I would date boys in high school and college who happened to play the guitar; then I realized, instead of dating them, I wanted to be them,” says Steph Bishop, one-half of the poignantly pure-voiced duo Kings, accurately self-tagged as “queer country folkies” with “tight vocal harmonies, strings, stomps…intelligent, inventive songwriting, politics, humor.”
Bishop, now 29, says that as a budding teen guitarist, “I learned my first chords from a Raffi songbook.” She also cut her teeth singing “Chapel of Love” on family road trips, her dad teaching her how to nail the very harmonies that now serve her so well in Kings.
Her musical partner, Emily Bielagus, 30, has been singing since she could read along with lyrics, and admits to having been a nerdy kid: “When I was 14, I was Sandy in Grease, and that was probably the biggest thing that had happened in memory!” She laughs, a clear, bell-like tone. “I thought it was just the coolest thing in the world. I had a huge crush on the guy who played Danny Zuko; it was awesome. I mean, I was in eighth grade!” She also confesses to being “really really really kinda crazily obsessed with Ani DiFranco.”
The pair have made it a long way: coming out, meeting up, and forming Kings, thus establishing themselves as an active part of the New York queer-country scene, many of whose exponents will gather at Littlefield on December 19 to celebrate the holidays, in a show booked by Bielagus. Vocally, Kings sound like dusky angels — Bielagus with a little Joni Mitchell inflection, perhaps — but in conversation they’re more like eager, hyper-intelligent but respectful teenagers. Bielagus phones for our chat from the corner of Broadway and Lafayette as fire engines power by, while Bishop is warmer and quieter at her day job: The onetime teen athlete is now a gym teacher.
The two met via a Craigslist ad. “This is very funny and a little embarrassing,” begins Bielagus. She attended Ohio’s Oberlin College, whose impressive musical conservatory left her “very intimidated.”
“Everyone who knew music really knew music, like a virtuoso,” she says. “I felt my guitar skills were really lame; I got super-self-conscious, so I didn’t pick up the guitar again until after college, though I did an a cappella group.”
After moving to Brooklyn in 2006, she picked up the guitar and played some gigs, but doing the “singer-songwriter thing” left her feeling “alone on stage” and “too exposed.” “My ad on Craigslist basically explained that; it was super-vague; I don’t even think I said I was a woman. I listed some bands, like Fleet Foxes and Fleetwood Mac, First Aid Kit.” Of Bielagus’s two responses, one was a high school girl named Janine; the other, Bishop.
Fortunately, Bishop brought quality beer to the first meeting — a good omen — and, as Bielagus remembers, “I feel like as soon as we met in person, we realized we had almost the same life story, in a weird way. We drove the same car in high school, we dated the same kind of boys, we’d both recently-ish come out, we were both from small towns” (in New Hampshire for Bielagus, the Hudson Valley for Bishop).
The first song they sang together was “Jesus, Etc.” by Wilco, which was part of Bishop’s live set, while the first tune they wrote was “I Got Stuck,” which began life thanks to John Prine and Iris DeMent references and Bielagus feeling she wanted their composition to have “two different verses on top of each other.” The result was a not-true tale about a lesbian wedding (the two Kings are not romantic partners) wherein they imagined a bride leaving a bride at the altar, with lyrics including “Woke this mornin’ in a cold sweat, she ate her breakfast in the sun/You know those papers ain’t been signed yet, I think I’m going for a run/She’s a low-down scoundrel with a soul made out of steel/Now, I’m not a bettin’ gal, but there’s no way to win that deal.”
As Bishop explains, “We always choose to use correct pronouns. If Emily and I write a song, we’re writing about women. One of the first songs I ever wrote was alluding to my parents’ divorce, and about change, sad things. Then once I came out, it became about love a lot,” she says with a laugh. “When the three of us [original member Robert Maril left the band this year] first got together, it was totally accidental that we were all queer.
“I felt a little conflicted in the beginning — never about how to identify ourselves, but what to push in terms of creating a brand for the band. That sounds so gross, but it’s inevitable. But something really kind of lovely happened — there was this little tight community of queer musicians who really gave us a shot in the beginning,” Bishop says. “Don’t you think, Em?”
“Totally!” Picking up the story as easily as the duo harmonize on stage, Bielagus concurs. “The Gay Ole Opry people and this gay bar on the west side, Rockbar, who heard us play once, said, ‘You can play anytime you want, we support you, we love you.’ Bands would invite us onto bills and we’d try to return the favor. I feel that part sort of happened naturally; it felt lovely and welcoming. There are at least 10 bands in the scene — we’re talking about queer bands that have a country vibe. And there are actually queer country nights at at least five different bars.”
And so the first-ever Big Gay Country Holiday, set for this Friday at Littlefield, is an extension of that community — one that all began in a club bathroom. “I went to see a buddy of mine at the venue SubCulture, and she had this chick Julia Weldon opening. She was rad. I was in the bathroom later and [Julia] came out of the stall I was about to go into and she was like, ‘Oh, you’re in that band Kings.’ I was like, ‘Wow, that’s cool she knows us,’ ” Bielagus says. “She wanted to play a show with us at Littlefield. I was like, ‘Great, awesome,’ as Steph and I always wanted to play there. That was the fire I needed. I just emailed them. Because, as Steph was saying, there’s this community in place, and Littlefield knew this community would come out for this show.”
The event promises at least one collaborative country Christmas song, drink specials, and Kings joined by Eric Beug — “who plays every instrument ever, lap steel and mandolin” — as well as an upright bassist and a fiddle player. And, laughs Bielagus, “we’re going to dress up, but not like reindeer.” Or Kings.
As for the band name, the duo lament that they’re terrible at “naming” things, including songs and parties (hence “Big Gay Country Holiday”), but Kings was the result of a brainstorming session, and the only moniker they could agree on: They do, after all, live in Kings County. The choice, explains Bielagus, was “convenient…an accident, I guess, that reference. But I liked it because it was this idea that we’re a band of queer people and we’re fronted by ladies and it’s a play on the patriarchy.”
With any luck, 2015, which will see a full-length record (following up the five-song EP, Bones, that hit in late 2013) and perhaps a short tour, will find the Kings name bandied about by musos much farther afield than the NYC area. “We’ve always just done word of mouth, social media, and we’re just getting our feet wet,” says Bishop. “We don’t know a ton. We’re just poking around.”
“We were just talking about our future last night,” Bielagus adds. “Steph and I are super-serious about this being, hopefully, our full-time job. For me, more than ticking off the to-do list of ‘get a label, get representation, do this, do that,’ for me, I just want more people to hear our music. That’s the thing I feel really passionate about.”
Kings play the Big Gay Country Holiday party December 19 at Littlefield, where they’ll be joined by Julia Weldon, Small Talk, and Karen and the Sorrows. (Doors, 7:30; show, 8 p.m. $8 in advance, $10 on day of show.)