photo credit: Joem Bayawa
Mere hours after singer-songwriter Steve Grand released his self-funded, deeply emotional, and innocently sexy music video “All-American Boy,” he’d scored thousands of YouTube views, endorsements on Twitter from Lance Bass and John Barrowman, and the following Buzzfeed headline: “Meet the First Openly Gay Male Country Star.” Indeed, the 22-year-old musician from Lemont, IL had made an immediate impact: He was gay, he was singing about having a crush on another guy, and his confident vulnerability was undeniably anthemic.
The video, about a gay man’s heartbreaking crush on a pal, is well on its way to a seven-figure view count. Grand, who makes his living as an accompanist at his hometown’s Catholic churches, has already taken an interview with the AP and watched cross-country news reports about his video’s impact. That’s not a bad deal for a guy who blew his entire savings on making the video (“I got my first credit card and immediately maxed it out,” he told us) and fretted for weeks about how his all-American effort would be received (“I was so nervous — I was shaking.”)
Grand’s star is clearly just beginning to ascend, but TheBackLot caught up with the Herculean gay singer to discuss his video, when he discovered he was gay, and surviving five years of serious “straight therapy.”
TheBackLot: It’s been less than a week since you released “All-American Boy,” and the whole internet is hailing you as the first gay country star. Judging by the comments on YouTube, you’ve really struck a chord with viewers both gay and straight. How are you handling this deluge of attention?
Steve Grand: I’m just completely in over my head with this, you know? The emails people have sent me, the Facebook messages, the comments on Facebook, the comments on YouTube — it’s overwhelming. I want so badly to get back to these people because they’re sharing really personal stories with me, and I’m not a crier, but I’m so moved by the people who’ve reached out to me and told me how my song is their life story. It’s an amazing thing. It’s all you can hope for as a songwriter, to resonate with people emotionally. Even if I don’t get another view, even if I remain with this relatively small audience, I’m the happiest man in the world just for that. If it were all over today, I’d die a happy man. A lot of people feel like their voice is heard now because of my video, so [the song] is far from being just about me anymore. It’s also a story of not just gay people; it’s also about our straight brothers and sisters. It’s about that horrible ache when you long for someone you know you can’t have. It’s especially an occurrence in the gay community because most of us grew up in a straight world. At some point or another, we crush on a guy. We crush on our best friend.
TBL: I take it you have some experience in this area.
SG: I had many years of that, starting with Boy Scout camp. I had a crush on a counselor there. That’s when it all started, back when I think I was 12 or 13 years old. He was probably a teenager, but he seemed a lot older to me. At that age, you have no perspective. Anyone 16 and older is like a grownup. That was what started it all. That was the first time I had that feeling, that horrible ache, as we drove away. I didn’t want to leave. He was a straight man, but he made me feel special in a way. He took me under his wing and it was really powerful. I felt like I haven’t had a lot of men in my life do that. Feeling that masculine energy and being embraced by this older cool guy, taking a liking to me and thinking I’m cool, being totally unthreatened by me — it changed my life. I remember on the drive home, that’s actually when I realized, “Holy sh*t. Wait. I’m gay.” That was it. It was the hardest thing in the world. I had no one to go to with it. I hated myself for it. I grew up in the Catholic church, and Catholicism was an important part of my family and tradition. I felt like I was letting everyone down. There was a point where I was suicidal. I felt like there was no way I could be gay, that I’d rather be dead than be gay.
photo credit: Joem Bayawa
TBL: Did you keep your sexuality a secret for long?
SG: I’m a very emotional guy and a very expressive guy. It was not long after that that I felt the need to share. I’m an artist, my life is about the need to express emotions with people. I wasn’t able to keep it a secret.
TBL: Tell me about the character you have a crush on in the video. What does that character represent?
SG: There’s always been that man in my life, a little older, someone who takes me under his wing. It’s that smart, confident, unthreatened heterosexual man. I think the world is changing very quickly and straight men are changing very quickly. I think Nick [Alan, the actor in the role] perfect embodied that message. He’s so confident with himself that it’s really not a big deal to kiss a dude. He’s so not threatened by gay people or homosexuality or kissing another man, as you’ve seen in the video, and I think that’s the future. That’s what I think is unique about the story. I see some people commenting with, “Oh, another story about a gay man chasing a straight man.” It is a universal story and it’s been told many times, but what makes it different is, just look at the way Nick responded. Look how he still wanted to be friends with me after.
TBL: The video looks like it was a blast to make, particularly that scandalous pond scene.
SG: The pond scene was something we thought about for awhile. We didn’t know what condition the pond was in when we got there. It was really disgusting. I got an eye infection from it. It was toxic, and it hadn’t been kept up in years. People on the crew said, “We shouldn’t be doing this.” And I said, “No. This has to happen.”
TBL: Your friends were on the set with you. Were you comfortable getting naked around them?
SG: No one really saw anything since it was really just my butt. Nick saw everything, and he just laughed. Which — I’m not sure what that means. You can see it in the video too. He’s just cracking up. It was cold, my balls were in my throat, and we were both in the same boat. It was miserable! That final kissing scene, they kept telling me, “We got it.” I said, “No. We need to do it again. Nick, we need to do it again, and you need to not be repulsed. This is the new all-American boy, being so comfortable with yourself that you’re not threatened.” We did it again, and that was the footage we ended up using.
TBL: Do you consider “All-American Boy” a country song? You’ve recorded in plenty of different styles over the years.
SG: I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there’s been some debate about how the song is categorized. They’re wondering if it qualifies as a country song. I never thought of myself as a country artist. I think labeling it kind of takes the life out of it. I want people to call it what they want. In many ways, it’s country. It’s storytelling, and that’s what country is and what country music comes down to. I use electric guitars and piano and ambient sounds, and when we were finishing the record, I thought, “What kind of music is this, even?” Seems like the country people are calling it rock, and the rock people are calling it country. It’s really interesting. Whatever way people see it, it’s totally fine with me. I’m totally detached from the idea of putting it in a box. It’s rock and pop deep-fried in a little bit of a country.
Grand covering Lady Gaga’s “You and I” using the stage name Steve Starchild.
TBL: Should listeners expect more songs like “All-American Boy” in the future?
SG: I believe they want to see what’s in my heart because they’ve really responded to what’s in my heart, so that’s what I’m going to give it to them. So I don’t think you’ll expect a big Top 20 hit from me for awhile. There’s other music I want to make, and it’s not necessarily the most commercial. These people who’ve reached out to me are good, good people, and they deserve my best. I have to work for them. That’s my life now. I’m hesitant to put my song on iTunes — people keep asking about that — just because I don’t want to send the wrong message. I don’t want to have to ask; I want them to give if they want to. If [listeners] can’t afford it, or if they feel like it’s a cheap track, then take it. I’d rather people hear my music than make a dollar.
TBL: How long have you been a musician?
SG: I’ve been writing music since I was 11 years old. I would go into the practice rooms at Lemont High School and bang on the keys and sing from stream-of-consciousness. Some songs came out of that. Probably the songs from back then won’t be the ones I’ll use, but I do have a lot of material building up. As soon as I get a little more caught up on responding to people who’ve shared their stories and made me a part of their lives, obviously the music is what matters most far above everything. I was told this by a fan, they said, “The best way you can thank us is to make more music.” I think that’s the right answer. The biggest thank-you I can give is continuing to be honest through my music and wearing my heart on my sleeve.
Steve Grand, a.k.a. Steve Chatham, for DNA Magazine in 2010.
(“I dabbled in modeling. I’m absolutely not ashamed… That was me then.”)
TBL: You’ve used a few different monikers over the years. You released a couple videos covering Lady Gaga songs like “You and I” and “Marry the Night” under the name Steve Starchild. You modeled as Steve Chatham. Now you’re Steve Grand. How did you arrive at using your real name for this song?
SG: I’m a genuine person and I can’t help it! I’m a terrible liar. I gave up on trying to lie. I decided there’s no other way for me. I just have to be completely true to myself and that’s why it’s such a big deal for me to come up there and even just use my real name. That’s a really big deal for me. I wasn’t sure how people would respond to the video; things on the internet never go away. I knew that my modeling pictures that I did previously — which I am absolutely not ashamed of! I don’t regret them or think they’re a bad thing; the human body is something to be celebrated — would come up. I’ve gone through many evolutions, and for awhile I used the name Steve Starchild as a cover artist. We’re always growing and changing, and for awhile I didn’t know if I was going to be more John Mayer or Lady Gaga. I was just writing songs, all different types. I experimented with different things, and after I did “Marry the Night,” it didn’t feel right to me. There was something that wasn’t real about it. I felt that I had more to give than that, that I wasn’t being honest. That’s what made me feel like I was betraying myself or playing it safe. I wasn’t “out” on the internet, but there were debates about it, and it was no mystery. I got messages asking if I was gay, and I wasn’t comfortable saying I was gay. It was something that hadn’t been talked about in my family for a long time, and I work at four different churches [as a musician]! That’s my source of income.
TBL: Wow! Must be kind of strange and funny to wonder how they’ll react.
SG: Putting up this video, I’m not sure how [my jobs] will be affected. There are plenty of things in the video that make the church upset: smoking, drinking, there’s nudity, there’s a gay kiss. You know?
TBL: Right. Well, it seems like necessary defiance to me.
SG: The biggest deal for me and why I made all these posts about “This is me being real” — These last couple of years I’ve struggled to come to terms with myself, like, “Am I going to be an artist? Is this a risk I want to take? Who will I be as an artist?” It’s all I thought about. I thought about it for hours. I would study other artists and think, “Who am I? What is my message?” A lot of it had to do with self-discovery and the more I learned about myself as a man and a a gay man. It became clearer to me who I needed to be, and who I needed to be was there all along. It was a matter of digging through things. Some people are blessed; they know who they are without a doubt. They go through life relatively un-conflicted. I’m on the opposite end of that. I struggled with my identity, and not just my sexual orientation. In any way a person can struggle with identity, I have. It’s been very painful and been very taxing. It’s really driven me crazy, not knowing who I am or where I stand. I remember crying to friends or my partner at the time. I remember saying, “I don’t know what I think about anything.” I was so consumed by the voices I grew up hearing, like the voices of my parents telling me I need to change — and I was in straight therapy for five years.
TBL: Yikes. What was that like?
SG: Essentially I was just seeing a therapist, a clinical psychologist. I don’t want to bash my therapist even though I’ve come to really believe that homosexuality is not a bad thing, or sinful, and not something that God wants you to rid yourself of, because I still have a lot of respect for him. He was a good man. He helped me with a lot of things. He really changed my life in a lot of positive ways. At the same time, part of the therapy was dealing with my attraction to men. You’ll hear all these things about what ex-gay therapy is like, but in my situation my therapist believed that homosexuality was the result of unmet needs in childhood. That led to homosexuality. Homosexuality was the symptom of unmet needs in childhood. Not getting love and affirmation from your father, that’d be one of those things. Some of [this therapy] was actually helpful — I was able to talk to someone, he was so compassionate, and he really believed in me. We just ended up having a completely different perspective.
TBL: On a more artistic note, who are your songwriting heroes?
SG: They change all the time. Lately I’ve been a huge Bruce Springsteen fan. He’s just so the real deal. So genuine, and I love his voice. I love his songwriting. I think it’s brilliant. Billy Joel, Elton John — they’re piano players like I am. They’ve been a huge influence. Billy Joel is one of the greatest songwriters. Definitely John Lennon too. He just might be the best songwriter ever. My parents kept me very sheltered growing up. They didn’t let us listen to radio. We didn’t have cable. The TV was never on. Video games were highly discouraged and we were made to feel guilty about playing video games. I had no connection to the world. I was involved in sports as a very young boy, but that wasn’t something I was really excited about. I really struggled to connect with kids. That’s why art entered my life. It was something I could do where I didn’t need anybody. I felt this horrible ache and felt really lonely. Through song, through writing, that was my therapy. That’s what kept me going all these years. I really believed making music saved my life through all those years.
TBL: I was expecting to hear Lady Gaga as part of that lineup. I think your covers of her songs are very impassioned.
SG: I think Lady Gaga is brilliant, and I think “You and I” is severely underrated. She’s really inspired me. I’m so inspired by her work ethic, and I think she’s tremendously gifted musically. She’s very intelligent, and I look up to her in many ways. Her interviews made me love her. When “Poker Face” was out, I really didn’t like it. It didn’t catch me right away. What really caught me was her performance at the 2009 Video Music Awards of “Paparazzi.” That inspired me a lot — her commitment to her performance and art. I knew at that moment that I wanted to be able to captivate people too.
TBL: Finally, you’re clearly a heartthrob to many of your fans. Do you have a celebrity heartthrob?
SG: I’ve always had a little thing for Bradley Cooper. Just… his eyes. You’ve got to hear this story: I was in a theater, and I think a preview for a movie was playing, and he came onscreen. There was a lot of audio going on at the time, but just as I said, “Hold me, Bradley Cooper” the whole theater went completely silent. [Laughs.]
Steve Grand, a.k.a. Steve Chatham, for DNA Magazine in 2010