Ryder Cooley of ‘The Dustbowl Faeries’. Non-Binary, Polka, & Candy

The Plague Garden (permission from the artist)

Ryder Cooley

I spent plenty of time in Germany, and over in nearby Poland, so it’s no secret that I love polka music. When I heard the Dustbowl Faeries, I had no idea what I was in for. I fell in love with their first song (and binged on it after that) as they have the most eccentric and enjoyable sounds I have heard in a very long time. I was able to speak to Ryder Cooley, the mastermind behind it all, she is non-binary (she/her/hers), incredibly intelligent, creative, and just wonderful. In my conversations with her, I came to know how I can have so much in common with someone so truly different than myself. It is people like Ryder Cooley that teach me so much about myself, just by asking her about herself. With a new single “Candy Store” it only kicks off the voyage, I think there are no waters of the sea, as deep and marvelous as Ryder Cooley.


Jeremy Hinks: So Ryder, good morning, thank you for joining us. Where exactly where are you calling from?

Ryder Cooley: I am on the Catskill Mountain side of the Hudson River, not too far from the mountains. It’s a big destination now for people from New York City, everyone is fleeing the city, it’s always been a nice  spot where lots of people go back and forth. If you wanna be connected to the city, but don’t want to have to deal with living there, or too much humanity, for me it’s both.

JH: You live out in what they would call “The Sticks,” does that play into the music? Or the personality of the Dustbowl Faeries?

RC: I would say in some ways, yes, if you tune in to some of the lyrics, especially some of the songs on the new album coming out “The Plague Garden”, it’s the kind of storytelling, and dark fairytales or in the dark forest, a cemetery, or wandering through a village or those kinds of settings. The music itself I think is based on folk music, but it’s also part of the Balkan music revival that has been happening for quite a while, in New York, or San Francisco, or around the world, but there is an urban aspect to it, but it’s a fairy tale “Woodsy” earthy, too.

JH: Well, I am a huge Polka fan, and I was loving it, this is great stuff, I had to explain this to my friends, I even told your publicist this, that you are the lovechild of Tom Waits and Josie Cotton.

RC: Oh my gosh, thank you.

JH: I have interviewed Josie, I love her to pieces, and then Tom Waits is in your music. It’s this macabre polka man, I loved every note of it. I was about “Vampire Tango” and I was in love, I watched the video to the new song, I would describe you as a funeral parlor band.

RC: Oh yeah !!

**interviewer’s note – I want this song played at my funeral.

JH: I watched the concert of your performance at the “Candy Store” in Brooklyn, and I just saw this “Pre-Gatsby” funeral parlor band, and I have not been this enchanted by an artist like this in a very long time. I went through YouTube, and watched all that solo stuff, it was just wonderful, and you are clearly one of the most enigmatic people that I have ever seen.

RC: Oh, thank you so much.

JH: Well, I wanna know what makes you tick, as I understand you consider yourself non-binary.

RC: Yes, I definitely identify as “queer”, gender-fluid, pansexual, I would say I have tried it all, and I do have a wonderful same-sex partner right now, and she was so thrilled that we are doing this interview, on 11/11 at 11, she is really into numerology and double digits.

JH: So, how much of your personal solo work crosses over into Dustbowl Faeries, how much of “The Faeries” are you? Because you personal stuff is just as amazing and intriguing.

RC: Well, I have been performing in music and also performance art at different strange capacities for so many years and I founded the Dustbowl Faeries, and they call me the “Faerie leader” or the “Faerie Queen”, so it is my band, I keep it going, and I write all of the songs for the band pretty much. Every once in a while, somebody will bring in some ideas, and the other musicians come up with their own parts on their instruments. I am not a control freak about it, I don’t write all the parts, I just write the song, and they bring whatever they are going to bring to it. So, in that sense it’s very collaborative, but it’s all coming from me and my experiences in this strange world that we are in, and my imagination and dark fantasies. I like old folklore, and a strange history as well.

JH: I don’t even know where to start with your inspirations, and what makes you tick, and the music you make. Can you talk about your spirit animal that you perform with.

RC: HAZEL, yes, she is a Barbados black belly sheep, a ram, I think of her as “Re-gendered” because often I perform with this disembodied taxidermied head, attached to my body. I think of it, that I give my body to Hazel, whose body was taken away, not by me, and I don’t know what happened, or how Hazel died, all of that is a big mystery, but what I try to do with my spirit animal friends, and I have quite a few. I don’t think it’s right for them to be this ornament on the wall, so they have to come off the wall, and they become part of my body, or I give them a place in my home so that they can have a better afterlife, and then they bring so much to me, and Hazel in particular, who has been my number one collaborator for probably close to a decade. She has traveled with me across the country and done so many shows together, and we have done a lot of not just performing with the Dustbowl Faeries, but we do installation and performance together, she has done a lot of aerial performance with me, up in fabrics and suspended in bell towers, and things like that. We have been through a lot together, and when performing with her I try to bring her energy into the room as this re-gendered or trans-gendered ram, just welcoming in that energy and it’s nice for me to feel like I can have these horns, and or like a rack. It’s very masculine, I like that, and it feels powerful, and so Hazel kind of gives that gift of “Ram Power” and Hazel gets the gift of a very interesting afterlife. She has a lot of fans, and she is very loved.

JH: That is quite a story, there is this song “Hazel’s Eyes” on YouTube, that was really wild to watch, it was like the band “This Mortal Coil” throwing into the mix Siouxsie and the Banshees’ version of “Dear Prudence”, but there you were in this weird barn, with all this pagan décor, Hazel is standing there, and you are on this trapeze, it was so different, I couldn’t stop watching it. Yes, there is this macabre aspect to it, but there was this really creepy, unsettling feeling in the barn, with you doing this beautiful work on the trapeze, I thought it was so over the top, and trying to describe it to people just doesn’t work. How did that even come about, the trapeze is a skill unto itself.

RC: Well, first of all that song “Hazel’s Eyes” is written by one of my collaborators, his name is Dennis Herbert, and he made a whole album, it’s called “Hazel’s Eyes”, there are so many songs about Hazel and me, in a way, and our whole fantasy/reality life that we lead. (I have since gotten this album, it is an absolute magnificent piece of work) So I love playing his songs in my solo shows, and every once in a while the Dustbowl Faeries will pay some of his songs. My partner Lisa, and my housemate Mike brought their cameras in, and we filmed it back when we were all pretty freaked out about what was going on. But you get a few gifts out of this difficult time and one was that my partner had put a beam in the barn for me to do aerials, and all summer long I was on that trapeze every day.

JH: I could listen to you talk about this stuff for hours. See, I love GOTH Rock, I love the music, and I love goth girls, they are gorgeous, but, that is kind of where it ends. I want to ask them “What are you so upset about?”, and you have to hang onto this gloom of the subculture, no point to it after a while, BUT, you are the real deal, not just with dyed hair black, black lipstick and listening to The Sisters Of Mercy. Okay Maybe you are…

Used by kind permission from the band.

RC: I appreciate them, but I wouldn’t say I’m a fan, it’s always nice to belong, I always kinda wished I could be one of those “goth girls” but I was never interested in the fashion side of things, or the commercial side of things. I’ve always been more interested in finding my own way, and the mystery of that, I was never interested in going to the mall, and buying the goth outfits. If I find them in the thrift store, and some goth girl got rid of them, then I’ll wear them, but I never really liked the superficiality that can happen, especially in music scenes, and all the different categories, and “Where do I fit in”, it’s all so frustrating to me because it takes away some of the magic. But I have actually during this pandemic been trying to lighten up, and the songs on the album the Plague Garden are a bit more up-tempo.

JH: That is what I love about it, there is so much on there that is fun. I feel like you accomplished on that record, what Tim Burton has been trying to do his whole life, I LOVED that album. If there was an inspiration for “Nightmare Before Christmas” or “Edward Scissorhands”, I mean, “Sweeny Todd” and “Peter Pan” are all in this album.

RC: Wow, thank you. It is so hard to get the music out to the right people, so I am really glad that it found you. That makes me very happy.

JH: David Lynch’s dream segments are where I would visualize you. You would fit in the “Twin Peaks” or “Lost Highway”, but I would see you in the Candy Store doing exactly what you did at that show, in a David Lynch dream segment, and it would be absolutely flawless to see you in there, the visuals, the production design. The visuals he was using, made me think he went to the future, watched your gig at the venue Pete’s Candy Store, and went back in time to do Twin Peaks based on what you did there.

RC: Yes, there is also that video for our song “The Candy Store” that is coming out this week, it was shot in Catskill, New York where I live. It kinda goes into the old folk story of that song, which is a song that my grandmother taught me. We recreated a candy store, so it has a very back in time feel to it, and it’s not like anything we have done before, and I think you will really like it.

JH: Yeah, I’ve seen it, I loved it.

RC: Yes, it is shared out on social media, and the YouTube channel.

JH: So, did this marvelous pandemic going on inspire the title and subject of the album “The Plague Garden” ?

RC: Yes, but I actually wouldn’t have made this album right now if the pandemic didn’t happen. I mean I was so excited, for the first time ever, I got a booking agent, I was booking shows, and some solo shows, some gigs for the 5 piece band, it’s not easy to get the whole band out and about. So I had all of these plans to travel, and some of the Dustbowl Faeries were telling me, “We need to make a new album” because we have been moving in the direction of this up-tempo kind of dark polka theme.

JH: Oh yeah, we are going to have a TON of great music released and performed when concerts start rolling again, that’s for sure.

RC: The title idea was from a lot of the people around here in the countryside, people were making gardens more than ever before, with this concern if things get really bad, and we don’t have access to all of our first world privileges of going to the grocery store, so people were doing a lot of gardening. I really liked to see that and it cheered me up, so there came the idea “The Plague Garden” but I almost called it the “Plague Bouquet” but the other musicians didn’t like that idea. I was really fascinated with the plague as a kid.

JH: have to tell you this, the most amazing thing about your musical talents is you play the saw. It’s old Appalachia, and you do it as if it’s normal to see on the stage. Nothing to showcase, you just do it. How did you pick up playing the saw?

RC: I saw it in a movie once, and they were playing it like a violin, the accordion is the “working person’s piano” the saw is the “Working person’s violin”, you go get it out of the woodshed and take out the saw. There was an Eastern European folk music revival, and “Gypsy Punk”, and when all of that was starting to happen, the singing saw had a comeback. A few people were playing it when I was in San Francisco, and this musician was playing the saw, and I asked him if he would teach me, and he did. That was when I was doing this “DIY” Anarchist barter system lifestyle, which I’m still doing, it’s not as easy to get out of as you think. I bought a saw from Charlie Blacklock, he was the saw player on the show “HEE-HAW”, it was a tenor. He wanted you to watch a video, and play it with his method. I have an alto saw too, but since 9/11, it is difficult to fly because nobody wants a saw on an airplane these days.

JH: So, When did you understand that you were non binary queer instead of just gay or bisexual, can talk a little bit about that? I don’t believe I’ve really covered the non-binary side of things. As far as people that I have talked to very much, I’ve talked to drag queens and trans people. I’ve talked to a lot, but I think you are one of the first hon-binary persons I’ve interviewed. And, what is your girlfriend’s situation in this?

RC: That is the nice thing about this time, is that there is a lot more open mindedness culturally. There’s always been in different subcultures, people exploring different identifications, and it’s really nice that it can be more public. I mean, not everywhere of course and there’s still a ton of homophobia but I think for me the non-binary, it’s always been pretty fluid for me. Not that I am a hard line person, of “I’m this or that” and that’s what the queer and non-binary is for me, is not having to be one thing or another, the non-binary movement is coming out of the trans movement, and have me thinking “Why does there have to be only two genders?” Why do you have to be assigned a biological gender as a child that is going to inform and contain, control, and affect your life in ways that you do not have a choice in? Why can’t we choose our gender? I think that because of the predominant patriarchal cultures that we live in, often it’s that heterosexual identifying men, they have all of those gender privileges. But for people who don’t, if considered female, or gay men, or misfits, or whatever, for those people it’s “Why do we have to subscribe to these genders that are assigned to us, that are very oppressive?”. So it’s really about taking back gender and trying to transcend those binary roles which can be very oppressive, and really don’t make sense for a lot of people including myself. An example, growing up, my parents were nature freaks, and academic hippies, and we spent a lot of time outside, they drove me nuts from the time I was a little kid because they LOVED doing bird identifications and the identification was always “That is the male” or “That is the female, the female wren, in her nest, on her eggs, doing what the female does”, and it just felt like gender propaganda of trying to and your kids are thinking that way. But if you are someone like me, “But NO!! I don’t want to do that” and I got in so many fights with my family, I was that problem child, “No, it’s not male or female? It might not be”. It’s very refreshing that there is more open-ness about gender identity and sexuality and I thank the faerie gods that we have more of a choice. At least in this culture that we are living in. It’s really exciting for me to see people who are younger than me and not even necessarily gay or queer identified, but they are still thinking of plural identity, that’s so wonderful. We are so many things, why do we have to be singular, why can’t we be plural. Even multiple personalities used to be considered a mental disorder, and people were given all kinds of drugs or treatments that they might not have wanted. Now it’s more acceptable to be who you are, and also to change, you don’t have to be one thing forever, it’s not fixed, everything is moving in fluid, and if you look around us, everything is moving and fluid. So why are we so fixated on the cultural conditioning. Like western Christianity, and god is a man of course, or “Mother Earth.”

JH: So, my final question, I ask this of everyone, and now it’s your turn. What would your message be to the young gay kid, the one in the closet, afraid, and in a vulnerable state?

RC: I would say, don’t be scared, you were born in a time when it is more open than ever before. You’re gonna have to take risks, you probably are going  through some hard times, but that is going to make you a better, stronger person. Don’t let people judge you, be proud of who you are, and please come out of the closet, I want to meet you, and see what you have to offer the world, the world needs you, I want to know that you are out there, and I am out here too.

JH: Wow, Ryder, there it is “I wanna meet you”, that is great. Thank you so much for all of this.


Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCWSmL9uBZE7Ng3-eGsMBI-A/
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Instagram: dustbowlfaeries
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Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/artist/3sCvPYNcxQrSrkPX4FCYxh


The whole of this interview audio with all of its wonderful tangents can be streamed here.

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