ssion rejoices in unfiltered, in-your-face queerness
Collaborating with industry heavy-hitters like Sky Ferreira and Ariel Pink, the DIY veteran is catapulting into the pop mainstream.
Photography Megan Mantia
Electric blue is Cody Critcheloe’s favorite color. It’s a very specific tint of blue, intense and vibrant, the color of lightning and flame. This blue evokes a certain nostalgia: the tone of the static screen found on hissing old VHS tapes; the dying color a Microsoft computer blazes when it reaches a fatal system error, the point at which it can no longer function safely.
When we meet at a quiet Williamsburg coffee shop, Critcheloe, the creative force behind cult multimedia pop project SSION (pronounced shun), is decked out head-to-thigh in the shade: he wears bright blue shorts, a matching blue tank top, a vintage windbreaker striped with red and yellow primaries in addition to the base cyan, a blue ball cap atop a head of chin-length dark brown curls. The color holds a particular resonance for Critcheloe, who referred to Neil Young’s 1989 single “Out of the Blue” as a perennial inspiration when producing his third studio album O, which debuted in full last May.
“I love the lyrics,” he says, sitting across from me at a lonely wooden corner table, sunlight pouring in through the nearby windows. In the music video for SSION’s second single from the album, “At Least the Sky Is Blue,” we see Critcheloe dolled up as Liza Minelli in a cropped wig, a glittering beige gown, and massive false lashes alongside an Elizabeth Taylor-fied Ariel Pink, mouthing the words to Young’s song: “Out of the blue and into the black / You pay for this, but they give you that / And once you're gone, you can't come back.” He explains, “That song was something I wanted to represent when I was making the album because I loved how the lyrics are so much about being a performer, being a singer, and how it’s a brutal kind of life.”
O marks a return to music-making as a creative vehicle for Critcheloe, who has been bottling queer themes into danceable disco-pop hooks and absurd music videos for the better part of two decades, and it contains some of SSION’s most polished work to date. Co-producing most of the album with the aid of Teengirl Fantasy’s Nick Weiss and Sam Mehran of Test Icicles, the trio drew upon a mix of references, from the bass grooves of Kylie Minogue’s “Love at First Sight” to the distorted digital hardcore of Atari Teenage Riot, to build an album that is at once lyrically self-aware and structurally sound, while staying true to the band’s punk roots. Featuring cameos from pop divas like Sky Ferreira and Roisin Murphy, the aforementioned indie heavy-hitter Ariel Pink, and former Hole drummer Patty Schemel — whom Critcheloe recruited via an Instagram DM — the album is poised to take SSION, a veteran of the DIY underground, into the pop mainstream.
“I love the album. Which feels amazing because I’ve definitely put out albums before where I’ll be proud of it, but I don’t love it.” He’s referring to Bent, his 2012 collection of funky dance tracks that includes singles “Luvvbazaar,” “Earthquake,” and “Psy-chic.” Personally disappointed by the album, Critcheloe struggled to find his drive to release new music, shifting his focus instead to directing music videos for other artists. But he never really stopped writing songs. “It goes back to finding yourself, finding the thing that brings you joy that makes you want to be a creator and put something out into the world,” he says, noting that the artistic struggle of feeling uninspired and then, however suddenly or slowly, rediscovering your muse, is an important theme SSION interrogates throughout O. In “Comeback,” which he describes as his version of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” he calls out repeatedly to his muse to “come back,” the words acting as a kind of pop-appropriate double entendre, the inspiration functioning lyrically as a love object. The refrain bounces: “I always knew you would come back, come back to me.”
It was also important for Critcheloe that his music come from a quintessentially queer perspective. “We have all this queer positivity and all this gay positivity and we have all these female pop stars who represent that in very vague and generic ways,” he says, pointing to the track “1980-99,” which he wrote from the perspective of a gay stylist. And so the bridge goes, “I made your dress and I painted your face / I'll fix your hair, I make sure nothing's out of place.” He probes, “What is it like to always be behind the scenes, always investing your creative energy and ideas into this thing that, if it was you, probably wouldn’t be digested in the same way, or may potentially repulse everyone?”
Known within the music industry for his work as a director, creating music videos for such notables as Grizzly Bear, Perfume Genius, and Robyn, Critcheloe releases O as a visual album, meaning that music videos will be made for as many songs as a DIY budget can afford. Each video takes about two months to produce and, so far, SSION has released visual companions for “Comeback,” “At Least the Sky is Blue,” and, just last week, “Heaven Is my Thing Again.” Each video follows a storyline, some inspired by Critcheloe’s own life, to which SSION injects a heavy dose of psychedelia: the video for “At Least the Sky Is Blue,” for example, is a reflection on a moment when Critcheloe was crushing particularly hard and felt a need to perform an ultra-masculine role in order to convince that person of his worth. In the video, prior to donning drag, we see him at the gym and perusing dating apps. “In that video, me as Liza [Minelli] is actually me not in drag. I’m in drag the rest of the video,” he explains. That same electric blue is pervasive, an overarching aura in the visuals for “Heaven Is my Thing Again” and “At Least the Sky is Blue,” as well as in the styling in “Comeback,” in which he dons a glitzy blue suit.
Critcheloe notes that, while working on videos for other artists, he keeps a running mental log of visual themes he’d like to incorporate in his own work, and O has given him the platform to feed his bubbling creative ambitions. “There’s so much you can’t use for other people, ideas that are sometimes impossible to articulate to another artist. This was a perfect way to have the freedom to do it myself. When we really started going in, I remember being so excited because — oh my god — I could do anything. I can be a complete freak. I can fuck a cow if I want to.” In a recent performance at Ladyfag’s queer music festival Ladyland in Brooklyn, New York, SSION and his backup dancers painted their bodies to resemble anthropomorphic cows, a nod to the cover of Pink Floyd’s album “Atom Heart Mother.” “I had really missed humor. I felt like there was a such a lack of humor and fun in a lot of visual representations of pop music, especially with queer artists.”
In O, through a blend of danceable basslines and punk rock sensibilities, SSION interrogates the struggles of finding your creative muse and rejoices in unfiltered queerness, leading fans through his electric blue-tinged psychedelic trip. Hinting at a forthcoming tour, SSION will perform O in its entirety for the first time at his album release show this Saturday, June 30th, at Bowery Ballroom in New York.
“Regardless of how many people hear O or what happens with it, it’s nice to put that out into the world,” he humbly remarks. “It was really hard to make it, it was really hard to get it out, and the fact that people are listening to it and responding to it, I don’t take it for granted at all.”