As a transgender teenager, singer-songwriter Joe Stevens struggled to find a sense of direction.
“Growing up trans … it’s hard to imagine yourself doing anything when you grow up,” said Stevens, one third of the roots-Americana trio Coyote Grace. “Somewhere in there I figured out that this is the thing I loved to do most.”
Stevens will perform solo in downtown San Luis Obispo this weekend as part of Central Coast Pride.
“American Idol” finalist and singer David Hernandez is headlining Pride in the Plaza, which takes place from noon to 5:30 p.m. Sunday at Mission Plaza. Also performing are comedian Bridget McManus, soulful jazz combo Reese Galido & The Betrothed, gypsy jazz band The Tipsy Gypsies, drag queen Tommi Rose and Ethylinna Canne.
Stevens, who was born female but identifies as male, grew up in Sacramento in a musical family. His parents worked as studio singers on variety shows in the 1960s and ’70s, while his paternal grandfather sang on the soundtracks of Disney movies including “Lady and the Tramp.”
Stevens, whose mother is the artistic director and co-founder of the Sacramento Children’s Chorus, saw music as a “kind of respite” from his family’s squabbles and his own debilitating stutter.
“You don’t stutter when you sing,” he said. “You don’t argue when you’re singing, either.”
It was during a year-and-a half stay at a “therapeutic boarding school” in rural Arizona that Stevens picked up a guitar for the first time. Denied access to the radio and television, he started piecing together songs by Tom Petty, Nirvana and Stone Temple Pilots from memory.
Soon, he was writing his own songs — hundreds of them.
“It was my sole coping mechanism at the time,” said Stevens, then a teenager. “It made me feel better.”
After finishing his high school education at an arts-centered boarding school, Stevens studied composition at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. But as his love of music grew, his depression deepened.
“By the time I graduated, I had this pretty strong feeling that something was not right,” he said, especially when he compared his life to those of his busy, satisfied peers. “All of my friends were happy … and I could barely get myself out of the apartment and to class some days. It just didn’t add up.”
Finally, Stevens stumbled across a copy of Loren Cameron’s book “Body Alchemy: Transsexual Portraits,” which features photos of people who have made the transition from female to male.
“As soon as I saw it, I knew that’s what I had to do,” he said.
With the encouragement of his then-girlfriend and Coyote Grace band mate, Ingrid Elizabeth, Stevens took a two-year break from music to earn money for hormone therapy and surgery.
Then the two made their first studio album as Coyote Grace, 2006’s “Boxes & Bags,” and hit the road.
“We pretty much packed up everything we had into a series of RVs and … toured perpetually for a few years,” Stevens said, adding a band member, Michael Connolly, in the process.
Coyote Grace has since recorded four more albums, toured with the Indigo Girls and earned a faithful following in the LGBT community.
“People were just so happy to have songs that were written about their experiences or to see themselves reflected on stage,” Stevens said, acknowledging the importance of helping “pave the way for the next generation to show people that you can be trans, that you can be out and feel OK.”
“It doesn’t have to be a sad story all the time,” he said. “We can celebrate these differences and go on and be productive members of society.”
With Coyote Grace currently on hiatus, Stevens is branching out as a solo artist specializing in indie folk and edgy rock songs with a political edge. His first solo album, “Last Man Standing,” comes out Aug. 1.
According to Stevens, the title reflects triumph over adversity as well as continuing struggles with alcoholism and other personal demons.
“All the tunes seem to convey the journey I’ve been on,” he said, charting “the search for the self, the search for identity.”
Stevens is also working on another project, “Songs of the People.” For $140, he’ll spend time interviewing a subject, then write and produce a custom song about their life experiences — later sending them an MP3 of the song.
“It’s really scary to try and do somebody the honor of trying to tell their story,” said Stevens, who eventually plans to release a compilation of the songs. “They’re all different and they’re all really interesting. (But) it’s the human story underneath, and I think everybody can identify with (that) no matter what the storyline is.”
IF YOU GO
Pride in the Plaza
Noon to 5:30 p.m. Sunday
Mission Plaza, San Luis Obispo
541-4252 or www.slopride.com
MORE PRIDE EVENTS
Looking for a way to celebrate Central Coast Pride? Here are a few highlights:
“Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine”
Director Michele Josue will be on hand for tonight’s screening of this documentary about hate crime victim Matthew Shepard, the young gay man who was brutally beaten, tortured and left to die in Laramie, Wyo., in 1998. The film offers rare photos, footage and revelations into Shepard’s life. The screening starts at 7 p.m. today at the Palm Theatre, 817 Palm St. in San Luis Obispo. A $10 donation is encouraged.
Contestants from reality competition “RuPaul’s Drag Race” will be among the performers when Tommi Rose and the Playgirls take the stage for two 21-and-older shows. Showtimes are 6:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Friday at SLO Brewing Co., 1119 Garden St. in San Luis Obispo. Tickets are $20.
Grammy Award winner Margaret Cho has many titles, including actress, author, activist, musician and boundary-pushing standup comedian. Her screen credits include “30 Rock,” “Drop Dead Diva” and “Dancing with the Stars.” Catch Cho’s act at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Cohan Center, Cal Poly, 1 Grand Ave., in San Luis Obispo. Admission is $32 to $70.