A classy crooner with a postmodern edge, Jesse Luttrell ignites the city’s cabaret stages and electrifies his cult fandom with panache and power chords. And now he has a brand new video for you! Mr. Luttrell reminds Thotyssey why we are all Jesse’s gurls.
Thotyssey: Jesse, thanks for talking to us today! Autumn is nearly upon us, so let’s talk how your summer was!
Jesse Luttrell: Great! I took some time off touring for the summer, and was able to reconnect with my New York peeps… and even ship off to Fire Island to perform with my best friend Boudoir LeFleur! Now that the season is changing, it’s time to get back to my hustle.
Boudoir’s been killing it out there on the Grove this season, hasn’t she?
She certainly has! I love seeing drag that is so unique to the person’s personality and tastes…There’s only one Boudoir (thank God)!
Lol! Well, I just watched a clip of you as Frank-N-Furter for Rocky Horror… gorgeous! You could be giving these queens a run for their money if you wanted to.
I’m glad you found that clip! Frank was the most fun I’ve ever had onstage. I didn’t approach him as “drag,” though, which I think is a mistake a lot of actors make when playing him.He’s his own genre, really.
I love drag queens, they welcomed me with open arms back when I first came to the city 15 years ago (before Drag Race). But drag isn’t my gig. They hired people to beat my mug every night in Rocky Horror. I’m horrible at makeup! And besides, these queens have enough people coming for their gigs.
Let’s talk shit about Broadway for a quick minute. Hollywood stunt casting is not new and is not going anywhere, but…. Al Roker the TV weatherman in Waitress? Isn’t this just a slap in the face to performers struggling to climb up in the system at this point?
Wait, is that really happening!? I tuned out when they refused to cast me as Dolly after Bette. They offered to let me audition, BUT I’M OFFER ONLY, DAMNIT!
Seriously though–Broadway is having a moment, but I’m confident the pendulum will swing back our way soon. All the original shows that aren’t based on 90′s movies or pop stars are still doing well: Come From Away, Dear Evan Hansen, Hamilton, etc. Hopefully, producers pay attention to that. Also, [they’d better] pay attention to Off-Broadway. Go see Desperate Measures: it’s fun and hilarious!
We will! And now, back to Jessie. Your brand is definitely more reminiscent of the flashy, swinging male vocalists of the 40s / 50s / early 60s… Sinatra and the Rat Pack, Bobby Darin, etc. Very flashy and fun, but still kinda butch! Were those the guys that you grew up listening to?
Absolutely. I like to think I’m a postmodern “crooner” with a mischievous edge. Those guys were all very polished and slick; I’m more into being the balls to the wall / life of the party / troublemaker.
My grandmother listened to all those guys, so it heavily influenced my tastes. I still have her old records in my living room. She was the life of the party, and would have loved going out in NYC with all of us!
I bet! So, Mifflinburg PA is your hometown. What was it like growing up there?
We called it Bumcluck, Pennsyltucky–it was REAL country. I’m talking horse and buggy Amish, cow-tipping, Skoal cans in the school urinals country. This was also pre-gay marriage, pre-Will & Grace, and pre-Queer as Folk. Being gay WAS NOT A THING. Luckily, I was born with a rebellious streak… so I didn’t hide it at all. I screamed gay from my frosted tips to my black fingernails and JNCO jeans, and railed against everybody and anybody who had anything to say about it. It was traumatic, to say the least… but my method of dealing with it wasn’t to withdraw and be depressed. My method was to fight and scream louder than the people who were ostracizing me.
Cheers to fighting the good fight! It’s probably nearly impossible to succeed as a stage performer without that instinct.
You cannot be in this business without coming to fight, that’s for damn sure.
And you were still in Pennsylvania where you began studying theater and music?
I didn’t have the opportunities a lot of my colleagues had growing up. There was a small dance studio I took some classes at, and I took piano lessons and did a few school plays. But a bulk of my training came from listening to good music, singing along with my favorite singers, and reading anything and everything about performing that I could get my hands on. It wasn’t until I moved to the Big Bad City that I was able to polish what I already had by throwing myself into classes.
What were some of your early performing gigs here?
Well, I started performing professionally before I got here. When I was 16, I went with a friend who was auditioning for a professional equity theatre, and I threw my hat in the ring. The director was Walter Willison, who is a Tony nominated Broadway star. He told me he saw something rare in me, and wrote a part for me in the show. So I left school, and did my first professional show with New York actors. By the time I had made my rounds touring and doing summer stock, I was ready to start doing my own solo act. I needed an outlet outside of the confined boxes musicals were placing on me.
Did you expect your solo work to break through the way it has, as opposed to being in a big production’s cast?
I didn’t know what to expect. It’s very difficult to go it alone–but I had a plan! I started a show called BAWDY, which was a burlesque-themed musical revue that brought together all different genres of NYC nightlife entertainers–drag, burlesque, cabaret, Broadway. I figured I could gain a following to eventually go solo if I performed alongside all of the diverse talent NYC nightlife has to offer. It worked, and led to sold out shows at 54 Below and signing with a major performing arts management company. But most importantly, it lead to forming relationships with such inspiring NYC artists, and gaining a loyal following of amazing people.
BAWDY ran for quite awhile, didn’t it?
Six years! I still can’t believe we did it for that long. And everyone who was involved has gone on to do amazing things, including Boudoir and Sutton Lee Seymour!
When you pick songs and material for your solo shows now, what inspires you? Do you always go back to your same favorite songwriters, shows, etc?
It’s all about the lyrics for me. I gotta sing songs that have words that gut me on first listen. A lot of my choices come from what they call “The Great American Songbook.” But I like to approach those songs from a contemporary, personal point of view as opposed to “curating” them like artifacts from a museum.
I also like tricking the audience into hearing songs they’d never think to relate to by putting them in a modern-day context. I’m not in the business of pleasing the industry as much as I’m in the business of entertaining the audience–and that means being relatable, even if you’re singing a song that was written before Beyoncé was born.
Perish the thought! Some performers in your genre try to sneak in brassy or “old timey” arrangements of modern pop songs into their sets. Is that cute, or lame?
If it’s a good song, it works really well. I’m playing with mashing up some contemporary songs with standards, to show that some music is completely timeless across generations.
We don’t live in a time where music and performers fade in to history anymore. If you look at anyone’s iTunes playlist, you see music from all different generations of songwriting.
And at the end of the day, a good song is a good song–no matter when it was written.
Any “crazy fan” stories?
HAHHAHAHA! I don’t have any super crazy stories YET. I will say I have great fans all over the place who go out of their way to show their support. But it’s always thrilling to come home to NYC, because my New York crew is loud and rowdy–and New Yorkers have been coming to see me for almost a decade, so they heckle and banter with me because we’re like a big dysfunctional family. I’m about to make my London debut, and I know people across the pond who’ve been waiting to see me, so I’m excited to see how those crowds react!
Where do you get your accompanists and band members? Are these all friends that you frequently reuse?
My band leader and orchestrator is Broadway’s Fred Barton, who has also orchestrated for the NY POPS. He hires the musicians, and 99% of them are from Broadway pit orchestras, and take off their show that night to play with us.
We often use the same musicians in NYC because they are the best of the best. We don’t even rehearse with them, they show up and do a run through at sound check and then off we go. THAT’s how good these guys are.
Rumor has it that you’ve been recording, and a video is on the way! What can you tell us about all this?
Well, Fred and I were sitting in his living room smoking cigarettes and bitching about showbiz, and trying to figure out what we were going to do next. Then he said, “fuck it, let’s do a music video!” So I called up my good friend Tyler Milliron of Milliron Studios, and we brainstormed a hell of a concept and filmed a video to my big, loud, brassy song “Live Until I Die.” We threw in a few nightlife people–including Boudoir, Dorothy Bishop, Michael Musto and husband and wife team Mardie Millit and Michael Garin–and had a blast filming into the wee hours. The video premiers September 12, and we’re screening it live upstairs at Stonewall that night at 6:30pm.
What’s the history of “Live Until I Die?”
It’s a terrific big band song that was recorded by several people. But we do our own thing with it, and it always gets the biggest hand of the evening at my shows. Its about throwing caution to the wind, and taking life by the balls–which completely encapsulates who I am and what I do.
Yes! I’m so happy to be joining my old, old, old, old, old (old) friend Sutton Leprosy Seawhore onstage again after all these years… and to finally share the bright lights of Hardware with Cac! Its going to be a gag (as the kids say!)
I’d just like to say to everybody out there on the interwebs: look out for my music video. I can’t wait until it goes as viral as Boudoir’s last visit to the clinic! And my London Debut is at Crazy Coqs in Soho, November 1 at 7pm.
Okay, final question: in 600 years, what song should play at your funeral?
They should play “Show Me The Way to Go Home,” that drunk song they sing in JAWS: “show me the way to go home, I’m tired and I wanna go to bed; I had a little drink about an hour ago, and it went right to my head…” (Bette Davis voice) “I detest cheap sentiment.”
Thank you, Jesse!