Eli Conley
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Eli Conley

Sacramento, California, United States | Established. Jan 01, 2008

Sacramento, California, United States
Established on Jan, 2008
Solo Folk Country




"Eli Conley at the Back Room"

Local singer-songwriter Eli Conley’s tender storytelling voice and intimate fireside acoustic songwriting brings to mind the kind of bare bones honest music that proliferated in the early ‘70s when the term “singer-songwriter” emerged. Originally from a small rural town in Virginia, Conley soaked up American roots music, as well as ‘40s and ‘50s Broadway hits. His music emanates with this beautiful juxtaposition, much in the same way that his small-town roots has come to enhance his current urban sensibilities. His recent sophomore record, Strong and Tender, is an earnest effort that hones in on life’s tiny details, while still addressing the bigger issues like death, aging and love. Conley founded Queer Country West Coast, a series that features Bay Area country artists from the LGBTQ community. This show at the Back Room in Berkeley is part of the series and also features Oakland-based bandThe Secret Emchy Society. - East Bay Express

"Eli Conley’s Music Opens Spaces to Connect the Queer and Trans Communities"

One of my favorite blog features, unexpectedly, has been my occasional series of interviews with musicians traveling through Pittsburgh. I’m not a huge live music fan, but I do enjoy the chance to engage performers around issues that matter to my readers. And those encounters have in turn given me a greater appreciation for live music performances. Read my conversation with Joe Stevens and my reflection on Sleater-Kinney.

Eli Conley came to my attention through a conversation with a mutual friend. I was immediately struck by his words and his awareness of the issues that matter to me. Then I listened to his music. I had to talk with him and he was gracious enough to make some time for me.

Sue Kerr: Tell me about your first visit to Pittsburgh and your most vivid impression of our City.

Eli Conley: When I was in college at Oberlin, I spent a lot of time driving back and forth to Pittsburgh because my boyfriend at the time, Noah, lived in Squirrel Hill. One time we were driving together near Duquesne and we got stopped by the police at a drunk driving check point. Noah and I are both trans, and he had only recently started taking testosterone, so a lot of people read him as a teenager even though he was 29. I remember the cop looked at his license and was very surprised to see that he was born in 1977. He asked Noah if he’d started shaving yet! We laughed nervously as we drove away, relieved that the cop had been so surprised at his age that he didn’t notice the big “F” for female on his license.

That’s the biggest moment that sticks in my mind, but I also remember lots of good times in Pittsburgh. I don’t remember the name of the restaurant, but there was a Chinese place right around the corner from where Noah lived that had the best vegan dumplings. I’m going to have to find it when I come back to play in April!

Kerr: Are there any Pittsburgh performers (based here or born here) who influence you?

Conley: I actually just saw an amazing ballet in San Francisco the other day set to the music of Philip Glass. It was called Hummingbird, choreographed by Liam Scarlett, and it was very angular for a ballet. I don’t know that I would say my own music is influenced by Philip Glass’ compositions directly, but he’s certainly had a profound impact on American music as a whole, and that probably seeps in even for roots musicians like me. I’ll admit I had to do a little research to answer this question, and I discovered that so many visual artists who I love are from Pittsburgh, including Romare Bearden and Mary Cassatt, as well as queer artists like Keith Haring and Andy Warhol, and of course the writer Gertrude Stein.

Kerr: You mentioned the epidemic of violence against the trans community, especially trans women of color. How does your music contribute to the cultural shift that’s necessary to stop the epidemic?

Conley: I’ll admit that despite taking part in Transgender Day of Remembrance ceremonies over the past ten years, it has only been in the past couple of months that I have become aware of just how frequently queer and transgender people of color are murdered. That for every name and story I know, there are so many others I don’t. Reading the Pittsburgh Lesbian just now in preparation for this interview, I was so saddened to hear that Andre Gray, a Black gay man from Lawrenceville, disappeared in October under troubling circumstances and his family has not been able to find out what happened to him.

Being a white, professional class, trans man means that this is not something I have had to know in my bones. I could choose not to see it if it felt too painful to look. But I see it now.

Queer and transgender people of color have been resisting violence and organizing for liberation for as long as there has been oppression. Black queer activists like #BlackLivesMatter founders Patrisse Cullors and Alicia Garza and the women of Millennial Activists United in Ferguson are leading the movement to end state violence against Black people. Black queer people and transgender people of color took the podium at the national Creating Change conference recently to demand that mainstream LGBTQ organizations take concrete action to end the murders of LGBTQ people of color. A movement is growing.

I think it’s important to remember that we all have a choice. In this moment, will we white LGBTQ folks focus only on the issues that impact us directly? Or will we stand with Black people and other people of color for an end to anti-Black racism and white supremacy in all its forms, understanding that no one is free while others are oppressed?

I think we all have roles we can play in building a more just society, starting where we are. I’m in a trio with two other queer songwriters called Sugar in the Salt, and we’ve put together several benefit shows for Ferguson organizing. I helped organize a Black Lives Matter singing flash mob in a mall where I live, and I’m working on a song about police violence, the finality of death, and the power of people acting together for justice. It’s not done yet, but hopefully it will be by the time I come to Pittsburgh. I believe that the more people who take action, the more the culture will start to shift, and artists are an important part of that.

Kerr: You come from Virginia Appalachian country. Pittsburgh is often described as the “capital of Appalachia” — do you see any commonalities in terms of LGBTQ culture?

Conley: I grew up in Richmond and Ashland, Virginia, which are in the central part of the state, but my dad’s family has been in Appalachia for many generations, so I definitely have deep roots there. I think one thing about LGBTQ culture in smaller places like the small town where I grew up and even smaller cities like Pittsburgh is that LGBTQ people have to learn to connect across difference. I’ve lived in the Bay Area for the past seven years, and if I wanted to I could attend a gay sci-fi book club, play at a queer open mic and go to a queer dance party every week! There are things about that that are great. I’m very thankful to be able to make my living leading singing classes for LGBTQ people and allies, for example. But it can also lead to insularity and not knowing how to connect with people who are different from you. When I’ve lived in smaller places, it’s caused me to build community with LGBTQ people who are different from me because there just weren’t that many of us. And it caused me to build strong relationships with straight people as well. I definitely experienced that visiting my college boyfriend in Pittsburgh, seeing how broad his community was.

Kerr: Joe Stevens was here in September and comedian Ian Harvie has been here twice in the past two years. I think they may have been the first openly trans male performers to book shows here. Whom else in the queer music/performance scene should we book in our local venues (of any size) and why?

Conley: I definitely recommend the band My Gay Banjo from New York/Philly. I think they played in Pittsburgh sometime in the past couple of years, but they’re another musical act who are unapologetically gay and unapologetically country. Geo Wyeth is a Black trans musician and performance artist from New York whose music I just adore. Years ago a friend of mine gave me a burned CD of some of his early songs when he was going by the name Novice Theory, and I listen to his newer album Alien Tapes a lot. A couple of other queer performers I love include Imani Henry, Naima Shalhoub, Namoli Brennet, Humble Tripe and Ellis. I encourage you to look them up if you don’t already know them!

Kerr: I’m particularly drawn to the song “When God Sets His Sights On You” — please tell me more about it.

Conley: I wanted to write a song about the complexities of being a queer kid in the South that didn’t give simple answers. I tell the story of a young queer woman and who lives with her single mom. She comes out about having a girlfriend and her mom freaks out because she believes the teachings of her church, that homosexuality comes from being possessed by demons. But before she has a chance to get used to the idea and come around, Jean steals her truck and runs away. The song shows them both grappling with how to reconcile their spirituality with queer sexuality. I think that’s a question that a lot of queer people raised in more fundamentalist spiritual traditions have to face — how can I be true to who I am and stay connected to my tradition, if I still find parts of if resonant? I wasn’t personally raised in any particular spiritual tradition, but I grew up around a lot of queer kids who were wrestling with those questions.

Kerr: Who was the first LGBTQ person that you met and how did that impact you?

Conley: Several of my mom’s cousins are lesbians. I’m not sure when I actually realized that their “friends” were their partners. It was kind of an open secret in my family. I think everybody knew they were romantic partners. I remember when I was a kid the partners would come to family gatherings, but wouldn’t pose in the group family pictures like other people’s spouses. I remember being at a family event when I was in my teens and talking with one gay cousin who actually worked for the Washington Blade, which is a gay paper. She teased me about a boy I was friends with and when I told her he was gay, she shushed me. I was hurt. I was hoping that we could connect about being queer, but I think we were from different generations and had different comfort levels with talking about our sexuality around our family. Of course, now she sends me lots of articles about queer stuff. I think my coming out as transgender to my whole family in my early twenties opened up space for us to connect as adults.

The first trans person I knew was actually my high school best friend. I remember being totally amazed that it was possible to identify as a gender other than the one you’d been assigned at birth. He was someone who’d known he was male from the time he was very small, so our experiences were very different. For a long time I compared myself to him and decided I couldn’t possibly be trans, because my experience didn’t fit with the whole “born in the wrong body” narrative the mainstream media likes to present in the way that his did. But by the end of high school I had started identifying as neither a man nor a woman but genderqueer, and he was one of my staunchest supporters. He was one of the first people to start calling me Eli. I’ll always be thankful for his example, helping show me that there were gender possibilities I hadn’t dreamed of.

Kerr: Past or present, favorite LGBTQ character in television, film or literature?

Conley: I’d have to say Jess Goldberg. When Leslie Feinberg passed, I re-read Stone Butch Blues and was struck by the power of the story. I love the way it shows Jess making mistakes and learning and striving to hold onto tenderness even through all of the abuse. And I love the way that Leslie wove in threads of so many different social movements of the era, even when Jess Goldberg wasn’t actively involved in them. It’s really an incredible book.

Kerr: What is one simple thing a reader can do to support the LGBTQ community?

Conley: Find out about people of color-led LGBTQ organizations in your community and volunteer, donate money, support them however you can. One organization you might connect with in Pittsburgh in Project Silk, a program for African-American and Latino young men and African-American and Latina young transgender women between the ages of 13 and 29.

Thank you, Eli, for talking with us. You can learn more about Eli by visiting his website and following him on Facebook. His most recent album, At The Seams, is available for purchase via iTunes and bandcamp.

Eli performs in Pittsburgh on April 15 at Biddle’s Escape in the Regent Square neighborhood. - Huffington Post

"Folk Songs for Misfits"

Singer-songwriter Eli Conley, touring the East Coast with his band, will visit Brattleboro on April 22 for a performance at The Root Social Justice Center.

Conley, a native of rural Virginia who now lives in the Bay Area of California, “crafts modern day folk songs for misfits,” according to his press release. His music connects the gap between city- and country-boy —€• think early Elton John, especially Tumbleweed Connection —€• by merging progressive and traditional themes with roots-based instrumentation.

Folk music is “in my musical DNA,” says Conley. His mother grew up in a rural farm family in Delaware, and his father is from the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia. When Conley was a child, he says, “my dad had thousands of records in the garage, and an encyclopedic knowledge of folk music."

“There was never a question of what kind of music I’d write,” he says, noting the love he has of the authenticity of the Americana genre.

Although during his early years as a songwriter, friends would encourage him to add electronic instruments to his pieces, “electronic doesn’t resonate with me in my body,” and acoustic instruments felt like the ideal fit. So, Conley stuck with it.

Still, he was concerned with authenticity. Conley notes his day-to-day speaking voice is mostly devoid of a Virginia accent, but “my accent comes out when I sing.” Conley spoke to his sister about it, asking if it sounded “affected,” and she assured him “singing with an accent is authentic — this is the way our family sounds.”

And, Conley decided, “if my sister said it’s okay, then it’s okay."

Following the lead of one of his biggest influences, Pete Seeger, Conley sings about rural, Southern poverty and the often-misguided political response to it —€• more coal mines, more prisons —€• with sensitivity and compassion, as evidenced in Dry As Sin, which ends with the following: “Name each white man a cop, each brown man a thief/And you’ve paved every back road with certainmost grief."

Where Conley’s lyrics especially reveal his two-spirited bridge between modern and old-fashioned are in his songs about love, both found and lost, and identity. Conley, who is transgender, brings a sensibility not often found in popular music’s approach to these universal topics.

In Conley’s “Pinocchio,” which he contributed to Hold On Another Day, Project Believe In Me,€ a nationally distributed CD to combat youth bullying, he sings: “Pinocchio, you are a boy/ it doesn’t take no fairy blue/ much less a therapist, three doctors and a knife/ to cut your flesh and make you real/you are as real as dreams come true.”

“When God Sets His Sights On You,” the opening track on Conley’s 2013 album, At The Seams, begins with a couplet setting a typical country-and-western scene: “Mary Ann waits tables nightly/Down at Jack’s on Highway Two.”

But then, this: “Her daughter Jean started acting strangely/She cut her hair, she’s wearing old men’s boots.”

Jean goes on to tell her mother that “she’s been seeing someone pretty steady", and “her name’s Danielle.” When Mary Ann attempts to get Jean to “pray out these demons,” Jean realizes she has her own prayer to sing. “She’s got love to give, and she’s got a life to live,” the song says, before sending Jean off to “Californ’” in her truck, with “her favorite kitten/her toothbrush, a couple of shirts and her mom’s guitar.”

Although Conley, like the fictional Jean, left his arcadian home for “Californ’,” he doesn’t believe LGBTQ folks “need to live in the city” to find community, and that Vermont has a notable base of “rural Queers” is one thing that attracts Conley to the state, and makes him excited to play here for the first time.

“Vermont is small and rural, but progressive,” he says, noting his relief to see that artists and Queers, among others, are building and maintaining strong communities.

Plus, Conley says, “the landscape is incredible” here. Every time he visits the state, he says, “I’ll just sit outside and enjoy the beauty." - The Commons

"Queer Country West Coast"

Lavender Country, a gay country western band which formed during the 1970s, comes to the Bay Area on May 18 when they join trans country performer Eli Conley for Queer Country West Coast at El Rio. Paisley Fields, a gay pop country act from Brooklyn, will also be part of the evening. The Paisley Fields is celebrating the release of their new CD, Glitter and Sawdust.

Conley, who organized Queer Country West Coast, is one of the most visible transgender people in country music. He's been quite busy in recent months.

"I just got back from performing and presenting at the Trans Voices Festival put on by One Voice LGBTQ Chorus in Saint Paul, Minnesota," he said. "This was a gathering of transgender and non-binary singers, voice teachers, choral directors and allies to build community, share resources, and of course, sing together over the course of two days."

In addition to performing, Conley is also a voice teacher.

"To get to connect with other trans and non-binary voice teachers and choral conductors and hear so many amazing singers over a short period of time was incredibly meaningful for me," he said. "Even in the Bay Area, it can sometimes feel isolating to be one of the only out trans people in the professional voice world. The festival was actually cut short by a huge blizzard - in the middle of April! Even so, we had a wonderful time, and I'm so thankful for the experience."

Conley explained why hosting Queer Country West Coast means so much to him.

"I created Queer Country West Coast because I played at Queer Country Monthly, a regular show hosted by Karen Pittelman of Karen and the Sorrows in New York," he tells us. "Her mission is to create community and visibility for LGBTQ artists in country music, and I wanted to bring some of that to the Bay Area. Karen was kind enough to let me start a sister show in San Francisco, and that's how Queer Country West Coast was born."

Country music, Conley assures us, is not just for Republicans.

"There's always been a long history of resistance to the right in country music," he said. "When Loretta Lynn wrote 'The Pill' about using birth control to take agency over her life, it caused an uproar, but she didn't back down."
Following Lynn's example, LGBTQ country musicians are refusing to stand backstage.

"Karen says that if we let the Republicans have the pedal steel, they win," Conley said. "It's a joke, but it's also true. Just because the right has claimed ownership over country music doesn't mean we should cede it. Country music can absolutely be music for liberation, and queer country music is one great way to do that."

Lavender lyrical liberation
Lavender Country is the evening's headliner. They personify the concept of bringing the principles of liberation to country music. The band has been openly gay since the day Patrick Haggerty founded it more than forty years ago.

"Lavender Country was a community effort for sure," says Haggerty. "By us, from us, for us; the Stonewall Rebellion crowd. Seattle's out of the closet LGBTQ folks were on the move, doing all manner of bold, creative projects in 1973. Lavender Country was one of them. The community raised the money for the studio, promoted and distributed the bootleg album through a post office box and came to our shows."

It was a courageous if difficult move to make at the time.

"We knew gay country was absurd for mass distribution, and that was our saving grace," said Haggerty. "It allowed us to pour our hurt and angry hearts out without compromise to any agent, label, or music executive. They weren't going to bite on gay country no matter what we said. The door was slammed shut for years for gay country, but we didn't care. We were pissed off, so we made our statement."

Conley credits Lavender Country for opening doors for himself and many other of today's performers.

"I think that my show and Queer Country Quarterly in New York probably would not exist if not for Lavender Country," he said. "Even though I didn't know about them when I first started this series up, I know that it was their boldness, their refusal to accept the lie that country music and queer sexuality and politics couldn't co-exist that created the space in the world for us to do this today."

Lavender Country aren't the only voices to inspire Conley.

"I was doing an interview with Eric Jansen of Out in the Bay on KALW," he recalled. "He told me about Mark Weigle, a folk/country artist from the Bay Area who was making records in the 1990s and early 2000s with songs like 'The Two Cowboy Waltz.' I went home and ordered that CD right away. Queer country has a history. It's just not one that it's easy to find. You have to do some digging, but it's there. I consider what I'm doing not to be something new, but to be one link in a long chain." - Bay Area Reporter

"Wide Open Country's Weekly Must-Listens"

Eli Conley spoke with me a few months ago about his involvement in the queer country scene. It was also on the eve of his wedding. As a listener, it felt a like a good time to catch him -- about to embark on an important chapter and reflecting on all of his accomplishments so far. On his latest album, Strong and Tender, Conley's truly mastered his craft. The songs here examine our most important relationships: romantic ones, of course, and the ambiguity they can contain; our gender identities, and our relationships with ourselves and our mortality. On "Strong and Tender," Conley dives into the aftermath of a painful conflict and the ways those separations can reverberate many years later. - Wide Open Country


At The Seams - 2013 (Self Released)

Strong & Tender - 2017 (Self Released)



Eli Conley titled his sophomore album Strong and Tender, but he might well have been describing himself. On stage he’s an earnest yet funny storyteller. His songs address big themes like gender, aging, and death through the concrete and immediate details of daily life: a stolen truck, a flopping fish, a dime in the pocket.
Since releasing his debut album At The Seams in 2013, Eli has been featured in the Huffington Post and the Advocate. He’s opened for Grammy-winner Kimya Dawson and the Reverend Peyton's Big Damn Band, and founded Queer Country West Coast, a regular series featuring LGBTQ country artists in California.

Eli’s music is grounded in folk tradition, and he comes by it honestly. He grew up in a small town in central Virginia, and got his musical education listening to his parents’ collection of hundreds of albums by singer-songwriters and roots musicians. He also spent years studying classical singing and picking out Broadway hits of the 40’s and 50’s on the piano. By the time he picked up a guitar at 15, he already had a working knowledge of song structure and music theory – tools that helped him grow into the careful craftsman he is today.

At heart, Eli is a clear-eyed songwriter with high hopes for the human race. His songs urge us to love ourselves even when it feels like the world does not. You can’t help but sing along.

Band Members