Singer-songwriter Jim Andralis 'Can't Stop Trying'

  • by Gregg Shapiro
  • Tuesday December 20, 2022
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Singer-songwriter Jim Andralis (photo: Bob Krasner)
Singer-songwriter Jim Andralis (photo: Bob Krasner)

Sometimes, it takes a while to be able to connect, one-to-one, with an artist. I've been listening to and writing about gay singer/songwriter Jim Andralis for more than six years. From his debut album "Your Dying Wish Come True" to his just released new full-length "I Can't Stop Trying," Andralis' music touches me in a way that makes me want to share it with everyone. From his emotive vocals to his effortless gift for turn of phrase, I mention him to other pop music fans every chance I get. Finally, after all this time, I got the chance to interview Jim, and it was well worth the wait.

Gregg Shapiro: Jim, you're a Pennsylvania native. Pennsylvania's a big state — can we narrow that down a bit?
Jim Andralis: I am from Bethlehem, which is eastern Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh is the western steel town, Bethlehem is the eastern steel town; about an hour and a half to two hours west of New York City, and the same amount of time north of Philadelphia. Lehigh University is in Bethlehem. It's near Allentown, which Billy Joel wrote the song about.

When did you relocate to New York and what was it that brought you there?
I went to school at Muhlenberg College, which was about 20 minutes away from my house where I grew up. Part of the way into that, I needed to get out. I really felt that something needed to propel me out of the Lehigh Valley. I studied abroad in Rome, Italy. I love it there so much. It felt like a place where I felt at home in a way that I never knew that I could.

I moved back to Rome for two years, and it was really tough for me to make any money there. I said, 'Here's what I'm going to do. I'm gonna move to New York City for one year.' We're talking 1993. 'I'm going to find somebody who's Italian to bring me back with their company so I can become an Italian citizen.' I just planted roots in New York City and, I've got to be honest with you, next year it will have been 30 years that I'm here, but I would say it was only ten years ago that I made the conscious decision to stay. It's weird. I was super ambivalent about it. I was like, 'I love this about it, but I can't stand this about it!' I had to really fight through my own brain.

In the early 2000s, you could be heard performing as a member of the band The Isotoners, as well as on records by the late LD Beghtol's LD & The New Criticism. In 2016, you released your solo debut album "Your Dying Wish Come True." How did you know it was the right time to put out a solo record?
I don't know that it was. When I became a part of The Isotoners, the idea of being in a band and writing adolescent songs about queerness and gay sex and all the shit that would make us laugh and making songs about it that were kind of super earnest, that was a way into songwriting for me. I was one of the songwriters in The Isotoners, and I was in LD's band at the same time.

When I went into grad school to become a therapist in '04, soon after that I left The Isotoners, and immersed myself in training to be a therapist. In 2010 or 2011, I was with my husband (my then boyfriend) Larry and our friend Amy Bezunartea. Larry had installed a piece of his artwork as part of a Visual AIDS exhibit in the East Village and we were there. I was talking with Amy, and we were saying that we weren't writing enough songs, we weren't doing it enough. We created a songwriters' group that would meet once a month to hold one another accountable. It began with me and Amy and Larry. All we had to do was write a song a month. We're not critiquing, we're not evaluating. It was just a way for us to all keep up our practice as songwriters.

It'd been 12 years since we started that. I think by the time I started recording "Your Dying Wish Come True" in 2014 or 2015, I had so many songs. It was also a moment of really big losses. Loss after loss after loss. I could feel an album coming together. I went into it without any idea of how to do it; just by pulling people in that I love, that I wanted to do it with. That's how that record happened. 'Maybe I'll make a record!' At that time, I was like, 'I'll make a record, I'll be famous [laughs], and my life will be very different [laughs].' "You're Dying Wish Come True" was a time capsule of my life then.

All four of your solo full-length albums, including the new one "I Can't Stop Trying," were produced by musician Tom Beaujour. What makes Tom someone with whom you want to collaborate repeatedly?
There are many answers to that question. The first one is, I love him. I love being around him. I think I'm a very musical person, but I don't read music. I don't have a language for what I want things to sound like. Tom comes in with a lot of ideas. He also really listens to what my ideas are. He's a wonderful collaborator.

Every once in a while, he'll be like, 'Hold on a second, I want to try something.' And then he does, and it sounds beautiful in a way that I never thought a song of mine could sound. He's really skilled, but he's also super-gifted. He's an artist and he's also somebody, and I think this is hard for anybody, able to lend that to somebody else's vision in a way that complements and brings something out of it that should have been there.

Your multi-hyphenate husband Larry Krone, whose House of Larréon created the fashion capsule collection for Joe's Pub, has been a presence on all four of your solo albums. How does your life partnership coincide with your creative partnership?
There was a place in the East Village called Starlight Lounge. Our friend Julian Fleisher would host a Monday night music thing there. I played there a few times with my band, with LD's band, with our friend Kenny Mellman.

Kenny Mellman of Kiki & Herb fame?
Yes! Kenny did a solo show at Starlight Lounge and had special guests. I was one of them. I feel like that's the first time that Larry became aware of who I was with these overlaps that we had. Larry was doing his own show at Starlight Lounge and contacted me on Friendster to ask whether I would play accordion at his show. Larry knew LD and we had a whole bunch of people in common. LD was also instrumental in us meeting, now that I think about it.

So, we began collaborating musically. I have a fraught relationship to my own voice. I used to get nervous, less so now. When I'm doing a show, I will put in the set list a song with Larry very early. When I'm singing with him, my voice opens up. There's something about singing together that's like, 'Okay, I'm not alone. Larry's here, and we're making these sounds together.'

I feel like it's something we both treasure. That we can be each other's love, and also fan, and also collaborator. I usually pop up in Larry's shows. He always pops up in mine. Afterwards, it feels like, 'Okay, there are some things that are good about our life.'

As a dog person myself, I couldn't help but notice the presence of dogs in your life. The video for your Bridget Everett duet, "Hit The Ground Fuckin'", featured a stellar cast of pooches. The cover photo for "I Can't Stop Trying" is of your rescue dog Dory, and the wonderful song "Believe Me" is sung from her point of view. What do Dory and the other dogs in your life mean to you?
It's hard for me to talk about this, but there are two songs on "Your Dying Wish Come True" about my first dog Nikko. One is called "For A Minute or Two." After she died, I was trying to think about what it felt like. There was this time when I let her off her leash and she just took off. It's about that moment where I couldn't see her or hear her running. I thought, 'This could be it. This could be the last time I ever see her.'

Jim Andralis  

Then she ran back to me. She was just having her own little adventure. After her death, it was like that feeling, but forever. The other one is called "It's Not Love," which is about the messiness of the end of her life. I always felt like she needed something from me but I didn't know what it was.

I got Nikko when I was in my late 20s. When I got Nikko, I hadn't been able to keep a plant alive. I was lonely and I had a hard time being by myself. I come from a family where we say 'I love you' repeatedly before we hang up. We always say, 'I love you.' There's always a verbal aspect to love. Nikko was the first relationship that I had that transcended language.

In some ways, I feel like she taught me how to love in a way that had to do with presence and not words. I finished a song the other day that is also about Nikko. It's been 10 years since she died, and she's come back into my brain in a way that's really complicated. I feel like Dory we're doing right. We are with her. We're completely permissive [laughs].

Some people would think we were terrible dog parents. But with Nikko, I didn't know what the fuck I was doing. I'm haunted by the way I feel like I didn't come through for her. This last song that I wrote is sort of about this dog's nature which is to not hold a grudge. They don't care if you fuck up. They don't care if you walk around naked. They are yours. They are there for you.

No judgment.
Yes! This song is like, 'Why do I need a ghost of a dog to forgive me for these things that she probably forgot about in two seconds?' It's my own brain fucking with me. I see dogs as an inspiration. My husband talks about how Dory will come out with whatever she's feeling. She's not self-conscious about it, usually. She'll be like, 'Don't leave me! I missed you! I need you!' She's exactly who she is in the moment, and that's always changing. I think that's something we both aspire to.

I really love the wordplay in your songs, which I think stands out on the songs "Soloflex," "New York City Spring," and "Dead Man's Porn." Which comes first in your songwriting process, the words or the music?
Sometimes both, but usually the words. I'll be thinking of a phrase or an experience, an emotional experience. I think the way I get to big experiences is through little details. I try to trust that that will translate to people. That I'm talking about a really specific thing.

I think that definitely comes through.
Thank you. In some ways, "Dead Man's Porn," on the most basic level, is about masturbating to the porn that belonged to a person who died of AIDS who bequeathed his porn collection to whoever the fuck wanted it. It's also about how fucked it was, for me personally, that much of my experience of the darkest moments of the AIDS crisis was me staying closeted because I was so scared. Sneaking these tiny little erotic moments on the backs of all these people who had died. It's something that I'd always experienced as super shameful, but it's my story. 'I can't be gay! Look at what's happening.' In the meantime, there were people fighting for themselves, and for me, even though I was...

You were afraid.
Yes! It was this complicated thing that when I distill it, it's about my roommate and one of my very best friends. Mark was a volunteer for the Gay Men's Health Crisis. He was out there helping people, living his gay life. (He would) bring back porn that I would wait until he left to watch [laughs]. It was so crazy. I was like, 'I'll write about that.' It's a way of taking the most tender, shameful thing, and just being, 'This is a part of me, and maybe someone else out there had this experience.' It's like a little Morse Code to whoever else is listening.

One of the most surprising tracks on "I Can't Stop Trying" is your cover version of Neil Diamond's "Play Me," performed as a duet with your husband Larry. Why did you want to cover that tune?
We've been covering that tune for years. I love Neil Diamond. I sort of brought Larry in to loving Neil Diamond. I don't know that that's 100% true [laughs]. I have this thing for Neil Diamond. I think he's really handsome. I think his songs are fucking weird. "Play Me" is a weird song, but it's so romantic. It's kind of sexy. We sang it at our wedding. We sing it when we're just sitting around. We have songs that we do together. It feels silly and loving, but we just love the song. It's become a touchstone for us.

Do you know if Neil Diamond has heard it, and if so, what does he think of the queer take on the song?
I can guarantee you that he has not heard it [laughs]. I think that Dolly Parton listens to every cover of one of her songs before she signs off on it. I just went to some website and said, 'I would like to license this song,' and the robot gave me permission. This is probably my internalized homophobia, but I imagine that he'll hear it and be like, 'No! This was meant to be sung to a lady!'

On the other hand, he's friends with Barbra Streisand. I'd imagine he's probably had some crossover with queer people. By day, you're in private practice as a trauma-focused psychotherapist. We are speaking a few days after yet another shooting in a gay bar — this one in Colorado Springs, where five are dead and there were multiple injuries. The prescient song "Almost Dead" sounds like it addresses the issue of anti-LGBTQ+ violence. Am I on the right track and, in your professional opinion, how do we heal from yet another deadly event aimed at our community?
You are on the right track. I think that we heal within our community. We heal by surrounding ourselves with our own love and by fighting people who are killing us. Here's the thing that I'm learning more and more, the more I do both jobs. I think it's our own responsibility.

I don't know about you, and I don't know what you're own experience is, growing up in the closet or growing up queer, but I feel like part of the reason I have a commitment to doing my own work is that I've done plenty of harm within our own community. I have all kinds of shit that I'm trying to deprogram myself from, I have been.

We all have a responsibility, particularly those of us with more privilege, to do our own work so that we can be loving, supportive members of our own community for one another. I feel like I'm done trying to prove my own, or anybody else's, value or humanity to somebody who's too fucking lazy to see it.

That song is rage! If you try to hurt me, I'm gonna hurt you back and I hope that I'm gonna hurt you a lot [laughs].
That's the thing about that song — when Trump got elected, I was like, 'I've got to get really strong. I've got to get so strong because I'm going to have to fight.' I'm not a person who's like, 'Oh my God, I'm feeling all this rage. I'm going to work out.'

It's more like that moment of, 'Okay, motherfucker!' I feel like that song is mostly fantasy. The revenge part is fantasy. I don't know how much of an impact my rage can make, but I'm going to feel it anyway. It's almost from the perspective of somebody who's already been attacked, imagining revenge.

The violence of the attack in the song is palatable.
When I sang the song at our songwriter's group, and I finished, Bridget said she thought it would be really fun to sing 'Kick you in the head/so you're almost dead' live [laughs]!

It does feel like an empowerment anthem.
Yeah! Great! That's so good.

Especially at this time when we need to be empowered.
I like it! Thank you!

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