Introducing Lisa Bella Donna

Andy Downing
Lisa Bella Donna

The easy part was settling on a name: Lisa.

When Lisa Bella Donna was a teenager in Marietta, she spent a stretch of time homeless, occasionally taking up residency in a music shop owned by Lisa and Steve Erb. The couple, which also owned Air Freight Studio, served as early musical mentors, in addition to providing sporadic shelter and a means of earning at least a meager income.

"I was giving 30 lessons a week at their music store … and I eventually conned them into giving me a key to the shop so I could practice after giving lessons every night. Then I would crash there and get up and go to school the next day," Bella Donna said in an early May interview at a Clintonville coffee shop. "Lisa [Erb] was just amazing. She had a strong, mellow vibe, and she was just gorgeous. She was very Italian looking: big hair, big hoop earrings, big lips. Lisa is one of my best friends … and when I finally got to come alive that was it. [The name] was something that came when I said, 'OK, it's time for this dimension to emerge.' It was just like that."

Everything else has been more of a struggle for the 43-year-old musician, who lived as a man for much of her life before "stepping outside for the first time," as she termed it, in July 2015. Rather than the traditional explanation of "a woman trapped in a man's body," Bella Donna equated the pull she felt from age five with the Native American Two-Spirit tradition.

"The other me you've always known was never not authentic, but this dimension was always in there," she said. "Deep down I always felt I should have been born a woman."

Bella Donna's decision coincides with an increase in mainstream awareness of issues facing transgender individuals, including the March passage of legislation in North Carolina that limits civil rights protections for LGBTQ people and has inspired musicians like Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam to boycott the state. (Read about an Ohio state representative's proposed lavatory legislation here.)

"But I was never doing any of this to make a statement or to have an agenda," the musician said. "I was just trying to be happy in my body."

Bella Donna was born in Cleveland, raised by a homemaker mother and a father who worked for General Motors. At 10 or 11 years old, her parents divorced, and the youngster relocated to West Virginia with her mother to be closer to family members - a geographical and cultural shift that sent her reeling.

"I grew up in Cleveland mostly around African-Americans; my parents listened to R&B and soul and Motown, and that's where we lived - in that culture," she said, noting its distance from the whiter, more rural surroundings in which she found herself following the move.

The fish-out-of-water effect was further heightened by the more flamboyant tendencies Bella Donna exhibited from childhood, which stood in stark contrast with the good-old-boy attitude she encountered first in West Virginia and later in Marietta. Throughout her life, Bella Donna has favored long hair, jewelry (she's had both ears pierced from age nine) and splashier, more feminine wardrobe selections.

"Honestly, Lisa's idea of dressing masculine was really dressing like a wizard," said longtime friend Julie Robbins, vice president of Akron-based EarthQuaker Devices, which has maintained a business relationship with Bella Donna stretching back years (the keyboardist and guitarist represents the guitar effects-pedal manufacturer at trade shows, demonstrating the gear, and has even appeared in online instructional videos). "She never fit any traditional boxes anyways, but all of that was sort of the whole package."

"I'd always dress the loudest. It wasn't something I thought about; I just did it," Bella Donna said. "I heard every derogatory statement you can think daily in my life, being called a fag. The truth of it is that we're all very lucky to have one another on this planet. Why get in the way of it? Why not allow people to be who they are and whatever that is?"

These more colorful, out-there tendencies metastasized into a source of shame, depression and self-loathing when Bella Donna was sexually assaulted and raped at age 13 while presenting as feminine, a painful, deeply scarring experience that has taken three decades and multiple years in therapy to come to terms with and find some semblance of healing.

"At the time of the rape … I thought, 'Well, that probably wasn't a good idea to allow that dimension to emerge,' and I spent the next 30 years trying to [bury it]," she said. "I was like, 'I know I can be a better man than most of the people in my life,' and that's what I tried to be. But I was never really happy. I became increasingly detached [and] depressed, and I started to feel that something was very deeply missing."

Though Bella Donna has felt imprisoned for decades in some ways - by the residual scars of her adolescent assault and by a body she never felt fully connected with - her music has always been defined by its complete disregard for boundaries.

"I like to move around with styles, which has cost me a career," said a laughing Bella Donna, who is equally at home turning out avant-garde jazz in European halls with collaborators like Simone Weißenfels and Andreas Scotty Böttcher or exploring the cosmos with psych-metal collective EYE, which inked a deal with Laser's Edge in March and has a new record due out this summer. "I'd be a lot better off if I could pick a lane, but I can't do that. It's not why I'm here."

That sense of freedom carries through her debut solo recording as Lisa Bella Donna,Looking Out Looking On (out on Kvltvre Klvb, a new local label launched by Tom Butler and Ricky Thompson), which she'll perform selections from during a record release show at the Summit on Friday, May 20.

"Our bands played together for 20 years, but to see Lisa perform ... you can tell the music is just flowing through her," said longtime friend Matt Miner. "She's in a better creative spot, and the transmission is more pure."

Music served both as a means of escape and a stabilizing force in the years following the assault, providing structure in an environment where balance sometimes lacked. As a teenager, Bella Donna would visit the library once a week, where she would randomly select seven records spanning every genre of music, taking time to learn at least one song off each LP - a different one for each day of the week. This routine offered a sense of consistency during teenage years marked by near-constant upheaval.

"I went through six of eight of my mother's marriages; I changed 17 schools 23 different times; I lived on the street as a teenager; I've been in knife fights; I've experienced a lot of violence and hate," Bella Donna said, pulling up her sleeve to reveal a small scar on her forearm. "When I didn't feel safe at home or on the street, I would just go to the library. I think I read books on every composer."

After watching director George Romero's "Night of the Living Dead," Bella Donna became obsessed with the film score, dubbing it from VHS to a cassette tape, which she would then listen to on repeat while walking alone on secluded country roads. "[The movie] was shot in a similar-looking environment to West Virginia," she said. "My life was in such a terrible [condition], it was like living in the scenario in the film."

This imagery became a recurring theme throughout Bella Donna's adult life, surfacing both in band names (Sleeping Death, Deadsea) and in lyrical content.

"As I look back, a lot of the mythology in my music was based in the living dead, and it was more than just, 'I love George Romero movies,'" she said. "I definitely felt like somebody that was living in a body that didn't belong to me. It felt like I had a much bigger spirit than I was able to be."

In 2014, feeling increasingly trapped and about a year into therapy that had elicited little-to-no-progress, Bella Donna wished for death - "I figured at a certain point I would just get cancer or something and get eaten up," she said - and even briefly contemplated suicide.

"It was less reactive and more like, 'This makes the most sense at this point. I've been on the planet a long time, and it's probably time for me to go and let whatever spirits are in here free,'" she said. "And I thought my only real option was to do that through death."

Eventually, lessons absorbed in therapy started to take hold, a process Bella Donna compared with rewiring a home's electrical system, pulling out the frayed cables to start over anew. "And as I begin to heal, that was when I let this dimension begin to emerge," she said.

The musician started by taking small steps: shaping her eyebrows, wearing more makeup and gradually changing the cut and color of her hair.

"Last summer we were out at a friend's birthday party... and [Lisa] showed up and [her] hair was dyed and it was obviously cut in a more feminine manner," Miner said.

Regardless, few around the musician caught on to the gradual transition, owing largely to her long-held fondness for fashion, jewelry, hair care and the like.

"It's funny, because she had been dropping hints forever and I wasn't picking it up," said friend, musician and frequent collaborator Nicole Sherburne. "When she finally came out to me and said, 'Hey, I'm making my transition,' I was like, 'Ohhhh, so when you were showing me your earring collection two years ago? Ohhh!' I was like, 'Wow, OK, now I get it.' The clues were there. I just wasn't picking it up."

In the years leading up to her public coming out as Lisa, Bella Donna immersed herself in research, watching videos on My Genderation, a website that collects documentaries exploring issues of gender variance, and gradually reaching out to a tightknit network of friends and collaborators.

"I started slowly but surely incorporating the people in my life I knew I'd feel safe with," said Bella Donna, who worked on records for bands like psych-rock trio Mosses presenting as Lisa. "So I kind of got to live safely and privately as Lisa for almost a year before really coming out."

Near the midpoint of 2015, Bella Donna reached a point where she started to question which restroom she should be using during performances at the Walrus, where the musician appeared as part of a monthly jazz residency. A subsequent July dinner with Julie Robbins sped the decision to come out publicly.

"In a way, Julie's the one who saved my life, because I was really in not a good place," said Bella Donna. "I was supposed to have a dinner date with her, and I was dressed like [Lisa]. I was like, 'Well, Julie, I don't know how you feel about me showing up looking a little extra fabulous,' and she was like, 'Bring it on.'

"I'm somebody who really takes my relationships very seriously and very to heart. And that was a thing I didn't want to trade. Coming from an abused background, everything's a trade, and everything's a hard deal. And that's how I was wired until that conversation. After we spent the evening together, she said, 'With your blessing, I'd like to prove to you how many people are on your side,' because I didn't believe it."

The outpouring that followed, which arrived over numerous days in the form of flattering, flirty and supportive text messages, emails and phone calls, strengthened Bella Donna's resolve to move forward.

"It changed my life, just like that," she said.

Compared with her past recorded catalog, Bella Donna's debut has the airy feel of opening the window to take in the early spring breeze at the tail end of a long, brutal winter - a newfound lightness she attributes at least in part to her current state of mind.

"As soon as I came out, it was like turning the anxiety button off," she said. "I lived in a constant anxiety attack and had no idea. It was so prevalent I didn't even realize what was happening to me. Once I stepped out and started doing this, I started to feel much more at peace."

Even so, Bella Donna admitted the transition has tested her, and will continue to do so moving forward.

"Even though this is really going to challenge a lot of things in my life - especially being a late bloomer - it's the best decision I ever made, because I'm alive," she said.

"I think they call it transitioning for a reason, and it's not just the physical transformation," Robbins said. "It's wrapping your mind around everything and realigning your relationships and your vision of yourself and the way the world sees you - all of those things. It's a minefield out there, and I don't envy her. I think she's one of the most amazing people for doing it the way that she has and continuing to be a positive force."

Bella Donna received a significant boost in this regard courtesy of her four-and-a-half-year-old daughter, whom she has come out to slowly and deliberately, cognizant of the adjustment required for all involved.

"I didn't just show up a woman one day and let my daughter figure it out," she said. "Slowly but surely I was incorporating it, and one day my daughter looks at me and goes, 'You know, Daddy, you look like a girl.' And I'm like, 'Yeah, you're right. How do you feel about that?' She took a minute and looked me up and down and said, 'I think you're adorable. You're really a beautiful princess Daddy.'

"You can't buy that sort of clarity. It only comes from your children. She's continued to prove to me that all the stuff people stick on the human condition, it doesn't matter. We're all spirits having a human experience. You can call it whatever you want, but that's all it is. And my daughter taught me that."

The Summit

10 p.m. Friday, May 20

2210 Summit St., North Campus

ALSO PLAYING: KT Ramsey, Orson Buggy

Lisa Bella Donna