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Arts + CultureMusic'Fairy godmother of trans country artists' Shawna Virago rounds...

‘Fairy godmother of trans country artists’ Shawna Virago rounds up vivid new tales

On 'Blood in her Dreams,' the local punky-tonk legend tells the stories of outsiders in today's beige-tinted SF.

Punky-tonk artist Shawna Virago’s Blood In Her Dreams exists on the border of the Old West, ‘80s LA, and ‘90s San Francisco.

The latest musical collection from the “fairy godmother of trans country artists” (who also broke ground as artistic director of the nation’s first transgender film festival) is entrenched in the instrumentalist’s traditional acoustic guitar-playing, but unafraid to move in new musical directions, powered by electric guitar—not to mention drums from Bay Area musician Lien Do

This willingness to experiment is most striking on the LP’s first single, “The Barman’s Daughter.” Reminiscent of The Strokes’ “Last Night,” the energizing tune could have been a seamless addition to the New York City rock band’s 2001 debut album, Is This It.

Blood In Her Dreams may be grounded in story-driven outlaw country (Guy Clark), folk (Bob Dylan), and cowpunk (Exene Cervenka) but it seismically shifts the narrative from the perspective of the familiar outlaw—the cowboy evading justice—to the viewpoint of a trans person whose very existence continues to be criminalized in the US. (In 2024 alone, 17 states have passed a record number of anti-trans bills.) 

The 11 highly personal tracks, drawn from the natural storyteller’s adventures in SF over the last four decades, were written in Virago’s local flat and recorded over two years at Different Fur Studios. These intimate spaces provided the artist room to reflect on how the personal intertwines with the political and universal amid the ongoing struggle of trans people. 

Like Virago, the characters are outsiders, vulnerable yet strong in the face of hostility, square pegs steadfast on their quest to fit in—against the backdrop of today’s beige San Francisco. “Last Girl, Chapter 1” and “Eternity Street” draw vivid portraits of the more colorful queer personalities of yesteryear.  

Ahead of the album’s Fri/31 release date, Virago will treat fans to preview performances of select tracks at the Blood In Her Dreams Release Party (Thu/2 at El Rio). Part of the 2024 San Francisco International Arts Festival (SFIAF), the event will also feature performances from fellow LGBTQ-plus trailblazers Secret Emchy Society and Eddie and the Heartbeats and will be hosted by Churro Nomi. 

“If you love good songwriting with attitude and a queer perspective on Americana music, this is the show for you,” Virago told 48 Hills.

I spoke to the singer-songwriter about the powerful tracks, Cervenka’s influence, and the challenges of living authentically in enemy territory.

48 HILLS Tell me the meaning behind the song “Blood In Her Dreams.” 

SHAWNA VIRAGO “Blood In Her Dreams is a song brimming with quiet venom. I tried to capture something of the anger that has been unleashed in our country. Why is the narrator so angry? Why are so many people so angry? Did she fall prey to cold-hearted conmen? Is she too strong, too unrepressed, too erotic for the small town she finds herself in? All the songs on the album tie the personal to the political, and it’s a world based on real events but channeled through a trans-Southern Gothic lens.

48 HILLS You’ve said that the LP’s first single, “The Barman’s Daughter,” is rooted in darkness and autobiography. Tell me more.

SHAWNA VIRAGO This song is told from the eyes of a daughter, whose father is a perpetual adolescent and ne’er-do-well. It’s about the burden of holding family secrets. 

The song’s subtext bursts from the trans perspective, but its grit, hopefully, gives it a universal shine. The song is also a manic rockabilly tune with the overdrive cranked up. I don’t recommend dancing to it.  

48 HILLS “Ghosts Cross State Lines” and “This Girl Looks Hounded” are both about being haunted by the past. Is this something you deal with personally? 

SHAWNA VIRAGO Both these songs are grounded in alt-Americana. “Ghosts” is more of a folk-punk song, while “This Girl Looks Hounded” is channeling punky tonk. Both songs concern the past, but the character in “Ghosts Cross State Lines” is trying to escape it. 

“This Girl Looks Hounded” is a lament. The narrator in the song goes looking for a man, finds one, and thinks it’s a blessing, but it turns out to be a curse. 

Am I haunted by the past? Probably. For many years now, when I go to trans community events, the friends of my youth are no longer there. 

48 HILLS “Bright Green Ideas” and “Somewhere on the Border” are so erotic. Are they based on true stories? Is it possible to have experiences like this anymore in modern-day San Francisco?

SHAWNA VIRAGO I love a good sex-positive song! There are autobiographical elements in these songs. “Bright Green Ideas” is about meeting my life partner, Sean Dorsey, in 2001 at the Cafe du Nord bar. Despite all the community displacement that has happened in SF, queers are still hooking up and finding love in the shadows.

48 HILLS “Last Girl Chapter 1” and “Eternity Street” reference the old San Francisco. What does it mean to be the last girl in the city? It sounds like something out of a horror movie but I’m assuming it’s about being one of the only remaining queer punks in SF? 

SHAWNA VIRAGO “Last Girl Chapter 1” is an homage to transwomen I knew when I first moved here. They were older than me by at least a decade, and all were tough as nails. It lists some of the long-gone bars we hung out in. “Chapter 1” in the title points to future songs centered on the same characters. 

“Eternity Street” is about queer punks from the ‘80s and how we’ve been erased from the broader narratives of West Coast punk. However, if you look at photos from Black Flag shows, all the young guys look like extras from a Bruce LaBruce film.

48 HILLS  Tell me about taking inspiration from Exene Cervenka.

SHAWNA VIRAGO I’m sure many young queers are feeling invisible in all kinds of community spaces. But “Eternity Street” is very much about the world of West Coast punk. The band X in many ways, set me off on the musical path I’m still on, combining punk, country, and lyric-focused songs. I’ve been a fangirl of Exene since I was 14 or 15.  She’s been a guiding light for me aesthetically forever. She was one of the first femmes to survive in the very patriarchal world of punk rock.   

48 HILLS The press release for the record states: “This album is not just a collection of songs; it’s an invitation to witness the world through the eyes of a trailblazer, a rebel poet, and a true pioneer.” What will people witness if they see the world through your eyes?

SHAWNA VIRAGO They’ll discover a collection of characters, mostly from the city’s pre-internet age. I’ve been performing as my authentic self since the early ‘90s and I’m shining a lens on the stories from that time, showing the vulnerabilities and the defiance we all channeled to live authentically.    

SHAWNA VIRAGO: BLOOD IN HER DREAMS RELEASE PARTY Thu/2. El Rio, SF. Tickets and more info here. Find out more about SFIAF here.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Joshua Rotter
Joshua Rotter
Joshua Rotter is a contributing writer for 48 Hills. He’s also written for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, SF Weekly, SF Examiner, SF Chronicle, and CNET.

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