Interview: Out Singer-Songwriter Eric Himan On Pride, Musical Independence, And Gay Heroes

Eric_Himan002_zpsfffeea08(Photo courtesy Eric Himan)

Eric Himan is a tattooed rocker from Tulsa, but his approach to songwriting is folkier than you’d expect, jazzy in a timeless way, and consummately sensitive. The out musician has also written many songs that represent a specifically gay point of view, and that still qualifies as a novel and kickass idea in 2013. He values his personal perspective and independence, and that comes across loud and clear — albeit breezily — in his cool and distinct music.

Himan’s new album Gracefully showcases that fierce honesty, and the disc’s striking video “Red Hot Tears” tells you almost everything you need to know about him: He’s commanding even when he’s announcing a teary-eyed weakness. And as you might remember, I personally can’t get enough of the song.

We caught up with Himan to discuss his songwriting influences, living in Tulsa, and his gay artistic hero of choice.

TheBacklot: You’re a wedded gay man, but there’s a lot of heartbreak in your songs. Are your lyrics mostly based on personal experience or do you find yourself creating stories? 

Eric Himan: Oh, I’m usually drawing from experience. A lot of stuff has happened in my life, and I think everyone’s life is like that, but I feel like [songwriting] has been such a coping mechanism. To write and perform, that makes it easier for me to live.

TB: Your new video for “Red Hot Tears” is so striking. How did the concept come about?

It was more a performance piece than a storyline, and it’s different in that way from what I’ve done before. The idea came from this friend of mine, who does a lot of my directing in terms of videos, and he’s a professor at Oklahoma State University. He teaches a lot, and I end up working a lot with students, which is always really fun. They help with the writing and camerawork. But this video was his idea, to do something sleek using cameras he’d just gotten, which are higher quality than HD. He was excited for that, and I wanted something very performance-based that also featured my backup singers.

TB: Speaking of those backup singers: In the video, they’re giving off a lot of what I’m going to call “stank.” Did you instruct them to be that ferocious?

EH: That’s all them. [Laughs.]

TB: You’re an album-oriented artist. Does that make you feel like an alien in 2013?

EH: I feel like I’m on an island in that way. Not many people are very accepting of the format anymore, though there are people who love it. I’m way more of an album person than somebody who releases a bunch of singles. I listen mostly to albums, and in fact I prefer listening to CDs. People get in my car and see books of CDs. They’re like, “Oh my God. Miles Davis?” I like listening to it that way because it keeps the music an album. Even on iTunes, I end up listening to somebody like Tina Dico, Lissie, or Patty Griffin, people who make me want to buy the whole damn album. Female singer-songwriters I’ve always liked, and I know they’re like me as well. Hip-hop and R&B tend to be more single-based.

Eric-Himan-and-the-Soultre-Singers(Photo courtesy Eric Himan)

TB: Which female singer-songwriters did you first connect with as a music fan? 

EH: It had to be Janis Joplin. She was somewhat a songwriter, so I don’t know if she necessarily counts. But if you’re talking about serious singer-songwriters who inspired me to write, it’d have to be Ani DiFranco. I also went ballistic over Liz Phair’s “Supernova.” I started performing [Phair’s song] “Girls! Girls! Girls!” in concert. I used to cover things in concert to grab a whole [audience], like this summer I covered Miley Cyrus and “Blurred Lines”, and it’s fun and people like that. But now, I’m changing my opinion about covering something. I want to cover something and have one person go f*cking bananas over it, rather than have a bunch of people go, “Oh, I know that.”

TB: I suspect you also admire Ani DiFranco’s artistic independence. 

EH: I love “The Million You Never Made.” Who she is and what she represents is a big part of who I am. I remain independent. People think that when you’re independent, it’s because you didn’t make it yet. Like, “Why would you choose to be independent when someone could come by and give you a giant record deal?” I’ve had those people come into my life and every time they do, the deal stinks and it’s not worth it. What they promise, they have no business promising it.

TB: This could be an amateur observation, but I feel like plenty of artists on big labels end up having to promote themselves almost singlehandedly.

EH: Even this last gig I did, I don’t know how successful they were, but they had a PR person at the club who was all excited, but a lot of the work that went into getting people to the show, grabbing press — I did that! Even when a club has people whose job it is to bring people in, they’re not even doing it. It is hard and there’s a lot of self-promotion, but at the end of the day I’m not paying 8,000 people God-knows-how-much to do jobs where I can’t figure out if they did anything at all. I learned a lot of that from Ani. It’s my goal in life, at some point in my life, to open up for her. I haven’t had the opportunity yet, but this is the first album where I’ve really gotten to start opening up for people. I’m opening up for Leon Russell, who did an album called The Union with Elton John and wrote “Superstar” for the Carpenters, just a mega-legendary person, and Edwin McCain, who’s a really big guy for me. I’m opening up for him in October; he was one of my first concerts. And I’m opening up for Patty Griffin now too.

TB: You seem very attached to Tulsa, where you live. I know you tour a lot, so how often do you actually get to be home?

EH: Well, when people say “touring,” it’s usually this grandiose thing where you go off for three months and then stay home for three or four months. That’s just not how I operate. I’ll do two weeks there, go home for two weeks, go out for a weekend, come back in, go back out, and it’s constant. I just got back from doing New York City, Philly, Pittsburg, Louisville, and Toledo, and then I went home. At the end of the month, I do Chicago and Minneapolis, then I open for Patty here, then I open for Edwin in Pensacola. Then my friend Kristy Lee in Birmingham. It’s all over the place.

4899421285_8f989947d8_zPhoto: Drew Baker

TB: When you’re working that much, is a huge part of your social connection to other gay people performing at gay events?

EH: I have to say, it probably is. In terms of the gay community, I have a huge connection here to my community here in Tulsa and its center. I do a lot for raising awareness for whatever they need. A few months ago I wrote an article for The Advocate talking about gay pride [events] and having gay artists. It’s not that gay pride have to be full of gay artists and there’s no room for allies. Believe me, I treasure our allies. But I’d show up to different events, even ones I wasn’t playing, and I’d look at the roster and not one of them was gay! I thought, “What’s the point of this?” Pride represents an opportunity to reflect and see artists be strong, shine, and show who we are, and show who we have in our community — to not feel so bad about ourselves and don’t feel like we’re not represented!

TB: I only ask this question to people who will have a good answer: Who’s your favorite gay entertainer ever? It could be a musician, actor, author, etc. 

EH: It’d have to be David Sedaris. I had the opportunity to talk to him and meet him back when I was working with Borders Books & Music, and he was doing an event there. I got to tell him, “You know what, this means so much to me that you write these amazing stories, and that I look at you like –” and I know this train of thought seems silly — “you can be gay and be extremely successful at writing or performing or the arts.” You know? There’s something there that makes me think, “I could be like that and not be shunned because I’m gay.” I told him that, “In these books, you talk about your partner Hugh like he’s a lamppost. You’re not sitting everyone down and telling people, ’OK, everyone, I need to tell you something.’ He’s just there! You don’t make a big deal about it, and then it’s not a big deal.” I learned that from David. Talking to him about that was a really cool experience. And he’s so subtle! What he finds interesting, that’s what I love about songwriting. I don’t tend to write songs about issues that everyone else writes about, because they’ve already written about it! I want to talk about the transgendered boy who met me and didn’t like me immediately. I want to write about trying to earn his respect. Why write if you’re not going to be specific about your own experiences?