Photo by Tim Tronckoe
Once Mina Caputo gets going, she admits, it’s hard for her to stop.
“There are no simple answers,” Caputo tells us over the phone, her thick Brooklyn accent softening to a whisper for a moment.
Caputo is apologizing for digressing from a question, but her apology could also function as a maxim for the 44-year-old musician’s personal journey.
Caputo is best known for fronting Life of Agony, a heavy metal band she started with bassist Alan Robert and guitarist Joey Z in the summer of 1989. The group distinguished itself from its contemporaries by combining aggro, distorted guitar rock with Caputo’s vulnerable lyricism, which clashed with the hyper-masculine frontmen of the era.
And while the band developed a cult following and garnered modest chart success, Caputo struggled with substance abuse and feelings of gender dysphoria. She quit Life of Agony in 1997, pursuing a solo career and making a demo with the short-lived pop group Absolute Bloom. Following the release of a Life of Agony comeback album in 2005, Caputo's difficulties worsened, ultimately prompting her to seek medical care and begin gender-affirming treatment. Caputo came out as transgender to friends and certain family members in 2009 before coming out publicly in 2011. In 2014, she played her first official gig with Life of Agony as Mina.
As she finishes her seventh solo studio album, and prepares to record another record with Life of Agony, Caputo chatted with AdHoc about her tough upbringing, her songwriting process (or lack thereof), and why she doesn’t want to waste time convincing you to like her.
AdHoc: How do you think your upbringing influenced your art?
Mina Caputo: My childhood was a mess. I never really had a chance to be a child. I had a very destructive family. I think it prepared me for life’s punches and curveballs and tragedies, and inspired me to believe in things like the art of letting go and surrendering. You know, I’m not planning to go to my grave looking like Beyoncé, all fresh and new and gorgeous and beautiful.
This earthly time and life is about wearing and tearing, and getting into it and getting into the muck and getting dirty. Everyone’s fixing their life, fixing up a pretty picture to get in their grave, you know what I mean? The cars, the picket fences, the dogs, the kids, every gadget, every phone—every fuckin’ this and that. Everyone’s putting that much more energy into the fakeness of life. And I think my childhood, or childless childhood, prepared me to really come at life swinging and protect myself.
The tragedies—this whole life, which feels like a completely different life altogether—have definitely prepared me to be strong. To focus on the good, to believe in joy, believe in humanity, believe in myself, believe in my negativity, believe in contrast, believe in all the dualities of life. I literally just adhere to my own energy, vibration, and frequencies. I have to. The conversation with what’s going on in the world today—you get quickly derailed from your own human nature. I try my best to stay away from that whole kind of life.
How did music enter into your life?
I grew up with Zeppelin on the speakers: Bowie, Queen. I lived with my father’s brother, because my father was a junkie and couldn’t take care of me. I’m sure you’ve done research on my story, but I wound up with my grandparents and my father’s brother, who had an insane rock & roll vinyl collection.
The first LP I ever picked up and became mesmerized [by] was Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here. And from that moment on, I gave up all my toys; music [was a] euphoric, kind of orgasmic experience for me.
It was extremely orgasmic because I didn’t understand sound, I didn’t understand vibration, I didn’t understand lyrics. I didn’t understand how people made these sounds, and I was just completely baffled by how these sounds got into the speakers: Robert Plant’s voice and John Coltrane’s saxophone and Prince’s ROYGBIV of goodness—I grew up with all that. Even the greats: Billie Holiday and Edith Piaf were [some of] the biggest of influences for me.
I’m still learning how to understand in-depth the vibration of sound and what it does to me, to others, to the world, to my dog [laughs]. You know? It’s infinite.
Do you have a particular process that you’ve honed as a songwriter, or is it more all over the place?
It’s all over the place. Throughout the years, with all the songwriting that I’ve done, you create habits. I’ve then learned how to break those habits and keep on breaking them and never fall into the same habit again.
I don’t sit down and have this institutionalized way of doing things. it’s chaotic, but it’s organized in my own chaotic way.
I could start [with] a vocal. It could be a melody. I’m walking down the street to go grab dog food or the mail or whatever and I’m singing something. I don’t know why I’ve been singing this melody for days, but I’ve got to put a world and mind to it.
Whenever I’m engaging in the art of songwriting, I like to surprise myself. If I find myself falling into habits, I take a break. I don’t want to fall into my own pattern of stuff. I lose interest real fast.
When can you first remember having feelings of gender dysphoria?
When I was very young—probably in my kindergarten or first grade, when I was exposed to many other kids and I realized that everything feminine pretty much rocked my world. Feminine colors or whatever that means.
As far back as I can remember, I always felt uncomfortable inside my body. The older I get, the more sense it made to me. I wanted to be a girl, I wanted to dress like a girl, I wanted to live my life as a girl. I wanted to do the things Grandma did and my aunt and my step-sister did. I didn’t identify with anything male, or anything that’s supposed to be male in our binary, Western world.
The feminine is all. I stopped asking why I’m like this. I’m happy I’m like this; I love that I’m like this.
And it’s no mystery. If people did their research, had any sense of compassion and understanding and wisdom about themselves and the world around them, they’d realize that plants change gender all the time, fish species change gender all the time, insects, butterflies. So why the fuck can’t humans do it?
I’ll tell you why: it goes against all the bullshit institutions that have been set into place for our enslaved, consumerist ideologies that are failing and failing and failing. I don’t know, man. I want to move on because I get angry.
Yeah, we can move on.
I don’t give simple answers. There are no simple answers. It’s a real conversation to me.
With increased visibility for the transgender community, do you feel any pressure to be a role model?
I don’t put that invisible pressure on myself. I think the fact that I am who I am, I’ve done what I’ve done, I’m doing what I’m doing—my being alone is [a form of advocacy] in itself. Props to all the girls and boys and who dedicate their lives to [advocating] for trans men and trans women. I do do that, but I do it on a more-personal level.
I’m not going to try to convince you to love me. I’m not feeling [so] weak or insecure or inadequate that I have to try to convince you that I’m soulfully experiencing the feminine [like] as real as any other genetic woman. I’m a woman born without the physical parts, the uterus and whatnot, to actually give birth to another human form.
But [physicality] — that’s not all that exists in this planet. In fact, we’re less and less of the physical. We’re more vibration, we’re more energy, and we’re more frequency. The physical is an illusion, a complete fuckin’ illusion.
The people that think I’m crazy for thinking this way are the people who haven’t looked at themselves long enough in the mirror to experience their own soul. They’re swimming in their own fear-based ways of thinking and experiencing love. Love is unconditional. We are vibrational beings. We are beings based on frequency.
There’s not just one or two types of human beings on the planet. There are hundreds of thousands of plant species. There are hundreds of thousands of fish. Who says there aren’t hundreds of thousands of different kinds of human beings just waiting to expand? Obviously, that’s what’s going on: People are expanding.
[If] you want to use those umbrella terms that they call us—“transgender” or “transsexual”— great. But I’m a human fuckin’ being. I’m no different than your genetic male or your genetic female. I’ve got a little bit of both; I’ve got a little bit of neither. What the fuck’s the racket about, man?
The racket is about religion. It goes against the institutionalized religious codes, it goes against educational codes, it goes against governmental codes, it goes against political codes. They’ve been trying to kill us since the Spanish Inquisition.
It’s this one big hypocritical fuckin’ mess—and that’s why I’m not into policing people. If Oprah wants me on her show, or Ellen DeGeneres, I’m happy to be there. But I’m too raw for that crowd. I’m too real, too hyperdimensional. To me, life is this beautiful, mysterious thing. I’m still trying to figure me out. I can’t live for everyone else.
Bringing things a little bit back around, you talked about how you’re working on a bunch of different projects right now. What are you currently working on?
I have a side project called the Neptune Darlings, and we just released a new record [on] January 18. I’m also finishing up a new solo record, which is probably my ninth or tenth album already. I’ve lost count. Humorously, I’m calling it “The Mones.” It’s short for “hormones.” It’s like Radiohead’s “The Bends”— that’s kind of where the idea came from.
I’ve been on hormone therapy since 2009, and it’s been quite the journey emotionally, physically. So I wrote a whole bunch of songs on the chaos of it all—the medical aspects of it, the emotional, the psychological, the universal.
Life of Agony are also doing a bunch of shows. We released a record in April last year, and that cycle is pretty much done. The record cycles finish really, really fast these days because people have [shorter and shorter] attention spans every year that goes by. Our business has been affected greatly, so we’ll be going in to do a new record as well. So there’s a lot on my plate. I’m all over the fuckin’ place, man.