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Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes: It's Healthy for People to Step Outside of Their Gender Roles

Of Montreal ringleader Kevin Barnes.
Of Montreal ringleader Kevin Barnes.
Photo by Ebru Yildiz

Anyone who's ever seen singer-songwriter Kevin Barnes perform onstage — decked out in full drag or denim short-shorts or even in the nude — would likely think he's the kind of person who's eliminated "normal" from his lexicon.

Yet over the course of a 17-minute conversation with Barnes, the word comes up a handful of times in various iterations. The artist speaks of a "normal, day-to-day experience," a "normal day," and what he "would normally wear."

Not that he's particularly concerned with adhering to the norms about which he's thinking out loud. Barnes has spent the past quarter-century subverting, undoing, and queering social norms — particularly those relating to sexuality and gender — on his records and onstage as part of the Athens, Georgia-based collective Of Montreal.

Barnes says he originally set out to liberate himself when he began writing music as a teenager, but over the years, Of Montreal's shows have become a celebration of identity for all involved. Following Barnes' lead, audiences dress as their wildest, kinkiest, and truest selves before going back home to their plainclothes, everyday existences.

"I look at it as sort of like a holiday," he says of his band's concerts. "For some reason, socially, we have these moments on the calendar where people are allowed to go wild... whereas, most of the time, you're encouraged to just conform and stay in line."

Much like the people in his nightly audiences, Barnes says his daily life doesn't align with his vamping, onstage persona.

"I get to sort of peacock a lot more when I'm on tour," he says. But offstage, he lives an "insular life" and mostly writes alone in his room. "I'm 44 years old now, and I'm basically doing the same thing I did when I was like 17."

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Though he's comfortable keeping to himself in daily life, Barnes says Of Montreal continues to free him in multiple ways decades after he founded the band. He relishes the chance to get out of his solitary bubble when he's on tour for a month or two, and he says his onstage persona does inform his daily self in at least one way.

"Even if I'm not wearing something outrageous, I just feel more comfortable in my own skin for having done all the things that I've done onstage," he says, citing his nude performances in Vegas and his increasingly elaborate forays into drag.

"It's so healthy for people to be able to have that opportunity to step outside of these sort of gender roles that you're sort of brainwashed into thinking you have to perform," he says of his audience members. But he could just as easily be speaking about himself.

Of Montreal. With Yip Deceiver and Haute Tension. 7 p.m. Friday, April 5, at the Ground, 34 NE 11th St., Miami; 305-375-0001. Tickets cost $20 to $25 via ticketfly.com.

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