How an Autism Diagnosis Led Carmen Elle from DIANA to gay hollywood

Finally working through "that trauma of growing up with such different needs and hurtling through barriers like the Kool-Aid Man" resulted in their most upbeat music yet

Photo: Katherine Barcsay

BY Matt BobkinPublished Nov 11, 2021

From the outside, it looked like Carmen Elle's music career was on a steady upward trajectory. Years of grinding in the Toronto music scene — including onetime membership in electronica project Austra, and as one-half of garage rockers Army Girls — led to their role in acclaimed synthpop band DIANA and the international success that followed.

But their good fortune came amid constant struggles with panic attacks, and general feelings of dread and being overwhelmed. "I look back on those Army Girls days, and I'm like, 'I really limped through that whole band experience.' It was the most anxious I've ever been. It's a miracle we did what we did," says Elle to Exclaim! now. The issues persisted as DIANA's profile grew. "I would mask panic attacks on stage in front of 4,000 people. And I would kinda nod with this lump in my throat and tell promoters, like, 'Yeah, I can do those dates,'" they recall.

When DIANA's activities waned after they finished touring their 2016 album, Familiar Touch, Elle recorded two albums — an Army Girls record and a self-described "folky" solo album, both departures from DIANA's smooth synthpop — but was unable to bring themself to release them. The anxiety that had pervaded Elle's activities with Army Girls and DIANA was threatening to stop their next act before it even began.

"To be perfectly candid, I shelved them because I didn't think they were good enough," reveals Elle. "I had some really bad impostor syndrome, and I think that the success of DIANA eclipsed the Army Girls project — not that they were in any competition in any real sense, but I didn't think that anyone would be open to anything I did that wasn't in that vein. I felt pretty insecure about guitar being my primary instrument, and my fear of rejection prevented me from even trying."

They say, "Looking back on those years, I behaved with so much violence towards myself. I couldn't accept what I saw in the mirror, and my art was truly the biggest casualty."

Before long, several years had passed with only sparse glimpses of activity from Elle — a solo live show here, a collaborative track there — and the lack of any noticeable momentum continued to aggravate existing frustrations. They describe feeling a "sort of self-loathing that was happening for me because, for my whole life, I was like looking at other people touring, putting up music and functioning really well in the professional music space. And I was having such a hard time, and I had no language to describe what I was feeling." They elaborate by saying, "My anxiety wasn't looking like other people's anxiety. So there was just a lot of feelings of not being able to function."

Everything changed last year when Elle's long-term partner, a psychotherapist, showed them a YouTube video about autism.

"They very gently brought up somebody who's on YouTube talking about autism symptoms and were like, 'Would you like to watch this video with me? Like, maybe you could tell me if anything resonates with you.' You know, like, really. gently massaging the idea into my head."

Adds Elle, "Based on pop culture and the stereotypes available to me as a young person, my criteria for what autism 'looked like' was really limited in scope. The video I saw was by a female creator close to my age who talked a lot about 'masking' and the things that she struggles with, such as remembering to eat, shower and brush her teeth, and how without support and reminders she will go days without doing those things. That, combined with my partner wondering if my panic attacks were actually sensory overload 'meltdowns,' made me curious enough to look deeper."

Following an appointment with a psychologist and a formal diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder, Elle developed some clarity over who they were and how they functioned. The subsequent learning — they credit TikTok, where they have over 65,000 followers and post frequently about autism and music — for linking them with a vibrant and diverse autistic community — has been "a tremendous springboard into, most importantly, empathy and compassion for myself."

This period of learning led Elle to better understand the many reasons for their years of struggle in creating their art. During our conversation, Elle repeatedly brings up the concept of "masking," in which autistic people attempt to hide the struggles in regulating focus, emotion and sensory processing that are central to the condition. While this is done, oftentimes subconsciously, to help autistic people feel like they're fitting into a society in which such traits are considered undesirable, it often results in eventual strain and burnout. When you build your public interactions on a façade, it's bound to someday crumble.

"I was also told I have complex trauma, which I think a lot of people who get an autism diagnosis later in their life will have," says Elle. "It's just that trauma of growing up with such different needs and hurtling through barriers like the Kool-Aid Man. You're just gonna have to fling yourself through the wall to get to where you think you should be, and it can be very traumatizing."

As Elle said in an Instagram post earlier this year discussing their diagnosis, "As someone who has struggled immensely with anxiety all my life, I did a good job of minimizing and invalidating my experience. I wanted so badly to be 'normal' and exhausted myself masking how I felt to try and fit in with my peers." The post ended with a note of hope: "I feel relieved that I can start to unlearn my internalized ableism, which has held my empathy and compassion hostage for over 30 years."

The slow process of unmasking and learning how to exist authentically in communal spaces led to the formation of Elle's new music project, gay hollywood. Their upcoming Actually EP, due in early 2022, will mark their first full release since Familiar Touch.

Named after a social media hashtag — #actuallyautistic — that encourages authentic and nuanced expressions of autism in defiance of reductive discussions led by non-autistic people, Actually offers Elle's most direct and upbeat material to date. The EP's tracks explore different elements of sunny guitar pop, along with a melancholic cover of Wheatus's "Teenage Dirtbag" and a synth-driven instrumental number for good measure.

"I'm coming at it from a place of joy, and that's completely new for me. This album feels like a celebration, and there's something that maybe felt dissident to be writing such a happy album in the middle of a pandemic. But I have always been a bit of a contrarian, so it makes sense as well," says Elle. "And having been really self-preoccupied for my whole life about what the fuck was going on with me, it felt nice to integrate that into a more 'celebration of life' record than a 'coming to grips' record."

In contrast with the abstract poetics of their Army Girls and DIANA material, the lyrics of the gay hollywood material are simple and direct. Lead single "I Think I Love You," released in October, rides a repeated refrain of "Hey stranger, I think I love you" over upbeat production laden in samples and grooves, while upcoming single "Almost Unbreakable" serves as a raw and personal expression of finding power amid the crushing realities faced by autistic people. "Can I just stay here shaking like a leaf?" asks Elle amid pulsing synths and a steady drum machine tick. And in the pre-chorus, they discuss their struggles with emotional regulation with a remarkable amount of poise and self-assurance: "I'm gonna pull my hair and cause a fit / I wanna stand up tall but I bit my lip and cried instead."

Creating the songs also served as a journey of musical self-discovery, as Elle learned how to produce music while also working on the EP. They say, "If I had just found out about — I don't know — samples, I would be like, 'Okay, so now I've got this entire new palette to work with, and and I'm just gonna grab one thing and mess with it a bunch, and then that's going to become kind of the foundation of the track.' Sometimes, I started with a groove. Sometimes I started with guitar." 

Several of the tracks began as contributions to the CBC show Sort Of, centring on a young non-binary person as they navigate the many facets of their life. Elle was one of several Canadian musicians commissioned to contribute music to the series — alongside artists like Polaris Music Prize-winning rapper Haviah Mighty and high-profile beatmaker the Kount — and the inspiration from their experiences working on the music for Sort Of allowed Elle to hone their own voice, which became gay hollywood.

"The core message of [Sort Of] is that everybody is always going through transitions," says Elle now. "I was reading about these characters going through their transitions. I was literally in the middle of getting my diagnosis, going through my own transition, and I was able to write these songs that kind of bridge the gap between the show and my own very personal journey."

Even the project's name — an ode to "that time in old Hollywood where being gay was still criminalized," and to "all the leading men in Hollywood who were in the closet and all of the lavender marriages that were happening just to protect people's livelihoods and keep their families intact" — serves as a reminder of the toll that masking takes, and provides a glimmer of hope for a world in which everyone is encouraged to live authentically.

"So many of us know firsthand how difficult it is to live in a closet. So. it's just a way of not forgetting that on a personal level."

As Elle continues preparing for the release of new gay hollywood material, they speak with a renewed excitement for putting themself out there, living without the weight of the masks they once wore as they now express their struggles candidly and openly. They're even in a place where they can revisit the material from the two scrapped albums. "I even reworked one of the songs from that [shelved Army Girls] record this past year, so I think enough time has passed for me to return to that collection of songs with more clarity and compassion," they say.

They speak with a newfound honesty about their motivations for making and releasing art: to connect with others. "I think we're sold this idea of, being an artist, being a writer, where you're supposed to do it for the love of it and sit in, like, an attic in Paris and work all day long, and it doesn't matter if people don't hear them or see them or read them. It just matters that, like, your soul is compulsively driven to do the work. I don't really feel that way. I've been a musician my entire life, but the reason that I do it is to connect with other people because I don't have that connection in my life."

TikTok remains a major artery of Elle's community, and they credit it with helping to sustain them and to allow them to communicate authentically, which led to the renewed ability to create and release art. They say, "There could be something really novel about turning your phone on, going on this app and then talking to people in the Pacific Northwest and in South America. It gives me this little bit of safe extroversion from a distance that kind of propels me through my day and maybe inspires me to do a little bit more work."

It allows them to envision their ideal audience; now that Elle has a better sense of who they are, they now have a renewed sense of who they're making music for. Says Elle, "This is the first time that I'm gonna be attempting to connect with people in this way, and I hope that people resonate with it. I hope that young kids on the spectrum see this and go, 'I can do it too.'"

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