"I try to steal from the greats," singer/songwriter Eli Conley tells PGN as he prepares for the Philadelphia leg of his current tour. "We can only hope to be part of that great lineage."
The California-based Conley was referring to classic folk-rockers like Joni Mitchell and James Taylor, to whom Conley's gentle-yet-powerful sound draws comparisons. Conley will be performing at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Atonement April 28. He'll be performing songs from “Strong and Tender,” his just-released second CD.
Conley has a lot on his mind.
In tunes like the haunting “All That Ends,” he wonders how long he will live and how his end will come.
"We're all going to die," he noted, sharing that friends and relatives of his had or are facing cancer. "I went home and wrote a song about grappling with death."
Gender identity is another of the issues about which Conley writes and sings. Himself a transgender man, Conley sings plaintively about being asked if he's a boy or a girl.
"As a matter of fact, I'm a happy man," he sings in “What I'm Worth.” "Don't think you've met another man like me. Maybe you've seen a couple on TV."
"It's not my story," he said of “What I'm Worth.” "It's the story of a friend. I'm lucky to have a supportive family. Now that there is more visibility, people are hearing our stories in new ways."
Conley, who hails from Virginia, has been immersed in music for most of his life. Country was a big part of his musical education.
"There was always music playing on the stereo around our house, especially folk and country music," he recalled. "My brother once counted and figured out that my dad had about 1,000 records, so I had a rich musical education just poking through my dad's LPs and CDs, listening to Ray Charles, Van Morrison and the Carter Family. I remember when the movie ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ came out in 2000, my sister and I were surprised to hear our friends singing songs like ‘I'll Fly Away’ that we'd heard all our life but that no one else ever seemed to know."
Conley's family influence is strong, musically.
"My parents liked to sing around the house, and I really took to music early on," he added. "I was always making up songs and had to be told that no singing was allowed during tests at school. My parents encouraged my creativity by getting me involved in kids’ musical theater and children's choirs, giving me piano lessons and playing saxophone in the school band as I got older. In an elementary school public-speaking competition, I gave a speech about how I wanted to be a musician when I grew up and 'release more albums than The Beatles.’"
Conley is well on his way to achieving his dream. He's beginning to attract attention — and he's taking his musical activism beyond the transgender sphere, and even beyond the larger queer community. In the simply titled “Strong,” he urges people to unify for strength. He also expresses his sorrow at all the young black lives lost at the hands of police officers. Conley, who is white, explained to PGN why he feels such a strong affinity with the Black Lives Matters movement.
"I have folks in my life who are black," he said. "Their lives matter to me deeply. We are living in a country that has been built on anti-black racism. No matter who we are, we have to decide which side we are on."
At the end of the day, Conley describes himself as a clear-eyed songwriter with high hopes for the human race.
“Everybody get together; we will always do it better when we're moving all together pushing on," he sings in “Strong.”
Conley performs at 8 p.m. April 28 at Evangelical Lutheran Church of Atonement, 1542 East Montgomery Ave. For more information, visit http://www.eliconley.com/