As their former drag alter-ego Crystal, Tom Rasmussen became notable in the UK queer scene for their classic dry wit, redhead slash glitter-beard combo and for ‘shagging a 79-year-old builder and knocking over his sister’s ashes while feeding him a Viagra’ (read their incredible book Diary of a Drag Queen for more knee-slapping anecdotes like this). After “31 years”, Tom is embracing vulnerability.
This week sees the release of the writer and musician’s sensational debut album, Body Building, a 13-track collection of house and dance-pop anthems about what it means to be a queer person in ‘the apparent age of freedom and visibility’. While the record explores the harsh adversities that queer people continue to face, from ongoing transphobia in mainstream media to escaping and “recovering” from violence, it was crucial for Tom to concoct a sonic piece of work that makes the community – particularly those of the trans experience – feel “invincible”.
“It’s my experience as a non-binary person and very camp, femme gay person,” Tom tells GAY TIMES. “I want [the community] to feel heard and seen, like some moments are encased in a bubble of safety; indestructibility that allows us to walk down the street. [..] I would like there to be a piece of work in music for trans people that is emotionally complicated, not just, ‘Slay bitch mama, walk down the street and slay because you’re wearing big heel boots.'”
Featuring lauded singles such as Street Violence and Fantasy Island Obsession, as well as the soon-to-be fan-favourite Look at Me, Body Building is out now. Read ahead for our full interview with Tom, where they dive into the themes of the album, how they came to terms with their transition from drag queen to singer-songwriter and why queer people won’t hesitate in ‘leading another revolution’.
Tom, congratulations on the release of your debut album. These past few months have seen you tour with pop icons Self Esteem and Rina Sawayama. What has touring for Body Building looked like?
It’s been weird. We’ve been all over the place in both situations, especially with Self Esteem. It’s hard being an opener because if people aren’t arsed for you, they’re not arsed for you. If they are, people are way more willing to get on side. There’s been some amazing nights where people are dancing to songs they’ve never heard. Not to sound cliche, it’s been an unbelievable opportunity to take this music out on the road with such amazing artists and to watch them work in really different ways has been really inspiring as someone who is transitioning from one type of performance into a whole different industry, basically. I’ve also had lots of really great sex.
I love that for you, Tom. Is touring life what you expected?
Kind of. I’m 31 now and my expectations are so different to what I originally imagined touring to look like when I was 10, watching Celine Dion Live in Memphis 1997. Amazingly, people are looking to connect. I’ve felt genuine moments of actual connection. Also, what’s been amazing is the politics. I wear this t-shirt saying “solidarity with striking workers” and Shon Faye reads the final page of The Transgender Issue at the end of Street Violence. People everywhere responded to it. As a queer and trans person, the album is about trying to negotiate being in the world.
Being on stage, you never quite know how people are going to receive it, especially in this climate. It’s been the most wonderful reception. People message me after saying, ‘I’ve never thought about this stuff and your visibility is all of our visibility.’ That feels really powerful, more powerful than numbers or any of that. There’s a feeling right now and it’s been really heartening to go and witness it and feel it in a time when all the news is so fucking shit.
To me, anyway, you’re well known for your comedy and dry sense-of-humour as your former drag alter-ego Crystal, so how did it feel to be really vulnerable with this album as Tom?
It’s taken me 31 years to be vulnerable. I can’t speak for any other queer people. It’s my experience as a non-binary person and very camp, femme gay person. For a long time, I used stories and humour to distance myself from what’s happened in my life. If I have one experience and tell it in a certain way and people laugh, it’s easy for us all. It’s much harder to be like, ‘This is the complicated reality of what it means to be queer and experiencing violence and navigating a world that isn’t designed for me.’ That’s much more complicated than we’re ever able to explain.
This record is 13 songs in response to one very violent attack on the back of years of experiencing violence. I was like, ‘Oh, this is what happens in high school,’ but actually, when I say the things that really happened out loud, the people who didn’t experience that are like, ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’ It’s been nice but weird, I feel much more boring these days. Maybe that’s okay. Maybe my job isn’t to be the ultimate entertainer and I’ve realised I can still do that on stage.
As someone who turns every tragic experience into comedy, I can relate.
Before in drag, that was my whole thing: take traumatic experiences and turn them into experiences of joy and humour. Of course, if you were to tell me a joke about a traumatic thing, we both would know that it was hard. As queer visibility has increased, humour and entertainment felt like the only place I was allowed to exist within. Reality is, the richness and sacredness of being trans and queer is complex.
With this album, I was exploring the queer experience; how it is to walk on the street or be constantly misunderstood or read horrible newspaper articles or getting a phone call from a friend being like, ‘I’ve just got beaten up.’ All that shit that we negotiate, I was trying to work out what it really means. I’m still working out what it means to live and not be disassociated from what’s happening, not put a song on and turn it up so I can’t hear someone calling me a faggot on the street. I was trying to work out how to feel all of the ranges of emotions as opposed to being like, ‘Everything’s hilarious! I hate happiness and sadness and I’m just going to feel neutral’ which is what I was doing for a really long time.
Although the lyrics deal with a lot of past trauma, you can definitely feel the queer joy through the euphoric dance production. Can you talk to me a bit more about how you balanced both on the album?
If there’s one thing we’re both good at, it’s telling stories. After 11 years of doing it, whether it’s writing Diary of a Drag Queen or being on stage, or working a personal sex column for American Vogue, this was the first time in my life that I didn’t even think about it. What came out was so clear and I’m sure writing a second record will be harder, but I didn’t even think ‘I want people to cry and dance.’
The order on the record is almost the order we wrote them in. The whole first part is about fantasising yourself out of reality, then it goes into a darker space where it’s about grappling with reality. This Is How We Walk on The Moon, Dysphoria and Look at Me are all extreme and joyful and for a long time, I wasn’t really processing the fact that I was alive. I mean, that’s what it means to be in your twenties; you go out, party, get drunk, do loads of stuff. Oh my god I sound like Madonna talking shit, ‘It’s about what it means to be alive.’
Body Building respectively starts and ends with the most downtempo and euphoric tracks, Borrow a Feeling and Look at Me. As you said, it’s arranged in the order you wrote it. So, did the creative process cause a shift in your mentality?
I was trying to work out how to transition from being a drag queen for 10 years to speaking honestly without a face on. I feel like Borrow a Feeling is the only song where I’m talking just as Tom. It’s about me trying to process what it means to be a queer person, apparently in the age of freedom and visibility, when violence is increasing and our rights are being revoked but I don’t want to remove all the joy out of everything. It’s the only raw one. I love the production and lyrics but I listen like, ‘Ugh.’ Then it goes into Fantasy Island Obsession.
I have this memory from when I got attacked outside my house, which is where this all began. I have this memory just before it happened, seeing everything in slow motion and disassociating from the situation. It’s a good survival technique, but Fantasy Island Obsession is all about disassociating out of the moment before someone attacks you. I thought, ‘If I could choose to be anywhere in that moment, where would I transport to?’ and it was a beautiful grassy place with all my friends. I will say, [this whole experience] is my favourite thing I’ve ever done in my life. I’m so broke, I’m the brokest I’ve ever been – you can publish that – and you get paid barely anything for tours, but you do it because it’s an amazing opportunity.
Reliving trauma can be traumatic in itself, right? So, was it difficult having to reflect on horrifying experiences such as the attack?
No, I got bored of feeling that because I’d written about it in so many different ways. I almost felt like I had to do a final piece of work about this experience. But, I have so much more to say than what it means to be queer and trans in this world. I wanna work out how to say that rather than be like, ‘This bad thing happened to me because the world is fucked.’
Weirdly, this has been a healing process and I’m lucky that I got to a point in my “artistic journey” where I could create something that’s not going to re-traumatise me. The good art and good artists are the people who make work so other people can find themselves in it and connect. When I’m searching for culture that’s going to touch me, it’s either culture that lets me completely escape or where I see myself and understand I’m not alone in the world.
A lot of these songs are to put on when you feel nervous about stepping outside. What is interesting is that so many people have that experience, of the world being a lot. I wrote this album for that purpose. I always think about what music I listen to and I go back to songs that make me feel invincible in places where I’m clearly vulnerable.
A lot of songs [on Body Building] have that feeling, but the lyrics complicate that. Street Violence, for example, is a song to stomp down the street to but also questions why I dress up and play the game of visibility. It’s asking questions and not finding an answer, because there is no fucking answer. Beyond that, it’s asking questions of complicity and agency.
Let’s talk about Look at Me, which boasts the most explosive and euphoric chorus on the album. What feelings or memories were important for you convey on the song?
It grapples with hypervisibility and invisibility. I considered all of this and then I was on a train and some guy was staring at me. I didn’t know whether it was because he wanted to fuck me or just because he wanted to beat me up – the constant question, it’s often the latter!
In this moment I was imagining the power to – and there are people in the community who do and that’s amazing – be like, ‘Look at me. You fucking wish you had half of what I have to come out on the street and do this.’ That’s often where it all comes from. It’s fascination, obsession and jealousy. That’s all unprocessable by the person staring at the very visibly queer person and the response is rage and violence, which comes out of multiple emotions unprocessed.
If your viewpoint and world can’t stand questioning then it’s not structurally sound. What queer and trans people often do is pose a question. Instead of being like, ‘Let these questions be asked about binaries or the way we exist’, it’s like, ‘I can’t process that. It makes me feel scared, I’m going to react by protecting these absurd structures that I believe in.’
What happens then is fist-to-face violence like I’ve experienced or violence in newspapers or parliament or schools. That all happens because people are terrified of freedom.’ Look at Me was trying be like, ‘Fuck you all, actually. Why am I doing all this thinking for you? Let me just be and fucking look at me.’ I wanted it to be fucking banging.
You’ve spoken a little about Crystal, your former drag persona. How did your 10 years in drag help you come to terms with and process the emotions you’ve conveyed on Body Building?
That is such a hard question. The process of drag is so liberating because it busts such a big taboo that is very present when you’re growing up. I can’t speak for others, but where I and many queens and kings grew up, there was really normative cemented gender ideals and roles. To step into drag announces to yourself how you wish to live, which is beyond taboo and normativity. So, she really allowed me to do that. It became a gateway to an incredible local and global community of people who believe in more than is presented to them in high school, or with the nuclear family, and believe there is more ways to experience life and to live beyond gender.
To be on stage every night and to party and to commune and support each other in ways that are not conventional. I think that’s what drag taught me the most. The drag scene is hard and there is a lot of difficult stuff and trauma, but there are also tight families that understand what we’ve all gone through.
Drag really empowered – I hate that word – and celebrated all the things that, for me growing up, were sights of real trauma; being really feminine, gay, quite fat, having a high voice and being – what I would later realise is – trans. In drag, they were the most exciting things. It taught me to forgive myself.
At the same time, because of what drag is becoming – not all drag but some drag – it distanced me from what my actual values are. That’s not drag, that’s me in drag. It started off as a liberatory tool and beacon of freedom, but it ended up as an arm of a business. I’m not saying I was making 100k a year but the means by which you made that living compromised, for me, the purpose of drag which is freedom.
I just don’t think you can invoice for freedom. You have to live in the world. You have to make money because of the world we live in. It’s amazing if you can do that by being your authentic self. But one job I did I said something to the camera – it wasn’t right-wing in any sense, it kind of aligned with my values – but it just wasn’t quite true of the thing I was speaking about. I was slightly false-advertising on camera.
Nothing is worth that moral compromise. I realised in the end that you can’t always live in a morally pure way, nor should you have to. But I just felt really sad by the end because I was using drag to betray myself and everything it taught me. Drag, however, is still the ultimate tool of liberation and freedom. And fuck anyone trying to criminalise it in any way. Drag queens, trans people and femmes led one revolution — don’t think for a second we won’t lead another.
Body Building is dedicated to queer and trans people. How do you want the community to feel when they listen to this album?
I want them to feel heard and seen, like some moments are encased in a bubble of safety; indestructibility that allows us to walk down the street. I hope it reflects the complicated emotions of what it means to be trans and navigate the world in terms of the absolute joys there is with Look at Me and Fantasy Island Obsession, where we have so many tools at our disposal to live a full and beautiful enriched life.
But also, there’s spaces that reflect our fear and sadness and disappointment and anger. I would like there to be a piece of work in music for trans people that is emotionally complicated, not just, ‘Slay bitch mama, walk down the street and slay because you’re wearing big heel boots.’
Tom, the cover for Body Building is instantly iconic. For the final part of our interview, can you talk to me about what the title and album aesthetic personally mean to you?
It was shot by Tim Walker, which is mind-blowing to me because he’s a legend. One day, I got a text from a random text from a number and it was Tim who said, ‘Will you sing at my birthday?’ I’d never met him but we had mutual friends, so I sang at his birthday and gave birth to a soaking wet Finn Love, a legendary dancer and movement artist. I’ve been terrified my whole career of asking people for things because it’s the working class, undeserving child in me. I called up Tim and he was like, ‘Yeah, obviously.’
He’s the kindest, coolest person. And so I worked with one of my best friends, Leo, and I wanted to build a melting body out of weird materials. Terry Barber, another working-class hero and legendary makeup artist, did the face. It all happened in one day. There was no big mood board situation, no one got paid because there was no budget, which is really problematic obviously, but people were really excited about the project. There’s a series of 12 images that are gonna come out in some kind of zine or book, eventually.
The album title, which is two words, not one word when you’re talking about bodybuilding, I was thinking about how much work it’s taken to build my body back up in terms of internally and externally. Physically, in terms of power and recovery from violence, in terms of strength on the street.
All these different songs are about ways to build the body. I haven’t really processed what it means to me to have that image. If I die, I’ve got that image and the record. I’m not gonna lie, I’ve been trying to process my own voice for so long – not just singing, but what I have to say. I feel like this record and the images surrounding it are the closest I’ve ever got to it. I’m so lucky.
Body Building is out now.