Interviews, The Revue — March 25, 2015 at 8:00 am

Her Story – An Interview with Isley Reust

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Isley Reust is one of the most remarkable individuals I have met, not just with respect to The Revue but over the course of my nearly four decades on this planet. If you don’t know who Isley Reust is, you will soon, as she and her bandmates will be releasing a new album later this spring under the name of Spectacular Spectacular. The first single, “Orange Juice”, sounds like something that Garbage or The Yeah Yeah Yeahs would release – an honest, power-charged, indie-rock number.

Then again, maybe you have heard of her or seen her, as she was on an episode of GLEE. She also played in a band called Primavera, which toured across North America. They, too, had a Garbage-esque sound with their dark rock sound. In addition, she’ll be starring in a movie about a transgender woman on a journey of self-discovery.

It isn’t, however, the music nor her developing acting career that makes her “remarkable”. Instead, it is her life story that is moving. The struggles she’s encountered, the pain she’s experienced – some of which was self-inflicted – and the steps she took to become “reborn”. For Isley was born and raised as a boy, but she knew at an early age that he was a she. The internal conflict and attempts to put her feelings into submission resulted in her spiraling into a life of hard drugs and alcohol until one day she decided to take back control of her life.

Stories like Isley and other transgender people have increasingly become headlines thanks to the terrific series Transparent and, of course, the news of Bruce Jenner’s current transition. And while Transparent and Jenner are raising awareness, it is the stories like Isley that are truly profound, of ordinary individuals struggling with feelings they could not originally explain and taking the measures to change, to feel like the person they were meant to be.

Our discussion touched on a number of topics, from her childhood and her adolescence, to the music and musicians she adores, to the time of suppression, to her dreams and goals looking forward. This is Isley Reust’s story.

Isley Portrait

The lowest point was probably around 22, the path that I was on I honestly didn’t think I was going to live to be 30. I remember living in a studio apartment with 4 people in San Diego, and we did nothing but drink and do drugs. I had no ambitions or goals, and my love for playing music was becoming a fading lost dream.

Part I – My Name is Isley Reust

Hi Isley!

Good day!

Thank you so much for doing this interview with me. I am extremely honored and delighted to have this opportunity. I am very, very grateful.

Thank you, I’m excited to be doing this interview with you as well.

Really? Cool! Anyway, I thought we could start from the beginning. In our discussions, you told me that you would never share your birth name. Why is that?

I never tell people my old name because I don’t want to be recognized or known for that person. I was never that person if that makes any sense, I’ve always been Isley.

At what age can you recall being Isley?

I’ve always known I was Isley since I could remember. My earliest recollections were at the age 4. The biggest challenge you face at such an early age and before you make the transition is, “Will my family accept me and truly understand”. I’ve been very fortunate to have such a loving family to support me all the way.

Do you remember the feelings you were having at that age? And how did you deal with them?

I just remember not fitting in with the other kids and always wondering why I couldn’t do or have the things my sister had. I think when I hit puberty and got to high school I dealt with my feelings by acting out and being rebellious. During that time, music was one of my main therapies.

In your short video on your transition, you wrote that it wasn’t until the age of 13 that you told someone how you felt. Who was that person you confided in and how did they respond?

Yeah, I was in middle school, and the first people I ever opened up to about my feelings were a couple of close girls I was friends with at the time. I can also recall having some discussions with my sister during this age or it could have been a little younger. My friends responded by saying, “I know you’d be so pretty”. Everyone I ever talked about it pre-transition was always 110% supportive. If they weren’t, they didn’t need to be in my life.

Despite the support you had, you also wrote that you had an extremely difficult time as a teenager. What were some of the things you struggled with and when did you reach your lowest point?

Being a teenager sucked! I did so many stupid things and acted out in such awful ways that now I feel embarrassed sometimes! But if it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t be who I am today. I started drinking a lot and doing all sorts of drugs. The lowest point was probably around 22, the path that I was on I honestly didn’t think I was going to live to be 30. I remember living in a studio apartment with 4 people in San Diego, and we did nothing but drink and do drugs. I had no ambitions or goals, and my love for playing music was becoming a fading lost dream.

You started playing in bands at this age. What kind of bands were you and what was your role?

The first band I ever played in was a Nirvana cover band in 8th grade. We were pretty awesome 13-year olds! In bands throughout high school, I would play guitar and sing.

After high school, I started playing with my good friend Jessica De Grasse. I was always into songwriting, so I would lock myself away and write and record for weeks at a time. I would approach Jessica with the songs and she would track vocals to them. We came out with an EP with an old band we were in, and we did a couple of national tours and got to open for acts like Jack’s Mannequin. I also toured and played in a few other bands. I did Warped Tour and went out with Cave In, Blindside, etc.

So what’s your favorite Nirvana song? I hope it’s something else than “Smells Like Teen Spirit”? Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great song.

Haha! I can’t just name one, so I’ll name a few: “Serve the Servants”, “About a Girl”, “Aneurysm”, and “In Bloom”.

I Love “In Bloom”! So how was playing music an outlet or “release” for you?

I think at that age it was just more about having fun. I was still a kid, and it was all brand new experiences and over all it changed my life and future. My bands would play backyard parties through out Jr. and Sr. High School. It was pretty rad.

How old were you when you finally decided to quit the bands and, in your own words, focus on yourself?

I was about 25 when I just decided to stop playing music and just focus on what I needed to do with my life and that was finish my gender transition. It really hit me that I didn’t want to die and have lived it a complete lie. I knew the path of destruction I was on was because I was just unhappy with myself. From 18-25, I was very gender neutral if that makes sense. My plan was to finish my transition in the comfort of my own home, family and close friends then when I was ready get back to performing and playing music again.

What were the feelings you had when you came to that conclusion?

When I came to that conclusion, I was very at peace with myself and excited. I knew I was heading on a journey that was going to only impact my life for the best. I felt I was about to be reborn and that I was. When I had my gender reassignment surgery, that was for me the most memorable and heartfelt moment of my life. Since I was little, I always knew I was going to get my surgery and when they wheeled me into the surgical room, I started crying and waving by to my bass player Millie. The tears I had were happy tears.

I would like to go back to your parents and you mentioned how they’ve been supported throughout. At what age did you tell your parents about how you were feeling and what was their initial reaction?

My parents’ initial reaction was, “We’re going to get through this. Everything is going to be okay.” My parents always thought I was different, but they really couldn’t place a finger on what it was. So when they found out, it was like, “Okay, so this is what’s going on.” I can’t recall what age, but I was in my early 20s.

That’s really great to have very understanding parents, but why did it take you so long to tell them? I know you said earlier that you were afraid about how they would react as a child and teenager, but why wait until your 20s?

I just was scared on how they’d respond or take it. Each year that went by, it became increasingly harder to talk to them about it.

Now, when did you come up with the name Isley Reust and how did you decide on it? Is there a special meaning behind the name?

I came up with the name Isley when I was 20. Reust is my family last name, so the only thing I changed was my first name. Pretty much Isley is just a various meaning of my birth name.

Isley Reust - meadow

John Frusciante is probably my all-time, most influential musician. Growing up, I knew how to play every RHCP song and every song from John’s solo records. I find that for John, each note has a meaning and purpose. When he plays, it’s like his guitar playing is taking you on a journey or story. That’s what I love about him. He could write a song using two notes, and it could be the most beautiful song.

Part II – “My Nirvana”

Let’s take a moment to talk about Nirvana and your cover band. Did you play the role of Kurt Cobain?

I played bass in the band and also played guitar, depending on what songs they were.

So you were Krist Novoselic, the guy who doesn’t get the attention he deserves.

I was Kurt & Krist. I switched it up depending on the songs. When we played “Aneurysm”, I sang and played guitar.

Are you a bad-ass bass player like Novoselic is?

Haha! I wish I could play bass, but it’s not an instrument I was ever in love with like guitar or piano. My specialty was classical guitar believe it or not.

Classical guitar? That is surprising. How old did you start playing the guitar, and what songs are you proud to say you can play better than the original?

I started playing at 12, 13 years old, but (laughing) I wouldn’t say I could play any songs better than the original. I’ve always been more about using what I learned classically and incorporating it into my own style and songs.

Back to Nirvana, I’m going to guess that Kurt Cobain was someone you admired. What did – or does – Kurt Cobain mean to you?

For me, he was one of the first musical role models and musicians I looked up to. He and John Frusciante were my two favorite musicians growing up.

Tell me more about Frusciante and his effect on you and any other musicians for that matter.

John Frusciante is probably my all-time, most influential musician. Growing up, I knew how to play every RHCP song and every song from John’s solo records. I find that for John, each note has a meaning and purpose. When he plays, it’s like his guitar playing is taking you on a journey or story. That’s what I love about him. He could write a song using two notes, and it could be the most beautiful song.

Shirley Manson was another huge influence on me. I remember when I was 13, I wanted to be just like her. I loved her style and voice. Female vocals are my favorite when it comes to vocals. Cat Power has been another huge influence and recently even Grimes has been another.

I love Shirley Manson! She has a presence – both on stage and on her albums – that says, “This is me, this is my story, so accept it.” Neko Case, Karen O, and Liz Phair are also other songwriters who admire for their work and stage presence.

All those ladies are so amazing at their craft and musicianship. I definitely admire all their work!

Is your goal then to be like these singer-songwriters?

I would say it’s my goal to hopefully be somewhat close to the same level as these amazing woman one day but of course with my own unique style.

These goals, dreams of your couldn’t have happened if you “cleaned” yourself up. When was the exact moment that you had your “Nirvana” moment and what you did next – turning that epiphany to reality.

I did a bunch of drugs and had to be taken to the ER twice in about the span of a week and that’s when I told myself enough is enough. I was depressed because I didn’t know how I was ever going to afford or manage to finish my transition. I was sad because I didn’t want to play in a band anymore being the person that wasn’t even the real me.

My life was a lie, and I knew I had to stop feeling sorry for myself and make something of it or else I’d be dead in a few years. So that’s what I did, I completely turned it around. I stopped every unhealthy bad habit, finally to focus of my transition, came out to everyone who already didn’t know. I’m so extremely grateful to finally have the life I was meant to have. There is no greater feeling in the world.

You’ve shared on your YouTube channel the relief and exhilaration of transitioning to a woman. What’s been the most difficult parts of the experience?

Since I decided to change my life around, it has actually been pretty easy. I’ve always been a female; my body just didn’t match who I was inside. The first year on hormones was interesting because you’re going through a second puberty basically.

I think the most difficult would probably has been my gender reassignment surgery. That was the most physical pain I’ve ever endured. The first month I was bedridden, I could barely stand at all. It took about 3 months before I could really sit on a chair comfortable and about 6 months until I didn’t feel anymore discomfort or have anymore swelling. If I had to go through the pain and surgery again, I would. I feel like I was reborn and it feels beautiful!

That’s such a great story. As Isley Reust, what do you hope will be your next “Nirvana” moment?

Touring the world and making music with my best friends and helping and inspiring others.

isleyreust_1

My parents’ initial reaction was, “We’re going to get through this. Everything is going to be okay.” My parents always thought I was different, but they really couldn’t place a finger on what it was. So when they found out, it was like, “Okay, so this is what’s going on.”

Part III – Her Present, Her Future, Her Story

You mentioned to me that you only recently decided to identify yourself as a transgender artist. Why now and not earlier?

Yeah, I was living what you would call a “stealth” life where nobody knew that I was trans and just knew me as a genetic female. So when I finally came out publicly that I was trans, everyone was really shocked and very supportive. The reason I came public was to show that trans woman are just like everyone else and do the same things. Being trans is not who I am – I am female and a woman. I identify myself that way now to bring public awareness and to help and be proud of my community and who I am.

You’re now about to launch a new band called Spectacular Spectacular. First of all, who’s in the band with you?

We started Spectacular Spectacular three years ago in San Francisco, and we are about to launch our debut record! The band consists of Jessica De Grasse, Millie Chan, and myself.

You just released a pretty rocking track, “Orange Juice”. It has a Garbage / early Yeah Yeah Yeahs feel to it. Is that the direction you wish to take with the band?

When we were writing this record, we basically just created what we were feeling at that particular time. We weren’t going for any sound or band in particular. Our goal was just create what we felt and see where it goes from there.

Cool! In the song, the lyric “show me the monsters inside of you”. Who are the “monsters” that you are speaking about? And I’m curious, what does “orange juice” have to do with all this?

Jessica wrote those lyrics, and it’s all about the beauty of knowing someone. Someone’s light, someone’s dark. Dragging out their depth and what’s beneath the obvious someone unknowingly trains themselves not to show? I want the entirety of someone. The flaws are what’s enchanting. Their darkest of secrets, show it to me. Let me show you that I could never be afraid of it.

“Orange Juice”, meanwhile, is a reference to the orange groves from our hometown that we grew up in.

What more can you say about the album? Any tour plans?

The title of the album is called Blur and the release date will be late May/early June. We hope to announce the date soon, and it’s going to be an LP. We’re going to tour U.S and Canada this summer. I’m hoping we make it back east!

Spectacular Spectacular

Besides music, you’ve been busy acting as well. How was your experience on Glee? Any plans to be on any future episodes?

I was a special guest on GLEE for a choir piece. It was an amazing experience and I’m so grateful I got to be apart of it. This was the show’s final season, so I was only a part of one episode.

Goes to show how often I watch or follow GLEE. You’ll also be starring in a movie that will be coming out some time this year. Can you give me the scoop on it?

I can’t say too much yet, but what I can say is it is going to be about a transgender woman on a journey for self-discovery. It’s going to be a bit of a fairytale with surreal and enchanting aspects. I will also be narrating the film as well as acting in it.

To be honest, Tony Minas approached me about doing the film, and I was hesitant at first. But after about a year of talking back and forth, I said yes. The experience to work with Tony was amazing! He is such a talented and unique man. I had so much fun shooting with him. We still work together, and we’ve become great friends.

So, just how much of this film is autobiographical?

It’s going to be probably 50/50.

If someone was going to make a film about you, what would its title be, who would direct it, and who would play the part of Isley Reust?

Dang? I wouldn’t even know how to answer that question or where to start. That’s a really hard one.

Surely you must have some people in mind? And maybe you could steal a line from one of your songs to be the title of your movie.

(Laughing) I honestly really don’t know! Let’s see… I’d say Diane Kruger acting in it and the title would be “Strangers” and Tim Burton can direct it.  

Which songs or artists would you like to perform on the soundtrack?

Bjork and Sigur Ros.

Nice! Final question, if a genie gave you three wishes, what you would you ask for?

I’d give two of my wishes to those who are in need of them more then I am. For my final wish, I’d save it for myself and use it to time travel to visit the beginning of the universe and watch it go by from the beginning until the end.

Thank you so much, Isley, for your time. It’s been an immense pleasure and honor to get to know you. Any final words you would like to share with people (o.k., so this is the final question)?

Thank you so much I really enjoyed this. I just want to say everyone check out Spectacular Spectacular and be on the look out for our new record in a few months!

Isley Reust - Beach

 When I had my gender reassignment surgery, that was for me the most memorable and heartfelt moment of my life. Since I was little, I always knew I was going to get my surgery and when they wheeled me into the surgical room, I started crying and waving by to my bass player Millie. The tears I had were happy tears.

 

YouTube – Isley Reust
Facebook – Spectacular Spectacular 
Twitter – @isleyreust

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