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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Profile: Meryn Cadell

This is part of a larger article by Marc Lostracco, published on the Torontoist website. Words and images used with permission.

It wasn't just any sweater, but "the worn, warm sweater belonging to A Boy" with that goat-like smell which all teenage boys possess. In 1991, "The Sweater" propelled singer-songwriter Meryn Cadell into the music history books, landing on the Top 40 charts and illuminating the request lines at Z-100 in New York.

The album angel food for thought soon became an indie smash for a woman who used to perform with an aluminum heating duct over her head for some guerilla reverb. Combining biting spoken word, observational torch songs and heavily poignant lyrics, Cadell's three albums and live performances struck a nerve with Toronto audiences through the nineties. Then, suddenly, Meryn seemed to have disappeared.

Where Cadell resurfaced was in Vancouver by way of New York City, taking a job teaching song lyrics and libretto and interdisciplinary projects at the University of British Columbia. This was not the only major life change: since 2003, Meryn has transitioned gender and is now living comfortably as a man.

Torontoist spoke to Meryn about being FTM transgendered, the former Toronto arts scene, "that song," and the exhilaration that comes with teaching classes in creative writing.

Why did you leave Toronto, first for New York [Cadell's birthplace] and then Vancouver?

At the time, I kinda felt that I had done all I could do there in a sense. It was so familiar that I felt like I needed a new everything. The hardest part was leaving my friends in Toronto. It's taken almost nine years for me to start missing it and realizing how much of a connection I had there.

angel food for thoughtHow did deciding to teach at a university come about?

I had done some teaching and had always loved it, but this position came up at UBC for teaching song lyrics and libretto, which involved all of my interests and was in an academic setting, which was appealing to me [Meryn's father was a professor]. When I saw the listing for it, I thought, how can I not apply for that? To actually see people's work change as a result of working with me and the influence they're getting from each other—the whole atmosphere of the creative writing program is completely amazing.

What is the vibe in your classroom like?

It's really important to me that it's a place where everyone can trust each other. Writing and performing songs in front of a class is a vulnerable thing to do. I really try and set it up so people feel feel they're on the same ground, and when they're taking risks, it's just so exciting to witness.

How do you evaluate something as abstract as songwriting?

It's actually fairly clear. They students do apply with a portfolio, so it starts at a certain level. It doesn't matter where they begin, but you can really tell someone who is applying what they're hearing from me, from other workshop participants and what they learn from assignments, which are not always fun for them. I can tell when people are trying new things and challenging themselves. In any of the performing and creative arts, you can't make someone talented who is not, but you can make talent flourish.

Do your students arrive with expectations based on your background as an established artist?

It's a mixed bag. I rarely talk about my work in class unless I'm asked about it specifically. It's not a class about my work, and it's sometimes easier not to bring-up transition issues, which happen when talking about my previous stuff. Some people are aware of and interested in my work, but most are just interested in songwriting.

Meryn CadellWould you perform on stage again?

I would now. There was a lot I was unaware of that eventually caused my discomfort with performing. I went from playing in clubs to having a piece I performed in that setting go relatively stratospheric. I then was in this whole different arena, being played on television and being recognized. It was really confusing—and great—but it was a huge shift in who I thought I was.

Somewhere in there, there was something going on about my gender—an idea I didn't put a name to for several years. I didn't know what exactly, but I knew that something wasn't quite right. The combination of those factors made me want to step back.

You've said that you are now at the happiest stage of your life.

I'm a coper, and I'm used to coping with things for a long time. I'm dealing with various things in my life, mostly to do with grief since I've lost quite a few people, and I realized that I needed to go back into therapy. What's interesting is that I go to this therapist and we never talk about my transition. My transition kind of solved something and made things align in a way where there were fewer issues about identity. I describe it like taking one step to the left and everything falls into place, allowing me to move forward. I haven't yet wrapped my head around the idea that, (a), this was there all the time and it was what I needed to do, and (b), that gender was a central issue.

I feel tremendously grateful that I figured it out. You know that saying when you bang your head against a wall and it only feels good when it stops? It's only when something uncomfortable had ended that I realized how uncomfortable I was. Every day now, I feel at home in my body and in myself in a way that I did not before.

Was there a certain demarcation moment or was it a gradual realization?

Since the transition, I've been so comfortable because I was no longer having issues of where my centre was. In a sense it was a sudden realization. The apple kinda hit me on the head, and God bless the internet. I was always interested and supportive of gender issues, but one day I was reading websites and blogs of people who had transitioned and the light went on. All of a sudden I thought, this wasn't just interest; this was me.

I heard you call it a transition from being a "female kind of person to a male kind of person."

Something that I had to break through—and now that I'm on the other side, I have to struggle with other people's perceptions—is that I seemed to fall on some sort of continuum off the butch end of the spectrum as a lesbian identity. Some trans men really struggle with that perception, because it's really not the case. Interestingly, I feel far more comfortable around butch women than I used to because I was often perceived as something that, inside, I felt wasn't right. It was so confusing for me. Often I'd be perceived as a butch woman myself, or sometimes I would be approached by a butch woman and perceived as femme, and I was neither of those things.

One thing that is difficult to explain, which is something shared by many trans men, is why it feels more comfortable to be male because it's not about others' perceptions, and if it's not about appearances, then why do I have to make physical changes to appear male? It's not really something I can explain, but if you're trans, you just know it. I often think about it as an internal white noise that simply vanished.

I like the idea of gender as a continuum. Now, there are people who want to smash the gender binary and I'm not sure that's possible, but it's an interesting time. I like when people who are intersexed—and I'm not conflating the two, because they are entirely different—claiming their identities as exactly who they are. It's something that doesn't really go away. Sadly, people have lived their whole lives not being able to live as who they really are.

Meryn Cadell

For the rest of this story, click here...

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