Jessie Grimes: ‘It took a long time within classical music for me to stand in a place of authenticity and say, ‘this is who I am’’

The clarinettist and BBC Radio 3 contributor on coming out in classical music, growing up gay in Ireland, and why so many LGBTQIA people of her generation experience secret relationships.

“It was such a struggle, and it took a long time within classical music for me to stand in a place of authenticity and say, ‘this is who I am’. ”

Jessie Grimes – clarinettist, teacher, BBC presenter, wife, and future mother – has told OUTcast Podcast what it was like being LGBTQ+ while studying and working in classical music. 

“The name on my passport is Jessica, and I think for the longest time I used that name as my stage name, because I assumed that in this wealthy, white, privileged world of classical music it was what the audiences and people who were giving me marks wanted.”

That was a “femme” and “posh” person, according to the London-based musician. “That’s definitely not me!” she laughs.

“Now thinking about it, I was trying to filter myself, and trying to not be me in order to be what I thought they wanted me to be. I didn’t go the flirting with them route, but the whole thing was, don’t stick out, fit in and go to the pub, so that when you get booked for the gig, they’re going to want to have you back.”

What is it like coming out as LGBTQIA in classical music?

OUTcast host Rosie Pentreath has also spent her life studying and working in classical music, and is familiar with the conservative, ‘status quo’ attitudes that stick, even in 2021. The film and TV industries, and even pop music, have had their #MeToo moments, for example, but classical music still refuses to budge on its unforgivable protection of sexual harassment – and worse – perpetrated by top conductors and top artists globally. 

“The trouble with classical music is the powers that be do tend to be of a certain generation, even still,” Rosie says in Episode 5 of OUTcast, which is out now. “The other problem is, the audiences we cater for are traditional audiences.

“Whereas, say, the pop music record labels have to change because their audience demands it, we’ve always got the excuse not to change in classical music – because we might upset Old Mrs Miggins, and Old Mr Noel, or whatever his name is. It’s very frustrating.”

I played better than I’ve ever played

In this environment it took Jessie Grimes years to come out and be her true self in classical music.

“It wasn’t until probably five or six years ago that I went on stage for the first time in a suit, and I played better than I’ve ever played,” she confides on OUTcast. “There were these super high-flying, classical music people at this festival, and [my wife] Emma was with me. So I was publicly out, and it was the first time I just stopped filtering myself. I was just Jessie.”

She describes everything just changing overnight, then.

A clarinettist based in London, Jessie balances a busy schedule performing as a soloist, chamber musician and orchestral player with teaching at the Royal College of Music Junior Department, presenting on TV and radio, and leading workshops.

Award-winning series, Jessie’s Homemade Garden Jam

When the coronavirus pandemic hit in 2020, she used lockdown to establish Jessie’s Homemade Garden Jam, which was originally eight live-streamed concerts performed in her fruitful London garden.

The garden looks big in the videos – it’s very tiny apparently, but abundant nonetheless. The show has garnered thousands of views online, and some passionate and loyal fans, and in 2021, Jessie won the prestigious Royal Philharmonic Society ‘Trailblazer’ Award for the series.

Jessie recently hosted a special LGBTQ+-themed Garden Jam called the Drag Kings and Queens of Classical Music. 

“I might be wrong, but I feel like it was the first classical performance in this country all in drag,” she says. “It felt really great, and it was so amazing to be there, fully in drag, talking about all these queer composers who, when I was growing up or when I was studying, I had no idea were gay.”

Growing up in Dublin

Jessie was born in Dublin, in Ireland, and came out to her parents when she was still in School.

“I’m from a very open and accepting family in terms of that sort of stuff,” she confides when she shares her coming out story on OUTcast. “You know, my uncle is gay? But I have a very strong memory of twigging and realising as a kid that Carl’s friend Tom wasn’t his friend, when they came over. 

“I was 8 or 9 or something, and I remember I hid in my room. I was scared of the difference and was like, ‘Are they gay?’. It really weirded me out as a kid because it was not something I saw anywhere.”

Coming out in Ireland in the 2000s

Growing up in 1990s Ireland, and then coming out to her parents as a teenager in the 2000s, Jessie didn’t have many queer role models around her, on TV or in the media, and she felt isolated. She entered into a “stereotypical secret relationship” when she was still in school, before coming to terms with her sexuality.

Once she came out, she was able to start living more authentically.

“We’re permanently coming out, all the time,” Jessie reflects. “If you don’t fit into a heteronormative place, you’re permanently having to explain yourself, justify yourself, and come out, in every new scenario.” 

Jessie is now married, and amidst her busy music schedule, she and her wife are embarking on their journey to having a baby.

Visit www.jessiegrimes.com to follow Jessie’s work, and click here to watch Seasons 1 and 2 of Jessie’s Homemade Garden Jam.

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Published by Rosie Pentreath

Founder and host of OUTcast Podcast. Rosie is an LGBTQ+ writer, digital producer and musician, often found travelling to some far flung place or other, to take photographs on a 1970s Pentax SLR camera or flick through a good book. Rosie has contributed to Reader's Digest, Cosmopolitan, Grazia, Classic FM, BBC Music Magazine, Homes & Antiques, Music Feeds, The Fashion Spot and other arts and lifestyle publications.

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