A conversation with Jael Holzman of Ekko Astral

A conversation with Jael Holzman of Ekko Astral
Photo credit: John Lee

Hey everyone. Trying something new or this week, I took an opportunity to have a long chat with journalist and musician Jael Holzman, who alongside her incredible band Ekko Astral, just got off the road touring with Ted Leo and the Pharmacists and Idles. I wrote a little about their new record Pink Balloons here.

Jael and I chatted a lot about journalism, reporting on trans lives, music, the importance of culture and more. We talked for about an hour, and sadly I wasn't able to put everything we talked through in here, but you can read her blog post about leaving congressional journalism here.

You can find Ekko Astral on Bandcamp here .

And now, some of my chat with Jael Holzman.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Niko Stratis: Working as a journalist, working as a writer, so often who you are is sort of behind everything. To then also be an artist at the front of it, the voice of it, in the face of it. How does the juxtaposition between those two things feel?

Jael Holzman: I mean, on many levels the art that I've been making with Ekko [Astral] is a reflection of the cognitive dissonance that I've experienced as someone who has kind of seen a perceived conflict between the act of expressing oneself and the act of truth telling. 

I started in congressional journalism the week that Donald Trump was inaugurated as President. I worked for the most prestigious beltway publications Roll Call, Politico, Axios, and amidst all of that, I also came out as trans in 2020. It felt like I needed an outlet to express the raw emotion of working within a system that used a double standard when it came to the struggles and day-to-day issues of so many other people and then my own. 

Pink Balloons, and the art that we're making moving forward as well, is certainly a reflection of the DC culture that you don't see on TV. There's a lot of people who live in the subaltern of this city, that are integral to the cogs moving, but whose own lived realities and problems are so often ignored and even denied. And so going out and playing shows, it's been really eye opening. 

There was a moment during our set in Boston where I talked about Boston Children's Hospital and Libs of TikTok attacking doctors, leading to bomb threats and death threats, and I talked about how journalists are getting fired at public radio stations and how people in Boston should give money to [public radio stations] GBH and BUR. I feel like those two things come hand in hand because I'm giving people information and also saying you should empower others who do the same, and the audience responded with the most visceral howls of happiness. People were excited that we were giving the message which is, I think, an indicator of so many things, whether it be the appetite for music and a mode of communication that tries to speak to things no matter how controversial outside actors make those things up here, even though they shouldn't be and are not. But I think also, it's a reality about how little of the story is actually being told and how people are hungry for it. 

We played a show in Orlando with Idles, where I talked about a woman I know who had to sell her home that she wanted to raise her family in in the panhandle and leave Florida, the place that she had lived her whole life. People told me afterwards that people in their own lives had experienced the same and how they were happy that I talked about Pulse on the anniversary, because no one was doing that. And the number one thing I heard throughout all these gigs, was I'm really happy someone said something. That's what journalism is supposed to do. That's what reporting is supposed to do. That's why I got into journalism and why I'm not leaving it. 

NS: I keep seeing people use fake news, this term that has been floating around for far too long, when it kind of really feels like it's not really accurate. It's less fake news and more a misconstruing of reality in order to tell a different story, or to have an agenda or whatever. So many of these reporting pieces feel driven by agenda, not journalism. I know from reading your reasons for leaving there's a bit of that at play.

JS: I only want to speak on my lived experience, I don't want to opine on the lives of others. But speaking from my own heart,  Pink Balloons, my band's debut record in large part, is actually very much about the cognitive dissonance I experienced during a very specific part of my life when I was working for Politico; a news organization that is revered in the beltway, but that I think has a lot of flaws in how it projects a view of governance to other people.

I worked there for about a year and as a part of that I worked on multiple stories about anti-trans activists. I'm a climate journalist, and I did this investigation into how these TERFs – people who were self identifying as left but who were very anti-trans and connected to folks who work in groups like the Women's Liberation Front – I did this investigation into how these activists wound up as the face of the largest protest against a mine in the United State, this massive lithium mine out in Nevada. I wrote this story and it goes viral. And because CNN and New York Times and all these people have boosted these protesters up without looking at the totality of their views about the world. So in that opening I went to Politico management, and I was like, you guys love this story and how it performed online, you don't often do stories like this, you should let a trans person actually find the new stories to tell. You'll look like geniuses for just letting me cook. And instead, I did a lot of research and I came to them, essentially, with what I thought was the top line best story to tell, which was that we should talk about how this is now going towards adults.

People seem to be confused that this is only about kids but it seems like the end result of all the policies here would actually go towards adults, and that a lot of the people who are involved in pushing this stuff, it's a fringe that happens to also seem pretty callous about whether or not the people who are ultimately impacted live or die. I was told at the time by someone very high up at Politico management that they would never, under any circumstances, publish a story that made anti-trans activists look like bigots. End quote. And what ultimately happened with the story was, what was going to be a series and a sprawling endeavor became a – I would even say symbolic – story about something that had already been told, that trans kids were being targeted and that families were fleeing states. 

I spoke to a teenager who wound up detransitioning after their family fled Texas following the Attorney General of that state declaring that parents who gave their kids care were child abusers. But that story wound up really very much not how I wanted that to be edited. And I ultimately requested third byline too, because I didn't think that I would be safe, I didn't trust the news outlet. I wound up leaving before it was even published to go to Axios, an outfit that I deeply admire, I mean, I have zero complaints about their company. I love them. And a lot of them are still my friends. But the way that it all shook out ultimately, that was what led to us doing Pink Balloons, because as I was working on this tortured story, I wound up going to Chicago to Pitchfork Fest, and on the way there, I wound up driving through states where I had been interviewing people that I would no longer get to publish their stories on the record. 

I had interviewed this one man who had been beaten up in an Ohio bathroom at a campground, Noah Ruiz. I had interviewed Cam Ogden, an activist in Ohio who had been discriminated against by a legislator, I was talking to folks in Indiana, and wound up driving through these states that I was essentially like having to abandon as a part of this broader failure that I'm not gonna say that I dealt with any personal animus inside of that company. 

I think that the reason that they said what they said about this reporting had more to do with the way the media generally sees this topic and a reticence to offend people who don't like trans people. But the cognitive dissonance of doing that is what directly led us to write “i90” and that's what that song is about at the end of our record. I just kind of felt like if I didn't dedicate the rest of my life to trying to rectify this wrong, and actually, fucking get something out there positive than I actually wouldn't live with myself. And to this day, I actually still do feel pretty guilty about what happened with that story. But I focus on Ekko because, you know, at least I'm taking the energy of what happened in that event and putting it forward and trying to do something positive with it. And I think I think we are. Now we're playing this Midwest run, and playing all these places that I had previously been unable to help with that reporting. And instead, we're going to be raising money with mutual aid funds and working with local activists and trying to highlight stories,  focus on giving back to the local communities. 

I feel like there's this kind of trauma in the media now and I don't know if this is a similar way that you feel, having read your essay that published last year, I'm curious what you would have to say. I feel like it's really hard to be a part of any aspect of the news media where even just writing for them makes you feel complicit. Even though I was not covering trans issues when the company I worked at really failed, it made me not want to work there. It made me feel like I was somehow complicit in the denigration of the self.

NS: You talked about that feeling, saying you felt guilty for the way that reporting happened. It’s interesting that the people who have the least amount of power in a newsroom or in a structure will always be the ones to walk away feeling bad for carrying this burden for things that you ultimately had no real control over, right? Like, you didn't have the power that you would have needed to enact any sort of change, you did your best with what you had, but ultimately, you needed support and you needed backup. This is a thing I think about a lot about as a trans writer. I often don't call myself a journalist because I didn't  go to journalism school, I was a trades worker for 20 years before I became a writer. But I think with a lot of this, I'm often the only one. I don't work for a specific outlet and I never have, but at best there's maybe one trans writer at an outlet and that trans writer is going to have an uphill battle if they're trying to enact change at a systemic level within the organization, because they just don't have the support they're going to need because ultimately, people are conflict averse.

JH: I'm struck by stuff like, I don't know, yesterday the New York Times published this just confusing article that cited documents obtained by a dubious source to claim that somehow there were concerns raised about age limits for trans minors getting surgery and WPATH, but it didn't even have the accurate context, it didn't have any of the accurate background around the need for the care, and it ends up in a vacuum if you don't know the issue it sounds very ooh, bad, scary but if you read it in the context that a scientist or medical professional would, it would be no different than the UN Climate report had one scientist fickle about one decimal point of difference, like these are such minute scientific squabbles that the press is poorly communicating.

I do take issue with the notion that this has been so politicized and people's heels are dug in. 15 years ago, it would have been considered taboo to publish a story about climate without quoting someone who, on the “other side”, denied climate. And yet, now, that is considered bad journalism, and it's considered bad journalism because it is not in line with what scientists say the certainty is. If we apply that same rule to the conversation around trans care we can make a huge difference. And so the conversation really needs to shift toward not word choice necessarily, but around the scientific need for accuracy. You know, even the use of accurate names and pronouns is rooted in the scientific need, like the scientifically based need for this care, right? This isn't a choice. For a lot of people, it can be and we shouldn't be medicalizing this care, but to ignore the scientific need for some people means that you're not doing accurate journalism. And that's really for me the biggest problem, it's a cultural choice to decide if you want to put your food into compost. But it is not necessarily a cultural need to know how much food waste there is. And so I do agree with you to some extent. I think a lot of the time, the failure to publish or the failure to greenlight a story that actually tells people what's happening to trans folks in this country or even globally, is primarily the result of bad priors. And, you know, a miseducation, a misinformation, and it's eminently fixable, just just really hard right now.

NS:  It's a particularly challenging journalism landscape at the best of times right now regardless, and so thinking of it as that, and then also thinking about  addressing this widespread problem that has only been getting worse in the last couple of years. You know, it's challenging, it's not impossible, but it's challenging. And a thing I think about all of the time is pigeonholing. I want trans writers to be able to tell trans stories, but I don't want all trans writers to have to tell trans stories, you know what I mean? I get a lot of PR emails because I'm a music writer. And so often people will, because I'm a trans writer, either it's a generic pitch going out to everybody that is front loaded with the word trans, or because they know it's me, they'll put that in front like that's going to catch my eye but I need more. That's not that's not enough for me. And I need to know more beyond an identity thing because that tells me nothing. I keep getting pitches for this person, and they keep calling her a trans pop artist. And I eventually wrote back to the PR person and said trans pop isn't a genre. Trans pop isn't a thing. There's not an agreed upon trans pop genre. She's a pop artist, she happens to be trans, that’s a different conversation. 

JH: I think it's really important to think back to where we were like 10 years ago, when a) the press was stronger, but also b) we were starting to crest upward in visibility in the mainstream press. Then flash forward to the stuff that happened with Dylan Mulvaney, which also wound up dripping pretty heavily on to what we've done with my band and there's so little need for us to try and just depict us as we are in this moment. And there's such a need for us to convey the horror that we feel at that being the only thing that people let us do.

Take what happened with Dylan Mulvaney. Her entire name became a shorthand for corporate backlash over social progress. And it was entirely the action of probably a handful of well financed communications professionals in the DMV area, that greater Washington area,  what happens when trans people become shorthand for corporate backlash against social progress. And then when the press, which is used to getting latched onto a narrative, starts to make those two things synonymous beyond just one company. What happens is news companies don't publish any packages about pride month this year. I don't think I saw a single one this year. and I look forward to seeing the media analysis done of this pride month versus previous. I know myself that when I was at Politico, and I suggested that they should have a beat reporter that follows the LGBTQ community because it is constantly in the news, it's constantly relevant for US politics and policy, I remember that I was told we can't have a specific person on a specific beat because then it'll take away from other people. The same philosophy usually applies to the news companies with respect to Pride Month, like, “Oh, if we're going to run the package in Pride Month, doesn't that mean that we're not going to do it any other time?” that's probably the way that they're thinking, except “I don't think this is going to be another time too” I bet you that's an excuse. And then they don't do it.

It would really surprise me if all of a sudden, and I hope I'm surprised, if a news company suddenly rolled out a massive package on what the 2024 US election would mean for American trans lives and their future. But the Supreme Court two days ago took up a case that decides whether or not it is legal to discriminate against trans people and it got almost no coverage outside of them using the phrase trans kids because that was in the press release. No one is even digging into the basic information about what's happening with us. It's just a gloss over. And you can project onto why that's happening, but in my opinion, knowing a lot of these people it is not a dislike of trans people, it is a willful reticence to to offend people who don't like trans people. And unless that is overcome, the view that the press will have is that the courageous thing is to give voice to TERFs like in the UK and that is where we are headed, which is scary, but it's up to us in whatever number we are in to do what we can, as much as we can to avoid that catastrophic and apocalyptic media landscape.

NS: I think part of it, too, has to do with the fact that they don't want to piss off TERFs or whatever. A lot of times in the reporting around those organizations, they fail to follow the rabbit hole of who are they really? Who are these groups connected to? Where is their money coming from? The whole thing of like, scratch a TERF and find a fascist is so true a lot of the time and because the media landscape is so tentative. I always wonder, and this could just be like willful misreading on my part, but I was wondering if they don't want to upset these people that have an inordinate amount of power because of connections and financing. They don't want to bring the ire of these well connected, well financed people, because they’re already struggling to get by. And it's a cowardly way of looking at it. And it's a cowardly way of approaching. But it is kind of, at least to me, an unfortunate reality of a precarious media landscape that is harder than ever for some of these places to be bold, even though the job is to be bold.

JH: Absolutely. You know, access journalism is certainly something that should exist in that getting access means you're able to provide information that is new and important on a regularized basis. But relying solely on that means that you're beholden, at least in part, to the people that you get that you need access from. A great example of this was during the 2024 Republican primary, the Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, his staff would chide reporters for reaching out for comment using medically accurate terminology to describe gender affirming care. And that is a tactic of working the refs that can work, right, you can actually make people afraid that they'll lose their access if they report on something accurately. 

NS: I’m curious about your experience as a musician and as an artist, and especially because your latest album has been getting good press. How has it felt for you? When people approach your record are they seeing it as a trans record, are they seeing it as something more? Are they able to look at it with a bit of nuance?

JH: I would not necessarily say people are mistaking it as a trans record, but I do think that the fact we're speaking on lived experiences that have been politicized has led to a press response that is quite similar to the band we were just touring with, Idles, we talked to them a bunch about that. How when you're a band that speaks on important issues happening in the day to day, people instantly say that you're political. 

That is just a very natural semiotic game of biopolitics that I refuse to be beholden to. The response to the record has been quite illuminating. You know, I think a lot of people see it as far more than just a record by trans people that happens to mention the experience at the end. I think that it's about so much more than that. And people are starting to eat up the fact that I mean, honestly, it's a record that's far more about our country, and about our society as a whole and its various subsections. And it's a record far more about what it's like to live in Washington, DC, than it is a record about the trans experience. 

Our next album that we're starting to work on is a concept album about my decision to leave beltway journalism. And the through line I'm starting to find in our work is that you know, every single piece of content about DC is usually something that fluffs it up, or makes it seem mythic, when in reality it's just nitty gritty people getting paid to kill others. And if you don't focus on that, and you don't magnify that, then you're missing the true story that could really wake people up, and I think actually excite them and motivate them to try and make their own lived experiences better, their own quality of lives better. And I think we're starting to see that response, and I look forward to seeing more of it. 

My future is one where I'm trying to be more moral and centered in my values. The place I'm going to go work at now, heatmap, is a fossil free climate news startup that aims to focus primarily just on the most important thing, which is how we can decarbonize as fast as possible. And does not take money from fossil fuel companies. With Ekko Astral as well, it's a lifestyle that I know is going to be far more compatible. I'm looking forward to actually being able to report while on the road quite a bit in the future. And I think my plans have a lot more to do with finding a way to make as big of a difference, without ever veering into actual politics as possible. I think too often music and creation becomes a selfish act. But if the last eight years of my life have taught me anything, it's that that is probably the reason that we are in this mess to begin with. And more artists, more journalists should really be thinking about, well, is the thing I'm making going to help people. And so that's what I'm going to be doing.

NS: You were talking about the people that were at this last run of shows you were on with Idles and Ted Leo, you get that immediate reaction from people, you get to see these people who are impacted in one way or another,  do you feel connected to people in their lives in the world and the places that they live and the ways that they're trying to survive? You are trying to report on and tell the stories of these people that ultimately did not happen, do you feel like you get to maintain a connection to people through music and through being able to tour and all this stuff in a way that feels more sustainable?

JH: Yeah, definitely. There's a reason that people can write a song and have it hit the core of one's heart in any language. You know, any genre. Music is so much more visceral human in how it touches you and I think that that can bring people along, even people who may not even have understood. I mean, Idles crowds, if you think that I was going to go into an Idles show thinking that we were going to somehow reach people as trans folks, that was going to be a challenge no matter what we did. 

I did not anticipate leaving the greenroom after our set in Orlando and being unable to walk without people losing their minds during Idles’ set. Same thing happened with Ted Leo and with full love of Ted, like Ted fucking rips and his live band rules, but  there were people during “Me and Mia” at our first gig, stopping me and I was like, okay, yeah, our music is good. But I think there's something else here. People saying thank you for saying that. I think that  feeling good is the wrong word but it does feel connective. I definitely look forward to playing a lot more shows and giving people an opportunity to feel like their voice is being heard as best I can reflect it.