You could write off Carletta Sue Kay — aka San Francisco singer-songwriter Randy Walker — as a novelty act, but you’d be so wrong. Sure, he’s a big, middle-aged gay guy in hideous drag. But as CSK’s 2012 debut Incongruent proves, he’s also got an incredible vocal delivery, and his writing talent is guaranteed to slay you. He writes shrewdly and wittily about what it means to be a woman the way your favorite male novelist writes about femininity; he just does it in a cheap wig.
Barry Walters caught up with the singer in a Castro desert shop. Walker was — as he always is when not performing — dressed as a man, talking a mile a minute, alternately very vulnerable and very loud. Here’s a fraction of what he said about himself.
On the birth of Carletta:
My former band was Mon Cousin Belge, which is French for My Belgian Cousin, and the character I did, Emil, which was a fake cousin of mine, spoke no English and was addicted to plastic surgery. So when that band disbanded, I had all these songs I’d written over the years that I thought should be sung by a girl and I wanted to keep with the theme. I have an actual, very crazy cousin, whose name is Carletta Sue Kay, so I just took her name. She’s a drug addict and I was a drug addict at one point; she and I used to do crazy cross-country trips. She was involved in some pretty bad legal situations a few years back and was in prison. I think about her a lot. You know what it is? It’s her death wish, her don’t-give-a-fuck-about-herself, self-hating attitude. Which I, as an adult, am trying desperately to get better about. But to add to all the sadness, she’s super-funny. She found out about my band on MySpace, and wrote me, like, “What the fuck is this shit?” I’ve been begging her to come to a show to introduce me. [Practically yelling] She’s never seen Carletta!
On the overlap between Randy Walker and Carletta Sue Kay:
I call it a persona, but when I get on stage it’s just me with a bad wig and an ugly dress. The voice of Carletta is not my authentic singing voice. I’m affecting a “female” voice, but some of the some of the more soulful songs don’t play out like that. They’re all written in higher keys and I have a naturally high register. I’ve been doing Carletta for five years, so her character definitely comes into the songwriting now. I don’t know if its gender-based ideology that I have in my head, but the songs tend to be written from a female perspective. I hide behind Carletta — the anonymity is awesome. It’s in and out, though; I guess the character inhabits the songs, and the songs are what tell the story of Carletta. They tend to be sad and poppy; it’s my new genre: I call it soppy.
I went to the University of Redlands and my first major was theatre. I put myself through college doing professional light opera company, musicals with tons of ’60s and ’70s has-been TV and movie stars, and lots of original Broadway cast people — Jo Anne Worley, Ruth Buzzi, Donald O’Connor, Bebe Neuwirth. I’m always referred to as theatrical, no matter what I do. I don’t really see myself that way, but I guess when I get on stage I tend to get vocally a little dramatic. I’m not gonna get up there and just sing a song. I’m gonna do my best to do with my songs the things with which they’re intended. I want them to mean something to people. Not all are sad; some are a little sassy and bitchy.
On performing for audiences who’ve never heard Carletta before:
That’s the best. First they’re like, “Oh, God, a drag queen.” Then I watch them turn. I get off on that. My favorite was when we opened for [satirical country songwriter] Kinky Friedman a couple years ago; it was a really conservative Jewish audience. And this lady after the show, she had to be 90 if she was a day, she comes up to me, grabs my arm, and says [in a voice reminiscent of Kyle's mom on South Park], “I hope you’re happy with yourself.” I was like, “What?” [More Kyle's mom voice:] “You made me cry the entire time. You are fabulous. I know because I’m a singer myself.”
On Carletta’s transgender quality:
I have transgender friends who haven’t commented on it. I think if they listen to my music and watch my performance, they’d know that I’m not taking the piss. I have an actual trans-identified person in my band: The bass player, piano player, and singer is a guy named Sonny, an FTM, female-to-male. Everyone loves Sonny, and Sonny totally digs it; he’s a super-charming and fantastic person. I’ve worn everything from high-end couture to thrift shop finds to making my own outfits. I have a friend who works for Vogue Italia and gets me really good clothes from Milan. I’ve gotten to this point that I have more Carletta clothes than my own clothes. I think I’m becoming a tranny. I kinda like it! It’s comfortable and fun. [As a man] I wear boring clothes. Some of my dresses tend to be short shirts, but I always wear stockings. I don’t wanna show my hairy-assed legs onstage.
On Walker’s musical influences:
Lots of country and folk — Tom T. Hall, Hank Williams, Conway Twitty, George Jones, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn. I have a song called “My Mother Thinks She’s Loretta Lynn.” She had the big, black hair that she dyed like Loretta Lynn; she dressed like Loretta Lynn. I was raised in a Pentecostal church, so there was lots of gospel music. Tim Hardin, Townes Van Zandt, Merle Haggard. I’m a big Antony Hegarty fan. Iris Dement, I love her. She’s from my mother’s hometown in Arkansas.
On the very recent death of his mom:
Last week, my sister and I drove from San Luis Obispo to where she lives, on the outskirts of Arizona and California. My mom was in abject pain. She’s rambling incoherently, completely out of it, but randomly, out of nowhere she starts singing “Coat of Many Colors,” the Dolly Parton song. She knows all the lyrics; she sings it in tune. She was doing that for me — that’s been my song forever. It was miraculous, and then she went right back out of it. She had come home to die. That was the most heartbreaking thing I’ve ever gone through — still going through. My mother was a good, beautiful, sweet, loving, kind woman. Everyone loved my mother. What the fuck did she do to deserve such a horror?
On working with Magnetic Fields leader Stephin Merritt:
Oh, her? No, I’m kidding, he’s awesome. He’s super-droll, but if you don’t appreciate that, you’re gonna think he’s a dick. If you do get that, he’s super-fun. He’s just always on. A year or two ago, I was at the Eagle [an SF leather bar] and there he was. He writes in gay bars, and prefers a goofy, dumb disco beat in the background. I don’t know how he does that, but he’s so brilliant with melody. Anyway, I gave him my demos for [Incongruent] and a couple months later, I did a show at the Parkside; it’s a dump, I was so depressed. I took the bus home and checked my emails. I’ve memorized what he wrote: “Hi, this is Stephin Merritt from the Magnetic Fields. I enjoy your singing very much. Would you be interested in recording with the Magnetic Fields?” What? Who is fucking with me? I didn’t respond to it for two days. Claudia, the pianist in the band and also his manager, she contacted me, and a month later I was at Tiny Telephone, John Vanderslice’s studio. We recorded background vocals for seven songs. Daniel Handler, the Lemony Snicket writer, was there. He and Stephin, they’re constantly back and forth, really funny. Now I’m on a Magnetic Fields record [2012's Love at the Bottom of the Sea], which is so cool.
On the next album and other side projects:
We’re working on a brand-new record tentatively called Monsters. It’s about ghosts and séances and dead people, some of it actual evil people, some of it a spin on B-movie characters — a lady falls in love with the Creature from the Black Lagoon. I sing sometimes with my friend Wymond [Miles], he’s the guitarist of the Fresh & Onlys. I’m trying to get his fingers in [the album] because he’s got a real sense of the dark. We call him The Count. I also did a song with Sonny Smith [of Sonny and the Sunsets]. It’s about fucking space aliens.