharp witty banter. And though their relationship—during which Stevens transitioned from FTM—has evolved into something less romantic, it is in no way less fervent or intertwined.
Curve caught up with Elizabeth—the fiery redheaded bassist of the acoustic twosome— during a brief break between two tours, one of which they spent opening for the Indigo Girls. Somewhere between talks of cartwheels and organic farming, I learned that Elizabeth knows exactly who she is: She's folk, she's "down-home," and she's the kind of high-femme lesbian whose lipstick is always as bright as her hair. And she's the unabashed, unapologetic woman who isn't afraid to yell it all from the rooftops.
How did did Coyote Grace come about?
Coyote Grace was a child born of love. Joe and I started playing music as two women, fell in love, and shortly thereafter, he came out as trans. You know, just like the old nursery rhyme, "First comes love, then comes transition. Then comes a music career in the baby carriage."
[Laughs] I haven't heard that version before—love it.
[Laughs] Yeah, so we went through the transition process together in a romantic partnership, and over six years later, we've come out on the other side with an unconventional and unconditional love for each other. Even though we're no longer steady dates, we are still best friends, business partners and the loving co-creators of Coyote Grace. We're family.
That's wonderful. So you and Joe have a big year ahead—you guys are opening for the Indigo Girls for five shows, followed by a Northwest tour with Girlyman. Did all of this come out of the blue or were you expecting 2010 to be the year of the down-home folk duo?
Well, we put a lot of love and energy into Coyote Grace over the last four years and we had no idea how long it would take for things to start shooting out of the ground, but it seems like it is. We always have high hopes and we've put our shoulder to the wheel for quite awhile, so it's not absolutely shocking but it is such a blessing and a wonderful thing to really feel upward movement, acknowledgement and support not only from our community, but also from our mentors and idols, like the Indigo Girls and Girlyman.
Are you nervous to open for such and established and acclaimed band as the Indigo Girls?
We had an opportunity to open for them two years ago in Seattle. We were very, very nervous then, so the fact that we've kind of already broken the seal on this feels like we're not quite as nervous. And since then we've really tightened up our act, not only musically but also on stage with our audience...I think we're way more prepared this time to take it on. It's quite an honor, quite a treat.
No kidding. What are you looking forward to most about this time around with them?
I'm looking forward to actually getting to play music with them, [and also] get to know them a little bit better because we only did one show with them last time and it was pretty much like a dream. Sometimes I doubt that it even happened, but there are actually YouTube videos to prove it [laughs]. So I guess this time what I'm hoping for in my selfish heart is some after-show jams with them, and then also to get to know them better as people, because in the end all of our heroes, idols and queer icons are all just people. I always want our fans to know that about us, and so I want to know that about them.
I bet you want to pick their brains a little bit about the industry and success, because it seems like that is where you guys are headed...
Yeah, absolutely. It's funny, I think Joe and I were both a little star stuck when we first met them. I'm probably going to have to make a cheat-sheet list to look at and remind myself what to say.
So you're not immune to being starstruck then?
Oh, not at all. It actually kind of takes someone who I hold a very, very, very high opinion of for me to get really star struck. But in general there are just so many things that you want to say, and they all try to come rushing out of your brain at once through this itty-bitty hole that is your mouth, and you can only squeeze out so much [laughs]. So I just tend to clam up.
Coyote Grace released the Buck Naked EP on Valentines Day, has it been a successful release so far?
It has. It's been great—it's still very new. We just completed a tour of the Southwest, and that was the first shows that we actually had them for sale. And we're getting great feedback from people. We recorded Ear to the Ground and Buck Naked at the same time, and we felt that Ear to the Ground had the cohesive down-home feel of Sonoma County. The songs all felt like they fit together, so that's why we made that album. And then basically everything that was left over from the recording session ended up becoming Buck Naked—a lot of which are more quirky, controversial or political songs of ours…that I think our fans will appreciate. I mean, anyone out there in the general public or media would get something out of it as well, but it's more for our fans so that they are able to see the exposed underbelly of Coyote Grace.
Speaking of Ear to the Ground—on that album compared to Boxes and Bags, your voice has a larger presence. Was that a conscious decision? And will we be hearing more of you on future albums?
Yes, that is absolutely a conscious thing. Mostly because I'm more of a budding songwriter and Joe is way more established. He's been writing songs for over 10 years. So when we recorded Boxes and Bags, it was the very beginning of our career—as small-time as it was—and we only had his original songs to do. I hadn't really written any songs that were ready for the stage yet and I was mostly singing cover songs. So by the time our next studio album rolled around, not only had I written songs that I could sing, but Joe and I had really worked on the dynamics of our dynamic duo, and had really put forth more energy into having more harmonies, and having a more balanced presence of my voice and his. [We] definitely continue to evolve and find that balance within our group. And I do believe that future albums will have as much if not more a presence of my voice.
Yay! To the joy of lesbians everywhere!
[Laughs] I've gotten pretty good feedback from lots of fans…that they really enjoy the pronounced presence of my songs and my voice on our newer albums, so hopefully that trend will continue.
So are you guys working on another album, or are you just focusing on touring?
Mostly our energy is going toward touring. We are pretty busy, however I think musicians are always finding that balance between performing the songs that are already on their albums and performing the songs that are new, to keep it fresh for them. Because I know as a fan and as a music lover myself, I really want to hear the songs that I want to hear, and I'm also open to hearing some new songs from the artist. But I definitely want that balance as a listener, and so we kind of come from that approach as musicians. We do have some new stuff in the works. We definitely have enough songs that we could go in and record an album right now, but time and money aren't necessarily on our side in that endeavor. So we're just going to put them on the backburner, keep them cooking for awhile, and once things have settled down with touring and we have the time to go into the studio…then we'll definitely put out another album—probably in the next year.
That's good news. Obviously as a musician you perform songs over and over, so what is your favorite song to perform live?
That's a good question. I would say it definitely changes. We like to keep it pretty fresh with doing lots of different cover songs, and that kind of mixes it up. But I guess consistently, I really enjoy performing the song "Summertime (Girls Like Me)," mostly because I just love the response it gets from the audience. A lot of times people don't see it coming…and at the end there's certain lines that make people's eyebrows raise…and there's just lots of little parts of it that grab people and kind of make them connect—and my favorite part of performing is connecting with the audience. And it also helps that I actually get to drum on my bass a little bit—I always wanted to be a drummer as a kid, somehow I ended up playing this upright bass, but I like it when I get to do both.
How do you guys typically come out to your audience as a queer band?
We have our different ways of coming out. Every show is completely different because our audience is always different, but most often we let the songs speak for themselves. Through our songwriting it's very, very clear who we are. It's poetic but its explicit, so if they give half an ear to it they are going to know exactly on which side our bread is buttered, so to speak. I feel like often times when I sing "Summertime" it is very much a coming out process, and it's one that is very easy for me because it's my words, and it's in the way that I want it. There are times where were doing shows and that song is on the set list, and I'm looking around at the crowd and it's like, uh, this is a little scary, I'm not sure how people are going to receive this! But at the same time, I know that it's not only important for me in my own personal journey to come out to the room of people, but it's also really important for other queer-femme lesbians like me to have that kind of visibility in the world. [It's important] to put that out there so that people can look at a pretty girl in a skirt with glitter and lipstick and be like, what, she likes girls? That's really an important part of the activism side of Coyote Grace that I enjoy.
[We also] tend to use humor on stage, because we don't want it to be something really heavy that we're handing to the audience to hold for the rest of the show. Joe will make jokes like, "Don't be fooled by the beard, it was expensive." And I can say something like, "Don't be fooled by the skirt, I wear the pants."
[Laughs] Yeah, I think everything's a little easier to absorb with humor. So has it been difficult for you to maintain your lesbian identity while being part of a trans partnership, and therefore appearing heterosexual to many?
Audiences may see a hetero-looking couple on stage, but things are not as they seem…on many levels. It has definitely been very challenging. I know a lot of feminine women in the lesbian community who are often side by side with trans guys, and even though they both came from the lesbian community and they both very much identify with the lesbian community, it's not as obvious anymore exactly where they stand or where they came from. So for me, I feel like it has been a challenge, however, my entire life has been an uphill battle to embody and prove who I am not only within the queer community, but also to the greater world at large.
I feel like a lot of other femmes I know have a pretty hearty stash of tricks and tools in their handbag to pull out to make sure it's really clear where it is that they are coming from—they have to be a little louder about it than people who appear more stereotypically gay or lesbian. So, it is constantly a challenge, but at the same time, I am so proud to be who I am and part of the queer-femme community that I am. Joe and I both are very clear about who we are, and Joe very much supports and gives lots of space for me to voice exactly who I am so that people don't have to make assumptions about where I stand.
You say that femme's have a lot of tricks in their handbags to maintain visibility, what's one of yours?
The fact that I love to present very feminine and the fact that I really love women—it definitely is one of those crossroads that has sharpened my wit more than I could ever say. I think just having sharp, to the point one liners that come out of a very sweet, docile appearing person—I think that catches people off guard. Of course in this moment I can't think of any that are hilarious or clever [laughs], but I think leaving them in the dust of confusion and walking away from the situation is often my best strategy.
So femme visibility is definitely a point of activism for you, and I remember you telling me that you go to some sort of a femme convention, correct?
Yes, it is a femme conference that happens once every two years.
Why is that important to you? What is the purpose and outcome of that conference?
A lot of people think, Oh you're just going to talk about shoes and lipstick, aren't you? They can belittle it all they want, but honestly, with any kind of grass roots organizing it takes people with a common vision and a common experience to get in a room and just hash it out. There is such a spectrum of where everybody is coming from, yet there is a really strong common denominator of what we're all dealing with: We're all queer, we're all feminine, we're all really proud of who we are, and we want to get validation from each other that we are beautiful and strong and unique…and also from within our queer community and the general mainstream world. I think to see other women and how they do femme is really inspiring and awesome to me because I struggle with people not acknowledging that I'm some kind of visible gay. [And also within the femme community] sometimes I feel like my stilettos aren't tall enough or my lipstick isn't bright enough, or whatever. And I think a lot of people deal with that—like, I'm not gay enough, I'm not trans enough, I'm not hip enough, or whatever it is that they are struggling to meet the stereotype. To go there and to see every slice of the femme pie that you can imagine is awesome, and it is such a reflection for me that I can be my own breed of femme…and I can still be acknowledged within the community as femme…and I can go back to my community and feel really fed and empowered. I could probably give a dissertation on femme visibility.
[Laughs] The world could probably use a dissertation.
That's actually something that I say to audiences when I'm dedicating "Summertime." I'll be like, This is for all the femmes in the audience. If you don't know what a femme is, see me afterwards for the dissertation. [Laughs]
You've said before that your motto is "be the kind of gay you'd like to see in the word," can you elaborate on that?
I didn't have any role models [growing up] for what it was like to be feminine and love women and be OK with it. You know, there were no out people, quote-unquote, and the only people who were so painfully lesbian were very sporty or very androgynous…I adored them and totally admired their bravery to be who they are, but when I discovered that I liked girls too, I was like, "Oh, but I can't wear that drag, I can't play that role, that's not me." And so it made me feel like maybe that wasn't who I was. By owning the fact that I am really feminine, and owning the fact that I'm really down-home, and owning the fact that I really love women and I'm really comfortable in my skin—by putting that out there to people, I can only hope that there are other people out there that will see that and they will say, "Well, that's kind of me, I could do that." I put [who I am] out there and hopefully I will be the face of femme, I will be the face of lesbian, I will be the face of a folk musician, and somebody else might see that…and that might inspire them.
Alright , I have a few fun ones for you now. Who is your celebrity crush?
That's such a good question. I feel so out of touch—I don't keep up with pop culture these days. But I think at the end of the day—she really was the one who turned the tides for me—Angeline Jolie. [Laughs] At the end of the day, those lips, man! Breakfast, lunch and dinner!
What is the last book that you read?
I actually re-read it, because it's one of my favorites—Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg. I'm so happy that I read it again—I read it five years ago when I was in a very different point in my life, and it served me so well then. And it's really neat to have it come back around and get so many different things out of it for where I am now. It's the book that keeps on giving, that's for sure.
Agreed. So I'm engaged to a redhead, and I have a sneaking suspicion that you firecrackers want to take over the world, can you confirm this?
Well, let's just say there are meetings. There are plans that involve lots of sunscreen! I think the world will be a better place for it, and other than that I don't think I'm at liberty to share much else. But trust me, it's a good thing.
Sunscreen and parasol umbrellas!
Yes! I have a wide variety of parasols and I highly suggest that anybody you know invest in them—it's the way of the future.
Anything else you want to say to your lesbian fans?
The only thing I would say is that long ago in a galaxy far, far away—before Coyote Grace existed—I remember reading Curve magazine and being so grateful for a really public, visible community like that, and also thinking, "I'm never going to be in one of those magazines. I don't look gay enough and I am very part of the trans community, so I'll never be in there." I'm really, really grateful to have a voice and to be a face in this community, and stand on my own for my own art and my own queer lesbian community.