by Ryan Cassata
Lenny Zenith is an artist who caught my ear when I heard his 2018 album “What If the Sun.” A song from the record was sent to me for coverage on a music blog that I write for. I was immediately drawn to Lenny’s voice, and then when I took a deeper dive into the blurb that was sent along with his music, I found that Lenny was like me, a trans person. I listened carefully to his lyrics and felt very connected to songs like “Suddenly Someone” and “Sunday Dress.” Not only was I connected musically, but I connected to the lyrics. What I like most about Lenny is that his music is captivating. For someone that loves rock and punk, Lenny Zenith is an artist that just shouldn’t be ignored. He has even dived into EDM recently. His vocals are delivered with a sense of urgency, perhaps with roots in punk rock, and excited me as I listened.
Below is my interview with Lenny where you will find out more about his journey growing up, testosterone and singing, his musical influences, and what’s next in his career.
In 2–3 sentences tell the world who Lenny Zenith is.
Ha! Nothing like a tough question right up top. I’d say first and foremost I’m a musician who happens to also be transgender. I’m the son-of-a-preacher-man, and try to practice empathy and compassion on a daily basis while living my truth openly and honestly.
You started your social transition at a time where there was no trans visibility, can you go into that experience?
To be fair, there was a little trans visibility. Renee Richards and Christine Jorgensen come to mind in terms of widely publicized trans women. I also so the first transman on public television in California in the mid-70s! As we know now, there were certainly many more transgender pioneers prior to that!
When I enrolled in Toll Jr. High in the mid-70s, I just didn’t fill out the Male or Female checkboxes. I was androgynous enough and secure enough in my masculine presentation, that I think I just ‘willed’ people to accept me as a boy. No one ever questioned me directly though I’m sure there was a teacher or two who may have wondered. I skipped out of gym class (and the required locker room change) by feigning ill and later because I was in a performing arts high school. I didn’t come out to anyone until I was a senior in high school. They told their parents who called the principal, who then called my dad (neither of my parents knew I was going to school as a boy). The school asked me not to return and mailed me a diploma. This was in New Orleans.
Did you go through any bullying?
There was one semester where I had to go back to school as a girl when I lived with my mom and people would joke about me being ‘a dyke’ (because I had gone to that school prior to transitioning). They joked that I had gone to California to have a sex change. Honestly, it wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been and I attribute that to the fact that I had won over a lot of my classmates through playing guitar and singing.
When did you come out to the world as trans? What year was that?
I never ‘officially’ came out. I legally changed my name to Lenny Zenith at eighteen. I had always been called Lenny as a nickname since I was a baby (thanks to my grandmother who thought I looked like my cousin in Cuba who was named Lenny). Some newspapers in New Orleans alluded to gender early on but I was never outed — even in my first big city-wide interview in 1980 (Figaro). It wasn’t officially in print until the mid-90s when Jim Testa at Jersey Beat specifically (with my permission) mentioned I was transgender in a review of my then band Jenifer Convertible.
In your perspective, how are things different for trans people now than they were when you first started to present as a boy?
I was extraordinarily fortunate that my parents took me to Tulane Medical Center in New Orleans. I happened upon an endocrinologist when I was about twelve who said “I think we know what’s going on here. Come back when you’re 18 and we’ll see if we can help you.” Together with a pediatric psychiatrist who told my parents “Lenny’s already decided what Lenny’s going to be you can either accept it or not.” Also, an (otolaryngologist) ENT who gifted me the early trans memoir “Conundrum” (Jan Morris). I attribute these three doctors with saving my life because I was so scared and felt that I was really disappointing my parents with my dysphoria.
Today there is a little more acceptance among parents, teachers and the public for transgender identities (though we still have a long way to go) and organizations like PFLAG, GSAs and important trans organizations that support our communities.
How has being trans affected your music?
I think being trans has allowed me a better understanding of folks’ experiences regardless and in spite of gender. I’ve written from the perspective of someone who’s experienced life as a young girl as well as a boy and now a man. Having grown up in New Orleans, I was exposed to people who cross-dressed for carnival and later on, to fabulous drag queens who were always kind and understanding towards me when they found out I was trans. I draw from these experiences in some of my work. I also try to be supportive of other transgender artists as much as possible, including with my fledgling label XYYX Records. A lot of my songs are about love and heartbreak too, but not always specifically about relationships rather than metaphors for life’s disappointments.
When did you begin taking testosterone?
I started taking testosterone the day I turned 18. I made an appointment with the aforementioned endocrinologist at Tulane, and got my first shot that day. March, 25, 1979. It’s been almost forty years!! (OK, now I feel old)
How has testosterone affected your music and singing abilities?
I was determined to fulfill the vision I had of myself and didn’t really think about how it might affect my voice. Remember, there wasn’t very much research at all about female-bodied people taking testosterone. No one knew exactly how it would pan out in the long run. I used to have a much higher range and could sing like Sting or Robert Plant easily. I noticed in my thirties that I was slowly losing that upper range. I missed it, but managed with what I had. I have some CIS male friends who have a higher range than I do, but that’s probably because they’ve worked on it more than I do! Physically, I took on the heft that testosterone can often provide (aided by a few years of dedicated gym work) and lost the skinny ‘rockstar’ body of my youth.
Who inspired you as a teen? Who inspires you now?
I was very inspired by my dear friend Leigh Harris (who recently passed away) in New Orleans. She really could deliver any type of song and was a great storyteller with her music. She was a legendary singer. Along the way, I was influenced by everyone from John Denver, Elton John, to The Sex Pistols, The Ramones. I was and still am a big fan of classical music and musical theater especially Mozart, Hadyn, Ludovico Einaudi, Ólafur Arnalds, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Tim Rice, and Andrew Lloyd Weber.
What is your most favorite song that you have written?
Right now, I’d have to say “Wish”. I really like it melodically, but also lyrically it really captures the feeling of wishing you were somehow different than you are and wishing the world could just ‘fall away’ for a bit so I wouldn’t have to be so focused on what I am or am not. Dysphoria can pop up anytime, even years after transitioning. While I am grateful for the trans experience I have lived, sometimes one can’t help but wonder what it would be like to not have to focus on it so much.
[Listen to “Wish” on Spotify]
What instruments do you play? When did you first start singing?
My Cuban grandmother taught me the harmonies to “Noche de Paz” (Silent Night) when I was four or five and I sang that in church. I sang songs from The Sound of Music with my mom when I was only a little older. I started playing piano in first grade but didn’t stick with the lessons and picked up the guitar in 7th grade. I’ve recently gone back to piano in some of my newer orchestral compositions and ballads and am taking lessons again online.
Is another album on the horizon?
I’ve been playing with some old friends from New Orleans quite a bit and we have an EP coming out under our old band name Lenny Zenith & Pop Combo, I’ve released a couple of EDM tunes (much to the surprise of some of my bandmates) and I’m hoping to do another full-length album with my NYC band soon. You can hear a sample track here.
What’s next musically for Lenny Zenith?
There are still a lot of musical landscapes I’d like to explore. I’m working on some more orchestral compositions which I would love to record with live strings, and a couple of other EDM tracks are in the pipeline. I’m in the process of planning a short tour in Spain next year. I’ll continue to ‘rock out’ in NYC, New Orleans and anywhere else that’ll have me!
Thank you so much, Lenny!
About the Author:
Ryan Cassata is an award winning singer-songwriter, actor, performer, writer and LGBTQ activist & motivational speaker based in Los Angeles. With features in Rolling Stone, Billboard Magazine, The New York Times, Buzzfeed, and The Daily News, Ryan has made the most of his young career, which started when he was just 13.
As a musician with over 550 performances touring across the United States and internationally, including dates on the Van’s Warped Tour, SXSW and at the worlds biggest pride festivals, Ryan has been praised by The Advocate saying he’s a “Transgender singing sensation”, Paper Magazine put him on the “50 LGBTQ Musicians You Should Prioritize” list, LOGO put him on the “9 Trans Musicians You Need To Get Into” list and Billboard put him on the “11 Transgender & Non-Binary Musicians You Need to Know” list and premiered his most recent music video for “Daughter.” He has also been heard on Sirius XM Radio, BBC Radio 4 and other radio stations around the world. MORE INFO AT: http://www.ryancassata.com/