Caught Between the Exotic and the Grotesque

We talked to Simona Kapitolina about her debut album as herself.

Aug 1 2014, 9:01am

Photo: Kane Daniel

Simona Kapitolina has released records as Fluorescent and as part of Ana Nicole. She runs a label, Girls Who Smoke Poke. She's a DJ, founding gender-inclusive Melbourne night The Shock of the New. She's also, after the release of Exotic Ladies Of Birobidzhan, a musician under her own name.

Sonically, the album is not a large deviation from these projects. If synthesisers are a Babel, Simona makes them speak a dark, insistent kind of language. One in the same family as new beat, electro or variously prefixed waves. She's also fluent in the lachrymose dialect of My Bloody Valentine or Joy Division. As she said to me, "I've always been really fascinated by electronics and shoegaze and how they can interact. It's always seemed like unfinished business to me."

More important than an evolution in name in songwriting ability—Exotic Ladies Of Birobidzhan negotiates emotional corners her other releases would have driven straight off—the album speaks of a more profound, personal evolution: Simona's transition into an openly transgendered woman.

Birobidzhan is a real place. A kind of proto-Israel in the deep, China-bordering south-east of Russia established by Josef Stalin to, in part, reconcile Soviet communist ideology with the placelessness of Jewish identity. The greater territory goes by the comically Soviet 'Jewish Autonomous Oblast' and—quite inadvertently yet completely ironically—its national flag is, essentially, the pride flag, universal symbol of queer people everywhere.

So, rainbow-coloured coincidences aside, how does a doomed Zion connect with a Melbourne musician with an previous life as an architect? Simona was operating both as Fluorescent and an exhibition designer at the Jewish Museum of Australia. In 2010 she had just supported Ladytron—a coup made bittersweet due to her early, invisible spot in the lineup. Undoubtedly genderqueer, still closeted as trans and a very new father she says at this point "I had just completely just turned into a man. And I hated it and it was fucked and I just became silent, and the curator of an exhibition I was doing at the time which was Yiddish culture and how it had moved to Carlton, how it'd moved to Melbourne, said to me 'you are just so quiet, I've never seen you like this in the ten years I've known you, what's wrong?' And I went 'I don't know'"

And, of course, it might occur to you that you know exactly what was wrong. And, of course, you're a person who has never acted unknowingly against your heart or best interests ever in your life. Consider that, when broaching coming out at nineteen years old, her psychiatrist advised she can remain in that awful closet or she could "become a sex worker or you could become a drag performer" and that "no one is going to want you". 'Want' used, I assume, with a sense of public, permitted desire rather than a covert lust.

Simona lived in that terrible gap, between existing invisibly like the Bolshevik Jews of Birobidzhan or living as an object of impermissible desire. Simona says in the face of this she fantasised about self-abnegation, of yielding, thinking she'd "might as well go and be a sex worker in Exotic Ladies Of Birobidzhan and just make techno and just DJ and just be a sex worker by day or by night and then knock off at 3am and just play my own records." Fantasising that "it's the end of the world and it's post-utopia and life's awesome and I have no family. Because that's where I felt as if I needed to go."

So Exotic Ladies Of Birobidzhan is biographic in the way few albums are. The sound of Simona finding the courage to shed the masculinity she "felt as if I needed to go into in order to realise anything" even though she didn't realise that until she started to sit down and rehearse.

It's an incredibly personal album that not enough people are likely to hear. Being a queer musician in Melbourne who wants their voice to be heard beyond queer communities, beyond the circumscribed places they've traditionally existed (or been allowed to exist), is still an incredibly challenging thing. That it's still "really difficult to rock up to the Tote at a cis, hetero gig and walk up to someone and say" here Simona affects a joyful tone of voice "hey! here's my CD".

Gatekeepers are going to keep on keeping those gates. Whether it's a single turd lozenge at the Tote or a panoply of media organisations paying lip service to allyship without any effort paid towards representation. Any three white, male teenagers who have learnt a few guitar chords stand as much chance of having their record played on the radio as Simona. Janus is a transphobe.

If only it weren't so. Exotic Ladies Of Birobidzhan is a writhing rope of techno and pop. 'Discothèque In Extremis' is a particularly delicious slice of propulsive synth weight, like the third act of Fritz Lang's Metropolis written in MIDI horns and floor toms. It's an album that's opened up Simona to accusations of Jewish cultural appropriation (something she's acutely aware of and sensitive to), one that could have people reaching to her as some sort of standard bearer for transgendered artists in Melbourne.

Though she seems prepared for both, Simona says she wants people to look at the album as an expression of "a story, as an experience. I write from experience, I don't want to speak for other people, I don't want to speak for other people's experiences. Everything that's on this album comes from an emotion or an experience I've had". Here she let out one of her great, abrupt laughs. Sounding of equal parts pain, joy and release. Kind of like the album itself.

See Simona Kapitolina perform this Saturday August 2nd at Ferdydurke