The two Midwestern artists meet to discuss haters, lovers, and the makings of their career-altering albums
“They are out there, just waiting for my downfall.” Shea Couleé laughs at the thought of desperate internet dwellers with Google Alerts set to her name, reeling at the announcement of her upcoming album.
It’s unsurprising that Couleé is unfazed by baseless attempts to disparage her work. She’s been a fixture of the drag scene for almost a decade, and continues to push herself creatively without heeding to established norms. Such steps have seen the Indiana-born performer pursue drag (despite a conservative upbringing), publicly come out as non-binary (Couleé uses she/her pronouns while in drag), launch a podcast in the hyper-saturated audio market (it premiered at number one on Apple Podcasts), get cast in Marvel’s Ironheart (there aren’t many drag queens in the MCU…yet), and now, she’s recording an album of her own.
“This could be the hugest fucking thing.” Brittney Parks, better-known as Sudan Archives, is in awe of the idea of Couleé merging original music with her drag. The Midwest natives met over Zoom for Document, each coming off of the achievement of a career-altering album—Couleé’s a debut, and Parks’s a stark departure from her past releases. The two chatted in mutual admiration, reflecting on the development of their onstage personas, the pros and cons of writing at home versus in the studio (one is better for nudity), and letting your music babies develop lives of their own.
Megan Hullander: Are there ways in which your onstage personas feel more like the ‘real you’ than the ‘everyday you’ does?
Shea Couleé: It’s all intertwined. We consume music in so many ways other than just listening to it. As storytellers, we have to go through and ask, What type of story am I really trying to tell here? And visuals are such an important part [of that].
Brittney Parks: I feel you. When I’m making music, I see the story in my head. And on stage, you want to tell that story. It’s fun, because it’s my way to just dress all the way up. I don’t look like that in real life.
Megan: As time passes, do you and that persona become harder to differentiate?
Brittney: I usually go by Sudan, because that was my nickname before it was my artist name. I told my mom, ‘Give me a different name.’ And she was like, ‘Okay, what about Sudan?’ I feel like dressing up helps me separate [into the other persona]. I’ve always been the shy girl in class, trying to learn some instrument. When you think about it, that’s just who I am. I guess more people are just hearing about it.
Shea: For me, doing drag—and being able to bring out all these other elements of being on stage—is really the moment where I get to just let it all out. And then, in my day-to-day, I feel like I need more stillness. There’s a sense to me that’s just a little bit more introspective—as a viewer, a voyeur. I’m constantly taking in more inspiration and research so it’s like, when I’m not on this stage, I do keep it really low key.
Brittney: I just clean up the house every day, doing nothing.
Megan: Are your creative processes fairly isolated?
Brittney: I realized that I don’t like going into studios. I can send you some stuff, but I’m staying down here, naked, smoking blunts. I’m usually journaling, and then [later], I go in my journal and I’m like, That’s a song.
Shea: I don’t know if isolation works for me. I’m easily distracted. Sometimes I have to throw myself into the studio, because here’s a given space and a given time, so you have to do it now. But a lot of times, there’ll be little things that come up when I’m least expecting it. I’ll be getting into an Uber or something, and I’ll hear something and just put it in my little Voice Notes.
Megan: What keeps you both going creatively?
Brittney: I just need my little lover. I’m a romantic.
Shea: I guess what keeps me going is the boost of serotonin that I get from creating something. The way that I feel when I surprise myself, or when I’m like, Oh my God, you did that. Because I still doubt myself all the time. I have moments when I show up for myself and see that I carried it through. That makes me feel like, There is a purpose to you doing this.
Megan: Do you feel like your fans interpret your music in ways that are different from what you intended or expected?
Brittney: People are doing that just [based] off of the way that you carry yourself. If you wear your hair a certain way, people want to be like, What is the political reason for this? Look, this is just a hairstyle for right now, I don’t have a motive or anything. I used to wear my hair in an afro a lot. I remember people wanted to ask me a lot more political questions, and I’m not really like looking at it like that.
Shea: I’m always really pleased when I am trying to project a certain feeling, emotion, memory, or situation, and people understand it down to the detail—even though the lyrics may have been abstract.
Brittney: It’s cool when people break down your lyrics or the song in their own way. Sometimes it’s totally a new perspective, but then it just makes so much sense.
Megan: How are you feeling about putting these albums out as live music is coming back?
Brittney: Before my last album, I never really wanted to sing. It was just, like, nobody wanted to sing over my beats and stuff. So I was like, I was like, Alright, I’m gonna just sing over it. And then it turned into this thing. I had to become a bedroom producer, and then, overnight, a performer. That was too much for me. I had to learn how to overcome stage fright and all that stuff. But now, all that is overcome. I’m just excited to perform the lyrics and see how it’s gonna resonate with people. The violin has always been an extension of me; I just hope that it wasn’t a crutch at times, and I wasn’t hiding behind anything.
Shea: I’m just excited to put out my first album.
Brittney: That’s such a big thing.
Shea: It’s my little baby and I have seen myself grow so much in the process of writing it—getting over a whole bunch of fears and insecurities about making music. I’m just really excited to put it out there, and for people to experience all of the love that went into making it.
Megan: I feel like a debut would almost introduce a different kind of anxiety when you have a pre-existing fan base.
Shea: I have built-in haters, too [laughs].
Brittney: Don’t forget about them.
Shea: They are out there, just waiting for my downfall. But it’s exciting, because I’m glad that I have this really amazing fan base and support system. I feel like I’m peeling back another layer and allowing them to see another part of who I am. I’m just really anxious to see how they connect with me as a musician and songwriter versus a drag queen.
Brittney: It’s the perfect combo. This could be the hugest fucking thing.
Photo Assist Nedu Nwakudu. Hair herfactorywigs. Make-up Shea Couleé.