John Darnielle, the front man and song writer of the cult indie band the Mountain Goats, seems like the last sort of person and band you’d expect to gain a large LGBTQ+ following.
He is a cisgender white man, and openly Catholic. People rarely expect LGBTQ+ folk to relate to the output of anyone other than someone like them. And due to many negative experiences relating to faith many of us share, even less with someone openly religious. Even more, nothing about his writing is explicitly LGBTQ+.
There are actual LGBTQ+ artists and musicians who write openly of their experiences with identity and sexuality. Their work is for all intents and purposes, much more pertinent to our shared experiences. More so than any straight, cisgendered writer could ever hope to achieve. They’re the ones taking a far greater risk, after all, being open about it the way they are.
I certainly didn’t expect to see many LGBTQ+ fans, when a year ago I dove into Darnielle’s significant body of work and found myself utterly transformed in a way no other artist has ever transformed me. Getting involved with the fans soon made me realize how many of them were LGBTQ+ like myself. I was surprised.
Yet, when you become absorbed by Darnielle’s lyrical genius, it soon becomes very clear why this is the case. Even though there’s nothing explicitly gay, trans, or queer about his body of work, there’s something recognizable in it. Darnielle’s songs are melancholy, often tragic and heartbreaking. But through the solemn words shines a clear hope and a burning catharsis, all of which resonates with LGBTQ+ experience.
So where is all of this coming from, from such an unexpected source? I asked fellow tMG fans in a closed Facebook group and the tMG subreddit about their experiences, feelings and what tMG meant to them as LGBTQ+ folk.
Crystal Clear Connection
The commonality comes from shared trauma.
John Darnielle’s life has been marred with it, and he relates these experiences to us in his work. The Sunset Tree details his life living with his physically abusive step father. The previous album, We Shall All Be Healed, is about JD’s life as a young drug addict, coping with isolation, abuse, and the slow death of his friends. All Hails West Texas, Get Lonely and Transcendental Youth may not be explicitly autobiographical, but they speak at length about issues JD himself has extensive experience with.
He broaches issues like love and loss, chronic illness, social anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, a troubled and ostracized youth with nowhere to go, no one to turn to, slowly unravelling under the weight of the world and their own tortured minds. He tells stories of the abandoned social outcasts and castaways at conflict with everything around them, coping in what way they know best and in every unadvisable and dangerous manner.
All of these feelings are relevant to the very core of LGBTQ+ experience. For many of us, they are an integral part of what made us and shaped us. Here’s what the fans have to say:
“JD writes a lot about struggle, either struggling against your environment and the pressure it puts on you, struggling with accepting yourself, or struggling to find understanding with another person. In the broadest terms, that’s what everyone can relate to, but I think lots of queer folks in particular relate to his themes of escaping a physical place, of escaping emotional and physical abuse, of his complex depictions of religious imagery, and of loneliness and longing.” – Eve
Darnielle, for a time, worked as a psychiatric nurse, before starting his journey as a musical auteur by recording his songs on a Panasonic boombox tape recorder in 1991. There, he came across many patients who’s experiences with chronic illness were later related to us through his writing.
“We continue on the general theme of difficult relationships with one’s physical body, a fertile theme for those of us who have difficult relationships with our physical bodies.” -John Darnielle, 2009, the 9:30 Club, Washington DC
This theme is specifically and especially pertinent to his transgender fans.
“I know for sure JD’s descriptions of having a complicated relationship with one’s body is sure relatable for me and a lot of other transgender folks” – DD
Issues of faith, Christianity and the general complicated feelings towards God play a part as well.
“I relate a lot to John’s complex feelings about religion, particularly the idea of religion as a comfort for those who are the most broken. As a traumatized gay I feel that on a visceral level, with the added irony of religion’s complex relation to LGBTQ people” – Katrien
Another way JD was able to relate to this demographic is his insistence on using gender neutral pronouns in his songs. In that one simple way, he allowed many more people to find something to connect to in his writing, even if he himself never shared the exact same circumstances they found themselves in.
“Also, I’ve said this on another thread before, but the fact John uses ‘you’ as a pronoun most of the time rather than any sort of gendered one, it’s very accesible for LGBT+ people to relate to the lyrics” – Miles
“I think that the way that JD tells such realistic and beautiful stories that illustrate people who aren’t necessarily always portrayed in the media is what draws LGBTQ+ folks in. His characters may not be necessarily LGBTQ+, but there’s an “outsider-ness” that feels that way all the same.” – Maggie
“Darnielle very rarely mentions people by gender or sexuality in his lyrics, so it’s super easy to project yourself onto the songs or make them relate to situations you’ve been in.” – Nathan
Alongside that, JD is open about his support for progressive causes. He has described himself on multiple occasions as a leftist. He has organized fundraisers and played in concerts for pro-choice causes and has shown nothing but earnest acceptance of people of all orientations and genders and support for their rights.
“I’d also say JDs awesome personality and concern for social justice makes me even a bigger fan.” – FF
Despite the depressing and sometimes upsetting themes of his work, what makes JD’s writing stand out and elevate it beyond just indulging in misery, is the clear message that one day you are ‘going to walk out of here free’. Far from simply wallowing, Darnielle sends that one crucial message to anyone who may be going through what he himself has experienced.
“I take a lot of strength not just from the narratives of making it through & being okay but also the ones about just surviving and doing the best you can with a shitty situation & your life being worth living no matter what” – UT
“Transcendental Youth has always been an extremely bright beacon for me in terms of centering myself whenever nasty questions bubble up.” – A
And it just so happens, tragically, many of those are LGBTQ+, and we’re hit much harder and more frequently than most.
“Bad experiences breed familiarity with bad experiences. John spends a lot of time writing about emotional heartbreak, feeling uncomfortable in his own skin and a feeling that things are supposed to be better than they are.” – HW
“A lot of the Mountain Goats songs are about inner turmoil, this is a constant feeling while discovering yourself. I found tMG after coming out and found that the way J.D wrote about his past and accepting the things he’s done and were done to him really helped me come to terms with the pain in my past.” – Christopher G
Darnielle himself, in an interview with Stephen Colbert, said that he believes that when you’re at your lowest point, you should take solace in the fact that there’s nowhere to go but up.
Thus, in a strange and unintentional way, his writing has touched this specific mass of people. People already struggling through abuse, mental illness, and loneliness to a degree most people can’t comprehend. To find a connection in such an unexpected place, is always a welcome sight and beautiful to behold. If you haven’t already, check him out; he’s well worth a listen.
Many special thanks to the many who contributed to this article.