Candye Kane is a right-on sister
by Gregg Shapiro
For more than 15 years, Candye Kane has been known as an out blues diva. But she “grew up listening to the records in my parents’ closet, which included Bobby Darin, Sinatra, and Judy Garland,” as well as the Oklahoma! and King and I soundtracks. As she proudly proclaims, “I have always been a show-tune queen, and it’s no secret.” That’s a good thing, considering that she recently performed her play The Toughest Girl Alive at the New York Fringe Festival. I spoke with Kane about the play, her new album Sister Vagabond (Delta Groove), and much more.
Gregg Shapiro: Candye, weren’t you recently in New York doing a play?
Candye Kane: I was in New York performing my stage play The Toughest Girl Alive in August. The play was a huge success in San Diego and sold out every night at the Moxie Theater, so we were honored to be part of the Fringe Festival. It was adapted and choreographed by the head of the San Diego Ballet, Javier Velasco, who also is a fan and a friend. Javier adapted the play from my memoir/book proposal and did a lovely job weaving my 23 original songs in between the stories.
It’s a play about triumph over adversity and about how my early life and personal choices shaped who I have become today. Robert Kirk plays all the male characters in my life (my father, Ron Jeremy, Sherman Halsey, Dwight Yoakum), and Bethany Slomka (the great niece of Marni Nixon) plays all the female characters in my life (my mother, my best friend, etc.). I play myself and narrate the show, and my entire band is onstage and in the show.
If you don’t mind, I’d like to ask you about the recent controversy surrounding the cancellation of your appearance at the Shelby Blues and BBQ Festival in Pelham, Alabama. In your own words, can you please briefly say something about the situation?
I was hired for the Shelby Blues and BBQ event and was then later informed by my agent at Piedmont Talent that a certain person on the Shelby Chamber of Commerce had decided I was not “family enough” for their event, based on a Google search she conducted. Specifically, she named the fact that I was gay and that I had been involved in sex work over 30 years ago. The contracts were still being sent back and forth through the mail, but I was confirmed for the event and there were already tickets being sold using my name on several different Alabama ticket websites. It’s a shame, because my show is so much about empowerment and is such an inspirational show that embraces and preaches tolerance and diversity. I think the people of Shelby really need to see and hear my super-hero message.
The prudishness seems hypocritical considering the often sexually suggestive nature of blues songs, don’t you think?
I agree. Blues is rich with sexual innuendo, and many of the older songs embraced and celebrated blatant sexuality [“I Want Some Sugar in My Bowl,” “Big Ten Inch Record,” “Shave ’Em Dry,” “That’s My Daddy with the Big Long Sliding Thing”], but this is not the first time I have been judged and marginalized by a festival or a venue because of my choices to be vocal about gay marriage, transgender issues, sex work issues, and prostitution issues. I pay a price sometimes for my candor, but I am also one of the only blues artists who can say with pride that I perform blues, jazz, hooker, and gay pride festivals simultaneously around the world.
As musical genres go, jazz and blues are two in which queer artists are making slow progress. Thanks to Patricia Barber, Lea DeLaria, Fred Hersch, and Gary Burton, to name a few, some barriers have been broken down in jazz. But in spite of out, living blues legends such as Gaye Adegbalola, as well as forebears such as Alberta Hunter and Lucille Bogan, there appears to be resistance in the blues world. How do you think that can be changed?
Although the blues world is typically a patriarchal sort of place where men with sunglasses sing songs about wine, whiskey, and women, the GLBT community is making strides. At the 2009 Blues Awards show in Memphis, there was a performance featuring openly gay Jason Ricci and Gaye Adegbolala singing a song about being out and proud.
There are more out gay artists in blues today than ever before in my recent memory—Earl Thomas, Ruthie Foster, Karen Lovely, Sue Palmer, Lisa Otey, Gaye and Jason are just a few. I am a bisexual, but I know there are many more artists who identify as GLBT in the blues community. It’s not just queers who are scary in the blues world. I have been marginalized because of my past as a sex worker and my vocality and sense of humor about sexuality.
The blues community wants desperately to be taken seriously, and I believe once they accept their shared history of oppression with the gay community that doors will open up for everyone. It’s the fear-based judgments that always cause these kinds of misunderstandings.
The original songs on your new album, Sister Vagabond, were co-written by you and Laura Chavez. How does that process work?
Every song has a different process. Some, like “Side Dish,” are songs that I imagine in their entirety with music and words together. I sing them to Laura or other musicians, and they act as a translator for my musical vision. Others, such as “Walking Talking Haunted House,” involve a musical idea Laura has, paired with a piece of my existing poetry. I edit and add as needed to create a song. Sometimes Laura gets a writing credit just for a certain section or change she has added to a song. I always choose to give someone a collaborative credit, even if they only come up with one line in the song. It’s the right and legal thing to do.
You close the Sister Vagabond album with the original “I Deserve Love,” a song that you sang at Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stevens’s “purple wedding.” How did that come about?
I wrote the song for myself after a heartbreaking relationship. It’s a classic example of how I use positive affirmations to empower myself and make myself feel stronger. When I sing “I Deserve Love,” I remind myself and state my own intention into the universe.
I already had the song written, but tweaked it a bit for Annie and Beth. Annie has been a long-time friend of mine, and I am so happy to see her find a partner who is so wonderful. They are just beautiful, and it was an honor to sing the song for them.
Have you heard about other same-sex couples incorporating the song into their ceremonies?
No, I haven’t yet. But of course I am always honored when people use my songs for their special events. I wrote a song called “It Should Be Rainin’,” on my CD Diva La Grande, which is used at a lot of funerals. It was originally written for my dear friend Robert Tiny Gibson, a gay drag queen performer who was brutally murdered in El Cajon, California, after a sex act in a park. He was a beautiful soul, and his death affected me deeply. I am so happy every time someone uses the song, as I feel it perpetuates his memory. I heard a straight couple just used my song “It Must Be Love,” from my White Trash Girl CD, in their wedding ceremony, and, again, any time anyone is inspired to use my songs for a special moment, I am thrilled.
Just a few years ago you experienced a serious health crisis, and since that time you beat cancer. Your fans want to know how your health is today.
I am in an ongoing struggle with neuroendocrine pancreatic cancer. I had the Whipple surgery in 2008 and mostly feel wonderful, but I continue to have bouts of pancreatitis and will likely be fighting this disease for the rest of my life. Luckily, I was just approved for pre-existing health insurance and will see a specialist at Cedars Sinai in September in Los Angeles. Many people, including Steve Jobs of Apple Computer fame, live a long time with neuroendocrine cancer. I am just lucky it’s not the fast-moving kind [adenocarcinoma], and I am grateful for every day I have on this planet when I feel well.
See Candye Kane in Houston on October 12 at 8 p.m. at The Continental Club, 3700 Main St. Advance tickets: 713/533-9525.
Gregg Shapiro is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.