Interview: Sultry Trans Songstress Nomi Ruiz Goes ‘Hi-Def Femme’

Since her 2021 feature film acting debut in the indie suspense flick Haymaker, and the corresponding ‘Like a Ghost’, her duet with Sam Sparro which also appeared on the soundtrack, we’ve been anxious to know what would be next for the illustrious Nomi Ruiz. And the always glamorous, ever provocative Puerto Rican trans songstress has indeed just announced a new album, the tellingly titled Hi-Def Femme, which she promises to be her most revealingly autobiographical work to date.

She first came to significant attention via her 2008 collab with Hercules & Love Affair, as well as sharing high-profile tour billing with the likes of CocoRosie, Deborah Harry and Antony & The Johnsons. She’s since spent the decade-plus cultivating an always fascinating solo career, whilst also keeping up her Jessica 6 side project with Andrew Raposo and Morgan Wiley. Nomi is always a busy girl.

But Hi-Def Femme (scheduled for a September release) seems for everything like it will be a newly career defining moment for her. Indeed, the first single, released today, is the strikingly visceral, unflinchingly soul-baring ‘Sailing’, which finds her lamenting “Love was once a friend of mine / But now she’s bored of me,” to devastating effect. The “modern noir” accompanying video is some of the most visually evocative work she’s ever done.

As Pride Month 2022 gets underway, we caught up with her to discuss her place in the contemporary musical landscape, as well as in this crucial and uncertain time for the LGBTQ community in America.

Is the new album a revised version of the never-released Jet Black? Or is it entirely new material?

Yes, Hi-Def Femme was initially under the working title Jet Black. After I finalized a song with the same name I felt it was a more suitable title for the overall record.

What does the Hi-Def Femme mean? Is that self-referential?

Hi-Def Femme is a state of being. There is so much language attached to identity these days. At times I don’t identify with any of it, other times I feel I’m part of it all. Hi-Def Femme is more suitable to my identity. 

The album is promising to tap into NYC’s golden era of hip-hop – but is there any larger, overarching concept?

This is one of my most personal pieces of work. I didn’t write these songs with the intention of making a record. Michael had sent me a folder of tracks and over the years I’d turn to them to express myself when I needed it. They were very private, like an audio diary of sorts. Also, underground, golden era hip-hop and R&B is the music that runs through my veins, it’s all I grew up listening to – so it triggers a different type of songwriting and storytelling in me.

How did you come to connect with Ilhan Ersahin for the new single? 

I’ve known Ilhan for many years, we met at his club, the original Nublu on Ave C. He has a magical way of supporting, nurturing and curating some of the most unique and talented musicians I’ve ever met. I was honored when he offered me a residency years ago and we’ve been a part of each other’s creative community ever since. I knew I wanted a jazz element that felt a bit foreign, and Ilhan’s way of playing saxophone has always transported me. He was a perfect fit for ‘Sailing’.

The track is a bit of a departure for you, in that it has a very noir vibe. What inspired the sound?

I’m always trying to make music that isn’t happening at the moment, even if that deters a wider audience from connecting right away. I want to change the landscape of music, not just go along with it. Sonically I love how this track combines elements of dark ’70s rock and ’90s hip-hop, but with a more contemporary feel.

It’s also a song about heartbreak – though you seem rather philosophical about it. Was it based on real life events?

There are times in my life when I’ve felt I had no purpose. It’s usually when everything seems to be at a loss – when the world seemed to be against me, like it didn’t want me to exist, leaving me to feel lost and displaced. Like most trans women I’ve dealt with depression over the years and music has been one of the tools I’ve used to overcome it. This song was written during one of those times, writing it saved me from spiraling into darkness. It reminded me of my purpose and helped to keep me going.

Can you tell us about the making of the video?

I’ve found a new love for filmmaking. I wrote and directed the video, which was shot in Mexico City by an amazing film crew called Kamera. It was filmed in Zinco Jazz Club, which is hidden in the vaults of the Bank Of Mexico. I put together a beautiful cast of friends and creators who I’m close to and admire, and I wanted the video to feel a bit foreign, as if Sade existed in some alternative universe like in the movie Blade Runner. I was so excited to have Havi Sanchez, aka DJ Guapis, star in it. There’s something about her that moves me emotionally whenever she’s around. I was hoping to capture a bit of that for more of the world to see. In the video she’s escaping from an unknown entity, and while hiding out in the vaults of the Bank of Mexico she encounters beings who pull her back into the feeling she’s escaping from. 

You’ve been a galvanizing voice for the trans community, and outspoken about feminist issues. How do you feel when you look at what America has become right now, especially when it comes to threats against the rights of women and of so many marginalized peoples in American society?

It’s really sad to see what America has become. I try not to get caught up in all the discourse that goes on around these issues because it’s what they want, and it continues to feed the problem.

And the politics tend to be divisive…

I hope people know that we can exist beyond politics by finding our own communities and nourishing them. I grew up in a time when trans people never really existed in politics and media, we never needed permission to exist. We did what we had to do within our communities to find shelter, medical assistance, protection, etc. Politics has never protected me and I’ve never needed its acceptance nor its permission to exist. I’ve gone a bit back to that mentality so I can protect myself from allowing politics to colonize my heart.

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