Claire Rousay: ‘Touring as a woman, if you don’t protect yourself no one will’

The avant-garde musician plays Ireland for the first time at the end of the month

For a moment, Claire Rousay wondered which way things were going to go. Playing support to superstar Jeff Tweedy in Dallas last month, the avant-garde musician was treating the audience to a suite of gorgeous, esoteric, occasionally challenging instrumental pieces. And then the atmosphere took a turn for the strange, even scary.

“People started to talk in the middle,” says the genre-hopping musician, whose work has drawn comparisons with minimalist high priest Steve Reich and meditative composer William Basinksi. “I just got on the microphone and I was like, ‘I’m so sorry. I know it sucks to go see Jeff and you see me. I can’t imagine what someone would do in your situation. If someone is playing with sounds like coins rolling around on the table.’ You have to learn to work with what you get. In situations like that… advocating for myself, with an all male crew. Even soundcheck was kind of tense.”

Tweedy couldn’t have been more supportive, adds Rousay, speaking over video link ahead of a show in Dublin on April 29th. As were those members of the audience open to music that challenged their preconceptions and asked that they tiptoe outside their comfort zone. For Rousay the overwhelming feeling at the end was pride at having made it through and at having defused a potentially problematic situation.

“I’m going to do whatever I want. I like to address the audience if there’s a weird vibe. The only reason I make music is to communicate with people. Why not communicate using language?”


Rousay has been communicating with her growing fanbase with records by turn intriguing, thrilling, confounding and layered in mystery. The New York Times has hailed her an “emo ambient” star; Pitchfork praised her 2021 LP A Softer Focus for conveying “a powerful sense of nostalgia for moments of quiet reflection and human connection”.  Rousay likes to think that, however defined, she brings to her sound a “punk edge”.

A Softer Focus was one of two records she made through lockdown at the San Antonio, Texas, home she shares with her girlfriend. The second, Everything Perfect Is Already Here, is released on April 22nd and consists of two 15-minute pieces featuring violin, harp and piano.

Building on A Softer Focus’s out-of-body effervescence, it knits fluttering melodies and unvarnished field recordings – bird song, typewriters, human conversation – into soundscapes of intense beauty and poignancy. It’s frightening, alien, soothing, raw. And, during unusual times, these qualities have served as a space into which Rousay’s audience have placed their hopes and fears – or so fans tell her.

I don't want to be a spokesperson for trans people. Everybody's experience is different

“I get contacted a lot, especially after concerts,” she says. “People will come up and either say, ‘hey, this record got me through a hard time’ or ‘this record means a lot to me’. Or, ‘I was anxious and I put your record on and it helped me figure that’. It is something I hear quite a bit.”

There are artists whose personalities feel like an extension of their music. Rousay, who was born in Winnipeg and moved to San Antonio with her family aged 10, isn’t one of them. Over video link from Antwerp she is sweet and talkative – universes removed from the austere, slightly forbidding figure presented on record. But while in high spirits, she is mindful, too, that she has taken on a lot as she hopscotches across Europe for concerts through April. To quote one of her recent tweets back to her, “Touring alone as a woman, if you don’t protect yourself no one will”.

“It’s terrifying,” she says. “Very scary. Sometimes you don’t even know if something is a safe or unsafe situation. I was in Mexico City with my friend. And he was like, ‘do you want to take the front car for the metro? It’s women only. Nobody bothers you ’. And I was like, ‘oh, I didn’t realise’. And he was like, ‘it’s a necessity’. I would never have known if I wasn’t travelling with someone who lives in Mexico.”

Rousay, who spells her name with a lower-case “c”, came out as a trans woman in 2019. She is proud of her identity – but reluctant to be perceived as making grand statements. Or to be seen as representing an entire group of people. “Lol not all trans ppl have to be visible or like spokespeople for the ‘community’,” she tweeted last year.

“I wouldn’t consider myself somebody with a large platform, especially on the internet. There are people like [trans pop star] Kim Petras. She’s a massive artist. And she talks about trans stuff sometimes,” says Rousay.

“But not everybody has to be a spokesperson. A lot of people who are trans are very proud of it and want to talk about it. It’s a huge part of their identity: sometimes it’s part of their personality. Personally, not so much. I want to make sure people are taken care of. And to do my part to make sure people are safe, and advocating for people who maybe don’t have the resources to feel comfortable in their body. I don’t want to be a spokesperson for trans people. Everybody’s experience is different.”

She is wary of her specific circumstances as a trans woman being taken as some universal truth. Women in music have, she points out, long faced that challenge, to one extent or another. A woman in a band will inevitably be asked about being a woman a band: as if she were speaking for every female on the planet to have ever picked up a guitar.

“Being the only woman in the band: it’s like, ‘I don’t know…? I’m in a band. I play the bass’. It’s fine. Obviously there are [issues around gender to be discussed] but first and foremost I’m in a band.”

How does she feel about the hostility often directed at the trans community on social media and the manner in which trans identity has become a battleground in the culture wars? When a prominent public figure tweets something controversial about trans people, does it cause her stress or pain?

“When people say transphobic stuff or homophobic stuff, it’s like, I’ve kind of heard it all already. And a lot of the times that I’ve heard it have been not on the internet. It’s been somebody yelling at me out of their car. Cornering me in a bar or pushing me or something. I’ve heard all these things in much more extreme situations. When it’s on the internet, it doesn’t bother or, quote, unquote, ‘trigger’ me.”

I tell her about a conversation with Ezra Furman, who came out as a transgender woman last year. Furman said you can be anywhere in the world, even in a “liberal” city such as San Fransisco, and all of a sudden someone is in your face, screaming, full of rage at you for merely existing. “Yeah,” Rousay sighs. “There’s always that one dude.”

Musically, she takes inspiration from all over. The experimental set she performs in Dublin at the end of the month will draw on ambient and neo-classical music – material with a glacial, woozy majesty that buffets you, shakes you to the core and then carries you far, far away.

But Rousay, who has a life-long passion for emo rock and for tragic troubadour Elliott Smith, can plug in and rock out, too. In February, working with her friend Mari Maurice, she released a dance record in the auto-tuned, maximalist “hyperpop” milieu popularised by artists such as Charli XCX. Never Stop Texting Me was received by some reviewers as pastiche or a ding against hyperpop. Rousay says nothing could be further from the truth.

“If it was a practical joke, I’m like bankrupting Orange Milk [the label that put it out]. I would never make a joke that’s on vinyl. A lot of people think there was a tongue-in-cheek quality. Or some sort of irony. It’s pretty sincere.”

Rousay has played all over the world, but never Ireland. She’s delighted to be coming. And she really means it, having squeezed in her Dublin gig the night before she flies to New York for a show. Two continents, two nights, two concerts. It sounds like the avant-garde version of Phil Collins criss-crossing the Atlantic by Concorde to perform twice at Live Aid in 1985.

“I play at 10 o’clock. And then, at 6am, I’m at the airport flying to New York. And I soundcheck that afternoon. It’s the end of a very long, drawn-out tour. But I’ve never been [to Ireland]. I want to go. I want to play the show. I tried to do this thing where I don’t go places I’m not invited. Because it seems kind of weird. So when someone asks, I say ‘yes’”.

Everything Perfect Is Already Here is out now. Claire Rousay plays The Workman’s Cellar, Dublin, on Friday, April 29th