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Why do we musicians use alter egos?


Sturgill Simpson has made a big name for himself in music.


STURGILL SIMPSON: (Singing) Yes, my son, it's all been done, and someday you're going to wake up old and gray...

RASCOE: But the country star announced he's releasing a new album and heading out on tour, not as himself, but as Johnny Blue Skies. It got us to thinking about musical alter egos - when musicians adopt different names, maybe personalities, too, to release their music. So we're bringing in Stephen Thompson of NPR Music. He has all the answers. Hey, Stephen.

STEPHEN THOMPSON, BYLINE: (Laughter) Hey, Ayesha.

RASCOE: Do you want to adopt a different persona for this interview?

THOMPSON: I'm actually speaking to you as (laughter) - I should have had a joke for this. I don't have a good NPR name. You know, people always talk about NPR names. And I should have...

RASCOE: Like Stephen Fancy Pants. Like that, yes.

THOMPSON: Yeah, Stephen Fancy Pants. Yes.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

THOMPSON: I'd like to think of myself as Stephen Fancy Pants. I might as well actually make it part of my professional life.

RASCOE: Well, let's set some ground rules. How do you define a musical alter ego? Because obviously, you know, a lot of musicians go by names that aren't actually their birth names, like Lady Gaga, Elton John, Queen Latifah. Like, that's not the names they were born with (laughter).

THOMPSON: For this assignment, I sort of thought about it in terms of people who have established musical personas - like Sturgill Simpson - and then have decided to pivot into presenting themselves under a different name. And some musicians have a long history of this where almost every album is coming out from a different persona. You think of somebody like David Bowie or Kool Keith. But I was really thinking of it as like a career pivot.


THOMPSON: You know, where, like, the country singer Garth Brooks was rolling along, one of the biggest stars in the world, one of the best-selling artists of all time. And all of a sudden, he puts out a pop record from a different version of himself named Chris Gaines.


CHRIS GAINES: (Singing) But there's something about you. When you're around, baby, I have found I get lost in you.

RASCOE: That's not bad. I hadn't heard that before. That's not bad. I like that (laughter).

THOMPSON: Garth Brooks is a talented guy. I mean, that record sometimes gets used as a punchline because he was just at the absolute height of his fame, and all of a sudden, you know, put out this record that was not necessarily going to be super palatable to country fans. But, like, that's a perfect example of somebody who contains multitudes. He didn't want to just sound like one guy. He wanted to try his hand at a different style of music that interested him.

RASCOE: Give us some classic examples of musical alter egos.

THOMPSON: Well, I think David Bowie is one of the first names that you think of. David Bowie, you know, probably most famously deployed the persona of Ziggy Stardust, you know, this kind of intergalactic figure, but he was also Aladdin Sane. He was also the Thin White Duke. He was somebody who toyed with a lot of different versions of himself.


DAVID BOWIE: (Singing) There's a starman waiting in the sky. He'd like to come and meet us, but he thinks he'd blow our minds.

THOMPSON: You know, and that's a great example of, like, he's performing as Ziggy Stardust, but everyone knows it's David Bowie, right?


THOMPSON: So it falls into the category, but he wasn't necessarily presenting himself as like, don't call me David Bowie anymore.

RASCOE: OK. Do we have any of those where people, like, really, like, they really changed themselves and like, this is my new persona. This is me now.

THOMPSON: Well, one example that springs to my mind is the artist Father John Misty...


FATHER JOHN MISTY: (Singing) Emma eats bread and butter like a queen...

THOMPSON: ...Who put out a bunch of records under the name J. Tillman. His name is Josh Tillman. And at some point, kind of a ways into his career, I think he felt himself stagnating a little bit and rebranded himself as Father John Misty, who is kind of this larger-than-life figure and wrote his songs and albums from the perspective of this character. And at that point, his career really took off. Now, a lot of Father John Misty fans probably don't even necessarily think of him as Josh Tillman. They think of him as Father John Misty, this character.

RASCOE: Mmm. So it sounds like the reasons for doing this would be maybe to liberate yourself...


RASCOE: ...If you feel like you're stuck in one zone or to kind of put some more juice into your career.

THOMPSON: Yeah, I also think I would add one other category, which is changing the stakes. In general, songwriting is an empathy exercise, right? A songwriter is constantly putting themselves in the brain, in the mind, in the life of another person. And so it only makes sense that a really creative songwriter would want to toy with not only looking at the world through someone else's eyes, but envisioning themselves as a different artist. I think it's a natural phenomenon, and that's why it's come up over and over and over again throughout the entire history of popular music.

RASCOE: Do you have an all-time musical alter ego favorite that we can go out on?

THOMPSON: You know what? I'm always going to want to shine a little light on the Traveling Wilburys. Those records meant so much to me...

RASCOE: (Laughter).

THOMPSON: ...As, like, a teenager and a young adult. And the Traveling Wilburys was a supergroup of Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison, and George Harrison. And you know, those are five artists with massive followings, with extraordinarily successful careers. But they wanted to do a record that felt, I think, smaller to them and that allowed them to kind of work with their friends and play around with this really collegial, lower-stakes sound.


THOMPSON: There's this beautiful, beautiful song, "End Of The Line," that just feels like, an accumulation of a whole bunch of really warm-hearted and hard-won wisdom. Let's go out on "End Of The Line."


TRAVELING WILBURYS: (Singing) Well, it's all right if you live the life you please. Well, it's...

RASCOE: Oh, this is good. I didn't know this was them.

THOMPSON: Oh, this song is so good-hearted.

RASCOE: That's Stephen Thompson of NPR Music. Thank you so much for talking with us.

THOMPSON: Thank you, Ayesha.


TRAVELING WILBURYS: (Singing) You can sit around and wait for the phone to ring. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Stephen Thompson
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