If life is a performance, the multi-dimensional & shapeshifting artist Boychik is showing everyone how to break free.
There is something to be said about someone finding themselves through music and art. For many, the artists we cling to and find safety in are just trying to remind us to embrace every facet of who we are; their music serves as a door to another world where we find safety and solace. That concept and hope was the catalyst to the theatrical & vulnerable Boychik, the rising talent who just released their debut single. It seems wrong to define Boychik as just a simple moniker for Ben Levi Ross, the actor who is known for their roles on Broadway and in Tick, Tick… Boom, as a way to name their artist project and create distance between who they are as an actor and an artist. Instead, Boychik is a name that represents a lifelong dream come to fruition. Ross isn’t creating distance between themselves and Boychik, but using them as a way to explore different facets of themselves, free from every structure, expectation, and societal pressure we feel.
In their debut Dust After Rest, it is clear that Boychik is not interested in adhering to traditional pop formulas. Blending theatrical elements, both in the sonics and visuals, with themes that explore trauma, extensional crises, and hope, Dust After Rest demonstrates Boychik’s ability to be a shapeshifter; there are no ties to any gender, there is no need to adhere to any style or genre. It’s powerful yet poignant, freeing yet, at times, filled with fraught. This dance between feelings is played out in the song’s video, a stunning visual that depicts Boychik as a performer on stage, running free in a grassy field, and, eventually, finding themselves. Every tradition you know—whether it be about music, gender, or anything else—is useless. For Boychik, music should be undefinable and free without restraints, just like they are.
In their first-ever interview as Boychik, they speak with 1883 Magazine’s Editor Kelsey Barnes about their debut single Dust After Rest, the creation of the artist, tapping into theatrics and vulnerable moments, and more.
Congrats on the release. How are you feeling? It must’ve been a crazy week for you.
It was. I’m feeling good and grateful, especially from my community of friends. I only showed my music to five to 10 people at most. I’ve been sitting on it for a little over a year now and no one knew when I dropped it.
Wow, so no one knew that you were even making it?
Yeah, I think just my close friends did but other than that, no. I wanted to keep things under wraps because for so long I didn’t actually know what it was going to be. I didn’t know what I was making. When I started, I brought all of my music to Minneapolis, where I recorded most of it, to work with Jake [Luppen] and Nathan [Stocker]. Before that, I had never met them before. It was a leap of faith just getting on a plane after sending them my shitty voice memos and iPhone recordings of my vocals and piano. They were encouraging and told me to come and make stuff, and that’s how it evolved into the record. I was trying to find the right way to release it without speaking it into existence yet… I didn’t want to taint it.
I think it’s interesting that you didn’t want to tell those closest to you, but feel free to share vulnerable voice notes and such to strangers. I know it’s sometimes easier to be honest with strangers than people closest to you.
There is truth to that. I don’t know if I could have made what we made had these two people been my best friends for 10 years. I was able to come into it and almost feel like I had a blank slate and could voice exactly what I wanted and how I wanted and see what stuck. The beauty of this process is that these guys became some of my closest friends.
I know you’re an established actor already, but was creating an artist project something that’s always been a goal of yours?
Well, thank you for calling me an established actor! The thing is, I had always made music. I was always at my piano writing songs for myself. I have an intense connection to specific artists in my life, as we all do, and I have so much admiration for musicians and collaborators in the music world. In high school, I always liked it but never thought I could ever open up… Like you were saying, the vulnerability of putting something that I wrote out into the world is terrifying.
I released some little things on Soundcloud that were honestly not good but, like a lot of people in the pandemic, I had some space and time to evaluate what it was that I wanted to do. Through some coaxing from my partner, Taylor, and one of my close friends, Emily Bannon, for some reason, the two of them saying to me that it was good, changed everything for me. It was like I heard it for the first time from these two people whose opinions I cared about so much. The thing that was holding me back was that I wasn’t a producer and I don’t have that access. The entire project is self-funded from the money I saved from working in a couple of theatre jobs for the last four years. Once I got connected to Jake and Nathan through our close friend and artist, Samia, it was like everything fell into place.
It’s like everyone opened the door for you to feel safe to explore this. There’s something powerful in that, and then the ripple effect of being connected through mutual friends to find your collaborators. It’s all really beautiful.
The beauty of this project has been that I’ve always wanted all of my friends from high school and now are all geniuses in their own realms. They are photographers, art history majors, visual artists, musicians, and more. I always wanted to have a project that could bring a lot of those people together. It’s been a true dream. The music video allowed me to bring in like Erin Mommsen, my friend who painted the nine-foot painting backdrop for me, Gabby Goldberg, who is a genius at production design, and John Novotny, who made all of my wigs and was the creative director behind the whole project and photographed everything. all of that album art and it’s like, it’s been this sort of like, I feel like I’ve been able to bring together this community of artists that I’ve wanted to work with for so long on something but have never had the medium to be able to do it.
Bringing in people that have supported you and had an impact on you to work on this… It becomes a little shrine to who you are.
It really is that. I’m going to continue to do this for the rest of the project and in later albums to come.
Obviously, as an actor, you’re portraying someone else’s character, but as an artist, it’s all you — was that something that felt daunting at any point or did you fully embrace it?
I think there is a little bit of that separation between me and Boychik, and there is safety in that separation. The reason I have the pseudonym is that it allows me to be hyper-vulnerable through songwriting. If it was under my name and there was no makeup, no hair, and no differentiating aesthetic from just me, it would be even more terrifying. I’m using Boychik in the same way a lot of artists do… like a barrier to separate themselves. I’m writing all this music from an intensely vulnerable place.
I know you’ve only heard one song, but it gets even more intense with the rest of the music. It is the scariest thing I’ve ever done, but having it be under this different name and through a different visual lens has allowed it to feel a little bit safer for some reason. I’m still investigating why that is, but it also has allowed me to explore a lot of different facets of myself with my gender and with my personality. I’m quite extroverted, but for some reason, I feel like Boychik is kind of introverted. They are less willing to share everything and anything out into the world.
It’s an interesting dichotomy. I’m not a musician, but I think I would probably want to have a little bit of distance between me and my artist project.
It’s a performance. It’s what ties together everything that this project is. I come from the world of theatre and stage performance and I wanted to use that sort of realm as a way in. Even the process of putting on a face and putting on makeup feels like I’m changing. For the music video, we talked a lot about this idea of like a travelling theatre troupe. One hundred years ago, there were theatre troops that would go from town to town and they had these intricate, beautiful stages that they would open up in the middle of a town square. It would be a little place for them to put on a play. I love thinking of Boychik being in a travelling theatre troupe, just opening up and putting on this little show of the songs and having this life experience, and then just folding it up and going away.
There is such a juxtaposition both in sound in the song and the video at the start when it’s just you against a black backdrop & when you’re a puppet on a stage compared to the sound and feel of you running through a vast grassy field, a nod to not feeling constrained anymore. Did it feel like there was a new chapter beginning for you while making this music and filming the video?
Yeah, absolutely. The piece is starting in a place of just abject motionlessness, I’m feeling completely isolated. Sometimes I think about it being a black void, we would even call it that when we were shooting. A meditation that I do is visualizing a blank white space and having every corner of my mind is just… Blank white. It might sound insane, but it’s a way for me to clear my head. I go there when all of the existential dread gets too much, that’s what I wanted to explore at the beginning of the visual. There’s a bit of existential dread happening. Then, there is the marionette doll popping up that was just being dragged around by some little kid in a puppet theatre. Then it’s about opening up and being more present in life.
What was it about Dust After Rest in particular that made you want to make it your debut single?
It is the thesis for everything. The music video is a thesis for who Boychik is, I feel like it explains it right away. What I am is there’s a theatricality to me and that I’m not tied to any one aesthetic. There is no single gender presentation. The song wasn’t the first we recorded, but we had this intense reaction to it. It felt like we made something, it was like Ms. Holden’s Opus, it really felt like the pinnacle of what I wanted to make when I came to Minneapolis.
Musically, the song shows a range of possibilities for what can come next. With the second single, people are going to be surprised with the hard left we take from the first single. There is a through-line in the album, but each piece of music can stand on its own. Stylistically, I always want people to be able to hear it and say, that is a Boychik song. But, I also love this idea of the album shapeshifting visually, vocally, and sonically. That’s where the theatricality comes in. I don’t want to be just one thing, this project explores that.
I love the lyrics “I am bored of the pain; the anger disdain/I am bored of how I still hurt me,” to me, they are incredibly personal and vulnerable but also something that I know I and others can relate to. Do you see songwriting as another form of therapy, a way to get your feelings and what’s in your head into words?
It is a form of therapy, but it only works as therapy if you’re also in therapy [laughs]. I come from a family that is very pro-therapy, and my dad is a psychotherapist and which came with its own set of challenges. I think that it’s a form of therapy up until a point. It’s an inner monologue; if you’re writing music alone, it’s a beautiful way of interrogating certain thoughts and feelings that you have, but it doesn’t fully replace therapy.
The cool thing about this record is that there are songs on it that I wrote two years ago. It picks up and drops off at different times in my life. That’s what sort of creates this interesting through-line through the record. I’m still dealing with the same things, the same themes, and the same trauma that I was dealing with 10 years ago. It’s still at the forefront of my mind. Dust After Rest specifically talks about how I’m bored of hurting myself. I’m bored of the monotony of waking up and putting yourself through the deepest darkest traumas of your life. How fucking boring is that? It becomes a negative loop of getting angry at yourself for self-sabotage, but then you also don’t know how you get out of it. It’s just boring… and it’s embarrassing.
This song is pretty heavy and dives into some intense themes, but I always find it quite hopeful. What do those lyrics mean to you?
“What was created must perish. What’s perished will rise again. Cease from trembling. Prepare to live” are the English-translated lyrics of Mahler’s Second Symphony, which is what inspired the entire second half of this song. Going back to the cyclical nature of existence that when it gets dark, the sun will always rise. When it rains, that water will evaporate, and all of the cycles in the universe always brought ease to the existential dread that I felt at a very young age. In another song that I wrote, I talk about how I zoomed out on the map too far one day when I was eight and I never came back down. That song made me realize the larger scope of human existence and it was living in the same place in my body as interpersonal trauma. This idea of focusing on the larger things—the macro of the body returning to the earth and breaking down and the worlds like colliding and having another big bang and meeting in another existence—brings ease to everything. There is definitely hope there.
I want to circle back to the video because it really embodies who Boychik is. What was it like both acting in it and being part of the creative direction?
John is someone I’ve known for a long time and their work I’ve admired for so long. They’re just an incredible photographer and also a magician with wigs. That is their thing, they are known in Brooklyn as the wig girl who makes wigs for all the girls. At one point, before Boychik, I wanted to do a one-person show where I would have 10 wigs at the back of the stage and go through all of the female artists that inspired me to be who I am today. I would basically put them on and become them. I still want to do it, I just think wigs are amazing. They just change the way you see yourself and the way you move through the world.
So I went to John, for all of those reasons, right when I came back from Minneapolis. I told them I had this project and I didn’t know what it was going to be yet, but I want to shoot art for it. Before we even did the music video, John and I shot all the photos for it. We created the identity first and then, a few months later, we realized it was going to be an actual record and I wanted to make a music video. I went back to them and we figured out what we wanted to do. I think we made something that I’m really proud of with that first video. It was a big collaborative process.
What do you hope listeners take away from Dust After Rest and your upcoming music?
I hope they had some reaction to it, just like you did. I think finding solace in it, and in the lyrics that are full of hope, would be my biggest goal. I also hope they see that within the “indie music world,” there are a lot of different ways to exist. I hope they hear something that they haven’t heard before because I know that I haven’t really heard anything like it, which is why I was making it.
Interview by Kelsey Barnes
Photography by John Novotny
Dust After Rest is out now. Follow Boychik at @itsboychik.