Tica Douglas is walking past Harry Houdini’s grave when our phone call drops to silence. The escape artist, who died in 1926, is buried beneath a lavish stone marker in Machpelah Cemetery in Queens, New York, a graveyard so big that you can supposedly see it from space, near the house Douglas now lives in with their fiancée. “Freaky,” Douglas says once we get back on the line, which is not to say that they believe in ghosts; it’s more like they enjoy the pantomime of belief, the thrill in being haunted for a moment while they walk along the highway on the phone.
Douglas's new album, Our Lady Star of the Sea, Help and Protect Us, explores that dance between belief and nonbelief (and non-nonbelief) with the earnest curiosity of someone fascinated by the myths that people tell each other over generations in order to stay alive. When we talk, Douglas is about to graduate from Union Theological Seminary with a master of divinity degree, which they pursued after majoring in religion as an undergraduate. They joke that the album is "kind of like my master's thesis, honestly. But it's not counted for credit.”
Though not raised in any religion, Douglas cultivated a personal faith as a child, when an early sense of genderqueerness left them feeling untethered. Without attachments to male or female archetypes, Douglas, who is nonbinary, strove toward their own sense of God. "I think it had a lot to do with my mom,” they tell me. “When I did talk to her as a very young person about my feelings of confusion or wanting to be a boy or whatever, she said that it was supposed to be that way, that I was made special. As a really young person, that really stuck with me, that I was made special. Not more special than others, but that this was not an accident. It went a long way for me. It kind of informed my whole outlook about people in general. If I am special, then so is everybody else in their own way. That's been a big favor my mom did for me.”
On their last album, Joey, released in early 2015, Douglas also grappled with feeling adrift outside the gender binary, but through a heavy, retrospective lens. That album plays like a queer bildungsroman, illustrating vignettes from childhood and adolescence in an attempt to make sense of them in the present. Our Lady Star of the Sea plants itself more firmly in the present, telling stories about characters who currently populate Douglas’s adult life. It's a natural evolution of their music to date: Douglas retains the searching quality in their voice, whose idiosyncratic creases recall both Joanna Newsom and Sufjan Stevens, but their earthy guitar playing is now augmented with more instruments and denser production. In contrast to Joey’s sparseness, Our Lady Star of the Sea puts some kick in its arrangements: heavy drums, multitracked vocals, the sound of a helicopter wafting in from above.
That extra architecture helps the album carry its weighty subject matter, which includes death and faith and the uncertainty of all things, each rendered in Douglas’s warm, open register. Studying at Union helped them refine their songwriting practice and plug back into music as a way of opening up channels between people, something of a mystical practice in its own right. “When I went to Union, I had lost connection with why I was doing this — music, I mean,” Douglas says. “At the end of Union, I feel very, very renewed in my connection to it and why it is important and how it can help. Not necessarily my music, but music in general. Having reconnected with that, performing it now, it does feel more ... I don't know if ‘spiritual' is the right word, but vitally connected. I feel connected to it.”
It helped that Union is a deeply political institution, and one that’s about “half queer,” according to Douglas. "Union was a development of my spiritual consciousness, but also my political consciousness,” they say. "I would take these classes like 'Postcolonial Christian Ethics,' which is just basically a rabbit hole. There's no end to it. How can you have a postcolonial Christian ethics when Christians are colonizers, historically? How do you even take a step in the right direction being sure that it is the right direction? Union was a big process of deconstruction for me, just deconstructing everything about myself that I hadn't previously deconstructed. I was able to formulate a more systematic reason of why [music and art] are important for people, to provide alternate routes of thinking and feeling that don't fall into these normative grooves of mythmaking and damaging narratives."
Douglas cites reading James Baldwin at school as a crucial influence on their thinking. "James Baldwin changed my life. He said in a conversation with Margaret Mead that all we're given is prose, on every level from the White House to advertisements, and poetry is the last best hope we have. I think he uses poetry in a really loose term there. I don't think he means literally poetry or literally even art, but that's the best way I can think about it. Just something that disrupts the normative narrative. I think art's a really good way to do that, connecting with people, playing for people, giving that to people, receiving what they have to give.”
Our Lady Star of the Sea is an exercise in that attentiveness, from its tender opening track “My Friend’s Exes,” which searches for a kind of human love more enduring than the containers we’re prone to squeezing it into, to its centerpiece “The Same Thing,” which jumps from the mundanity of watching the news with a loved one back in time to a scene of Douglas’s grandparents playing violin in the ’60s. The juxtaposition mimics the jumble of memory, how whatever you call a self is always fragmentary, always mutating over time. It's fragile, you can’t hold on to it, and yet it’s so easy to try to wield it like a weapon against a world you can’t grasp in its entirety.
Lately, Douglas has more faith in that uncertainty than anything, or really, faith in people’s ability to reckon with that uncertainty without letting it overpower them. "I really separate belief and faith,” they say. “'Oh, I believe in God' — I can't say that. I just can't say it. But faith is somehow different to me in that it's what influences my habits and my actions. It's a more embedded, bodily thing, like the faith of my childhood still manifests. I like people. I think they're trying to be good even if they're confused and fucked. I think that gives me a hopeful outlook even though there's no reason to be hopeful. So I hope to cultivate that. It's not about being some starry-eyed person who's like, ‘It's going to be fine!' But the center would be being able to hold on to the reason it's not fine while also not just dying in that.”
The album is a prayerful one, they say, even if there’s no direct addressee. The name, taken from the photo on the album cover, is itself a prayer that has been spoken every year for more than 40 years. Once the album was finished, Douglas was searching for a title and stumbled across the photo in a book of American monuments. It immediately clicked — this was the cover, this was the title. "I found out who took the photo — it was taken in Morgan City, Louisiana, by a woman who's now 94 named Carol Ackerman,” Douglas says. "She's from the conmaternity of the diocese of Our Lady Star of the Sea. And I emailed them to explain a little bit. I wanted to talk to them — not just get their permission but explain to them what this album was. Carol Ackerman didn't have email, so I called her, and we ended up having this hour-long conversation. She told me the story of the photo: Morgan City had been ravaged by hurricanes. They're all shrimp boaters and they work on oil rigs. Their whole livelihood depends on the sea and they had gotten ravaged by hurricanes. So in 1974, they erected this statue, and now every year starting in April this little group of ladies goes out and they pray prayers of supplication. They pray the rosary and they pray for protection. And then every year after the storm season is over they go and they give prayers of thanksgiving. And it's worked. They haven't been hit since then.”