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Finding Yourself in the Music

How music has helped local members of the LGBTQIA+ community

By Sara Flanders

This is the first installment of the Finding Yourself in the Music series.

Music helped Jude Benedict-Ess through their transition into their non-binary gender identity and gave them a way to communicate with those around them.

Adam Hawley found inspiration from a famous musician to find his true self and has used music to express how he felt about himself and his journey to becoming trans-masculine.

Both Benedict-Ess and Hawley fall under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella and have used music as a creative outlet to put their feelings into words, express their true selves and connect with others in the community.

According to data collected by Nielsen Music in 2016, those in the LGBTQIA+ community spend nearly 50% more money on music in a given year and are 40% more likely to find importance in attending live shows of their favorite performers.

The Nielsen Music survey also found that connecting deeply to music and performers was an important aspect. Those in the LGBTQIA+ community are also 33% more likely to say music helps them identify themselves.

“We live in a hard world,” Benedict-Ess said. “[If the audience] finds some peace, that touches my heart enough and that’s a big reason why I do what I do.”

“TRANS, QUEER, AND NOT QUIET”

Jude Benedict-Ess. Photo By Allison Wolfe.

Benedict-Ess knew at a young age that their interests in clothing and activities didn’t match the female gender they were assigned at birth.

As they got older and gained a better understanding of the complexities of gender identity, they felt like they didn’t fall perfectly into the male gender identity either. Now, at 28, they can confidently say they are non-binary, with aspects of their personality being a mix of both male and female gender identities and use they/them pronouns.

“Although I am trans-masculine,” Benedict-Ess said. “[I feel] I’m in the middle and also beyond.”

But coming to this conclusion wasn’t easy. As they were discovering their identity, a strained relationship with their parents led to disownment. Benedict-Ess relied on the support of their girlfriend at the time, who supported their transition into a new gender identity. Looking back, they say a lot of good came out of what was otherwise a toxic and abusive relationship because she was the first person to support the transition.

“Support really opened the door for me,” Benedict-Ess said. “It just took one person to say it was okay.”

But growing up, Benedict-Ess was alone in dealing with these gender feelings and needed a way to express themselves. They found that through listening and singing along to music with their parents. They were constantly surrounded with world music, the blues and soft rock legends Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel.

“[Music] was a type of communication that just made sense to me,” Benedict-Ess said. “It’s always just filled me with a sort of joy that bubbles on up when even just talking about it.”

Benedict-Ess knew they wanted to pursue music as a singer/songwriter, but also wanted to educate others, so they enrolled at Indiana University of Pennsylvania for music education in 2009. But, in 2012 they had to take a medical leave after falling into a diabetic coma. They decided they couldn’t continue on with school and instead moved to Pittsburgh to pursue music with a minor in piano and a lot of vocal training. By then, they started their transition and began taking testosterone, which caused their voice to change.

“It took about a year to settle where my new voice was going to be,” Benedict-Ess said. “The range became smaller, moved down, and then now I’m moving it back up.”

In 2013, Benedict-Ess started their first band, Jude Benedict and the Last Drop, a nine-piece band. Although they had some success in the area, the band broke up in 2015. After that, Benedict-Ess took some time to think about where they wanted their music to go, and finally in early 2018, teamed up with Adam Hawley, who was also assigned female at birth and is now a transgender man.

Hawley, 28, used to ignore the negative feelings he had about his body. But while reading a Rolling Stone article about Against Me’s lead singer Laura Jane Grace’s transition, he realized how similar their stories were. Hawley came to terms with how he felt and started dressing more masculine and playing around with different pronouns. In 2016, he began taking hormones.


Adam Hawley. Photo By Allison Wolfe.

“Luckily, my transition socially, publicly and personally have all gone very well,” Hawley said of his friends, co-workers and some family members. “I’m currently very happy with my life and in my skin.”

At 10, Hawley started going to church with his grandmother. There, he found inspiration from the guitarist. Over the years, Hawley listened to him play and expressed interest in learning himself, and was then gifted a guitar when he was 13. He taught himself by watching YouTube videos of his favorite bands, like Green Day.

In 2018, Benedict-Ess and Hawley started learning each other’s songs and playing new instruments, and ultimately decided on playing together, but each fronting their own band.

The partnership led to the creation of Good Employee Studio and the bands Bothersome and switch, please. The name “switch, please” was supposed to represent how the band members are constantly switching instruments, but it’s also a play on the term “bitch, please.”

“I vowed to make this year as busy as possible; push my boundaries, try different mediums, different outlets,” Hawley said.

Benedict-Ess says their music is hard to conform to one genre because each song has a unique sound, but their songs fit into pop-punk, classical and contemporary rock, folk-punk, and queer-alternative categories.

“We always say that we are trans, queer, and not quiet,” Benedict- Ess said.

Benedict-Ess feels the music scene in Pittsburgh is widespread and thriving, and that there are a lot of people doing cool things around the city. They feel Pittsburgh is queer-inclusive and does a lot to support not only gender identity but also different forms of art.

Some of their favorite places to play around the city include Full-Pint Brewery, Roboto, Mr. Smalls Funhouse and Hambones, as well as various house shows. While at shows, they like to meet new people and talk with the audience and other bands, but whenever they are the front man they also have to worry about the business end of things.

“I need to make sure everybody has what they need,” Benedict-Ess said. “I get all dad about it and I’m like ‘Does everybody have a beer? Is everybody okay? Anyone need anything? Don’t touch the thermostat!’”

When writing, Benedict-Ess says they want to reach out to people in the queer community with their music, but also wants to connect with anyone who relates. They say that performing is all about what you give the audience while on stage, and they want to be able to rip their heart out and leave everything on the stage for anyone who needs to hear it.

Benedict-Ess wrote a song called ‘Namaste’ which was a written letter to their parents after they were disowned. It was a way for them to say they were who they were and their parents didn’t have to accept it. One line, in particular, gained a lot of popularity and is the one that people bring up most. The last line of the song reads, “If you leave me, if you love me, I remain the same. Namaste.” They are currently working on recording an album for switch, please with a lot of instrumentation and a choir, and are excited to see how people connect with it.

Hawley says writing helps to get ideas and lyrics out of his head. Whenever his head is filled with noise, he writes his way out of it, similar to listening to a song when it is stuck in your head. He says he tries to connect with others who have had similar experiences through his music and wants people to know that it is okay to feel directionless and angry at times.

One of his top-streamed songs, “Purpose” is about healing, loving yourself and understanding no one else can fix you.


Adam Hawley (left) and Jude Benedict-Ess (right).
Photo Courtesy of Jude Benedict-Ess.

“I often write about true stories,” Hawley said. “I hope people can feel comfort in knowing they aren’t alone.”  

Looking forward, Benedict-Ess is hoping to start touring regularly and collaborating with other musicians. They are also looking to bring a charitable aspect to their studio to empower queer youth who need support and individuals who have something to say but may not have the chance to say it.

Their advice for anyone who wants to pursue music is to never stop listening to music and while you aren’t practicing, someone else is, so find a way that makes practicing easy and fun.

“Music is a lifelong endeavor,” Benedict-Ess said. “As creators, the number one rule is: If it’s not fun, don’t do it.”

When looking at his own experiences and those of the people in his inner circle, Hawley says music is an important part of the LGBTQIA+ community. He explains that music gives people a sense of comradery.

“Music and music made by LGBTQ people helps others realize they aren’t alone,” Hawley said. “They have a community of people that feel like them.”

Benedict-Ess agrees that music can help those in the community feel like they can be their true selves and have a support system behind them.

“I think of music as a way for myself and different people to express themselves freely,” Benedict-Ess said. “I needed a way to express myself and I found it.”

Benedict-Ess’ music can be found at switchplease.bandcamp.com/releases and soundcloud.com/jude-benedict-music.  And Hawley’s music can be found at bothersome.bandcamp.com/releases. Read Part 2 of the Finding Yourself in the Music series here.

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