By Dani Blum
There’s a neon knot of hair flopped over a guitar on the Rough Trade NYC stage. Like a follow-along dot in a children’s musical TV show, it shakes to the sounds of shredding. In three hours, the room will be packed with teenagers in muscle tees and slim men with single earrings, but right now, it’s just Brooklyn-based pop songwriter Sir Babygirl, her glowing green hair, and the guy running soundcheck. This is the ninth stop on her tour supporting the band Petal, a run which includes a missed flight in Pittsburgh where she was hospitalized for food poisoning. Though Sir Babygirl has only released four tracks of frenetic, bubblegum pop, she has amassed what she calls “an extremely sticky, tiny, cult-like following” — like the teenagers who came from Syracuse, New York, to see her in Philadelphia, or the fans who linger at her shows and cry when they see her. Her debut album, Crush On Me, comes out this week on indie label Father/Daughter. She sells CDs of it at her shows to fans who don’t even own CD players.
“I don’t want to hurt people’s ears,” she shouts to the sound guy when the amp screeches. “But, like, I want to be heard.”
Sir Babygirl, born Kelsie Hogue, has an evil plan. It starts with memes: Her Instagram is a mood board of early 2000s nostalgia and bisexuality – a grinning Yzma from The Emperor’s New Groove joking about period blood, Reese Witherspoon from Legally Blonde reading a textbook labeled “Flirting W/ Girls: 101.” “I was like, I’m going to get a following that way, and then it will cross over to my music,” she says. “I’m very calculated.”
Her sound attracted the attention of Chloë Grace Moretz, who tweeted a link to Sir Babygirl’s debut single, “Heels,” in October. Her streaming numbers have stayed steady and modest since the song came out in August; right now, it has 117,000 listens on Spotify. The song is technically perfect: a pulsing pop song with lyrics about leaving a lover and coming home. The track builds into a clear, high shout: “You don’t know me anymore / I changed my hair, I changed my hair, I changed my hair.”
In the light, Sir Babygirl’s hair has shoots of pink peeking out beneath the green. We’re in the front area of Rough Trade, which doubles as Williamsburg’s staple records store, next to rows of vinyl and a DIY synth kit labeled, “TECHNOLOGY WILL SAVE US.” Her lip ring glints under string lights. Sir Babygirl is a character, she’s explaining, an absurdist version of a self. Behind the music is Hogue herself, a 26-year-old bisexual who identifies as non-binary. These identities are centered in her songs, but they’re not the only appeal.
“I’m not a better artist because I’m queer, and it’s not worthwhile music because it’s queer,” she says. “It’s worthwhile because it’s fucking good music.”
As a project, Sir Babygirl has existed for a few years. Hogue thought of the name because she’s “obsessed with the extremes,” she says. “So what’s the most absurd, colonial male term? Sir. And then babygirl, the most infantilized.”
She was torn between singing and comedy. She studied theater at Boston University, where she was “the fucking weirdo, the ostracized gay” and then moved to Chicago to try stand-up. In one set, she dumped LaCroix on herself and shrieked; she called that bit “My Morning Routine.” She paid rent by hosting at a spy–themed restaurant, asking tourists for the password in a thick European accent. The room where she sat and waited for them wasn’t heated in the winter; she complained to her boss that it was a workers’ rights violations. She was asked to leave the restaurant. Soon after, she left Chicago, moved back into her childhood bedroom in New Hampshire, and forced herself to write an album within the year.
“People think ‘Heels’ is about heartbreak,” she says. “No. I wrote it because I got fired from my fucking spy-themed restaurant job.”
When Sir Babygirl talks about her production style, she talks about songs that “sound like ballerinas fucking.” When she talks about bi visibility, she clears her throat and throws her voice a pitch lower – “I want to be one of many bi artists, not like, hem hem, hello, I’m THE bi.” And when she talks about her burgeoning success, she knows this isn’t supposed to happen – to have a cross-country tour before you put you first album out, to find the perfect production partner by posting a call for non-cis engineers on Facebook. Her A&R rep at Father/Daughter discovered her after one of his coworkers at a smaller label in Florida played “Heels” out loud in her office, curious after following Sir Babygirl’s memes.
“Nothing I’ve gotten has been off a daddy connection,” she says. “It’s been people just literally fucking with my music.”
Tonight her eyes are coated in orange eyeshadow she’s put on herself; she learned the basics of makeup from a friend who’s a legally blind makeup artist, then watched YouTube tutorials while depressed and burrowed in her apartment in Chicago. “I don’t have a pop-star budget. If I want pop-star hair or pop-star makeup, I have to do it myself,” she says. She dyes her hair every few months, but has to keep the green and pink for a while – they’re her album release campaign colors, ones she picked herself. “That’s how obsessive I am,” she says. “Nobody asked me to do that.”
Ten minutes before Sir Babygirl’s set to go on stage, she sneaks into the audience. The other band she’s touring with, Cave People, is playing something sleek and crooning on stage, and she leans near a row of backpacks against the wall, trying to go unnoticed. It’s not working. “It’s her,” a cluster of backpacks and hairspray whispers behind me. They shove forward when she comes on stage.
Sir Babygirl twitches when she sings. She wants the vibrations in her songs to hit your body a certain way, and they do, synths burbling up from the floor and into your pulse, shoulders swishing automatically. “I really want to make it a 3-D experience,” she says. Crush on Me is her love letter to Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” – crying-in-the-club music. “I wanted it to be catharsis, as opposed to inundation of trauma,” she says. “There’s motion. I want there to consistently be a driving force through it. Like there’s all this trauma, and we’re moving through it, and we acknowledge it. But we’re going to keep moving.” For all its sparkling synths and buzzy beats, Sir Babygirl’s music is flecked with pain. Screams and shrieks stab through songs. There are two reprises in the tight, nine-track album, and they both build to a hyperactive breaking point and then end abruptly. The effect is pristine chaos.
“It’s like this positive nihilism where it’s like we all understand we’re in an apocalypse,” she said. “The world’s ending. We know what’s going on. But we also deserve to escape. That’s part of the healing process.”
The last song of her set is “Heels,” and it’s the one the crowd’s been waiting for. “You can come up here,” she says to them, “really,” and there’s a pause while everyone waits to see if she’s serious. She is. Someone rustles past me, and then another, scooting themselves onto the stage while Sir Babygirl strips off a floor-length dress to reveal a millennial pink harness. She slaps her own ass. The stage clogs with twisting arms, heads jumping; a girl grabs Hogue’s hand, and they twirl. They leap so hard their eyes disappear. All I can see is hair.