Just Duet

A novel slow jam connects Joshua Klipp's past and present

If you thought Natalie Cole's 1991 Unforgettable duet with her dead father was bizarre, check out Joshua Klipp's self-released EP Patience. The San Francisco singer's slow jam, "Little Girl," features both his current incarnation as a man and his formerly female self on vocals. You'll be forgiven for assuming the worst — the premise sounds gimmicky, and the song is four-and-a-half minutes of synthy, lite R&B. The track sounds a lot like the forgotten Justin Timberlake/Pharell collabo "Nothin' Else." But there's more to the story.

After hearing about the EP, I met with Klipp on a recent weekday afternoon at Crossroads Cafe. He was on break from his day job as a lawyer for the U.S. Postal Service, and his gentle handshake was the only possible clue to his past. He wore a red tie and an Oxford button-down in that confident shade of bright blue favored by frat types. His sideburns grazed the dip beneath his cheekbones, and he spoke in a polite tenor.

Klipp, the child of two singers (his father directed gospel choirs), was raised mainly in suburban Detroit, and began developing his singing voice at an early age. At 16 he sang the National Anthem at a Tigers game. He went to law school and eventually moved to San Francisco, fronting a jazz group called the Klipptones in his spare time.

After 30 years of outwardly living and singing as a woman, in 2004 Josh began hormone therapy to match his biological identity with his mental one. That turned out to be the easy part. "When I found out about the voice change," he says, "my heart broke. It just broke." Transitioning from female to male via hormone therapy is analogous to puberty, when a person's voice can change radically and drop an octave. A lifetime of vocal study would be lost in the translation.

"My voice is my soul," Klipp says. "I mean, I've never smoked a thing in my life. It was horrifying to think of jeopardizing my vocal chords. Horrifying. ... It came down to a decision between my voice and my happiness."

Happiness, in the form of a new identity as a man, won out, but Klipp didn't go gently into that manly night. He contacted specialists around the country looking for solid info about the effects of female-to-male transition on the vocal chords. But no medical studies had been made on this part of the process. Eventually, Klipp connected with Dr. Edward Damrose, an otolaryngologist (that's fancy-talk for "throat specialist") at Stanford.

Damrose, a UCLA-educated physician, was intrigued. "I thought Josh was in an interesting dilemma," he says by phone from his office. "The impact on Josh's singing career was going to be significant. I wasn't sure which way it would go." Damrose agreed to monitor Klipp, mainly through monthly laryngoscopy exams — sticking a camera down his throat and checking for trouble. At the same time, Klipp worked closely with vocal coaches at San Francisco's Blue Bear School of Music, hoping desperately to reach his previous measure of control.

Damrose plans to publish his findings in a medical journal — the first scientific documentation of the FTM process' effects on the voice. "I think it's important to tell other doctors who have patients with gender reassignment when to expect that change," he said.

All furthering of scientific knowledge aside, Klipp wanted a personal record of his change. "Little Girl" was a song he'd written and recorded years ago, and he decided to revisit it as a way to speak to his past, and to propel his songcraft forward. "You can't have an original thought these days," he says of the song, "let alone do something that's never been done before." And yes, for once, here is a completely novel song concept — a man offering comforting words to his conflicted former self, while the yearning girl he used to be sings along unknowingly, across a gap of years and genders.

Any hipster or housewife who's belted out "and I-ee-I will always love you-oo-oo-oo," knows that we are all powerless against the immortal force of schmaltzy pop music. Though "Little Girl"'s backstory is unique in the adult contemporary canon, Klipp's croon-y blandishments tend to a universal pain — I am not whole, and I hurt. Whatever it started out as, Klipp says, now "it's a song about courage. I'm singing to an old part of me."

Klipp and his songwriting partner Kristopher Cloud revisited the music and lyrics of the original song, keeping the female vocals and reworking the rest. Joshua sings the verses, then pairs up with the old recording to harmonize on the chorus: "Little girl, sleep tonight/ Dream about a new life so when you wake up, you won't cry anymore." The early Klipp's voice is breathy and beautiful, and a little mournful; the manly Klipp confidently plows through his lines. She's asleep and dreaming of the right life, he's awake and living it. Klipp confided, "I've always been a sucker for soft, squishy ballads."

 
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