Coyote Grace

Ingrid Elizabeth of queer-folk duo Coyote Grace on opening for the Indigo Girls, maintaining her lesbian identity and redhead world domination.

When you see the queer folk duo Coyote Grace perform live for the first time, you can’t help but walk away feeling good. Made up of one part sultry femme, Ingrid Elizabeth, and one part hunky transman, Joe Stevens, Coyote Grace is one band to keep your eye on—which by the looks of them, shouldn’t be hard to do.

Both musical and romantic partners, the two have perfected the recipe for a great live show: equal parts profound lyrics and sharp, witty banter. And though their relationship—during which Stevens transitioned from FTM—has evolved into something less romantic, it is in no way less fervent or intertwined.

Curve caught up with Elizabeth—the fiery redheaded bassist of the acoustic twosome— during a brief break between two tours, one of which they spent opening for the Indigo Girls. Somewhere between cartwheels and organic farming talks, I learned that Elizabeth knows precisely who she is: She’s folk, she’s “down-home,” and she’s the kind of high-femme lesbian whose lipstick is always as bright as her hair. And she’s the unabashed, unapologetic woman who isn’t afraid to yell it all from the rooftops.

How did Coyote Grace come about?

Coyote Grace was a child born of love. Joe and I started playing music as two women, fell in love, and shortly after that, he came out as trans. Like the old nursery rhyme, “First comes love, then comes transition. Then comes a music career in the baby carriage.”

[Laughs] I haven’t heard that version before—I love it. 

[Laughs] We went through the transition together in a romantic partnership. Over six years later, we’ve come out on the other side with an unconventional and unconditional love for each other. Even though we’re no longer steady dates, we are still best friends, business partners and the loving co-creators of Coyote Grace. We’re family.

That’s wonderful. So you and Joe have a big year ahead—you guys are opening for the Indigo Girls for five shows, followed by a Northwest tour with Girlyman. Did all of this come out of the blue, or were you expecting 2010 to be the year of the down-home folk duo?

Well, we put a lot of love and energy into Coyote Grace over the last four years, and we had no idea how long it would take for things to start shooting out of the ground, but it seems like it is. We always have high hopes and put our shoulders on the wheel for quite a while, so it’s not shocking. Still, it is a blessing and a wonderful thing to feel upward movement, acknowledgement and support from our community and our mentors and idols, like the Indigo Girls and Girlyman.

Are you nervous about opening for an established and acclaimed band as the Indigo Girls?

We had an opportunity to open for them two years ago in Seattle. We were very nervous then, so the fact that we’ve already broken the seal on this feels like we’re not quite as nervous. And since then, we’ve tightened up our act musically and on stage with our audience…I think we’re way more prepared this time to take it on. It’s quite an honour, quite a treat.

No kidding. What are you looking forward to most about this time around with them?

I’m looking forward to playing music with them, [and also] getting to know them a little bit better because we only did one show with them last time, and it was pretty much like a dream. Sometimes I doubt it even happened, but there are YouTube videos to prove it [laughs]. So I guess this time, what I’m hoping for in my selfish heart is some after-show jams with them and to get to know them better as people because, in the end, all of our heroes, idols and queer icons are all just people. I always want our fans to know that about us, and so I want to know that about them.

I bet you want to pick their brains a little bit about the industry and success because it seems like that is where you guys are headed…

Yeah, absolutely. It’s funny; I think Joe and I were a little star-struck when we first met them. I will probably have to make a cheat sheet list to look at and remind myself what to say.

So you’re not immune to being starstruck, then?

Oh, not at all. It takes someone I hold a very, very, very high opinion of for me to get star-struck. But in general, there are just so many things that you want to say, and they all try to come rushing out of your brain through this itty-bitty hole that is your mouth, and you can only squeeze out so much [laughs]. So I tend to clam up.

Coyote Grace released the Buck Naked EP on Valentine’s Day. Has it been a successful release so far?

It has. It’s been great—it’s still very new. We just completed a tour of the Southwest; that was the first show we had for sale. And we’re getting great feedback from people. We recorded Ear to the Ground and Buck Naked simultaneously and felt that Ear to the Ground had the cohesive down-home feel of Sonoma County. The songs all felt like they fit together, so we made that album. And then basically everything left over from the recording session ended up becoming Buck Naked—many of which are more quirky, controversial or political songs of ours…that I think our fans will appreciate. I mean, anyone in the general public or media would get something out of it as well, but it’s more for our fans so that they can see the exposed underbelly of Coyote Grace.

Speaking of Ear to the Ground—your voice has a more significant presence on that album than on Boxes and Bags. Was that a conscious decision? And will we hear more of you on future albums?

Yes, that is absolutely a conscious thing. Mostly because I’m more of a budding songwriter and Joe is way more established. He’s been writing songs for over ten years. So when we recorded Boxes and Bags, it was the beginning of our career—as small-time as it was—and we only had his original songs to do. I hadn’t written any songs ready for the stage yet, and I mainly was singing cover songs. So by the time, our next studio album rolled around, not only had I written songs that I could sing, but Joe and I had worked on the dynamics of our dynamic duo. We had put more energy into having more harmonies and a more balanced presence of my voice and his. [We] continue to evolve and find that balance within our group. And I believe future albums will have as much, if not more, a presence of my voice.

Yay! To the joy of lesbians everywhere!

[Laughs] I’ve gotten pretty good feedback from many fans…that they enjoy the pronounced presence of my songs and my voice on our newer albums, so hopefully, that trend will continue.

So are you guys working on another album, or are you just focusing on touring?

Mostly our energy is going toward touring. We are pretty busy. However, I think musicians are constantly finding that balance between performing the songs already on their albums and the new songs to keep them fresh. Because I know as a fan and music lover myself, I want to hear the songs that I want to hear, and I’m also open to hearing some new songs from the artist. But I like that balance as a listener, so we come from that approach as musicians. We do have some new stuff in the works. We have enough songs that we could go in and record an album right now, but time and money aren’t necessarily on our side in that endeavour. So we’re just going to put them on the backburner, keep them cooking for a while, and once things have settled down with touring and we have the time to go into the studio…then we’ll put out another album—probably in the next year.

That’s good news. As a musician, you perform songs repeatedly, so what is your favourite song to perform live?

That’s a good question. I would say it changes. We like to keep it pretty fresh by doing many different cover songs, mixing them up. But I guess consistently; I enjoy performing the song “Summertime (Girls Like Me),” mainly because I love the response it gets from the audience. People often don’t see it coming…and at the end, certain lines raise people’s eyebrows to raise…and there are just lots of little parts of it that grab people and make them connect—and my favourite part of performing is connecting with the audience. And it also helps that I get to drum on my bass a little bit—I always wanted to be a drummer as a kid somehow; I ended up playing this upright bass, but I like it when I do both.

How do you typically come out to your audience as a queer band?

We have our different ways of coming out. Every show is other because our audience is diverse, but we often let the songs speak for themselves. Through our songwriting, it’s very, very clear who we are. It’s poetic but explicit, so if they give half an ear to it, they will know exactly on which side our bread is buttered. I feel like often when I sing “Summertime”, it is very much a coming out process, and it’s straightforward for me because it’s my words, and it’s in the way that I want it. There are times when we’re doing shows, and that song is on the setlist, and I’m looking around at the crowd, and it’s like, uh, this is a little scary; I’m not sure how people are going to receive this! But at the same time, I know that it’s not only crucial for me in my journey to come out to the room of people, but it’s also essential for other queer-femme lesbians like me to have that kind of visibility in the world. [It’s important] to put that out there so that people can look at a pretty girl in a skirt with glitter and lipstick and be like, what, she likes girls? That’s an integral part of the activism side of Coyote Grace that I enjoy.

[We also] tend to use humour on stage because we don’t want it to be something weighty that we’re handing to the audience to hold for the rest of the show. Joe will make jokes like, “Don’t be fooled by the beard; it was expensive.” And I can say something like, “Don’t be fooled by the skirt; I wear the pants.”

[Laughs] I think everything’s easier to absorb with humour. So has it been difficult for you to maintain your lesbian identity while being part of a trans partnership and appearing heterosexual to many?

Audiences may see a hetero-looking couple on stage, but things are not as they seem…on many levels. It has been very challenging. I know a lot of feminine women in the lesbian community who are often side by side with trans guys, and even though they both came from the lesbian community and they both very much identify with the lesbian community, it’s not as obvious anymore precisely where they stand or where they came from. So for me, I feel like it has been a challenge. However, my entire life has been an uphill battle to embody and prove who I am not only within the queer community but also to the more fantastic world at large.

I feel like a lot of other femmes I know have a pretty hearty stash of tricks and tools in their handbag to pull out to make sure it’s obvious where it is that they are coming from—they have to be a little louder about it than people who appear more stereotypically gay or lesbian. So, it is constantly a challenge, but at the same time, I am so proud to be who I am and part of the queer-femme community. Joe and I are very clear about who we are, and Joe supports and gives lots of space for me to voice precisely who I am so that people don’t have to make assumptions about where I stand.

You say that femme’s have a lot of tricks in their handbags to maintain visibility; what’s one of yours?

The fact that I love to present very feminine and that I love women is one crossroads that has sharpened my wit more than I could ever say. Just having sharp, to-the-point one-liners that come out of a lovely, docile person catches people off, guard. Of course, I can’t think of any hilarious or clever [laughs] at this moment, but leaving them in the dust of confusion and walking away from the situation is often my best strategy.

So femme visibility is a point of activism for you, and I remember you telling me that you go to some femme convention, correct?

Yes, it is a femme conference that happens once every two years.

Why is that important to you? What is the purpose and outcome of that conference?

Many people think, Oh, you’re just going to talk about shoes and lipstick, aren’t you? They can belittle it all they want, but with any grassroots organising, it takes people with a shared vision and experience to get in a room and hash it out. There is such a spectrum of where everybody is coming from. Yet, there is a powerful common denominator of what we’re all dealing with: We’re all queer, we’re all feminine, we’re all proud of who we are, and we want to get validation from each other that we are beautiful and solid and unique…and also from within our queer community and the general mainstream world. Seeing other women and how they do femme is inspiring and incredible because I struggle with people not acknowledging that I’m some visible gay. [And also within the femme community] sometimes I feel like my stilettos aren’t tall enough, my lipstick isn’t bright enough. And I think many people deal with that—like, I’m not gay enough, I’m not trans enough, I’m not hip enough that they are struggling to meet the stereotype. To go there and to see every slice of the femme pie that you can imagine is fantastic, and it is such a reflection for me that I can be my breed of femme…and I can still be acknowledged within the community as femme…and I can go back to my community and feel fed and empowered. I could probably give a dissertation on femme visibility.

[Laughs] The world could probably use a dissertation.

I say that to audiences when I’m dedicating “Summertime.” I’ll be like, This is for all the femmes in the audience. If you don’t know what femme is, see me afterwards for the dissertation. [Laughs]

You’ve said before that your motto is “be the kind of gay you’d like to see in the world,” can you elaborate on that?

I didn’t have any role models [growing up] for what it was like to be feminine and love women and be OK with it. You know, there were no out people, quote-unquote, and the only people who were so painfully lesbian were very sporty or very androgynous…I adored them and admired their bravery to be who they are, but when I discovered that I liked girls too, I was like, “Oh, but I can’t wear that drag, I can’t play that role, that’s not me.” And so it made me feel like maybe that wasn’t who I was. By owning the fact that I am feminine, acknowledging the fact that I’m down-home, and holding the fact that I love women and I’m comfortable in my skin—by putting that out there to people, I can only hope that there are other people out there that will see that and they will say, “Well, that’s kind of me, I could do that.” I put [who I am] out there, and hopefully, I will be the face of femme, I will be the face of lesbian, I will be the face of a folk musician, and somebody else might see that…and that might inspire them.

Alright, I have a few fun ones for you now. Who is your celebrity crush?

That’s such a good question. I feel so out of touch—I don’t keep up with pop culture these days. But I think at the end of the day, Angeline Jolie was the one who turned the tide for me. [Laughs] At the end of the day, those lips, man! Breakfast, lunch and dinner!

What is the last book that you read?

I re-read it because it’s one of my favourites—Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg. I’m so happy that I reread it—I read it five years ago when I was at a very different point in my life, and it served me so well then. And it’s immaculate to have it come back around and get so many other things out of it for where I am now. It’s the book that keeps on giving, that’s for sure.

Agreed. So I’m engaged to a redhead, and I have a sneaking suspicion that you firecrackers want to take over the world. Can you confirm this?

Well, let’s say there are meetings. Some plans involve lots of sunscreens! I think the world will be a better place for it; other than that; I don’t think I’m at liberty to share much else. But trust me, it’s a good thing.

Sunscreen and parasol umbrellas!

Yes! I have a wide variety of parasols, and I highly suggest that anybody you know invest in them—it’s the way of the future.

Anything else you want to say to your lesbian fans?

The only thing I would say is that long ago in a galaxy far, far away—before Coyote Grace existed—I remember reading in your magazine and being so grateful for a public, visible community like that, and also thinking, “I’m never going to be in one of those magazines. I don’t look gay enough and am part of the trans community, so I’ll never be in there.” I’m grateful to have a voice, be a face in this community, and stand on my own for my art and my queer, lesbian community.