Being True to Yourself

by Sonja O’Steen

Unless you’ve been living under rock, you’ve probably heard of The Claudettes. The Chicago-based band blew through Sioux Falls in the fall of 2022 with their bluesy stylings and I discovered that guitarist Zachariah James is a Sioux Falls native.

“I love Sioux Falls, but wanting to be a full-time musician, and being queer, Sioux Falls just didn’t quite have what I’m looking for,” they said.

James, who is nonbinary, left Sioux Falls for Chicago in 2009 when they were asked to be in a band called The Kickback. “I didn’t have anything going on, so I thought, ‘Why not?’”

But James’ musical roots go way back. Their first band was a death metal band that was started when they were 13. The band consisted of their school’s quarterback who was the lead singer, and the drummer from the high school band. “I wrote songs about alcoholism and things I’d seen in my family growing up. It was my way to cope with things.”

They recorded an album in a barn, which James then sold at school. Once the football coach learned that the quarterback was involved, the quarterback was forced to quit. So, the band broke up and James started another one called Nerve Wreck.

“Nerve Wreck kinda caught on and we’d have 200-300 people come to our shows. I don’t know that it was because were good though,” they said. “The 90s were such a different time. They were open to different kinds of music.”

Different genres of music would play on the same show, but now a blues band will play with a blues band, punk will play with punk.

“I really miss the 90s,” James said.

Part of the reason they miss the 90s (and who doesn’t) is because they got to meet the late, great Prince at his Paisley Park studio. A friend of friend worked for Prince and so James was able to attend some private concerts at the studio.

“One time Prince was about five feet away from me. He looked me up and down and said, ‘What’s up?’ and then offered me and my friend chips and soda,” they said. “We totally freaked out.”

Growing up Queer in SD

Growing up queer in South Dakota during the 1980s and 90s was not an easy thing for James. While there is a more thriving LGBTQIA+ community in Sioux Falls now, that wasn’t the case when James was a teenager.

“People are more accepting of it now, but I grew up in the 80s and the 90s, and people were still really close-minded to it,” they said.

James was threatened by people close to them, who would say things like, “If I find out you’re gay, I’ll kick your ass.”

“I love those people dearly, but it wasn’t easy. It was really hard being around that sort of thing, but I’ve been in bands my entire life and I’ve always been out with the people in my bands, especially after 18 or whatever, but, when I was in high school, I was in the closet,” they said.

Music was always there for James.

“Music is the one thing that I’ve always gone back to that has helped me in my dark times — when I felt like all hope is lost and I felt alone. Music has always been my savior, kinda like a boyfriend,” they said. “People in my life have always failed when music has succeeded in making me feel better. In the darkest hours, music is the thing that has saved me.”

James is currently questioning whether or not they are trans. This year, they plan to go to therapy to figure out their trans identity.

“If I transition, will I be able to sing the way that I sing now? I just have a lot of questions about it. I have so many friends in Chicago who have transitioned and they’re the happiest they’ve ever been. It makes me want to dive in and just do it, but I’m also happy as a man a lot of times and I just need to explore it more.”

Check out The Claudettes latest album, “The Claudettes Go Out.”

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