Erica Mac, aka. Piano Punk, is a Lower Mainland-based musician and advocate. We are so appreciative that Erica was willing to share her experiences with us and be as transparent and honest as she was. Please note, not all aspects of this AutismBC Connects is appropriate for children. Thank you, Erica! You can catch Piano Punk’s performance at noon on Friday, June 18th, 2021 – Autistic Pride Day, here.
Content Warning: Identity, Diagnosis, Sexism
My name is Erica Mac, aka. Piano Punk. My pronouns are complicated. I use she/her in my regular life because I mask a lot and as a part of that, I don’t like to correct people and I just want to blend in and not call attention to myself or how I’m different. When I perform as an artist, I feel way more comfortable using they/them pronouns and I can wear a chest binder and I get to be my most mask-free self and I can revel in being different. So, they/them while I’m on stage performing, but she/her the rest of the time.
I am originally from a small, conservative town in Ontario. I currently live in Vancouver and really love it here despite the obvious affordability issues. I have also lived in Perth, Western Australia which is where my partner is from. People are very direct there, which is a perk. The downside is that it’s just about as homophobic as where I grew up in rural Ontario, perhaps more so.
I think the most suitable answer would be that I identify as autistic. I also suppose that the descriptor of “late-diagnosed” would be appropriate. I am also the walking definition of alexithymia (I really struggle to identify and describe emotions, something that music helps me with) and I tick quite a few of the boxes for dyspraxia too, even though I am not formally diagnosed with either alexithymia or dyspraxia. I can somehow manage to play piano and other musical instruments despite being deeply uncoordinated and fairly lacking in spatial awareness.
I identify as lesbian and queer. My partner is non-binary and uses they/them and she/her pronouns. We’ve been together for six years. In terms of gender, I mostly feel like a brain driving around a meat sack rather than a man or a woman, even if I’m often performing “woman” and “neurotypical” at work or in my day-to-day life outside of performing. I really love the word autigender, even if it’s too esoteric and uncommon for most people to know and understand. I think that [autigender] really encapsulates the way that the performance of gender is inseparable from masking. Queerness and autism are linked in this way: both deviations from the “norm”, both pathologized in the recent past, both something that is hidden in the proverbial closet or masked as a form of self-preservation when encountering bullying, and both something that can be disclosed to people who are hopefully non-judgmental.
I love being queer and one of my favourite parts of living in Vancouver has been singing in my queer choir, arranging music for them, and participating in a queer choral theatre show that happened at Fringe. All of that has been paused during the pandemic.
How does your identity impact you as an artist?
My identity has shaped every part of my musical practice. I used to write original music, and I still do sometimes, but I found that non-autistic people often didn’t listen to the words, didn’t resonate with my ideas, and didn’t understand the feelings that I was trying to evoke. People kept telling me to write songs about love or they would compare me to Joni Mitchell (which is nice but bizarre since the only thing Joni and I have in common is that we aren’t male). People really wanted to pigeonhole me as a singer-songwriter since I play piano and am ostensibly a woman, even if the subject matter of my songs was much more focused on the feeling of being an outsider, masking, grappling with what it means to be authentic, struggles around identity, and attempting to evoke a feeling of isolation in the listener, all of which are more common themes in rock and alt-rock than the genre of singer-songwriter.
I faced a lot of the grueling sexism that many women and non-binary AFAB (assigned female at birth) people in the industry do when I would do gigs. Bartenders would compare me to other women performers on the bill and tell me that I was worse than them. Venue managers would treat me like a mother figure to all the male musicians and tell me to rein them in if they were being too wild. Men would ask me if “[that was my] boyfriend on stage?” after I’d finished my set and was watching another musicians’ set because they didn’t realize that I could possibly be a musician myself. I would get hit on or have the small of my back touched by strange men after I’d just come off stage, and in my last time ever wearing a dress on stage, one particularly gross man told his friend loudly that he would like to “take me home” but that he was too old and would let his friend “have” me. That’s assuming I could even manage to get a gig, which requires quite a bit of cold calling and cold emailing or networking which is very, very hard for me.
The truth is that my current act, Piano Punk, in which I play piano covers of hardcore, metal, grunge, and punk songs, has allowed me to create a niche that doesn’t subject me to the abhorrent misogyny that a lot of women who write original music experience. I perform songs from heavier genres that are seen as “masculine.” I find that I get more respect due to the supposedly “masculine” nature of the music, as well as my classical music background and credentials. I wear a punk vest on stage and I get to info-dump to the audience about the historical aspects of each song whilst doing covers. Piano Punk allows me to escape from the expectations that I will be likeable, relatable, marketable, or attractive. I don’t want to be any of those things. I love that a punk aesthetic tells other people that you don’t care about their perceptions. You can be as rude, political, difficult, sarcastic, despicable, or villainous as you want. I have basically created a persona for my stage act that allows me to be free from masking in a way that I could never be in my day-to-day life.
I don’t aspire to tour as an artist because I know now how hard it would be on me. Prior to the pandemic, I made the choice to gig less frequently and to keep returning to the same venues because I wanted consistency. I don’t engage with the granting system which prioritizes marketability, universality, and sees disabled and queer artists as “non-commercial”, not worthy of international export, and not worthy of investing in. I have had to create a vision of what success means to me because the versions of “success” that I saw being held up as the standard in the music industry are really something that I don’t think is accessible to me as someone who is highly unique and deeply unrelatable as a result of that uniqueness.
Are there any challenges that come with being a member of the LGBTQ+ community?
Although there are so many autistic queer people, queer spaces aren’t really made for us. A lot of it is centered around bar culture, or at least it was pre-pandemic. I personally can go to bars as long as my partner comes with me, but I find my tolerance for the sensory aspects is so variable and I have to be willing to trade off my comfort for the experience. I love seeing Drag King shows and personally I find that Drag Kings are a huge influence on how I think about and create my stage persona (even if I’m not doing drag myself).
One of the weird things about being autistic and queer is that I didn’t innately “get” queer culture, probably due to being autistic and taking things literally. I thought to myself, “I can’t be gay! I don’t have a gay haircut, I don’t wear Birkenstocks, I don’t love Tegan and Sara’s music, I really don’t want to have to ‘U-Haul‘ with someone because I like having my own space” and didn’t understand that those are stereotypes and not requirements. I didn’t understand the strange sarcasm of “camp humour” and I took a lot of the self-effacing humour of the community literally. “The L Word”, “Rocky Horror Picture Show”, “But I’m a Cheerleader”: all of these shows were so perplexing to me and I didn’t understand what people liked about them or why they were funny. I had to meet other queer women and non-binary people and see how diverse they are to really understand it. I still feel like even though I get queer “culture” now and understand camp humour and enjoy queer representations in TV and film that it still sometimes feels like I have to pretend to like things other queer people like. I’ve learned saying you don’t care about a famous lesbian musician or don’t like their music can really offend or bewilder people. Especially if it’s pop music. People who like pop music expect you to also like pop music because they see it as universal, in a way that metal heads or punk aficionados do not. The queer community has it’s own taboos that you have to learn (for example: astrology is very controversial for reasons I don’t understand or care to understand) in addition to all the non-queer neurotypical taboos, so that definitely is a tough hurdle when you first come out.
Do you have anything to share about music and its impact on your journey?
Music has been with me in the highlights of my life and in the hardest times.
It has been a way to seek connection with others. I hate eye contact, except for when I am on stage. I have had such transformative conversations with people after a gig, sharing what we love about songs, talking about music with passion and interest, discussing arrangements or the form and structure of a piece of music.
Probably my favourite gig was when I did a special “schticky” show on Valentine’s day called “F*%k Love: Love Songs in Minor Keys” during which I took iconic love ballads and slowed them down and put them in minor keys and made them as creepy as possible for entertainment and comedy purposes. It was the same evening as Queer Prom, although earlier in the night, and lots of queer people showed up dressed to the nines and covered in sequins to grab a bite before kicking on to prom. My friend Risa showed up in a gigantic ball gown which was almost too big to walk down the narrow aisles of the restaurant / bar. I remember Risa and her girlfriend slow dancing in a tiny space at the back of the bar as I sang a version of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” that sounded like a stalker anthem. I remember the communal laughter that happened as the bar delighted in a particularly surprising creepy chord within my arrangement of “Every Breath You Take” by the Police, which is arguably the creepiest love song ever written. It was so cathartic.
What are some of the community connections and/or projects you have been a part of? Tell us a bit about what they are and how they began?
I founded and lead an autistic queer support group called Autistic Queer Peers at Qmunity. After I was diagnosed, I remember reading a statistic about the suicide rate for autistic women and how high it was. I couldn’t help but think about the statistics about queer and trans people and about how that might add to the risk factor. It made me think a lot about isolation and the loneliness of being surrounded by people who will never know the real you because it’s too dangerous to show them your true self and they might accuse you of being callous or unempathetic or simply spot your unusualness and assume that it’s weakness and decide that they hate you and will bully you until you go away. It made me feel profoundly sad that there could be other people experiencing that too. I wanted to combat that. So, I created a group to try and make social connections. I see the group as a form of activism, even though the subject matter discussed is not political.
I had to learn a lot very quickly since I started this group with zero experience, but one of the great things about leading an autistic group is that people are often very direct and can ask for what they want and tell me what they do or don’t like. That actually really helps to improve the group.
Qmunity has been really supportive. The other volunteer facilitators have been incredible resources for me to go to when I have questions. The Volunteer Coordinator staff have been such awesome advocates who have given me the space to make my group autistic led with full autistic autonomy while also having someone to turn to for advice and resources.
My group serves all of BC (since it’s digital), but I have also had folks from out-of-province shadow my group in the hopes that they can start one of their own groups!
How can we (the community) continue to support artists like you?
I think the best way to support artists is to allow them to be unlikeable sometimes. Be okay with them seeming rude or not reading facial expressions or saying something taboo. Don’t make assumptions about their music based on their gender or the shape of their body since that’s something that they cannot change and is not a part of the performance. Don’t give them unsolicited advice or try to shape them into something that you think that they should be, simply because they are on a stage sometimes. Let them be themselves and instead of thinking about what they lack, just appreciate what they give.
You can watch Piano Punk’s performance here at noon on Friday, June 18th, 2021 – Autistic Pride Day. Stay tuned!