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.
How 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.
Would 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.
Is the experience of looking in a mirror different now on an identity basis?
When I look in the mirror now, I see myself. There are a few years where I just didn’t look in a mirror at all. Now, I like catching sight of myself and thinking, there I am. There I am.
Was there extra pressure on you from your family and friends when deciding to make the transition?
Not at all for me; I’ve been so fortunate. There have been a few people who didn’t get it, so we’ve moved on and aren’t really friends anymore, but most people were just, “oh, OK.” Some struggle with pronouns just as it can be when someone asks at age thirty to be called a new name. It’s so tough for a trans person when someone messes-up a pronoun because it feels like they aren’t believing in you, even when you know, rationally, that it’s just a mistake. Kids are the best. They just get it. If it’s not presented to them as a weird thing, they just get it.
The people who struggled the most with the idea of transitioning were my family and some close friends because one of the fears they have is that you’ll suddenly become somebody entirely different. I used to joke with my mom that she was expecting me to walk in the room one day being Antonio Banderas [swashbuckling Zorro accent]. I’m Meryn, I’ve always been Meryn, and it’s still me, but I’m just going to be more comfortable. She totally gets that now.
How did you manage the transition at work?
It’s been great working at UBC because when I began the transition, it wasn’t really public and it wasn’t that noticeable yet, but when I wanted it to be official, I met with the school’s equity officer to discuss how to approach it and see if there was anything I needed to know, and she was very helpful. We talked about how I wanted to announce it and the various policies in place to protect me, so I thanked her, wrote a letter to my colleagues, and I’ve never been to see her again.
It’s never really come up in class. It’s not an issue for me, which enables people to let it drop back in place of importance. Opening students up to new stuff and all the other things that come with being a professor that are so exciting—that’s what’s important to people at the university.
You now have experience in society as both a female and a male. Do you think you have an insight having been part of both worlds?
Not as much as one might think. It’s more subtle things. There is a fear of violence—and I remember it as a woman—and simply being overpowered by a man. Plugged into that is the conditioning of how much psychic space men take up that women don’t, or aren’t allowed to. What I’ve noticed are subtle things like talking to people in shops. If I initiate a conversation, I sometimes feel people shy-away wondering if my motives are to pick them up or if I’m a weirdo. I’m not feeling sorry for myself—it’s just that I remember that’s how it works. If I’m walking behind a woman on the same side of the street and nobody’s around, I’ll cross to the other side so she doesn’t have to look over her shoulder. I’m reminded of those stereotypes because they have some reality.
There are little bonus moments, I suppose, being in a cab or something and the driver is interacting in a way with light conversation and I’ll be thinking, “this is so interesting because this conversation would never have happened years ago to me.” I’m also the kind of person who will call someone out for being a total asshole, and that’s more likely to get me a sock in the mouth as a guy.
After “The Sweater,” you became known for your witty humour, but your albums are full of a very wide range of lyrics, from hilarious to touching to angry.
I hated when sloppy interviewers asked me if I was an angry woman and if I hated men. I would always say no, because I was writing about characters who had limitations and were up against expectations that they couldn’t achieve. It was never as simple as boys against girls. The other thing that was a challenge for me was being assumed to be lightweight. Humour is a good weapon I used sometimes and other pieces were very much not in the humourous vein, but with “The Sweater” being so large, people often didn’t know what the other stuff was like.
You must not have expected “The Sweater” to blow up like it did.
Holy cow, nobody! I knew it was a catchy tune, but I didn’t expect it to get so big. When I applied for the VideoFACT grant for Curtis Wehrfritz to direct the video, I xeroxed images from the L.L. Bean catalogue and cut out sweaters and pasted them on the application as kind of a storyboard. One of the lines on the application was “Type of Music” and I was, like, “uhhh…” Graham, one of the guys at Intrepid Records, said, “put down ‘sweater music!'”
You were highly recognizable with your distinctive voice and trademark blond hair. Did you get spotted in public a lot?
Oh, God, yes. It’s something you want your whole life, but then sometimes it becomes so exhausting. There were people who would come up and say, “oh, you’re Meryn Cadell! I love your stuff,” and then there were people who would say, “aren’t you that girl from TV?” It’s funny how people get so excited that an image they see on television is now standing right in front of them. Being pointed-at is a bit weird. There’s a bit of a zoo aspect to it.
Who was crucially influential to your writing at the time?
What’s interesting about angel food for thought is that the theme it took was very different from the stuff I was doing, hanging out at Elvis Mondays at the Beverly Tavern. The first stuff that grabbed me and motivated me was The Birthday Party and Nick Cave, so it’s interesting that what I came up with was markedly different than that. I can’t credit that community enough—Elvis Mondays and that whole Queen Street scene of the early and mid-80s. That’s what I came out of.
Why did you choose to combine spoken word along with your singing?
I always wanted to join a band, but there’s something very efficient about writing one’s own material and being able to get up on stage and perform it that night. Actually, there might be control issues. [laughs] That also came out of being on stage at the Beverly and the Rivoli with these stories and characters I was creating. There’s sometimes a misconception that I was writing about me when I was never writing about me. I was interested in characters, though they all had similar struggles. It was the directness of being on stage and speaking to an audience in a kind of rhythm that was more arresting and direct. There was always a cappella singing. The first performance I ever did at the Beverly was “Barbie” with a heating duct on my head, which was the prop I used at the time.
Who were your Toronto compatriots at the time?
Ian Blurton from Change of Heart—I’m so excited to see what he’s been up to since as a producer. William New and Groovy Religion. A Neon Rome burst onto the scene with an explosion. Neal [Arbick] is just an incredible frontman and the sound was really psychedelic. Neal was supposed to be in Bruce MacDonald’s film Roadkill with the whole band, but Neal ended up taking a vow of silence and so his character in Roadkill took a vow of silence. The passing of Steve Banks last year really brought a lot of us back into each other’s orbit. I haven’t been able to listen to the Ministry of Love cassette yet because it was a touchstone for me at that time, even before Steve passed away.
What do you miss about Toronto?
Kensington Market. In some ways, Kensington is my home; it’s my heart. 6 blocks was written about the Market, and I used to hang out with Don McKellar a lot because he lived there; Bruce McDonald, Tracy Wright. I miss that particular diversity. I’ve lived in Greenwich Village in New York and I live on Commercial Drive in Vancouver, and though they’re diverse, I’ve never found anything with such a rich history, beautiful Victorian architecture and a mix of vendors, communities, artists, families with kids, the punks…I loved it. Also, Bacchus Roti, which is not in the Market, but ohh…even talking about it is a bit much.
What didn’t you like about the city?
I don’t like how all of the main avenues are laid-out because when the sun is streaming down in the winter, the quality of light is so grey and sad. Also, there’s salt on everything and it all just looks so dirty. I gotta say, I don’t miss snow one iota. I love the weather here in Vancouver; I really do. I can see snow in the mountains out my window, so it’s never far away, but don’t miss the freezing cold winters.
What projects are you working on now?
It would be nice to do some visual art again, and I love this interdisciplinary course that I’m teaching, so I’m not only doing writing workshops and libretto, but taking part in film, video and the visual arts. I’m always loath to talk about what I’m working on because I often feel like it’s a bubbling experiment.
Would you ever record an album again?
Yes. [mysterious pause] I think that’s a possibility. My voice has settled down now and I can still sing in pitch; just with a more lower range.
Meryn Cadell blogs sporadically and candidly on his LiveJournal. You can hear song samples here (though the page is not affiliated with Cadell) and read Meryn’s lyrics here, which are highly recommended.
His first album angel food for thought is finally being re-released and now includes the cassette-only bonus tracks, lyrics, and the video for “The Sweater.” It can be ordered through Bongo Beat for $12, postage included, and will be available on iTunes and CD Baby shortly. His previous albums are bombazine and 6 blocks, as well as a cassette-only release (MARE-in ka-DELL) and remixes of “Barbie.” Photos supplied via webcam by Meryn.