Tulsa singer-songwriter's defiant debut EP bounces back from music industry cynicism with swoon-worthy tunes of rebuttal
Ace Stiles isn’t the first Oklahoma crooner to face the dismissal of a televised talent show. Jacob Abello was cut early from American Idol in 2013, as was Chase Kerby from The Voice in 2015. It seems Hollywood would rather keep Oklahoma’s representation in the country, folksy realm of Darci Lynne (America’s Got Talent, 2017), The Swon Brothers (The Voice, 2013), and, of course, Carrie Underwood (American Idol, 2005).
In 2021, Stiles proved a fan favorite on American Idol’s 19th season yet still found the same fate as the aforementioned Abello and Kerby, both fantastic singer-songwriters that prove Stiles is in good company. While independence from the industry machine might seem a poor consolation prize, it isn’t, really. Many past contest winners are forgotten names tied to rights-forfeiting contracts, so it is sometimes best to take advantage of the publicity and dip out before it turns sour.
That’s how Ace Stiles has managed it. Now an adult coming into his own on the Tulsa scene, he is working on music, visual art, and whatever else his creative whims conjure. He independently released his debut EP, Grudge, this year, and it seems to be, among other things, a work of closure. It finds the chic, vintage-loving kid kissing those TV days goodbye with an aloof shrug, and now that his testosterone is working its magic — oh, Stiles is transgender, by the way — he seems poised to chart an exciting new path all his own.
The following interview was conducted for a forthcoming feature in the Oklahoma Gazette.
Make Oklahoma Weirder: How would you describe your music style?
Ace Stiles: I always struggle to answer this question, and most of the time something different comes out. I would say it’s a modern spin on jazz and rock – an alternative callback but a contemporary representation.
Where do you want to be in 5 years as an artist?
In five years, honestly, I would mostly like to be financially stable. I hope to be putting out music and working with super talented creators. I would love to tour and reach a wider audience and make a name for myself.
What are your thoughts on / experiences with Tulsa music?
It’s been a couple of years since I’ve been super involved in the local scene. I used to find myself on a high, being so enthused by people there, but I was too young to truly get into it. How do you go to shows or play at a bar you’re too young to enter? I didn’t have a band then, so I was never quite consistent enough. Still, it felt so special. Now that I am starting to get involved again, I can tell that it’s grown, and I hope to continue seeing it grow. It still gives me a rush every time I partake.
How did you get started in music?
I started doing theatre at six and decided that music was the thing for me. At fifteen, I started doing open mics and playing original pieces, and that really changed the game.
What are some of your artistic inspirations (music or otherwise)?
I love a lot of older music and am influenced by lot of classic rock and jazz. I love the 50’s as a music genre. Of course, I listen to a lot of modern music as well. I guess it’s a mix of it all with a focus on whatever I’m hyper-fixated on at the moment.
How has your family helped / encouraged your music career?
My mom is my everything. I would be nowhere without her or the people supporting me.
What is it like having an online fanbase?
I guess I don’t really think of myself as someone with a fanbase. I’m not like surrounded by it, you know. But it’s super nice to be reminded that people care out there, so far away that I have never met. I’m trying to get better about posting regularly.
Why is the new EP called Grudge?
Because I can hold a mean grudge. I find that most of the songs are kinda angry, or a push back at people – a reminder that I’m good enough. I just thought it made sense and sounded cool.
Who is the cat on the cover?
That is Haribo, a.k.a Bebe. He is my cat. I love him more than most things in the world.
“Mango Tree” has some digs at corporations and selling out. Is this aimed at anything in particular?
Mostly it really me trying to seem confident. I constantly worry there will never be a place for me in this industry, but I plan to wiggle my way in anyway.
“Mango Tree” also has a lemons-to-lemonade narrative. How do you make sour things sweet?
You’re asking the wrong person. I try so hard to see the positive in things and be good, but it takes time, and anger, and annoyance, and all the nice to get to sweet from sour.
Why is being a “loudmouth” something to take pride in? Is it reclamation of a traditional insult?
Exactly right! It’s taking back the idea that you have to tip toe in your self-expression for someone else’s benefit and not be what you or who you want, how you want.
What led to the raucous background sound sampling on “Double Vision”?
It came much later in production. It’s a bunch of clips of my little brother and me yelling in the car. I had heard crowd noise in music and wanted to play around with it. I think it’s really fun.
Fruit seems to be a recurring theme in your writing. What draws you to that?
It wasn’t intentional at the beginning, but as I was deciding what songs to put on the EP, I thought that it was a funny common theme. Fruit is deep. Like, there are so many metaphors for fruit. They can mean anything you want.
There is so much confidence on Grudge. Where does it come from?
Fake it till you make it baby! I just tell myself I’m super cool and adrenaline rush my way through life.
What led you to get into visual arts?
I grew up in an artistic family. My mother is an artist, and she always had us doing crafts as kid. Eventually I thought, hey, you’re pretty good at this. There are so many mediums and methods that it never gets boring.
What is “Am I Angry or Is This a Beautiful Moment?”
A series of abstract paintings that [was on exhibit this summer] at TAC Gallery in Tulsa. It is all about emotional experience.
What is the Orange Bitch series?
A series of paint marker drawings that I like to make. They kinda sit as their own style of work for me.
How do you handle the inevitable adversity of being a trans artist?
I do get some off comments, and most people think I’m a lot younger than I am. People misgender me no matter how many statements I make. I just ignore most of those people and am lucky that online it has been easy to do so. I’m more focused on how my transition effects my work. I’m now on testosterone, and as my voice changes, so does how I have to sing my own songs. I personally am still getting over the label I will be left with that makes me stick out. This used to be the focus of questions that I got, and it would make me uncomfortable because it’s not something that I focus on all the time. It is just who I am. I want to be someone that people can be inspired by, but I also don’t want my insecurities to be my main attribute. It’s a balancing act.
Do you think it’s harder to be a trans artist in Oklahoma?
I think it’s super hard no matter where you are. People are transphobic everywhere, but I do find myself worried sometimes by the environment that I’m in. Sometimes I feel like I’m going crazy because people will stare and give you the stink eye and you’re just there. It is a very passive-aggressive state. As I watch things progress in the world, I worry so much for the kids and community here in Oklahoma and all around us.
Is it important to stand up and be visible as a trans artist?
I think it’s so important for people to see and know that people are here for them. I’ve had people dm me and tell me their stories and come out to me – sometimes I’m even the first person they tell. Although it’s a little overwhelming, it’s such a special thing to be a part of. I want to be treated normally though. I’m not gonna play the trans card every time I can because it’s only one part of me. It’s not a headline to be trans. It’s my whole life. You can call me a boy, cast me as a boy, treat me as a boy, and not be weird about it.
How has American Idol impacted your career?
The show gave me the following that I have now, and I owe it to them. Because of them, I have met some amazing people.
Is there anything about that experience that you would like to discuss?
I will admit that I’m a bit hurt, and it’s easy to only remember what went wrong, but in all honesty, everyone who worked on the show were sweethearts. They where so lovely to be around, chat with and such.
What are your thoughts on reality TV in general?
It’s been like, two years, and I don’t think about it all that much. I’m not an avid watcher, but it’s cool to kinda have a taste on how all that goes down.
What’s next for Ace Stiles?
Hopefully something big! I’m an over thinker and worry nothing will come to fruition, but I plan to just keep going and growing. We all need to manifest some success in the future and work hard to get there.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I hope you are doing well. Thank you for talking to me and have a good day!
aka Jarvix, the Chief Executive Weirdo of Make Oklahoma Weirder. His out-of-the-box music coverage has been published by the Oklahoma Gazette, KOSU, and The Oklahoman among others. He also makes DIY music as a solo multi-instrumentalist live looper in his spare time.