Look, if any of my friends get a gig they’re excited about then I’m going to be excited too. But if that gig happens to be on a show I was already obsessed with then, well, the excitement cannot be contained and must turn into a formal interview.
I was so thrilled when Mal told me they were writing a song for the second — and final — season of the Netflix show Trinkets. And even more thrilled to watch the season and see how beautifully the song was used throughout. Mal’s “Passenger Seat” becomes a first attempt at a creative outlet for queer teen Elodie played by queer actress Brianna Hildebrand. It’s an opportunity to clarify who she writes music for, who she lives for.
I talked to Mal about writing the song, their own teen years, and their experiences with on-screen representation.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Slight spoilers for Trinkets season two.
Drew: Hi Mal.
Mal: Hi Drew!
Drew: This is fun because I’m actually staying in your and Gaby’s backhouse for a bit so this is an in-person interview.
Drew: I thought I wasn’t going to do another in-person interview for a long time. But here we are in your new house next to your little herb garden. What are you growing?
Mal: This is basil. This is mint. The mint is not doing very well. Different plants have different conditions where they prosper so it’s important to give them each an individual experience. And I’m failing.
Drew: They are all next to each other.
Mal: It’s a metaphor.
Mal: This is peppers. This is chives. This is an avocado pit that I just stuck in there.
Mal: It seems like it’s growing.
Drew: That’s cool.
Mal: And that’s rosemary. That’s cilantro. The cilantro is dying. I can’t seem to make the cilantro happy no matter what I do. But you know sometimes it’s like that.
Drew: (laughs) Sometimes it is.
Drew: So how did you first get involved with Trinkets?
Mal: This is actually an Autostraddle adjacent story. So perhaps you are aware of Carly Usdin and Robin Roemer. They directed a music video with Kip Reinsmith for my song “Reality TV” that came out in 2016. It’s a cool music video. It’s one shot and a lot of Autostraddle people are in it.
Drew: Oh I’ve seen that!
Mal: It was really fun. And Carly’s friend Kiwi Smith who is an incredible writer — she wrote 10 Things I Hate About You and Legally Blonde and a bunch of other things — she saw the video. And then she came to one of my shows and I guess just became a fan of my music. I was really stoked because Kiwi’s work always has such good soundtracks. I mean, 10 Things I Hate About You was the first time I heard Letters to Cleo and Joan Armatrading.
She emailed me and asked if I’d want to write a song for her TV show. And I obviously said yes.
Drew: Had you seen the first season?
Mal: No, I hadn’t heard of Trinkets before! But as soon as she emailed me I watched the first season because I really wanted the gig.
Drew: I feel like not that many people watched! But I loved it so much. I actually watched one episode a week last summer because — I don’t remember what was going on in my life — but it’s just a very warm-hearted show and it brought me a lot of joy so I was like really, really savoring it. But it felt like nobody was really watching it except for me and Valerie who reviewed both seasons here and then a couple people who listened when I was like YOU NEED TO WATCH THIS IT’S VERY GOOD.
Mal: It is really good! I don’t think Netflix promoted it like they could have.
Drew: I agree.
Mal: But I also think that perhaps we are not in the target demographic.
Drew: (laughs) No, absolutely.
Mal: It’s a really accurate portrayal of teenagers and I think probably a lot of teenagers watch it.
Drew: Probably, yes.
Drew: The 20, 30, and 40-somethings I’m around are like why are you watching this and I’m like umm I’m trans so I’m still sort of a teenager and I want to watch this show, sorry.
Mal: (laughs) I know they call it a second adolescence, but I think it might just be a forever adolescence…
Drew: Oh God.
Mal: No, no, I’m just kidding.
Drew: It’s both true and also not an excuse for behavior!
Mal: No, of course not, of course not.
Drew: (laughs) Okay so what was the experience writing the song?
Mal: Kiwi told me it was about this character’s mother who had passed, but it had to sound like it could be mistaken for a romantic song about a partner. And it had to be on ukulele because that’s what the character plays. Those were the parameters I was given. And also she and the music supervisor said it needed to be something the characters could duet and have a moment of romantic tension with so it had to be minimal but also swelling with their voices.
Even though they reached out to me personally, I was like I want to do this, I don’t want to lose this, so I jumped on it immediately. I watched a couple episodes to get into the character’s head but then I got sucked in and I watched the entire first season in two days. Then I sent them back— well, my manager was like you haven’t signed a contract, I wouldn’t send anything yet. But I really wanted the gig so I sent them three songs.
Mal: I was like do any of these work??
Drew: Had you ever written a song for a project like this?
Mal: No, I hadn’t. I mean, I’ve written character songs but only for myself. Like I wrote a bunch of Buffy songs just when I was like depressed in New York.
Mal: But I never released them. I really like it though! And I just signed a publishing deal with this independent music publishing company that’s really cool and queer. They’re called Terrorbird. And the idea is I’ll have the opportunity to write for other artists and projects in the future.
Drew: One of Elodie’s conflicts this season is she’s torn between going on the road and having this cool musician lifestyle or staying home and having a more traditional adolescence. When you were a teenager you were already playing music, right? Were you playing locally or did you travel at all?
Mal: When I was a teenager I was already playing music. You’ve done your homework, Drew!
Drew: Yeah, I did some Wikipedia searches, I listen when you tell stories, you know.
Mal: (laughs) I wasn’t touring when I was a teenager, but I was— honestly I had way too much moxie. I wish I had a little bit of it now. Like that youthful arrogance. We had local community centers where high school bands could play and that’s how I started. But then I started calling around to bars in New York City like “I’m 17 can I come play music here” and they were like “Fuck you, kid.” But there was this one dive bar that said yes. It was definitely a scam. They would book seven different bands and if you brought ten people you could keep your spot and if you didn’t you got cut. My friends and I would play there. But I wasn’t touring. I went on my first tour — and I use that word loosely — when I was 18.
Drew: So if you started touring at 18, when was the last time you were in one place this long? Because when was your last show pre-pandemic?
Mal: I can’t remember when the last show was… But yeah I canceled the tour right when this happened. Which is funny because at the time people told me I was overreacting.
Mal: In retrospect, it’s really wild to think about. We were supposed to do SXSW and Mission Creek and a bunch of festivals. But yeah it’s weird. I don’t think I’ve been in one place this long in about ten years.
Mal: And I… like it. (laughs)
Drew: That’s allowed!
Mal: It really makes you think like— I love music. I love touring. It’s one of the best jobs. But you’re absolutely giving things up by not being home all the time. Some of my friends are like I would play the shittiest punk show with smoking inside for no money just to play a show right now. But I’m okay, you know? Like I want to play shows again but if that’s in a year I’m fine with that.
Drew: I mean, you definitely don’t have a Sabine energy.
Mal: (laughs) Oh no.
Drew: I would not describe you that way.
Mal: It was funny watching their version of touring. It’s not that it’s unrealistic but personally the way that we tour it’s like you play the show, you load out, you have to get to the next place. We’re so busy, we don’t party — we don’t have time to party. Also if anybody that I was touring with brought a high schooler on tour I would leave that tour.
Drew: Thank you for saying that on the record.
Mal: I mean!
Drew: Well, I don’t think Sabine is supposed to be a role model.
Mal: No, no. And I think that’s good. Because in the last season it’s unclear where things are going with Luca and Sabine so I’m glad their storylines ended with it being clear they aren’t positive characters.
Drew: Yeah. I mean, I definitely understood the appeal of Sabine, but—
Mal: Oh I’m sure you did.
Drew: (laughs) Wowwwww.
Drew: But I’m—
Mal: You’re like make out with someone else in front of me and tell me I’m crazy.
Drew: (laughs) Oh God.
Mal: I mean, okay, I also understand the appeal of Sabine.
Drew: I was going to say. Knowing what I know about your past…
Mal: (laughs) Yeah I think I’ve dated that person.
Drew: I don’t think I’ve dated that person. I think I’ve tried to date that person. Maybe I got as close as Elodie did.
Mal: I thought that was very brave for Elodie to leave the tour.
Drew: Yeah good for her!
Drew: One of the reasons I love Trinkets is because of its queer representation. Obviously you have Elodie and Sabine and this season Elodie and Jillian. I really like that Elodie is out and it’s never been a thing but with Jillian it is a thing and just showing those different experiences. And then Quintessa Swindell who plays Tabitha and Kat Cunningham who plays Sabine are both non-binary and even if their characters are probably cis it’s still just nice to have them there. It just makes the show feel very queer.
Mal: I went to college with Kat. Did you know that?
Drew: Oh cool!
Mal: That was just a weird coincidence.
Drew: Did you talk about Trinkets when you were working on it?
Mal: They messaged me. We weren’t friends in college, but they dated one of my friends and we knew of each other. But yeah they messaged me when they were recording it and asked for notes, but I’m really bad at Instagram messages so I didn’t see it until after they already recorded it. But they did such a great job. Kat and Brianna really made it sound so beautiful.
Drew: And Brianna is queer in real life too! It’s so great.
Drew: So I wanted to ask when you were a teenager, what were you watching? Because you weren’t out as trans, but you were out as queer. Was there anything that made you feel seen or that you felt represented you?
Mal: Well, real quick, I just want to say I feel like that’s the difference between having a show with a queer sensibility with queer people involved versus just having a token queer character. We get to see these nuanced stories of queer narratives. If you just have a token queer character in a straight show there’s no diversity of experience. So I think it’s cool that they have this one character who’s like my queerness is not the issue in my family and this other character who is like it’s a huge issue.
Mal: But hmm what was I watching? I was one of those teenagers where everyone was just like you’re gay. And I was like okay I guess I’m gay. Well, actually my coming out story — my first one — is a reporter outed me to my parents.
Drew: Oh no.
Mal: Yeah it’s a whole thing. There was a reporter at my high school’s Gay Straight Alliance when I was in 10th grade. And she asked if anyone was gay and I said I was bisexual. My parents worked at my school and she was like it’s so cool that you have an openly gay kid and my dad was like what? We had to have a family meeting about it. So that’s how I came out to my parents… the first time. And then obviously I had to come out again as trans. Anyway what was I watching? I don’t remember watching anything that represented me. Like even The L Word, even Queer as Folk.
Drew: Wait. Even The L Word?
Drew: The amazing transmasculine representation of the original L Word?? You didn’t feel represented by that?
Mal: Well, in high school I didn’t know I was transmasculine or non-binary.
Drew: Sure. But it’s not like there were many masc characters period.
Mal: Right, yeah. And I was confused about it too because I didn’t feel like any of the characters, but I felt like I was supposed to?
Mal: In retrospect, I’m Angus.
[Gaby Dunn enters]
Gaby Dunn: Hello everyone!
Drew: Hi Gaby! We’re recording an interview.
Gaby: Oh sorry!
Drew: No, that’s okay. How’re you doing?
Gaby: I’m okay.
Mal: Those are cool sweatpants.
Gaby: Thank you. They’re Jewish.
Gaby: They are!
[Gaby turns to reveal “shalom” in Hebrew on the side]
Mal: Are they practicing or just cultural?
Gaby: They’re— Oo pizza!
Mal: Baby, can I have one too?
Mal: Do you want one, Drew?
Drew: No, I’m okay, thank you.
Gaby: Here you go.
Mal: Thank you. Are you eating it cold?
Gaby: Yeah! What? I love to eat pizza cold.
Drew: That’s the way to do it.
Gaby: Well, anyway I have to go do some stuff. Have fun!
[Gaby Dunn exits]
Mal: Anyway, I did not see myself represented on TV but I think the gay internet saved my life. I was on LiveJournal and in all these online communities and I felt emboldened by the gay internet to sort of do my thing despite not really having anything on-screen.
Drew: You did mention you wrote songs from the perspectives of Buffy characters.
Mal: Oh I loved Buffy! I didn’t really identify with any of the characters though. But when I was 10 I was allowed to stay up late on Tuesday nights to watch Buffy.
Drew: That’s cute.
Drew: Do you feel like you’ve seen anything since — like now — that you feel represented by?
Drew: The answer can be no. Also sorry we just breezed past you saying you’re Angus which I want to laugh at for a second.
Mal: I feel like I’m an Angus mixed with Billie.
Drew: Billie is one of my favorite characters. Angus, well, I’m a bit of an Angus apologist. But only when they’re writing him well. They randomly have these episodes where he’s a monster. It doesn’t make any sense. But his normal character is a good dude.
Mal: Yeah. And I mean I did teach toddler music classes at one point.
Drew: Oh wow.
Mal: And I do love older women.
Drew: Well, there you go.
Mal: And then the gayness of Billie.
Drew: Yeah, for sure.
Mal: I always say I’m an Angus sun and a Billie rising. And maybe a Jenny moon. I love Jenny. I’m a Jenny apologist.
Drew: I’m also a Jenny moon.
Mal: I love Jenny— Wait what were we talking about?
Drew: If there’s been any on-screen representation you’ve related to as an adult.
Mal: Oh! Hmm. I think what I do now is just project trans narratives onto things that aren’t trans. Like Bruce Springsteen.
Drew: Bruce Springsteen isn’t trans?
Mal: Not that I know of.
Drew: This is news to me.
Mal: Well, he writes a lot of trans anthems.
Drew: He really does.
Mal: Also Moana.
Drew: Oh my God. YES. Everyone talked a lot about how Elsa in Frozen is gay and it’s like yeah but Moana is trans, can we talk about that please?
Mal: I wish I could be the perfect daughter, but I come back to the water.
Mal: No matter how hard I try… Yeah so I just project trans narratives onto things when they aren’t intended. But I haven’t really seen a parallel to my identity on-screen even though there are more trans actors on television than ever before.
Drew: It’s like what we were saying about Trinkets having a queer sensibility. A lot of the transmasculine actors who have been on TV recently are on shows that are queer but are created by cis women. They might bring on one transmasculine writer but it’s still very much about cis people and then oh we get to throw in a transmasculine character. So it makes sense that even if some of those storylines are really good and even if a lot of those actors are incredibly talented there still hasn’t been a transmasculine character that you feel represents you.
Mal: Yeah totally. I think for me a lot of these labels are sort of umbrella terms or I’m rounding up to the most explainable identity. But there’s just so much variety in terms of transmasculinity. What does that mean to you? How do you identify? How do you move through the world? Like the new L Word has a queer transmasculine character, but it still doesn’t feel like my experience. I’m pansexual, bisexual, and sleep with men, and I’m transmasculine, but the way it was shown was not akin to my experience doing that. We just need more of these characters so we can explore all these different things. Also if you have a token character there’s a respectability thing where they have to be perfect. But if we have a bunch that gives us the freedom to have flawed trans characters. Everything isn’t resting on one person’s shoulders.
Drew: I also think that scarcity can make us very harsh as a community. I write about trans representation a lot and it’s something I’ve had to learn to check in myself. I think about this in the context of Euphoria which I had criticisms about last summer — and I think a lot of those criticisms are valid — but I’ve backtracked on some due to the limits of my experience. I think some of my critiques were because I’m a queer trans woman who does not have sex with cis men. I still don’t think it was handled with the most nuance and I really hope future seasons actually have trans writers. But some of the things where I felt like a trans person would never do something, it was actually just that I would never do that, or maybe the trans people I know wouldn’t do that, or even just the trans people I knew at the time. But maybe if that character wasn’t the only queer trans woman on TV last year I wouldn’t have had such a strong reaction!
Mal: Because so much rests on representation, we split things into right and wrong but it’s a very flattened version of the trans experience. We all have our own lenses.
I remember when I was in college the only transmasculine narrative I ever saw was very binary, very heterosexual, very “born in the wrong body” rhetoric, and none of that felt like me. It’s funny because I feel like it’s shifted where even talking to you — you’re a little bit younger than me — our experiences with media are so different. You’ve said they always write transmasculine characters as gay. But when I was first discovering my transness I thought to be a transmasculine person you have to only sleep with women.
Drew: Well, it’s also the difference between what’s occurring on narrative queer shows versus other representation. I think cis queer women are really fascinated by the idea of transmasculine people having sex with cis men — I don’t know what that’s about. But also that’s based on like three things, right? It’s both L Words and Tales of the City. Oh and Shameless. But that’s not actually enough examples to be making sweeping generalizations.
And that’s also just narrative TV shows. I think Disclosure does a good job showing how talk shows are a whole other type of representation. I know that was the first trans representation I saw and where I internalized that trans people have to be heterosexual. It’s why I think it’s so meaningful for a show like Trinkets to have actors who are queer, to have actors who are trans. Even if the characters are cis — and who knows what will happen to Tabitha in five years — but even if they’re cis you have these actors doing interviews and as a kid you can watch the show and look up these actors and realize there are real people, cool people, successful people, with a wide variety of narratives and identities. That’s just as important as what’s happening on screen.
Mal: It’s so important because let’s say you’re growing up in a home where every day you wake up and it’s reinforced that you’re not supposed to be queer, you’re not supposed to be queer. You go to school and it’s reinforced you’re not supposed to be queer, you’re not supposed to be queer. Everything on television that’s not a queer show is telling you you’re not supposed to be queer. I think it’s really easy to think that you’re the wrong one. But if you have even one outlet whether it’s the gay internet or a show like Trinkets it just makes it easier to be like maybe I’m not the one that’s wrong. Maybe everyone around me is wrong.
Drew: I have so much respect for Quintessa that they did an interview where they talked about being non-binary when the first season came out. This was their first acting role and that was absolutely a career risk. But to own that identity publicly is so important.
Mal: It’s badass.
Drew: Before I knew that I was trans and I was trying to be a man and studying and trying to figure out what kind of man I could be I really latched onto movies and TV shows that were created by women.
Mal: (laughs) Yes, this is what cis people do. I need to study.
Drew: I needed to figure out what this whole thing is! I grew up loving movies and the film canon is not just created by men but is also hypermasculine in these very toxic ways. The way that men are portrayed is honestly very negative but the assumption is we identify with them simply because they’re men. But in work made by women I found this other version of masculinity where men had emotions and were tender. They were still masculine and played by cis men but I felt like oh I could maybe be that kind of man.
I bring this up because I really love the character Noah on Trinkets.
Mal: Ah, Noah!
Drew: And I also really liked Moe’s brother Ben introduced this season. Obviously Trinkets portrays domestic violence and has male characters who are abusive or who are toxic in other ways. But then there are these other male characters who are really lovely. So I wanted to ask, how do you feel film and TV impacted your relationship to masculinity?
Mal: I’m fascinated by this compulsory toxic masculinity that is sold to us all. When I was consuming media as a teenager I wasn’t really thinking about it in these terms but I think we all absorb toxic ideas of masculinity. As an adult I’ve reckoned with it and when I see those traits that used to make me so angry — and still do sometimes — I try to understand it and have empathy. The patriarchy hurts men too — not as much as it hurts women and non-binary people — but I think it’s probably really isolating when men are told the only emotion they’re allowed to feel is anger. And obviously the people who bear the brunt of that have it way worse but I feel like we need to untangle toxic masculinity for everyone.
Drew: Well, I’m not even asking necessarily about masculinity that’s toxic. I mean, you brought up Bruce Springsteen.
Mal: That’s true.
Drew: Because there’s still so little transmasculine representation, when you consume media are you largely projecting trans narratives onto cis men? What’s that experience like for you?
Mal: I think of it more as the work. Like I don’t think Bruce Springsteen himself is trans.
Drew: No, obviously.
Mal: But his songs of yearning and going against the grain and setting out on your own path are really easy to see trans narratives in. But, yes, I am drawn to the soft masculinity of a Bruce Springsteen or a Sandy Cohen.
Drew: (laughs) Really glad we got this to The OC.
Mal: But sometimes it tricks you! Because in high school I thought Seth Cohen was really cool. And then rewatching it it’s like wow sure his masculinity is soft but he’s pretty manipulative and not a good guy.
Drew: Even on Trinkets, because Chase is nerdy the traditional narrative would frame him as sweet. But, no, he kisses this girl right after her boyfriend breaks up with her. She’s devastated and he takes that as an opportunity to kiss her. Which is what we’re taught, right? It’s in our narratives. And it’s why I think it’s very important to have a character like Noah.
Mal: Yes. Even though Noah is the jock and more traditionally masculine, he’s kinder and gentler and more mature. It’s interesting even within a sort of soft masculinity there are variations. But I do love Noah. I love that he’s portrayed as the person who’s in touch with his boundaries and his emotions and even when he gets upset he knows when to just take a minute to reflect. I love that actor, Odiseas Georgiadis. I feel like he’s going to go places.
Mal: You could also make the argument that Elodie’s dad has a soft masculinity but in a way that is way less appealing to me. (laughs)
Drew: He’s trying.
Mal: I actually think that whole cast is incredible.
Drew: They’re great.
Mal: I really wanted Moe to be queer.
Drew: She wears suspenders in that one episode.
Mal: Soft masculinity there as well!
Both seasons of Trinkets are now available on Netflix.