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Writer and musician Our Lady J preaches the gospel of Dolly Parton

by Jonathan Shifflett with Paola Mardo | The Frame

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Our Lady J is a musician and also a writer on the Amazon series, "Transparent." John Arsenault

The Amazon series, "Transparent" is known for its mindful and sensitive portrayal of trans characters. That’s because show creator Jill Soloway hired writers who experienced transitioning firsthand. One of them is the musician Our Lady J.

Transparent Season 2

Our Lady J left a career in music to join Soloway’s writing team, starting with the second season of "Transparent." She is a classical pianist who has collaborated with the likes of Lady Gaga, Sia and the Scissor Sisters. She also created “The Gospel of Dolly” – a musical based on the work of Dolly Parton.

But growing up in a very religious family, Our Lady J was not allowed to listen to secular music. She recalls an incident involving the discovery of her older brother's Run-D.M.C. records: "They marched him out to the barn with a shotgun and he had to shoot his music collection. I was inside watching it from the house and I grabbed my Madonna CDs and hid everything."

Despite her strict family situation, her passion for music never waned. And because she was bullied at school, art and music became a major focus in her life.

Our Lady J Live

The Frame contributor Jonathan Shifflett recently visited with Our Lady J to learn more about her life in music and how she first met Dolly Parton.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS:

On growing up in a conservative community:

I am from a little Amish village of 200 people in southern central Pennsylvania. Half the population were Amish and the other half were cows, so I really had nothing else to do but to practice the piano. I didn’t know I was trans at the time, but I knew I was different and so did everyone else in our town.

On discovering Dolly Parton's music:

My grandmother wasn’t as strict as my parents were. Both my grandparents loved Dolly Parton. So I would go over to their house and I’d hear this, like, weird little Minnie Mouse voice singing country music. And I didn’t really know what that was. But I knew she wasn’t always singing about Jesus, so my ears perked up.

How Our Lady J's work led her to meet Parton:

When I was off discovering who I was in New York, I stopped speaking to my family for a couple years. And it was during that time that I really embraced Dolly’s music again. I started performing this concert called “The Gospel of Dolly,” where I took her spiritual music and her lesser-known songs and rearranged them for a gospel choir. And I performed it onstage using the skills that I learned in the church when I was young. And somehow she caught wind. I was teaching kids at the time and I got a text from a friend saying, I’m with Dolly right now and she’d love to meet you. I immediately excused myself from the classroom and I went and screamed in the hallway. So I met Dolly and I thought she was going to sue me and hand me a cease-and-desist [letter], but instead she just wanted to thank me for singing her songs.

Our Lady J duet on "The Gospel of Dolly"

How Parton supported Our Lady J's work:

I had this concert in New York called “Boob Aid” and she donated a couple things online that I auctioned off. And she gave me a big ol' hug and our hug was a little more distant than the last time because I have E’s and she has double G’s. And I swear when our breasts touched there was some sort of earthquake that happened. I was joking. I said, I named my left boob Jolene after you. And without missing a beat she goes, Oh, mine are named Shock and this is Awe. I love her.

On working in the New York dance scene while transitioning:

I was playing piano for American Ballet Theatre, Mark Morris Dance Group, Alvin Ailey — all these amazing companies. And then I transitioned and I noticed when I’d walk in the room, people would think I was doing a drag show at 8:30 in the morning. And I was just like, No, I’m just a woman. I’m kind of binary. They’re like, Binary? And so I lost a lot of work. I stopped getting calls. My transition, I think, was distracting — unfortunately. So I made identity part of my performance. And I did it in a fun and playful way. And really made it my mission to educate. And I think until I can rest at night knowing that my trans-ness is something that is accepted in the world, I’m going to continue putting that into my art.

To hear the full interview with Our Lady J, click on the player above.

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