Poppy Xander is overwhelmed. It’s the annual Polyphonic Spree Christmas show and Xander is wrapping up her first concert as the band’s new pianist.
The artist has plied her trade for many Dallas bands, most notably Starfruit and Helium Queens. She joined Polyphonic Spree in late 2019. As she surveys the Majestic Theatre, she sees screaming children, harried parents, and even more lights and confetti than you would expect from the symphonic band.
“It felt like the climax of my career to that point,” Xander says, recalling the night. “It wasn’t like anything I’d ever experienced before.”
As the band prepared to dive into its final song, “Silent Night,” Xander froze. Tim DeLaughter, the group’s frontman, sensed his new pianist’s hesitation and crossed the stage to the piano. Over the din of the crowd, Xander thinks she hears DeLaughter ask, “You got this?” She looks at the audience, the frontman, then back at the crowd. For the first time in a while, Poppy Xander doesn’t know what to say.
Xander has carved a niche for herself as a wildly talented pianist deeply invested in her art. Her work with Helium Queens, in particular, is an exploration of sexuality, feminism, the environment, and the universe. She has a knack for tackling questions about existence and the meaning of life, yet she struggles with the smaller queries.
“The great debate of, ‘Where should we eat?’ is a fucking crisis for me,” she says.
Early on, Xander exhibited the penchant for questioning that is now synonymous with her creative endeavors. As a child in a strict Christian household in The Colony, she raised doubts about the lessons espoused in Sunday school.
“I realized pretty quickly that there was no power for women in the church,” she says. She argued with the church elders and with her parents, both of whom were missionaries’ kids. Meanwhile, she began questioning her gender and sexuality. She had crushes on boys and girls, she shaved her head, and she wore her brothers’ clothes. Those questions about gender linger.
“I don’t know how I’m going to feel about my own gender tomorrow,” she says. “Gender…what a labyrinth.”
If nothing else, learning to play piano offered her something to do. The lady across the street owned a piano, and she told Xander that, as long as the young rebel let the dogs out after school, she could play the piano as long as she liked. Thus, the lady across the street became Xander’s first piano teacher in a long line of instructors, each of whom has left their mark on the 33-year-old musician.
One teacher was an asshole. One teacher was a sweet lady. One teacher was a Republican. One teacher was a wild, free spirit. And one was Xander’s first kiss with a woman. These instructors–the ones she liked, at least–helped Xander realize she might be good at teaching.
Xander’s parents divorced when she was 10, and she moved out of her mother’s home when she was 16. This was the early 2000s, back when The Colony was, as Xander puts it, “five elementary schools, 10 liquor stores, and 10 churches.”
“You knew you were halfway from 35 to my house when you hit a stoplight,” she says.
She moved in with some friends, got drunk and high often, went to school occasionally, and thrashed her head alongside Dallas metal bands with names like Bat Castle and Macellum, the Latin word for “slaughterhouse.”
One night, at a bar in The Colony, she met the guitarist who would later become her husband. They played in a band together throughout the end of her high school days and into college, when Xander attended the University of North Texas. The university’s vaunted music faculty continued Xander’s tradition of divergent piano teachers. She remembers one professor struck her, while another became a valued mentor. Xander, a Music Education major, remained interested in teaching.
“I thought this was the way,” she says of becoming an educator. “I was going to change the world through music.”
After graduating in 2009, she got a job as an elementary school teacher in Richardson ISD and took a crash course in what she calls “the absolute tragedy of public education.” Chaotic classes, students battling mental health crises, and (perhaps most challenging) her presidency of the PTA began to take a toll on the new teacher, and an immersion in the boring trappings of suburbia did little to help.
A new house in Carrollton and a new car, “a very expensive, high maintenance Volkswagen GT1,” only seemed to worsen her mental health. Her drinking intensified; her marriage disintegrated. As she reflects on her tumultuous post-college life, Xander speaks of the past as if it was a lie she gradually unearthed.
“I’m dramatic about everything,” she says, “but I felt like a traitor. I felt like I was living a life that wasn’t meant for me.”
Music saved the music teacher. Since the group she shared with her ex-husband, Xander has always been in bands. Helium Queens is different, though.
The band is a trio from the future who have come to Earth to warn us about our impending doom; to tell us we can’t keep going this way. Their elaborate performance art gives Xander, drummer Chelsey Danielle, and violinist Sharla Franklin a vehicle to explore everything from food production to spirituality. The trio founded the group in 2017 while playing as The Chamber Rock Ensemble. After a performance at an all-women pagan festival, the band was invited to stay and watch.
“The moon was full, lighting the way through the forest,” Xander says, rapturously recalling the festival’s grandeur. “Ceremonies were held celebrating different rites of passage: for the younger girls, or maidens, entering womanhood particularly noted by first menstruation or monarche, or for older women going into menopause, becoming crones, the elders, acknowledged as the wise. All of the women were accepted, free to discuss, mourn, and celebrate childbirth, child rearing, miscarriages, health, spirituality, relationships, remedies and the like.”
This experience taught Xander more than any stern Sunday school lesson or cantankerous piano teacher.
“I often reflect on how being an entertainer gives you some advantage to observation,” she later wrote. “You get to take things in from the outside, but with a seat near the center because you have been invited. Not because you have seniority, knowledge, or experience in any activities going on in the moment, but simply because you provided a unique service. You facilitated an experience for the people, and now they do the same for you.”
Helium Queens draws inspiration from several diverse sources, including the Fort Worth experimental rock band Pinkish Black and the myth of Persephone. Yet, these observations about performance and a woman’s role in the world are at the heart of everything the band does.
“What would happen if there was a world where a matriarchy was established as the ruling class, a reclamation to a goddess centered society?” Xander asks. “And more intriguing, what would it change? It turns out, this world already exists in the future.”
To tell the story of the Queens from the future, Xander and her bandmates have partnered with videographer Sarah Zazz to shoot high concept, low budget videos. They hoard wigs, costumes and every type of fabric known to man, then create space sets in Zazz’s garage or the Carrollton house where Xander still lives.
“We tell as much of the story as we can with what we could get from craft stores,” Zazz says. “Poppy basically had two pennies to rub together to start this project, so we had to learn all kinds of ways to use fabric.”
The band’s biggest undertaking yet was a year-long video series that included a new music video for each full moon. Each musician has a character to portray either on stage or on camera, and for Danielle and Franklin, Helium Queens offers a fun–albeit chaotic–refuge from the grueling career of a full-time musician.
“I’m in 14 bands right now, and this is probably one of the most organized,” Franklin says. “At the same time, it feels like we can take it lots of different directions. We’ve talked about doing a comic book to go along with it. I know we want to do a space opera. It feels like something we can take to Japan.”
Danielle was initially hesitant.
“When we first put on our neon wigs and spacesuits, I thought it was weird to dress like this for a show where people are wearing jeans and a t-shirt,” Danielle says. “But that’s a good thing. The band has helped me break outside of the norm.”
Specifically, she remembers shooting one of the full moon videos at Sweet Tooth Hotel.
“We wanted it to be a big space dance party, and we somehow got all of these people to come out, shoot the video, and release it right when the full moon happened. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, we have an actual tribe of space people. We actually pulled this thing off.’”
Since creating the band, Xander has bounced around to a few new teaching jobs. She still enjoys helping young musicians, but crafting her own stories and sounds has helped her stave off the demons that long plagued her personal life.
“Part of mythology is understanding that these stories, these “myths” are created to teach, to pass on oral traditions that have a deeper meaning that can be applied to one’s self,” she says.
“I quit drinking just over 18 months ago, and I believe some of that transition is reflected in this work.”
Her last drink was, fittingly, a shot of whiskey. As she admits, Xander is, “dramatic about everything.”
Helium Queens caught Tim DeLaughter’s eye, but the Polyphonic Spree frontman was attuned to Xander’s career from her days in Starfruit. When his pianist took a leave for law school, the singer recruited Xander.
“She’s got a great spirit, and she’s more than qualified musically,” DeLaughter says. “We talked about it, gave her a ton of material to learn, and she fit in perfectly.”
The Christmas show was a trial-by-fire. Fans and eager families showed up in droves, eager to hear their favorite Spree songs alongside holiday classics. Xander didn’t want to disappoint.
“Polyphonic Spree feels like a natural extension of the work I’ve been doing to this point,” she says. “But the Christmas show was fucking nuts.”
She had been close to perfect all night, and it was time for the grand finale. She saw DeLaughter approach, and at first, she thought she heard him ask, “You got this?” He wasn’t asking though; he was telling.
“You got this.”
Xander looked around at the sheer chaos unfolding around her, then stared right back into DeLaughter’s eyes.
“Of course I got this,” she said with a smile. “I taught fucking elementary school.”