One of the last times I saw Kalyn Heffernan in person, she was at Su Teatro theater on Santa Fe Drive celebrating the end of her mayoral campaign.
Heffernan is many things: Wheelchair Sports Camp‘s MC, an artist, an accessibility activist. But that night in 2019, she was an unsuccessful candidate for Denver’s top political office. She’d garnered only 2 percent of votes, but as she told me, she felt like she’d won. Heffernan used the money she’d raised during her untraditional campaign — for one thing, she liked to say she was “rolling,” not “running,” for mayor — to build wheelchair ramps and create art. She’d led a protest outside the Denver Center for the Performing Arts over its opposition to Initiative 300, which would have overturned the city’s urban camping ban. Her activism during the campaign forced other candidates to focus on homelessness.
Two years and a pandemic later, Heffernan has ditched politics. She’s working on an installation at the yet-to-open Meow Wolf Denver and just released a new song, “Yess I’m a Mess,” that grapples with depression and anxiety and was somehow not written during the pandemic. We caught up on Wednesday.
Are you at Meow Wolf now?
Well, I’m at home right now. They were doing heavy lifting s***, and I’m doing artsy decorative s***. We’re installing a permanent room.
Me and Gregg, drummer guy, have been concepting it. But my dad’s been helping us the whole way. He’s the only one who knows how to build things. He’s a union iron worker. Quite a few of us are involved. We’ve been concepting this s*** for, like, 4 years.
What’s the concept? Can you talk about it?
I don’t know if it can be on the record. We are doing a permanent installation. I’ll tell you. (Editor’s note: Redacted. Sorry. But I promise it’s going to be cool!)
The last time I talked to you for a story was after the 2019 mayoral campaign. Here’s a quote you gave me, after I asked what you would do after the campaign: “I get to be a rapper boy again! But we have a lot of figuring out to do, like where Kalyn4Mayor goes from here. I’m already the mayor; everybody already knows me. To me, I already won the popularity contest a long time ago. I don’t sense this campaign will disappear.”
What’s the last year looked like for you?
It’s been…I jumped right back into the rapper boy life, creative life, which the campaign was, too, but just in a different ballpark that I’d never played before. We finished a musical for Phamaly Theater Company. They’re the first all disability theater group in the country. They asked us (Wheelchair Sports Camp) to write original music for an original adaptation of “Alice in Wonderland.” This is their first all original production, all original music. So I jumped into another ballpark I’d never played in: theater. It definitely was more in my wheelhouse. We’re still working through bringing it to life this summer. It was supposed to happen at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts last summer.
I also finished the first big demo in May of 2020 and have been fine-tuning it and putting it to mix and master and all the finishing touches on that.
We finished shooting this “Yess I’m a Mess” video. We started that January 2019. It’s a song I’d written 4 years ago.
Really?! I’m surprised. It just seems so timely.
It’s been wild. It’s been wild to have that song in a vault during this time and feeling like such a futurist about it. It is such a universal feeling, and it just got exaggerated so much during this time. I’ve definitely been itching to get it out, but also, well, not just drop it, and be as intentional as I can on how to release it. I knew we had to have a video, and it had to be better than all of our other ideas. A lot of things went into that video. We started shooting before the pandemic, finished shooting during the pandemic, been doing a bunch of editing at the end, and we wanted it to still come out around the new year, so that was also important.
I basically took no breaks since the mayor’s race.
Do you ever regret that you didn’t become the mayor of Denver?
No. Oh no. I still do feel like the mayor in my own humble heart way. That was always an interesting balance for me. I’ve never actually wanted to be a politician, just got pushed into all these great community circles and have been lucky enough to have a platform and be hella recognizable even before i started rapping because of my disability and wheelchair. It just has kept growing. I felt like I won because we did what we intended to do with the campaign.
Do you feel like a mess right now?
I feel a lot less like a mess than when I wrote the song. But I still am throwing myself into chaos. I feel a lot more grounded and able to deal with all the mess. Not that it hasn’t been messy, by any means. But the irony is that I got exposed to COVID-19 the same week that the song dropped. I was right back to mess.
Did you get COVID?
No. But yeah, COVID-19 has made everything messier and forced me to work in different ways that have really challenged me as somebody who’s always out and about. I’m no stranger to isolation. I’m an only child. I also have had a lot of broken bones and recovered from a lot of surgery. So being isolated is not new to me, but not having people over is very new to me.
I feel like you’re always everywhere. How has this moment affected you?
I think the biggest part is live music and going out dancing has been the hardest for me. That’s been such an integral part of my life since literally before I was even born. My parents were going to shows while my mom was pregnant. I’ve never not been to probably fewer than a dozen shows in a year, my whole life. Live music and going out to shows has been everything to me since I can remember. Not being able to do that has definitely been very, very challenging. There’ve been times when I barely got out of the hospital and would just go to a show, and I shouldn’t have.
And the touring. Do you miss that?
Performing, it’s hard not to do that. But not being an audience member and listener is harder. I do go to more shows than we play. Unless we’re on a really long tour, which I miss greatly. I’ve always been surrounded by a lot of love and friends and have always had a good group of friends, so not being able to be close and cuddle up has been challenging for me.
What kind of perspective do you have on “Yess I’m a Mess” at this moment?
It’s a love song. It’s being a mess because of heartbreak and stuff. It took on a bigger life than my own personal situation.
People with disabilities, people who have been sick and even people who are just trying to do the most from the margins, it’s like we have a pretty intimate relationship with bed. And I think that that has…that’s been more universal because of the pandemic, to a greater group of folks outside of people with disabilities and people who have been sick. So it’s definitely taken on a bigger purpose and bigger meaning and that has been really sweet and humbling to me, that I did something right. I’m pretty bad on myself when it comes to my own art, and I usually hate it shortly after. The fact that it’s 4 years old and I’ve only disliked it one time so far is unbelievable. I don’t usually have the opportunity to hold onto something for that long and see if it ages well. You just hope your art ages well, and it doesn’t always happen.
One of my coworkers said “Yess I’m a Mess” sounds like a Bond theme Song. Who would you be in a Bond movie? Villain or hero?
I don’t know them well enough to answer that! I think this song is so cool for me because it plays with the duality within all of us. So I’d probably be both the villain and the hero. That is in me. There’s great happiness and power and joy and love, and there’s also torment and anxiety and war and all these other things. That, for me, was writing this. And even having enough time to live with it and play it so much live before recording it, it was, like, really intentional for me to play with both, that great joy and angst: the aaahhh angst, and the debilitating angst.
I’d probably be a little bit of both, the villain and the hero. Depends on which day you catch me.