Q&A: Ponytail Frontperson Willy Siegel Discusses Gender, Sexuality, And What Was In He/r Pants At Siren Fest
"It was really hot at Siren Fest, but I didn't really wanna have my boobs out. People might think it was sexual."
Willy Siegel at Siren Fest 2010
photo by Rebecca Smeyne
When Baltimore art-rock group Ponytail played the Voice's Siren Festival last summer, people noticed two things: That Ponytail is a raucous, fun, and primally wacky band, and that singer Molly Siegel had a prominent bulge in her shorts. As she jumped up and down, the bulge bounced along with her like a genderqueer metronome, forming one part of a joyfully weird performance that can now be re-lived via the video for "Easy Peasy," composed of footage taken at Coney Island that day, the first single off Ponytail's April 12 release Do Whatever You Want All The Time.
Why did Siegel decide to stuff her shorts? Was she trying to be funny? Or was it the result of some larger, more sincere philosophy shaping her life? I emailed her about it and received a cheerful reply saying that she goes by "Willy" now and would be happy to discuss gender with me over the phone. When reading, try to imagine Willy giggling amiably after everything s/he says. There were far too many giggles to transcribe.
What was in your shorts at Siren Fest? Do you mean for it to be funny?
Not really to be funny, exactly. It was a handkerchief. I had a soft pack I was gonna wear, but it was bouncing around, so I decided to wear the handkerchief.
Did anyone else ask you about it?
Nobody asked me anything about it at all. It's weird, because before the show I'm like, "What am I gonna wear?" It's always an opportunity to wear something that's exciting to me, but I'm tired of thinking about it. I thought about wearing something drag performancey, and this past summer, I spent a lot of time at farms and communes--I was naked a lot. It was really hot [at Siren Fest] and I thought about wearing nothing, but I didn't really wanna have my boobs out. People might think it was sexual. I'd never seen anybody pack onstage and I've been to a million shows and I was like, "I should do this."
Do you pack often?
For a while, I was doing it all the time, and I kind of stopped. Then I was naked a lot. I wasn't really thinking about how I looked.
Where were you spending all this naked time?
Tennessee, at a place called Ida. It's a farm, they have a big garden, it's like a commune. They have a festival every year, so I went there for a week and a half. Then I went to some other places: right near Ida, there's a radical fairy sanctuary (a hippie gay male group started it in the '60s). It's kinda Pagan. There's not a lot of female people there, but they're very welcoming. Then we ended up going to this lesbian separatist land. There's no men--no people who were born male.
How was that?
It was an incredible place, beautiful. All these older feminist women lived there, and they were amazing. This 78-year-old woman showed us around. We would hang out in the creek and stuff. It's wild how much being naked and stuff like that--it's crazy that we don't do it more.
What's it like being naked in a place like that? I know most people might view it as a sexual thing.
I grew up in a pretty normal-ish way, so I understand. But being naked in a queer space is a really amazing feeling, it's just really open. For me, queer space stuff is about self and empowerment. You get into a place where you accept all bodies. It is sexual, but it's not really objectifying you. Like, "Dude, if you take off your shirt I'm gonna go crazy!" It is hot, and sexual, but it doesn't feel so, like, creepy, or canned, or whatever.
How do you currently identify yourself? What does it mean to you to be "queer"?
For a long time, I identified as a lesbian, but I don't anymore. I think that to be queer is being open to the weirdness of your sexuality and your gender: not having a fixed identity that you're always defending, open to having a lot of identities, and being empowered in those identities. I think that's why people like the word "queer." It's misinterpreted as a slur or whatever, but it's like, "weird or not normal." That is exciting to people, having that identity.
I identify with a lot of gay male stuff. I'm not like, "Oh, I'm a gay man," but I identify with a lot of it. I think it's hot. I'd consider myself a trans person, or a person who has a pretty complicated gender identity, or not a binary gender identity. And right now my partner is sometimes male-identified, but also female from birth, so we're trying to feel it out together: the reality of feeling that way, and all the cultural things that go along with that.
I have often tried to explain to people that gender and sexuality are not the same thing. But they are, nonetheless, connected. How do they intersect, in your opinion?
I think that gender is primarily a cultural construct, the binary stuff. They're definitely connected, but for me, as soon as I started to relax about what my identity was in terms of my sexuality (gay or straight), I allowed for my gender to be more a part of my sexuality.
I've always been pretty trans, and I knew that, but since I felt I had to hold up this intense lesbian identity for a time, it kind of made me more vanilla about sex. I was almost in a patriarchal mode where I was like, "I'm a butch lesbian and I want to be with a femme person," even though I was attracted to all different types of people. Like how straight people construct their sexuality through their gender identity. But then I was like, "Oh, I don't need to hold onto this intense identity stuff."
Are you primarily attracted to people with similar ideas about gender?
I'm pretty attracted to masculinity. I'm attracted to a lot of things in different people, but in terms of really being sweet on someone, it usually has a lot to do with their ability to be free with themselves, for sure.
It's always hard to figure out how to refer to transgender people in writing. We need a new word, really. What pronoun do you prefer?
With my partner, I use the "they" pronoun. It's kind of confusing. I really just only in the past year started being in this world of queer radical stuff. All my friends in Baltimore started using "they" pronouns.
[My partner has] an interesting trajectory. They were really feminine-looking until the middle of college. Then they realized that they kinda hated it, and also were identifying male sometimes. They also do like a faux queen thing sometimes when they dress with long wigs and femme it up. We'll call each other like "Princess," "Boyfriend," and really funny stuff like that. I'm wondering if they want me telling you all this stuff.
How do you feel about monogamy versus polyamory? Do you find monogamy oppressive, as well?
I don't really like the rules of [monogamy]. I wouldn't say, "Oh, I'm monogamous" because it's bad to have strict rules around it. At the same time, I'm not really involved with anyone else. I feel it in myself--jealousy is there. I think it's good to go with the flow. If something comes up that seems like something you really want to do, and someone you really like, it's probably worth talking about it with your partner and seeing if it's something you really want to do.
Are you taking hormones or doing anything to physically transition to a more masculine/genderqueer body?
I'm not taking hormones. I've thought about it a lot, but I've always kind of known that I wouldn't do it. My body's pretty sensitive. Even though I do take medicine, I don't really like doing it. I don't want to add more to it, for health reasons. There are ways to change your hormones that are a little more natural, and ways to just feel about your body--foods you can eat and supplements you can take. If you eat less fat, less estrogen will be produced. There are things about my body that feel male to me, and things that feel really female to me. Right now I'm more worried about my day-to-day life than getting my physical body to be presenting male or whatever.
When I was little, I remember I learned about sex reassignment surgery. I thought it was like a magic thing: you change into a different gender, and I was like, "I want this, Mom!" Because I looked like a boy, my mom let me cut my hair and stuff, and she let me wear more neutral clothes. But then I realized as I got older that surgery is really, like--I'm never going to have a male body, and I don't want to pay all that money.
Do you apply your thoughts about freedom and gender to your music? Ponytail's music sounds very uninhibited to me.
That's a nice compliment! When I'm performing, I feel pretty energized by what feeds me, which is a lot of like, tranny energy or something.
I think that [guitarist] Dustin [Wong] has always been pretty interested in gender stuff and androgyny. The other two, I think they're both interested in it for sure, but they're more comfortable with being male, I think. I don't think they think about it as much.
Do you think it's possible for straight performers to play around with gender? I'm thinking about rock stars like David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Iggy Pop.
A lot of the time they do it ways that are kind of fucked up. But maybe they're not as straight as they think they are. I think that everybody's kind of queer. I think rock-and-roll is about crazy performance and crazy energy. It's interesting to think about like Mick Jagger or someone who is probably a huge misogynist, but was also in drag all the time.
Rock-and-roll is weird. It's also been pretty male-dominated, forever. I've always been kind of disappointed with how male-dominated everything is. We've played millions of shows. I think, at first, I was less involved with booking and stuff like that--as wacky as things were, potentially, it was not queer--that always bummed me out.
How do you feel about the indie rock world in particular?
It's male-dominated and pretty straight, too. There's a lot of token woman stuff. It's a lot about how hot they are, even in our little world. All that matters is there's a girl in this band. First it's like, "She's really hot," and then it's like, "No, she's really cool, too."
Is there a queer rock scene that you identify with? Would you rather play with other queer-oriented bands?
There's definitely queer stuff. I don't think just because the indie rock world isn't queer that it should be more queer. The queer world has its own stuff going on that's separate. It's cool if we get a show here and there with bands that aren't into that, but it's probably not gonna be the most exciting show. I don't think there's one sweeping world that everything should be in.
What if someone offers you lots of money to do something you're not excited about? Don't you need to balance your ideals with more practical concerns?
I don't really like doing stuff like that, [but] I think sometimes that can be a good bargain with corporate stuff. Our band definitely started only playing shows. Then we started focusing on money, since we were doing it so much that we had to make a certain amount of money. It was never the way I necessarily wanted to do it, but I also knew it wouldn't work to do all DIY shows--the pace we were going at was really intense. I just physically couldn't do it--going each day not knowing how much you're gonna get paid or if there's gonna be terrible sound.
Do you enjoy playing bigger shows and festivals?
We['ve been] taking a pretty big break right now, and were probably not gonna play a lot of shows until the next album comes out. I'm glad we're not doing stuff like that. What kills me about [festival] shows like that is the barrier with the crowd. It kinda kills the energy for me. The huge show hype-thing feels fake to me.
Do you think Ponytail's music is explicitly queer?
Yeah, sure, I'm queer, I'm making it. I'd say it's pretty queer, not totally queer.
What about the other sense of the word, i.e. simply "really weird"?
It's weird, totally. It's queer.
Do Whatever You Want All The Time Track listing:
1) Easy Peasy 2) Flabbermouse 3) Honey Touches 4) Beyondersville//Flight of Fancy 5) AwayWay 6) Tush 7) Music Tunes
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