The TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race has bought mainstream attention to the drag world unlike any other show before. But just like any other reality or competition show, it is what you do with the platform that determines where you end up. Born Aaron Cody and growing up in Iowa, Sharon Needles rebelled against his conservative upbringing by moving away, creating her character Sharon Needles, and incorporating goth, punk, and the macabre into his drag persona. Her style of drag attracted a massive fan base and she won Season 4 of the show. Rather than rush out a melodyned club track like most of the contestants have, she wrote and recorded a full-on artist album that blends rock and electronic music in a unique and cohesive way. What’s really impressive, aside from the quality of the album, is how active she was at the Winter Music Conference – speaking on panels, hosting the IDMA, and making her presence known. She is also a pleasure to speak with, respectful of those who came before her, and not afraid to speak her mind about anything you ask her.
DJ Ron: Listening to your album, I’ve been wondering what your songwriting process is. Do you start with a track and write to it or do you write your own lyrics first?
Sharon Needles: I write all of my own lyrics, but it really depends on the song. A lot of songs, especially “I Wish I Were Amanda Lepore,” was something that I wrote when I was 18 years old. “Dead Girls Never Say No” was also part of my old poetry. I get my tracks in advance and I write my songs according to my tracks. I have a great topliner named Ashley Levy who helps me make sure that everything sounds phonetically correct and that the timing of words is correct. My production company, Killingsworth Records, are phonetic Nazis. The way that they look at timing and think of vowels and words in a song is very important to them. It is all my writing, but they just kind of chop it up and help me make it “correct.”
DJ Ron: You mentioned Amanda Lepore and I remember on the show you said that you were obsessed with intense plastic surgery.
Sharon Needles: Look at me now!
DJ Ron: Have you had anything done?
Sharon Needles: Yeah, a little bit, I had my teeth done, and my lips done several times and some botox.
DJ Ron: What was it like working with your idol Amanda Lepore?
Sharon Needles: It was terrifying. Before I was on Drag Race I did a lot of work in the Club Kid scene in New York and I never wanted to be more than 20 feet from her. When a lot of people see a star they run up to them and want pictures and hugs and to talk to them. I did not want Amanda Lepore in my life; to me she is an example of impossibility. No one will ever be able to physically achieve what she has done. It sounds really vain but I am such a fan of extreme, exaggerated cartoon beauty, and she is my idol. We have worked together so many times that I am not as afraid of her now.
DJ Ron: What do you think you have learned from her?
Sharon Needles: I guess I haven’t learned anything from her. I can’t, she is a mannequin of impossibilities, something that I can never achieve. She is godliness to me!
DJ Ron: Amanda Lepore has her fragrance and RuPaul has her fragrance, what would your fragrance smell like?
Sharon Needles: I guess mine would smell like funeral lilies, I would probably call it Funeral Home, Formaldehyde, or Rigor Mortis.
DJ Ron: One thing that I have noticed is that when you sing more boyishly, you remind of Adam Young from Owl City. Do you ever listen to Adam Young?
Sharon Needles: Yes, of course. I still haven’t found my vocal flavor, so with every single track there is someone else in my head. I have been compared to the vocals of David Bowie and the singer of AFI. I never sound like a woman. Some drag queens have their tracks melodyned into a female voice, but then they can’t replicate it live. It is very important to me that I am not selling bullshit. What I make for being an adult clown is extremely more than your average bar queen. That bar queen used to be me, so I never take for granted the success and the financial gain that I get out of this. I put 100% into it and I would rather sound like shit than lipsync my own track.
DJ Ron: When you do shows are you actually singing live and not lipping?
Sharon Needles: Every show is sung live.
DJ Ron: Wow, talking about having artists in your head, when you did “Dead Girls Never Say No,” were you listening to or thinking about La Roux?
Sharon Needles: No, but that is a great comparison. “Dead Girls Never Say No” was my pick to be the first single off the album, but of course the powers that be suggested “This Club Is A Haunted House” be the first track. It was a great dance track, it takes place in a club and we had the great opener with RuPaul. If you put RuPaul in anything, the ship is going to sail. I thought that “Dead Girls Never Say No” was going to be the second single, but I couldn’t afford the music video. I had a great vision for the video, but it was quoted at $100,000. It just wasn’t in the cards to ever be a single which is really sad because when that album first came out I thought it was a dead ringer, no pun intended, to be a hit and my fans really liked it as well. My favorite song on the album is “I wish I were Amanda Lepore.”
DJ Ron: Back in the days when you were just doing clown drag, was the slowed down version of the Ministry cover something that you did?
Sharon Needles: Growing up in Newton, Iowa, everyone listened to Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. At 15 years old I had the benefit of having an older friend who was 20 and she would give me Thrill Kill Kult records, KMFDM records, Ministry records, Lords of Acid, 1000 Homo DJs, and records from the Wax Trax industrial scene. I really identified with it and the first time that I ever heard “Everyday is Halloween,” I said that if I ever became famous that would be the song that I cover. After seeing how fans responded to me on RuPaul’s Drag Race, that song took on a whole new meaning, it was like an anthem for any fan of Sharon Needles.
DJ Ron: What is great is when you do shows people come out who aren’t necessarily fans of drag but are fans of you.
Sharon Needles: Correct. I think that because of the way that I do drag it sort of transcends people’s ideas of drag. Another thing that is great about Sharon Needles is that she has a lot of straight fans. She likes punk rock, metal, and things that boys like. She is good for anyone that is just slightly off the beat and path no matter what they are.
DJ Ron: The rock edge that you bring to some of the songs seems very authentic.
Sharon Needles: In a perfect world, I would be with 4 other drunks making glam rock or punk rock. When I am at home I don’t primarily listen to a lot of dance music, I listen to Sex Pistols, The Dictators, Slade, Gary Glitter, T. Rex, and I really like ’70s era punk and UK glitter rock. Within the last couple of years, pop has gotten good. It used to be shit that you sold to the masses and now it’s the masses demanding decent production. Production got really decent in pop music; we have the Britany Spears album Femme Fatale and Lady Gaga’s The Fame Monster. I wanted a record that would sell, so I figured since I work in gay nightclubs and nightlife it would be foolish for me not to make a club record.
DJ Ron: What was it like working with Jayne County?
Sharon Needles: For me major, for the production company it was kind of a nightmare. She lives in her own world; she was smoking cigars in her hotel and is in her own headspace. If there was a heaven it would be me and Jayne County just listening to old stories. She told me the same stories a million different times and they always had a different ending and that is what I love about her. I never know what is real or fake about her. The song “Hail Satan!” that I did with Jayne was very inspired by Al Jourgensen’s work and in a perfect world that is exactly how my whole record would sound. My song “Why Do You Think You’re Nuts?” is a cover of a Penny Pearce song that we turned into a punk song.
DJ Ron: If there was no budget limits and you could work with any producer in the world which producer would it be?
Sharon Needles: I can’t give you an answer for that, I don’t really seek out anyone in particular for production. I just like people to flood me with tons of tracks and when I hear it I know it. I had always wanted to work with Larry Tee and I had the opportunity to fly to London and do a track with him, but I think I got him past his prime.
DJ Ron: Understood. I would say Trent Reznor.
Sharon Needles: I think that a great thing with Trent Reznor would be that we wouldn’t primarily make a goth album and he would be a good listener. He makes dark music but there is a lot going on upstairs that he would understand. Whoever the fuck produced Femme Fatale is who I want. I don’t know who it is but that is the glossiest sounding pop record. I am not even that big of a fan of Britney Spears, but take away what we think about Britney and listen to the album. This is coming from someone who primarily listens to punk and rock music but that is like butter it is so smooth.
DJ Ron: What would you like to say to all of your fans?
Sharon Needles: Always remember I am not a role model, I am just a supermodel. When in doubt freak them out, happy Halloween, and kill your parents. Thank you fans, keep supporting Needles!
Interview conducted March 2014 during Winter Music Conference.