Eli Conley ‘08 found his voice at Oberlin. Now he‘s helping LGBTQ singers and carving a space in country music for queer people.
Eli Conley chose Oberlin for reasons that sound familiar to many current and future Obies: having trained as a musician but not necessarily interested in pursuing a performance major, the college’s broad-based liberal arts education appealed to him as much as the Conservatory of Music’s offerings.
Conley found himself drawn to courses in comparative American studies. At the same time, he took voice lessons taught by conservatory students and performed in several musical ensembles.
“Everything I was interested in was labeled comparative American studies,” recalls Conley, who was raised in a small town near Richmond, Virginia. “I’ve always been interested in issues of justice and how we build a world that actually serves the needs of everyone and not just the privileged few. I feel like the classes I took were incredibly transformational in opening my eyes to what intersectionality actually means. We can’t dismantle sexism if we aren’t also dismantling white supremacy and ableism and the ways of all forms of aggression interlock.”
In addition to performing in Collegium Musicum, Oberlin’s early music a capella choir, and smaller baroque ensembles, Conley began writing his own original music. At age 19, he played his first performance at the Cat in the Cream Coffeehouse.
After graduating with a degree in comparative American studies in 2008, Conley relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he has built a business as a voice teacher to support his songwriting and performing. He describes his music as country-tinged folk, and it’s no small coincidence that he writes songs about people who want a better world.
Conley returned to campus and the Cat in the Cream in April as part of his “Chasing Spring’’ tour. During his visit, he performed a folk acoustic show opened by the Oberlin student-composed South Professor Band, and for the first time ever outside of San Francisco, he led a newly created Songs of Social Justice Workshop.
Conley says the workshop was inspired by the nine-week program of singing classes he teaches to LGBTQ adults and allies.
“I teach songs from a lot of different social justice movements and give the history of how the song fit into that movement,” he explains. “We did a song called “Singing the Spirit Home” from the South African anti-apartheid movement; a chant called “Forget Your Perfect Offering, based on the lyrics of the Leonard Cohen song “Anthem”; a song from the Black Lives Matter movement called “I Can’t Breathe” based on the death of Eric Garner; and the song “We Shall Not be Moved,” which has come from a lot of different movements and protests.”
Social justice themes are ever-present in Conley’s own songs. “Being a queer, transgendered person from a small town in Virginia”—that shows up, too. “A lot of my music connects to themes of what it feels like to be an outsider in a rural area and in a place that doesn’t accept you automatically,” he says.
“I’m fortunate to have progressive and accepting parents, but I grew up around a lot of kids who did not accept me.”
Conley grew up female and transitioned at Oberlin. Consequently, his singing voice changed, too.
“I was a classical singer. I had done jazz and musical theater. Part of the reason why I’m a voice teacher is because of my experience at Oberlin getting to work with teachers through the process of my voice changing,” he says. “I don’t think I could have done it on my own. As a teacher, I work with a lot of trans and nonbinary singers to help guide them through the process.”
In addition to writing, performing, and teaching, Conley organizes and hosts the “Queer Country West Coast” concert series four times a year in San Francisco. The show features LGBTQ-identifying country artists. “I love country music. It’s a fun way to carve out more space for queer country people in country music and country music in queer communities.”
Second-year Carson Dowhan, a singer and guitar player with the South Professor Band, says he appreciates seeing an artist who is comfortable with his identity and uses his voice to lift others. Dowhan, who also is from the Bay Area, participated in Conley’s song workshop.
“Eli did such a great job making singing accessible for people who weren‘t seasoned musicians. Seeing him perform was just something else too—his songs were so well-crafted, and I was freaking out in the back of the Cat just totally immersed in his lyrics.”
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