TenEighty’s cover star for LGBTQ+ History Month is Jake Edwards, who talks about music, YouTube, and activism – plus capes, spicy boys, and Oscar Wilde…
For Jake Edwards – a bisexual, non-binary musician and YouTuber – creativity and queerness are inextricably linked, and integral to their identity. Trying to imagine a version of themselves without either one, Jake says, “is like saying, ‘What would your life be like if you didn’t have a skeleton?’ It’s like, ‘I don’t know, probably a bag of organs on the floor?’
“My experiences as a queer person have driven almost everything in my life. It’s led to the worst things in my life happening to me, but it’s also led to the best things, and I don’t think I could ever have reached the highs or the lows that I have without this experience.
“And everything creative I do is interconnected with that. I think I would have dabbled in music if I was straight, but I don’t think I would have had the same connection to it; I don’t think I would have needed it as much. And I feel like I would have gone on and done something very boring with my life.”
As it is, Jake (who uses both they/them and he/him pronouns) has a life that’s anything but boring. They’ve been sharing their music (and more) on YouTube as JakeFTMagic for six years, building an audience of almost 150,000 subscribers, and after several years of self-releasing on Bandcamp, they signed with We’re Not Just Cats Records in 2017. Their first EP with the label, Pink + Blue, came out last year.
“I always had it in my head that I wanted to release an EP that was just about being trans,” Jake explains. “I got very caught up in that idea for a very long time, and I think it held me back, because I was like, ‘I need to write more songs about gender’. I was overthinking the whole process, writing some really weird songs.”
His goal became simply to write “a load of music I was happy with”, the best of which from “over the space of about three years” was passed on to Jake Aspey at We’re Not Just Cats. “He shaped it into the EP,” says Jake, “and it ended up being that four of the five tracks were specifically about being trans, I think.
“It was just everything I wanted. At the end, once I looked at that finished product, I was like, ‘You know, for a first shot, there’s nothing more I could ask for’. It still makes me happy.”
Jake had loved music since childhood; they remember singing along to “really cringey mum music” in the car on the way to school. “I think that’s when I first discovered that I liked singing – but I wasn’t very good at it,” they admit. “I auditioned for the school show in primary school, and sang in front of the whole class, and it was just one of those silent moments – nobody said anything, there wasn’t a clap afterwards. It was just like, ‘Okay, good, sit down now’.”
Around the same time, Jake’s mum encouraged them to take violin lessons. Jake didn’t take to the instrument, and dropped out after reaching Grade 3, but the experience made them sure music was the way forward. “I remember really vividly going to over to my friend’s house and teaching myself to play the Titanic theme,” they say. “It was a very basic rendition, but I thought, ‘Maybe I’m alright at music, if I can teach myself something by ear at 11 years old?’ And I was like, ‘Maybe I should stick with music’.”
At secondary school, they joined the choir (“probably the crux of the reason I was not cool in school”) which taught them “how to harmonise, how to train your voice”, and encouraged them to go up for more school shows. In Year Ten, they chose a GCSE in Music, and started teaching themselves guitar.
“At a certain point in my life, I started to view writing music as therapy”
Although Jake’s mum had been his car singing partner and the reason he’d tried violin, she seemed indifferent as his relationship with music progressed. “It’s weird,” Jake says. “I don’t really like to slate my mother a lot these days, but she wasn’t one of those affectionate parents. She wasn’t like, ‘Oh, look at you, doing a thing!’ – she was more just like, ‘If that’s what you want to do, you do you.’ I think I always felt like I wanted more validation from my mum, and that is something that has carried on to my adult life. I’m always there like, ‘Please give me some validation! Give me a single compliment on anything I’ve done musically!’ I would love that, but she doesn’t see the need for it. I think she thinks that I get enough validation from other places.”
Validation came primarily from the internet. In his teens, Jake was an avid Tumblr user, “knee-deep into fandom”, and discovered a community of people making music about TV shows. “People were writing parodies, so I wrote a parody of Katy Perry’s E.T. about Supernatural,” Jake recalls. “It kind of went – at the time – viral on Tumblr within the Supernatural fandom. I was like, ‘Ah, shit, I can do this!’, so I just started pumping out parodies like there was no tomorrow. It would take me about five minutes to write a parody of a song to a certain show, and that was my musical career for a while.”
Jake specifically remembers rewriting Omigod You Guys from the Legally Blonde musical to be about Dean and Castiel, a Supernatural ship. “It was just shocking,” he says, laughing. “The people that were in the fandom were like, ‘Oh, this is so funny!’, but looking back I’m like, ‘That was a horrible trainwreck. Should never have happened.’ I feel that way about a fair amount of the parody songs that I did.”
But those parodies led to Jake writing his first original music. To begin with, it was still about shows like Supernatural (including a Dean and Castiel song he was able to submit for his GCSE – “I just changed some names and some pronouns the night before it was due, and got an A!”), but then it evolved.
“I feel like – weirdly – I didn’t write an actual original song until after I started to transition,” Jake explains. “It was all at a very weird, messy time in my life, so I went from fandom music and thinking I was a girl to being like, ‘Oh, wait, I’m a boy, and I’m going to write about life now!’”
The songs that followed were often intensely personal. “I think, at a certain point in my life, I started to view writing music as therapy,” says Jake. “If I had a feeling that was particularly strong, or I didn’t know how to go about approaching a problem in my life, I would just put it into a song.”
Songwriting was also a means of catharsis. “Mother was a great way of me letting go of hating my mother,” Jake says, citing a 2014 song in which they confronted their mum for deadnaming and misgendering them. “Music would help me work through a problem, but at the same time, it was a way of me letting go of certain feelings.
“Actually, I did write a follow-up to Mother that I never released,” he reveals. “It was about how I’m just kind of chill with her now. I don’t know if anyone would enjoy it, because it’s just a very ‘personal therapy’ moment – like, ‘Okay, I need to rectify how I’ve slagged my mother off in a song!’”
Jake eventually played both songs to her in the car after they’d been for lunch together. “It was a very non-moment moment – me kind of just owning up to this, because I felt guilty about it,” he remembers. “She had no idea that there are a couple of thousand people on the internet that know about our deep personal struggles! So I kind of slid that across the table, and she was like, ‘Okay, now I know. Didn’t like the first one. I like the second one.’”
“I really want to sit on a song for as long as I can, and really feed it everything that I’ve got”
While transitioning changed the direction of Jake’s songwriting in positive ways, there was a time when they worried that it would affect their singing in negative ones, as testosterone began to alter their voice. “There was a hot second there where I was scared for my life, and I couldn’t sing,” they admit. “For about six months, it was very, very pitchy. It was hard to find my own range. It was literally like learning to sing again, except not having that thing of ‘There’s no pressure – if you can’t sing, you can’t sing’. Now, it was like, ‘You could sing once, but you maybe won’t be able to sing again’. It was terrifying.”
But risking a defining trait was, Jake says, worth the benefits of affirming their identity. (“If I lose my voice or lose my friends, or even lose my hair,” they wrote in the 2016 song Second Puberty, “well, I’m happy.”)
“It’s very much a life-or-death kind of thing,” they say now. “If you’re feeling so much dysphoria that you can’t see a future without hormones, then it kind of doesn’t really matter what has defined you before. You will find a different version of happiness once you’ve got hormones, because it allows you to just live your life – rather than constantly hyper-focusing on all of these things about yourself that make you feel wrong and negative.”
Jake started their YouTube channel to host their videos for Tumblr, but as “a little baby trans person”, they soon found a community. “That’s when I learned who Alex Bertie was, and then obviously we started dating, and it felt right for me to actually start YouTube-YouTube at that time,” Jake says. (He and Alex split up last year.) “Being around him and being absorbed into that life, I was like, ‘Okay, I want to do it’.”
Soon, Jake’s channel grew to be about more than just music. “I want my channel to be a split between what I’m passionate about, which is music, and who I am – trans stuff,” he explains. “The trans stuff is a big passion of mine. It’s not like I feel an obligation, because I’m trans, to talk about it. I’m deeply, deeply interested in social issues surrounding gender, and less interested in comparing my voice and stuff like that. I’ll talk about surgery when I feel like it’s a profound thought – not just, like, ‘Here’s my nipples!’ Not that there’s anything wrong with that style of YouTube – I just think it’s very not me.”
Jake pauses for a second. “I will still show my nipples, on and off,” he concedes. “It’s looking dope.”
“I’m deeply, deeply interested in social issues surrounding gender”
The trans community on YouTube, Jake says, has changed a lot since he entered it. “They’re all just so angry at each other. That’s a big reason why I’ve taken a step back from posting quite recently – because it’s the most toxic YouTube environment I’ve seen since I first knew what YouTube was. There’s quite a few very political, very angry, very hate-filled trans people on the platform these days that have made it their mission to find and ridicule individuals based on their gender identity alone.
“There is this big surge of people using the word ‘transtrender’ to other trans people, just because they don’t necessarily agree with the way they identify, and there’s a huge debate over whether you need dysphoria to be trans. I think a lot of people are confused as to how we’re defining gender dysphoria, which I think is the root of this debate – a lot of the people on the ‘you need dysphoria’ side are fighting with people on the ‘you don’t need dysphoria’ side, and both are disagreeing on what dysphoria actually means.
“And it’s fucking bleak,” Jake laments. “It’s depressing. It’s probably the most upset I’ve been within my trans experience, other than pre-T. Like, when I didn’t know I was going to be on hormones any time soon, I was pretty depressed with the state of being trans. But now, looking at this debate, I’m just like, ‘Wow’. The thing is, it’s a distant upset – I can unplug, I can switch it off whenever I want, which is great. You can’t do that with dysphoria.”
Although Jake joined YouTube for his music, he says it’s his other videos that gave him an audience. “I appreciate that trans content is why people initially started watching me, and that will always be my thing on YouTube,” he says. “I think my music can exist outside of YouTube, whereas the trans activism does rely on YouTube – to get that message out there, there’s no other platform that’s as effective – so I’m definitely at peace with the fact that people don’t want music as much as they want trans content, in general.”
If anything, Jake wishes viewers were more receptive to the deep-dive trans topics he’s interested in. “Sometimes they don’t want the nitty-gritty,” he says. “They like the debate topics, where you talk about a current issue within the trans community, but people don’t seem to be too keen on [videos about] queer history. I did this series called History Of Gender, where I started exploring things like the history of pronouns, the history of colours being gendered, and all of that stuff, but people didn’t seem to be quite as enthusiastic about it.”
Jake would like to make a series on HIV and the AIDS crisis, but thinks “there’s every chance I’ll find people aren’t going to want to see it. People don’t want to talk about AIDS. People don’t want to acknowledge that that was a thing. Sometimes they don’t even know that that was a thing, which is terrifying, because it was only… what, 20, 30 years ago? It has entirely changed our political climate, and it’s literally changed the direction of queer rights, and some people have no idea. People say, ‘You don’t see any old gay men because they’re too scared to come out’ – no, it’s because they’re dead.
“That’s the kind of stuff that I’m passionate about,” he says, “but until you watch something like that and realise that it’s important, it’s hard to entice people in to that kind of learning. And it’s the same with trans history – a lot of people, unless they already have that passion there, [think] it’s not interesting. People will look at a thumbnail and think, ‘Nah, boring’. But once you watch something like that, and once you realise how important it is, you get so hungry for it.”
Trans voices like Jake’s are increasingly prominent in UK media, but so too are those of transphobes, from the moral panic during last year’s consultation on reforming the Gender Recognition Act to the trans-exclusionary ‘feminism’ that dominates the commentariat across the political spectrum.
“Just existing day to day, I don’t feel overly threatened – or at least not any more threatened than I’ve felt always, existing as a queer person,” Jake says. “When it comes to actually thinking about my rights, or thinking about what could potentially happen to me on the streets, it’s terrifying. I think I’ve always known that as a trans person, my life is always going to be up for debate – that’s just a part of where we’re at in our political climate, and obviously it’s not a great thing. But I don’t think it’s all bad, because we’re having this conversation – people are finally talking about it, [which means] we’re making progress.
“So it’s not always fun. It’s worse on a Sunday, because the Sunday papers are fucking horrific. But yeah, I’m optimistic. I don’t think it ever deeply discourages me from that optimism – it just temporarily fills me with this need to fight, in a very non-aggressive sort of way. It fills me with this need to slap some paint on a sign and go stand outside Downing Street, and paint a trans flag on my face and yell some stuff.”
That kind of IRL activism is something Jake would like to do more of. “Unfortunately I haven’t had the opportunity – mostly just out of not knowing – of doing IRL stuff, apart from Trans Pride,” he says. “But Trans Pride really does feel like you’re at the core of queer movements. You march at Trans Pride and you feel like that’s how Pride is meant to be – it’s meant to be a political thing, it’s meant to be a march – and it’s such a beautiful and blessed experience.”
Jake has plans for a protest of his own. “I think I’m going to centre it around NHS waiting times for trans people, because I think that’s one of our biggest issues,” he says. “Living in an age of internet activism, I think we lose touch with how effective these old methods can be, and I think I want to bring it back. I want to bring back being angry in the street again, because being angry online is apparently getting us nowhere.”
In their spare time, Jake reads and writes fiction. “It was my main passion in school, aside from music,” they say. “I’ve always been writing. Obviously I started out with fanfic! But yeah, I did Creative Writing in college, and I’ve started writing a book – just for fun, just cos I’ve always wanted to.”
They love YA, and cite Oscar Wilde as a favourite writer: “He’s a bae. I read The Picture of Dorian Gray when I was 13 or 14 years old, and I was just like, ‘Holy shit, vintage gays!’ Obviously there’s the Shadowhunters book series, and everyone’s read John Green – [I like] that kind of fiction, but I think Oscar Wilde will always be my dad.”
Musically, Jake looks up to Darren Criss (“the love of my life”), Years & Years (“Olly Alexander is a spicy boy”), and Jay Brannan. “He was on YouTube about ten years ago – before being on YouTube was a thing – and he wrote a couple of really overtly gay songs,” says Jake. “I guess that was the start of me thinking, ‘Oh, you can write songs about being gay’. I did this gig not too long ago in Brighton – it was really small, went terribly, whatever – but afterwards, this guy came up to me and went, ‘This is really weird, but you remind me of Jay Brannan. Literally I was holding onto the walls, like, ‘I can die happy now, that’s the best compliment I’ll ever receive’.”
This year, Jake’s aim is to release one or two singles. “I really want to sit on a song for as long as I can, and really feed it everything that I’ve got, and just make it so much more rich,” he says. “I really want to experiment sound-wise, because I’ve been very consistent – one man, one guitar, that kind of thing – for my whole music career. But I do really like Years & Years – I do like that electronic sound, so I want to lean a bit more towards that. It’s exciting to think about, but it’s scary, because I don’t know how to do that, you know? I know nothing about how to create that kind of electronic music. But I’ll be working with people who can, so I’m excited to do that, and hopefully start working with a full band to really practice for actual live performances so I can get out from behind the microphone and live my fabulous life.
“And maybe put on a cape,” they conclude. “I’ve always wanted to put on a cape on stage. It’s going to happen.”
Photos by Rebecca Need-Menear.
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