The story goes: While on tour with Leftover Crack, guitarist Reade Wolcott was scrolling through Facebook and came across a meme about gender dysphoria that led to the egg_irl subreddit. Curious, Wolcott followed the link and spent the rest of the night scrolling through each meme, caught up in Reddit’s endless abyss of content. By morning, the tour bus was parked in front of 1904 Music Hall in Jacksonville, Florida, and Wolcott awoke with a shocking realization.
“Fuck, I’m trans.”
Wolcott describes this to me in one breath, sounding equal parts adrenaline-fueled and nervous, but nonetheless self-assured. It has been a long process that she realized went back years before that fateful night on the tour bus—she just finally had the words to describe it.
Wolcott formed the ska band We Are The Union in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 2005. The band released three successful albums that blended ferocious hooks and Wolcott’s passionate vocals with an underlying angst that made them popular amongst ska and punk fans alike. In 2013, following the release of You Can’t Hide The Sun, the band took an indefinite hiatus and returned in 2015 following the welcoming of trombonist Jer Hunter, best known for their YouTube channel Skatune Network.
We Are The Union’s fourth record, 2018’s Self Care, was released two months before Wolcott’s turning point on that tour bus, with the band’s lyrics taking a more introspective turn as they discuss topics of mental health. The song “Better Home” features the lyrics: “I’ve been sleeping with the TV on / Just loud enough to drown out all my thoughts / ‘Cause lately I can’t think without panic chasing me / Stare at the ceiling, count pounding heartbeats.” Wolcott did not realize it at the time, but the song was informed by her dysphoria.
“The concept of the song is about how your skeleton regenerates every seven to ten years, so if your bones can change, why can’t you? I realized, looking back, poring over the lyrics, if our stubborn bones can grow new on their own, then we can change ourselves and build a better home. That’s totally a dysphoria thought, right? That’s the hope that we can create a new home within our body.”
Within the year following the release of Self Care, Wolcott faced another life change. “This record was written shortly after the end of a 12-year relationship,” she tells me. “It was effectively a marriage, and essentially a divorce.”
By 2020, Wolcott had been attending therapy, starting hormones, and utilizing the pandemic as a way to transition out of the public eye without having to “dance with ‘am I?’ ‘am I not?’,” in her own words. From there, the elements of We Are The Union’s newest album began to take shape, with Wolcott influenced in part by a euphoric experience at MAGFest and seeing her bandmate Hunter’s confidence as being openly non-binary, plus exiting a long-term relationship and understanding gender dysphoria. Ordinary Life was born.
Wolcott is aware of the comparisons that are to be made with Ordinary Life and other bodies of work that deal with dysphoria, mainly Against Me!’s 2014 album Transgender Dysphoria Blues, released two years after lead singer Laura Jane Grace announced her transition. Much like Transgender Dysphoria Blues, Ordinary Life deals with the intersections of mental health, romance and other relationships as affected by coming out as trans. Because of this approach, Wolcott was also able to cast a wider net.
“I liked the idea of describing dysphoria alongside things that are more relatable to a wider audience. I feel like a lot more people suffer from depression than struggle with dysphoria,” Wolcott explains. “My hope was, if I can tie these things together, then maybe I can normalize the trans experience just a little bit.”
A significant part of this push for accessibility comes from Wolcott’s wish that the same vocabulary was made available to her much sooner. On the other hand, she also wanted to allow the songs to stand separate from her initial intention.
To be specific, the song “Big River” on Ordinary Life is a swanky ska slow boil, which climaxes into Wolcott having a conversation with her past self to make sense of who she is now. It features a callback to “Better Home,” as a reassurance that the feelings of sadness were valid. When I approach Wolcott to discuss the line “When you’re alive but your friends and family are mourning you,” she asks what I think it represents.
“I felt like it was negative, as in, your friends and family are mourning your old self and struggling to come to terms with who you are now,” I tell her.
After a brief moment of silence, Wolcott replies, “For me, that line is about not feeling like a whole person and not feeling like you’re able to be available for the people who care about you in the way that you want to be.”
For such an intensely personal record, Wolcott is not protective of these songs. “One of my favorite things about being an artist is, once I’ve completed a song and any ears outside of mine have heard it, the song is no longer mine,” she says.
Working with producer Jon Graber out of an Airbnb in Joshua Tree, California, the band recorded a majority of Ordinary Life in seclusion. Graber, who has previously worked with fellow ska and punk bands such as Goldfinger and NOFX, was a frequent challenger for many of the record’s initial ideas to prompt subtle changes that allowed te record to be as dynamic as it is. One of those moments was pushing Wolcott to complete the “gender dysphoria arc” with a heartfelt song addressed to who she was a decade prior. Thus, the album closer “December” was made. Featuring the chorus “You’ll be dead by December,” the song is a message to her old self, preparing her for the imminent change in her life. It’s a chilling closer, bookending a cathartic album to make room for more opportunities.
Interspersed throughout the album are moments of pure joy, such as the straightforward “Boys Will Be Girls,” an anthem about subverting gender roles and expectations. Inspired by the Thin Lizzy song “The Boys Are Back in Town,” Wolcott had a simple idea: Why not make it a queer anthem? She took the campiness a step further, helping to conceptualize the accompanying, Chris Graue-directed music video, which features a machine that assigns pink or blue “goop” depending on the person’s assumed gender. Wolcott instigates an investigation into how the machine works and breaks it, leading to a multicolored paint fight that bursts with laughter.
When I ask her if she was worried about the people outside of her dedicated fanbase seeing her coming out, she replies with a swift “No.”
“I have come full circle on self-acceptance. This is who I am. I actually don’t care what anyone has to say negatively,” Wolcott asserts. “I don’t care who is able to watch me live the curated version of my life that is online. I am a performer and that’s part of why I chose to come out this way.”
This speaks to who Wolcott is at heart. Even in her formal announcement to the world when she came out as a trans woman in late April, Wolcott shared two photos taken by her partner, Rae Mystic, who also shot the cover of their newest album. Wolcott’s hair rests in loose black waves with black lipstick contrasting against her pale skin. The photos exude confidence, and I can even hear it in her voice.
After our call, I pondered what it was about We Are The Union that has made them so unique over the 15 years since their inception. I came across an old interview from 2010 that serves as a fitting description with an even deeper meaning a year later.
“We’re outcasts,” Wolcott remarked, and it’s true. Little did she know she’d become a voice for them, too.
is out June 4 via Bad Time Records.
Jade Gomez is Paste’s assistant music editor, dog mom, Southern rap aficionado and compound sentence enthusiast. She has no impulse control and will buy vinyl that she’s too afraid to play or stickers she will never stick.