New York is the place where many of us flee to in hopes of starting anew. The senses become heightened as we absorb the smog that permeates the air and contaminates the lungs, passing street vendors selling fruit, and having near death experiences every time a taxi carelessly swerves around a tight corner while we are crossing the street.
The isolation that comes with living in pockets of the city can either transform us beyond recognition or break us entirely. We will occasionally escape the noise by fleeing to places like the West Side Piers and Rockaway Beach, inhaling the salty air, listening to the rippling of the trash-filled bodies of water before the inevitable return to the whirring white noise of midtown traffic, chugging subway cars, and business deals being made over the phone. It’s a city that tests our capacity for resilience, before we eventually decide to leave or begrudgingly grow to love it, even if it never cared about us.
New York is the place where many queer individuals migrate to when we are attempting to purge the oppressive poison that we internalized growing up. We become hardened and hyper-sensitive, careful not to let our guards down while simultaneously trying to liberate ourselves from shame and prove to ourselves, our families, our co-workers and our lovers that we are busy, relevant, and special.
Queer New York is as vast and complex as it is confusing. The city is easily malleable, allowing queer communities to find spaces that we can transform into our own. We commiserate with each other in underground nightlife spaces—bars, clubs, and cabarets—the few places where we can escape the violent heteronormative gaze of the streets, public transit, and work and create a world of our own.
After moving to New York and surviving by busking in subway stations, singer-songwriter Viktor Vladimirovich began making waves in the Brooklyn indie scene by writing and recording music under the moniker Prince Johnny, a reference to the St. Vincent song of the same name. Their music is an amalgamation of cabaret-infused folk and indie pop that finds a middle ground between tragedy, humor, and radical emotionality.
Prince Johnny is no stranger to the power of transformative work. Refusing to shy away from how their identity informs the ways that they see the world, their music encompasses every feeling imaginable from uncomfortable confrontations to warm hugs and sighs of relief.
Prince Johnny’s newest EP, Stupid Sex, which is slated to be released on May 17th, is a blisteringly emotional and delightfully lighthearted portrait of the modern queer experience in the shadow of the AIDS crisis. Places like New York and Amsterdam provide the backdrop to their introspective journey to exist on their own terms while navigating the world of self-loathing on slow, sorrowful ballads like “Sex Party” and “Fort Tryon,” which each have shades of Mitski, Leonard Cohen, and Daniel Johnston. Meanwhile, more lighthearted cabaret-themed songs like “Boys Just Wanna Have Fun,” and “Stupid Sex,” do an impeccable job of tackling the pervasive hyper-sexualization of the queer male gaze and the fine line between sex and mortality.
Below is my full conversation with Prince Johnny, where we discuss how they came to fully embrace their artistic impulses, starting their own collective in Brooklyn’s artistic queer community, and finding inspiration in Regina Spektor’s capacity for empathy.
If you wouldn’t mind, I would love for you to walk me through your first foray into music-making. How did you come to decide that it was something that you wanted to pursue?
My body told me who I was before I had the courage to accept it. My parents told me that as a child I would go around belting “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” any opportunity I got. Starting in middle school, I began compulsively writing Regina Spektor and Amanda Palmer lyrics in my notebooks during class. I don’t know why I started, or anyone else that did it, but I’d always de-focus from the subject being taught and find myself writing out lyrics. I also remember writing them on whiteboards in our choir wing’s piano closet. If I’m walking anywhere alone I still sing about 83% of the time and have been since I can remember.
In terms of making something myself, I remember really wanting to write songs but thinking I wasn’t “chosen” to do it. I remember watching an interview with Alanis Morisette in middle school where she talked about walking around her house and melodies just “floating into [her] head.” I was super bitter because my favorite people were my songwriters and I wanted to be like them. Then one day I was practicing Moonlight Sonata and a pattern of notes struck me as really beautiful and I repeated it over and over and added my own chords underneath and then suddenly a melody floated in and I wrote my first song.
I continued to write songs throughout college but my neuroses were far too powerful to allow me to share anything publicly. I remember having little meetings with my closest friends and “coming out” to them as a songwriter. I felt ashamed and hopeless. The volatility of a musician’s life scared me. I didn’t think I was good enough. Why couldn’t I be someone that could be content with something safer & more normal? I resented that I had no control over what I needed to be doing to feel alive. I continued to keep everything bottled up until about 22 when I was having the classic first year in NYC rock-bottom moment and I found myself screening therapists. I sheepishly told one that alI thought about all day was lyrics and songs and I thought I was a musician. He asked if I was actually doing music. I got really defensive and tried to explain that I couldn’t even afford my food—how could I do something so silly and childish as try to be an artist. And he matter of factly said, “if you are an artist and you don’t let yourself make art you will never be happy.” That was the mindset shift I needed and a few months later I went to my first open-mic and the rest is herstory. I see it less as something I decided I wanted to pursue, but more as something I finally accepted I needed to do.
In what specific ways have your most formative influences (Perfume Genius, St. Vincent, Regina Spektor, Amanda Palmer, etc.) affected the ways that you create your own music?
Oh man, they’re my everything. I believe the stories they gave me in my adolescence developed the infrastructure of my mind. They all taught me so much but I’ll try to pair it down to a few things for each. Amanda taught me how to play with exaggeration, theatrics, character work and “lying” in order to better tell a truth. Regina taught me empathy. What it means to live in another’s world and how to take details from the world and craft lyric from it. She also encouraged idiosyncrasy, reminding me that I could deliver things [however] I wanted in whatever style.
Perfume Genius taught me the power in wielding my inherent fagginess & femininity as a source of strength, instead of shrinking away & hiding it. He taught me simple but visceral lyricism. He taught me to ask myself with every lyric I write “what am I risking? What am I revealing?” Annie [St. Vincent] taught me about the power of contrast, juxtaposing something soft and delicate with something acidic and brutal. Mitski taught me to reframe my relationship with yearning, and how to integrate that primal tension into my lyrics. She showed me how I could get my lyrics to glow all soft and romantic.
What this EP does so well is balance the heavier themes–like the fine line between sex and mortality in the shadow of the AIDS crisis–with lighthearted humor. The cover art [for ‘Boys Just Wanna Have Fun’] in particular was giving me “horror and decay but make it camp,” which I loved. Was that in keeping with the theme of exploring these specific anxieties?
Yes [ …] you hit the nail [right] on the head. I think of my work as winking with a tear in your eye. It’s direct emotionality and eye contact, but also an acknowledgement of the inherent absurdity and melodrama of our neuroses. I want to honor the emotions they bring up, while never falling into victimhood about it. I think our demons get most mad when we laugh at them. & I love to see them pressed.
Something that a lot of queer youth recognize is the necessity to create spaces for ourselves outside of mainstream society. In what ways do you feel your actions and art have allowed you to transform certain spaces into your own?
I think what we want, at the end of the day, is to be accepted for who we see ourselves as. I know I expected this queer wonderland when I got to New York, but could not find my community. So, I created “The Troubadour Lounge,” which is a monthly performance showcase of queer songwriters I curate to play sets alongside my band. It’s like Tiny Desk mixed with Sofar Sounds, but gay. Those nights are some of the best of my life. Because it isn’t asking to fit into traditional spaces, it’s a space specifically made for queer people to queer TF out. I aim to bring them back post-quarantine and I would love to hear any suggestions for queer songwriting talent in NYC! Anyone [who has any suggestions] can feel free to email me.
I really resonated with the way songs like “Stupid Sex” capture, in your own words, “being queer in the way you think you should be” in NYC (cause I very much relate). How has New York in particular informed your work?
Ah, New York. Smoke free lungs, alien pods, game show hosts, the souls of the dead, crumb free bread, the back of a car, roadway maps, the back of a head, the back of YOUR head, to be more specific. Those are the things Regina says you can find being sold from the back of a truck in this heinously gorgeous city.
New York cuts your teeth sharp as hell, but then you’re constantly biting your lips and bleeding everywhere before you get used to it. You can also find yourself biting into foods you don’t actually like, but think you’re supposed to, since everyone else seems to be enjoying it?
Being around so many strong personalities is a test of your sense of self because it’s so easy to just fall into what’s happening around you. [But] oftentimes, the loudest thing is not what actually aligns with who you are. You have to learn to ask yourself what you actually want.
Once you connect to your true essence, that’s when the party really begins. I felt like New York cooly and coyly challenges you to show up as the Super Saiyan version of yourself. Find that swagger, take up that space, reclaim what’s yours, become your own hero.
I began my career busking in the 175th street station. New Yorkers WILL tell you how they feel. I had all sorts of experiences. A man screamed in my face to “SHUT THE FUCK UP,” a kind grandma made me promise her I’d never stop performing, this one man gave me $5 so that I could “go get some voice lessons.” One time I looked down and someone had left me a bag with a water and chips from the bodega in it. I see busking as a bootcamp for performers and everyone should try it. I’d go hours and hours being ignored while singing my heart out. It eviscerated my ego into the best way.
On “Sex Party” and “Boys Just Wanna Have Fun,” you explore the urge to liberate yourself from shame but also somehow never feeling quite satisfied. Tell me a little more about that.
There’s a spiteful rebelliousness I’ve felt concerning my sexual expression since I can remember. I always resented all the forces that come together to undermine a queer person’s right to find their own version of healthy sexuality. I think shame is one of the most pervasive and insidious detractors of a queer person’s sexuality. What I explore is how this overcorrection with hyper-sexuality that a lot of queer people fall into can be just as detrimental as shame-fueled avoidance.
There can be this urge to prove to yourself that the bigots haven’t won and that all of the shame you’ve internalized against your will hasn’t stopped you from becoming who you’re meant to and doing all the shit that pisses them off. But living in strict opposition to dogma can be just as confining a prison as buying into it. I want to be what my body wants me to be, not an exaggerated inverse.
In those songs I explore the emptiness, confusion, and anxious self-loathing that I felt after trying to make myself fit into what I saw as modern queer culture. Why did going to that Dutch dark room in Amsterdam send me into a week-long depressive spiral? Wasn’t I supposed to love random hook-ups? Why were my ears ringing and my body going into fight-or-flight even before this stranger showed up to my door? Maybe I just needed more practice. Why was I so fucking ~~sensitive~~?? Did I want the sex or was I just trading my body in hopes of a cuddle after? I think other people enjoying these things is fantastic, but I had to figure out that for me—right now at least—it was not serving me.
I also wanted to ask you about Regina Spektor (who we are both massive fans of) because she is a figure who you seem to connect with over both music and a similar background. What does she mean to you?
My heart feels glowy just reading that. I could write a dissertation. I think of her as family, not in the sense that I want to be invited to her kid’s bar mitzvah, but in the sense that her worldview has consistently guided me through my adolescence and young adulthood. When I imagine the way she sees the world I feel buckets and buckets full of empathy and loving attention to detail.
I think of the “new shoes stuck to aging feet” she notices of older people in the Upper East Side thinking of “how things were right when they were young and veins were tight“ in “Ne Me Quitte Pas.” I think of the “heroin boy” in “Daniel Cowman” realizing he just died of an overdose. I think of the “androgynous powder nosed girl next door” in “Back of a Truck” wanting “more, more, more.” I think of the “Genius Next Door” drowning himself in the lake. I think of the “Man of a Thousand Faces” smiling “at the moon like he knows her.” I think of the old woman in “Happy New Year” wrapped in her blanket greeting the New Year alone with her bottle of champagne next to her open window. I feel her quietly contemplating and reflecting on the way her life has gone.
Damn, I literally [just] got teary eyed. That lady always makes me cry when I spend enough time with her. I adore the way Regina brings us these details about these people, the way she takes the time to try to understand them. These people float around in my head and show up in my songs too. [Empathy is my best quality] and I believe listening to my [favorite] songwriters and their lyrics is how I developed mine. Regina means so, so much to me. I met her a few years back at a small Amanda Palmer concert. We talked about raw emotionality in songwriting while I did my best to dissipate the panic in my face by white-knuckle squeezing the back of a chair. It was a lovely experience.
What do you feel is the most important takeaway audiences should have when listening to your work?
A Joni Mitchell quote comes to mind: “If you listen to that music and you see me, you’re not getting anything out of it. If you listen to that music and you see yourself, now you’re getting something out of it.”