SuperKnova’s music exists on a spectrum. The “queer pop” artist’s unique blend of pulsing synths, hip-hop drums and virtuosic guitar solos creates a sound that can’t be put into a box, much like the queer identities she sings about.
Ellie Kim, an Asian-American, transgender woman based in Chicago, created SuperKnova as a solo project for her to process her emotions while coming out. This musical diary turned into her 2017 EP, Splendor Dysphoria.
SuperKnova’s debut album, American Queers, releasing July 29, signals an evolution of the artist that’s more self-assured and unapologetically queer. She sings about taking trans hormones in the deeply personal “Shot and a Pill,” takes on anti-trans legislation in “Off My Body” and works through feelings of loneliness in the dreamy “Serotonin Serenade.”
As with her EP, American Queers is an entirely DIY project. SuperKnova spoke with WUSSY about the album’s creation process, her influences and queer empowerment
How did American Queers come together?
It’s a collection of queer anthems, fight songs and protest songs I wrote in the spirit of the music that inspired me while growing up. I wanted to make songs that help you get out of bed in the morning and keep going when it’s tough, like Pete Seeger’s songs that people sang in the picket lines or protests. American Queers is meant to be loud and proud, like the Staples Singers, James Brown’s “Say It Loud, I’m Black & I’m Proud” or Joan Jett. It’s inspired by artists who unabashedly wore their marginalized identities proudly to turn them into something celebrated. This album is my time to recreate that ethos and spirit.
What inspired the album’s title, American Queers?
It seemed very fitting and appropriate in the contentious times we live in. It’s a statement of identity and that we do belong here in a sense. There’s no doubt, veil or cover-up that this is a queer album, made by a queer person and with queer themes that can be relatable to everyone. Even cishet people suffer under patriarchy, homophobia and transphobia because it’s so restrictive of who can say what or act and dress in a certain way. We all want to be our authentic selves and break out of this mold that society imposes on us. It’s queer, but the themes are universal.
You’ve described your music as “queer pop.” What do you mean by that?
In one sense, I’m a queer person making the music, and much of it is explicitly queer-themed. But also when you look at queerness as the blurring of boundaries, breaking traditional molds or blending things that aren’t traditionally blended together, I’m blurring those lines in a musical sense. My music doesn’t fit into one genre. It’s a blend of electro-pop, hip-hop, and indie and classic rock. It’s fluid like a lot of queer identities. A lot of us move through different identities or roles, and my music does that with styles and genres.
How does American Queers show your progression since your 2017 EP, Splendor Dysphoria?
When writing Splendor Dysphoria, I was earlier in my process as an out, trans person. The music was more introspective and exploratory in its themes, similar to where I was in my transition. American Queers is similar in terms of where the songs are coming from, but like me, they’re louder and prouder. The album is more brash with heavier use of instrumentation and louder synths. The arrangements are more complex. I’ve grown and found a great community in Chicago in the last two years, so this was a natural progression.
Do you have visuals planned for the album?
I’m hoping to do another video with an all queer and trans cast, similar to my “Night’s a Bitch” video, but with more funds. Seeing yourself represented on screen can be powerful. I’ll also be developing more for my YouTube channel, like live performance videos. Keeping with the DIY spirit, I’ll also make tutorial videos showing how I make music, so people can do it themselves. I learned so much through trial and error, because these techniques didn’t even exist on YouTube for me. I’ll also be sharing various musings on trans culture and whatnot.
What inspired you to branch out through YouTube?
For a lot of artists, the logical next step after releasing an album is to tour. Traveling and playing shows is how you gain a following, but for me as a solo artist who’s a trans woman, I don’t know if I’d feel comfortable traveling the country by myself. When you’re an indie artist, you send out tons of emails and whatever venue books you is where you’re going, but that might not be a place where I feel safe going. In half of the country, I have no legal protections. I may not feel safe going where it’s perfectly legal to discriminate against trans people or where the culture may not be welcoming to me. YouTube allows me to reach out beyond Chicago without putting myself in danger or even leaving my apartment.
Why is it important for you to use your music to empower other queer people?
I don’t know if I would be here if it wasn’t for music. The artists I grew up listening to inspired me and had a very real emotional, physical and mental health impact on my life and identity. They helped me get through some of the darkest times in my life, so I feel indebted to keep that culture going. I want to use the power of music for social change and personal empowerment.
Photography by Lili Fang.
Jake Wittich is a journalist covering all things queer in Chicago. Follow his work on Twitter @JakeWittich