Photo credit: David Yerby
Trans Artist And Activist Ryan Cassata Opens Up About Sobriety, Living With Hearing Loss & Love At First Sight
Be resilient and persevere. These are the messages that transgender singer-songwriter Ryan Cassata resonates, not only through the lense of his storytelling alternative folk/rock songs, which span four LPs and six EPs, but also in the way he lives his life. Five years sober and just a few months shy of 26, Cassata understands perseverance like no other; his entire life has been riddled with curveballs and roadblocks. From Bay Shore, New York, Cassata experienced his first of many obstacles before he was even born.
On December 13, 1993, Cassata's mother was in her third trimester. Already sick with Lupus, she suffered a severe allergic reaction to pine in the early days of the Christmas season. While a blizzard roared outside, doctors urged her to abort the baby, arguing that its additional strain on her body could end both of their lives. Refusing, she instead insisted on inducing labor six weeks early. It was on that day that Francine, a.k.a. "Fran," gave birth to Cassata. The doctors said it was a miracle they both survived.
This was only the first of many tests of Cassata's resilience. His parents split up when he was five years old, and it wasn't long after that this middle child among brothers began begging for guitar lessons. Fran remembers him being around six when he started asking to play the red guitar that always sat in the corner of the living room in silence. "It was mostly just collecting dust, and I was drawn to it," Cassata says of that crimson guitar his older brother Vincent used to play. "I begged them for a long time to sign me up. They said I was too small and young, but I kept asking and eventually they let me."
Cassata's other primary interest also rose to the surface before grade school when he successfully convinced his parents to sign him up for another extracurricular activity: Little League. Although beyond disappointed when he learned he'd have to play softball instead of baseball on account of his sex, he was still elated to be part of a team.
Though he rarely speaks of it today for reasons that will become clear later, baseball was almost as important as music when it came to the core passions of pre-adolescent Cassata. In fact, by age 10, scattered among his Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen posters were newspaper clippings, memorabilia and souvenirs related to baseball—the Red Sox in particular.
"I would stay up past my bedtime and sneak downstairs to watch their games at night. I had every player's name memorized," Cassata explains. Despite the fact that he was a New Yorker in a family of Mets fans, The Red Sox fascinated him. "I was transfixed. I started watching when they were underdogs. I liked their handshakes and the overall chemistry of the team. I felt a part of it in some way."
He didn't have many friends at school, but he had baseball, music, and by this point, a close relationship with his stepbrother Mike, or "The King Of Cool," as Cassata called him, who instantly became his role model when Fran remarried. Though he always knew he was different, the excitement and confidence brought on by music lessons, Little League and strong family bonds enabled Cassata to be a happy kid.
When middle school rolled around, however, Cassata's world turned upside down in a whirlwind of back-to-back tragedies. Seventh and eighth grade were two years that would prove to be the greatest testament to Cassata's resilience.
In 2006, Cassata's guitar teacher, Lou Parasimo, lost his life to Crohn's disease, plunging 12-year-old Cassata into his first-ever experience with death. These new feelings of devastation left Cassata stunned. Thankfully, Parasimo had been a major source of inspiration to young Cassata, thus enabling him to turn to music for comfort. Shortly after the tragedy, Cassata wrote his first song, "Wonderful, Beautiful," which appears on his first EP, Distraction.
Lou Parasimo & Ryan Cassata, 2006
"I wrote it on the piano," Cassata says of this early creation. "My mom came home and [asked], 'Who wrote that song?' I said, 'I did.' She couldn’t believe I wrote it because I’d just started piano lessons."
Parasimo's passing had quickly opened a door for Cassata to begin taking piano lessons from Lou’s friend, Dave Defeis, of the rock band Virgin Steele. Dave was instantly invested in Cassata's talent. "He believed in me from the very start," Cassata recalls. It was Dave who recorded this first-ever song of Cassata's, and it wouldn't be the last.
Though Parasimo would never be able to hear it, his death unlocked a new level of musicality and creativity in Cassata. This was only the beginning of songwriting serving as a coping mechanism for Cassata during hard times.
Ryan Cassata and Dave Defeis, The Village Club, 2009
In early 2007, Cassata suffered another emotional blow when his stepbrother Mike died of a heroin overdose at just 16 years old. "I thought of him as the coolest person ever," Cassata reflects on his beloved stepbrother, whose memory he wears proudly as a tattoo of a skateboard gravestone that reads "King Of Cool."
Topics of drug addiction and substance abuse are scattered throughout Cassata's music, sometimes in reference to his own struggles with drugs and alcohol, which plagued him until his early 20s. The song "Sobering Up," though, tells Mike’s story in Cassata's raw, lyric-dominant style. No one could or would ever replace Mike, but Cassata would soon find that the gaping hole this loss created in his heart could, in fact, be filled by something else.
Cassata's mom had surprised him with Spring Training tickets for his birthday a couple months earlier, and the tickets were coming up. "It was only a week after my stepbrother had died," Cassata explains. After some discussion, Cassata and his mom decided they should still go and make the most of it.
"We went on a tour of the ballpark, and this man [in Red Sox colors] noticed me, this really sad kid, and asked, 'Hey, do you want to wear my World Series ring?" It turns out this man was Carl Beane, the announcer for the Red Sox. Cassata's spirits were lifted in that moment, and thus began a life-changing friendship.
"One day, you’re going to see that all of this hard stuff you’re going through will be worth it because you’ll have the ability, then, to help others through their struggles."
Cassata and Beane became pen pals after that, and their friendship steadily grew into something truly earnest. A few times each year, Fran would drive Cassata to meet Beane for dinner at Perkins Restaurant and Bakery, where Beane would ask to hear Cassata's newest songs. This man appreciated Cassata for who he was and remained one of his greatest supporters through each milestone and hurdle, including Cassata coming out as transgender. "Everyone always asks, 'Why the Red Sox?' The Red Sox saved my life. It sounds corny but it’s true," he says. "I was on a path to eventually meet Carl."
Beane would later die in a car accident, shortly after Cassata's top surgery in early 2012, and the young musician's heart would break once again. But as he had learned time and time again through the losses he already had to endure, the only answer was to be resilient and persevere. Cassata again harnessed this willpower in the form of artistic expression. The acoustic elegy he wrote for his beloved friend entitled "Mr. Beane (Fenway Park)" is rich with imagery of Fenway Park and revealing of Beane's impact. Cassata also wrote two poems, one of which is published on his blog. The unpublished poem contains a moving foreword from which the following quote is extracted:
"The impact that [Carl Beane] left on my life continues to live on. He [was] the angel that [got] me through some of the hardest moments in my life, and he was essential in my upbringing and survival."
Ryan Cassata and Carl Beane, Fort Myers Florida, 2007
Another moment Cassata refers to here is when he lost his hearing. Although the majority of the general public is unaware, Cassata has suffered from profound deafness in his left ear since the age of 14. Cassata remembers that winter day in 2008 vividly. It was the day after the Superbowl when he awoke, head spinning in a hellscape of endless vertigo. "I couldn’t stop throwing up," Cassata recalls. "Imagine being on a rollercoaster that never stops."
But, as with every other curveball life has thrown at Cassata, he found ways to cope. Relearning to walk within three weeks, Cassata refused to let this new disability destroy everything he had been working so hard for. He also remains good-humored about it. "Sometimes people shove me at the grocery store because I didn’t hear them say 'excuse me,'" he laughs. "It also sucks that people say 'never mind' when I didn’t hear what they said to me. Now I’ll never know what they said!" Cassata smiles, shaking his head, clearly of the mind that there is no use in being exasperated by this type of ignorance.
While Cassata never specifically avoided going public about his hearing loss, he hasn't exactly been vocal about it either. In his experience, people simply do not understand. He suspects it has something to do with the fact that the term "deafness" is applied to a vast range of hearing loss, and rarely are there cases as extreme as this—especially in someone so young. "My left ear is so deaf that hearing aid is useless," he explains. "Hearing aids are for people who still have some nerves working in there."
When asked how this disability affects his music, Cassata explains that it is the worst during live performances. Without a functioning left ear, the ability to stay synchronized with the band is extremely difficult. "We have to strategically place Kyle," Cassata says of his drummer Kyle Dombroski, a Los Angeles local. He goes on to explain how, while he can't always hear his whole band clearly, he can always feel those drums. Thankfully, Kyle, who holds a Master’s degree in percussion performance from UCLA, is always up to the task.
To this day, Cassata's sudden deafness remains a mystery. All doctors were able to determine was that it was an unidentifiable virus.
Cassata, who suffers from an anxiety disorder, often feels like he carries the weight of the world on his shoulders on behalf of the whole trans community. As one of the first and youngest openly trans artists ever to take center stage, both on the "Larry King Live Show" (2008) and the Vans Warped Tour (2013), he felt thrust into a position to represent an entire generation of trans youth, which was a lot for someone who first and foremost identified as a musician.
"A fan once told me, 'Your success with your career shows me that being trans doesn’t have to hold me back,'" Cassata shares. Sentiments like this, while touching, seem to unintentionally place a burden on Cassata to deliver content and work endlessly in order to succeed. The pressure reached a tipping point last year when Cassata completed a new album that he never ended up releasing and that no one has heard. At some point during the post-production phase, it occurred to Cassata that he wasn’t being himself. The pressure had become so intense that his anxiety took the lead instead of his artistry. "I was feeling so pushed to create that I almost forgot what my fans really want to hear. People don’t listen to my music to have something to work out to. They listen because they want to feel something."
That weight was also noticeably lifted when the real reason for hiding this album came up. "I fell in love," Cassata says. In January of this year, Cassata met someone who, he says, guided him back to who he really is. Jeni, a Hollywood native who has been living substance free for 13 years, initially bonded with Cassata over their shared sobriety. However, it soon became clear on their first date that their journey had only just begun.
"I've been in love before, but this was on another level. The stars were aligning that night," Cassata says in attempts to elucidate the magic of the night they met. Jeni had no web presence or interest in social media, which enabled him to open up much faster. "She didn't want anything from me other than [for us] to love each other, and that was so freeing."
On paper, Jeni's life couldn’t possibly appear more different than his. "I work with veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan with traumatic brain injuries and PTSD," she explains. Before meeting Cassata, Jeni, who studied neuroscience in school, limited her time on the music scene to part-time DJing.
Still, the overlapping passions between these two creative counterparts go beyond what could be simplified on paper. Within a few days, they were writing music together. To inquiries about Jeni’s lack of experience, Cassata simply replies, "She’s just lyrical." Despite Jeni’s lack of songwriting experience, their combined passions and skills were like perfect-fit puzzle pieces for music creation.
"While I may not be fluent in the hand-eye coordination of playing instruments, to me music is a language that I feel like I can hear and understand," Jeni explains. "I have always been musically vibrational."
Cassata's fifth LP is set to be released in March, 2020, and he seems both private and eager to talk about what fans can expect to hear. "You can expect deeper lyrics, piano solos, dark subjects and lots of romantic topics too." He also discloses that topics surrounding the Catholic Church's suppression of alternative forms of love are woven throughout.
As for the hidden album? Cassata is careful in his reply. "Maybe someday I’ll release it as a surprise," he says with a shy smile.