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Singer, drag performer Joey Arias channels Billie Holiday at REDCAT

In select performances, Joey Arias has sung the music of Billie Holiday for over 20 years now.
In select performances, Joey Arias has sung the music of Billie Holiday for over 20 years now.
Krys Fox

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Joey Arias is a veteran performance artist and singer. He came of age in Los Angeles, spending his formative years in Highland Park and at Pasadena's Cal Arts, but he made a name for himself in New York in the mid-'70s, when Manhattan was weird and disco was raging.

Arias worked at the Fiorucci store in Manhattan, where he became an iconic part of the shop and New York's LGBT art scene. He made friends with people like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, and the avant-garde performer Klaus Nomi. He and Nomi even shared the stage with David Bowie for his strange, legendary 1979 performance on Saturday Night Live — Arias is the backup singer wearing red:


Arias is also a drag performer. He’s sung in the style of dozens of great singers but none more compelling than Billie Holiday. The New York Times called his performance “devastating” and the New Yorker called it “extraordinary” and “heartbreaking.” Here’s a clip of him performing “Strange Fruit” in San Francisco:


You can see Joey Arias for yourself starting Thursday, November 19 at REDCAT in Downtown Los Angeles. Off-Ramp producer Kevin Ferguson talked with Arias about how he discovered his gift at channeling the voice of Lady Day.

On first listening to Billie Holiday

I was probably about 8 or 9 years old. My parents were big music fans, and they played lots of records. And there was this one voice that was kind of shocking to me. I mean, I've heard a lot of female singers, but this one was the lazy sound, or something that was like behind the beat. My ears stood up and I thought, "Wow, who is this?"

I looked at the album. It was Lady Day. And I was fascinated by her. So I started really paying attention to her phrasing. And as a kid, already then, I was like, "What is this about?"

On realizing he could sing like Holiday

I was in a band — I was a kid — and I was doing all these rock and roll songs, being very pop and rock. Trying to be one of the arena rock stars like Led Zeppelin, or whatever. I kind of wanted to be more like her. Somehow, my voice became a bit scratchy. And it wasn't pure.

When people would hear me, they're like, "Oh my God, you have that Billie Holiday thing going on!" 

As life goes on, you know: party, drinks, carrying on... it becomes that way naturally. I don't put anything on it, I don't pretend, I'm just doing what I'm doing. I'm just Joey channeling that feeling of what Billie was, the way she would attack a song.

On dressing in drag for the first time

Actually, I hated drag. They use to take me to drag bars — it's like, "Get me out! Immediately! I can't be here, this is ridiculous. I can't stand it."

I was invited to an Andy Warhol party for Halloween, with Truman Capote and artists, of course my buddies Keith Haring and Jean-Michel [Basquiat], Kenny Sharp and Ann Manguson, the list goes on and on. And you had to be in drag. And I was like really cringing, going there.

I got there in drag. I was dressed like this Russ Meyers super vixen. When I walked in, nobody knew who I was, and they were asking, "Who are you, really?"

And I was like "Joey!"

And Andy said, "Oh my God, you should always dress in drag, you should always been that way!"

On the concept of "channeling" Billie Holiday

I can go anywhere with Billie. I can sing pop songs. I can sing whatever and channel Billie into that vibe. And I ask for the lights to be rather low, and not to be bright. It's not about me, it's about the singing. The band's lit up more than I am! 

Of course, you'll see me. But it's really about hearing that voice, where it's coming out.