BEFORE THERE was Conchita Wurst, there was Steven Sharpe. Before the Austrian singer’s ‘bearded lady’ drag persona stole the show at Eurovision, Steven was already rocking the ‘dude in a dress’ look.
“People see my poster and say, ‘Oh you must be inspired by Conchita,’, but no, I was doing that before!” laughs Steven during our Monday afternoon interview. “I’ve been doing that for the last year and now people expect it, even though the first time I wore a dress onstage I didn’t draw attention to it. Since then I’ve added a fur coat!”
The multi-talented Steven is a singer, songwriter, comedian, showman, storyteller, but not a drag act. Like Conchita, he messes with notions of gender, blurs and confuses the boundaries, upending notions that masculine and feminine must always be mutually exclusive and distinct.
“It does go against the conventions of drag,” he says. “Drag is often just a parody of women, what I’m doing is a way of de-sexualising - you’re not a man, you’re not a woman - I’m just rocking a dress and I have a beard. I’m here! That’s it! And there is a great freedom in that, it’s liberating. And I’m also not a drag act because I sing - I don’t lip synch!
“Men in dresses in bands is nothing new though,” Steven points out. Indeed David Bowie in his ‘man’s dress’ for The Man Who Sold The World is a classic example. “But growing up an insult among boys was ‘You’re a girl!’, ‘You’re a woman!’ But what’s wrong with being a woman?”
That mixing of the masculine and feminine is also a feature of Steven’s favourite band - Led Zeppelin. ‘Whole Lotta Love’ may have defined cock-rock and Jimmy Page’s riffs embodied machismo, but Robert Plant was always in touch with his feminine side, lyrically, vocally, and in his stage moves.
“I’m obsessed with Led Zeppelin!” he declares. “Robert Plant would be a big influence. His look, the hair, it’s all very androgynous - were it not for the bulge in his pants!”
Steven is originally from Tipperary, and like many others before him, came to Galway with the idea of staying for about a year, but found “I just couldn’t leave, it was too nice”.
Galway is sometimes called ‘the graveyard of ambition’, a place where some people can be more inclined to dream, rather than do. That certainly does not apply to Steven, who, during his three years in the city, has developed his skills as a musician, comedian, and actor.
In 2010 and 2011 he toured his stage show All Men Are Bast•rds throughout Connacht and Munster. The following year he performed his musical comedy Who’s The Man? in the Town Hall Theatre, and last December released the album Hot Mess - Live from the Róisín Dubh (available free through Bandcamp). He is also a regular at Open Mic events; the lead singer in Led Zeppelin tribute band No Stairway; and he has impressed with his appearances at The Dirty Circus cabaret.
Now comes, perhaps, Steven’s biggest show to date, when he plays the main stage of the Róisín Dubh, where he will be joined by his band The Broke Straight Boys - David Shaughnessy, Shane O’Malley, and Dylan Murphy. “It’ll be my first time playing with a band,” says Steven. “We’re going to play songs, have guitar solos, and just have fun with it.”
The show will feature Steven’s trademark mix of storytelling and humour which deal with being young, gay, and trying to get that guy to notice you.
“The show isn’t for gay people or straight people, it’s for everyone,” Steven says. “I’m just singing about relationships. I’m gay so I’m not going to substitute ‘she’ for ‘he’. When I was growing up and getting into music there were hardly any gay musicians. Later I discovered Owen Pallet, Tracy Chapman, Patrick Wolf, but with them it’s all very ambiguous to remain radio friendly, and that annoyed me. Singing about being gay is fun subject matter, about coming out to your parents and having a secret boyfriend, and the things that happen - we’ve all had a fellah on the QT at some stage!”
Steven primarily sees himself as a storyteller. “That’s what I do,” he says. “It’s also comedy, but I never write with the intention of being funny, although even when I write poignant songs, people end up laughing! I was watching reports on what is happening in Uganda and Russia to gay people there. It made me angry and I wrote a song about it. I’ve performed it three times and it’s got different reactions. The first time, people found it poignant and moving. The send time was in front of an older audience and they mostly found it funny! The third time the audiences was more mixed and some found it moving and others were laughing their heads off!”
Following Steven’s Róisín Dubh show, he will be working on what he calls a ‘double EP’. Could he not just record and release it as an album?
“I could but I want to have four songs on each disc, one of love songs the other of bittersweet songs! I know it will cost more money, but people buy these things because they are tactile, and my favourite albums - Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti and Kate Bush’s Aerial are both dual discs. Also it’ll look pretty and I’m stuck on the idea!”
Support is from Katie O’Connor and Gary McInerney. Tickets €5/7 and available at www.roisindubh.net, the Ticket Desk at OMG Zhivago, Shop Street, and The Róisín Dubh. See also soundcloud.com/stevensharpe