Country music is finally having its big gay moment.
Steve Grand caught the attention of the gay world—and the rest of it, too—when his music video for the country-inspired “All-American Boy” hit viral gold in 2013. The video tells the story of Grand’s character falling for his whiskey-sipping friend, eventually kissing the fellow hunk. When the attraction isn’t reciprocated, Grand’s straight friend assures him that they’re just buddies.
“All-American Boy” was groundbreaking for two major reasons. First, and most obviously, Grand was knighted the “first openly gay country star.” But while the story of unreturned gay-straight crushes is an all-too-common one, the amicable ending signaled the possible end of straight guys going into a panic when their heterosexuality feels threatened.
Although BuzzFeed deemed Grand as the “first openly gay country artist,” he’s been quick to point out other out country singers before him. But there still seems to be a gay glass ceiling in country music—and the hardworking Grand, whose music straddles rock and pop genres as much as it does country, is doing his best to shatter it..
Since all the buzz for “All-American Boy,” Grand has been working on his debut album All American Boy, which was funded by a Kickstarter campaign that became the third most funded campaign of all time with almost 5000 backers and $326,593 pledged.
When The Daily Beast hopped on the phone with Grand, he had just woken up from a nap (in his car) after a morning appearance on WGN News—promoting an album is tiring work. We chatted about his album (which is out on March 23), his affinity for a good shot of whiskey and what he thinks is next for the LGBT community.
So what have you been up to since your video for “All-American Boy” went viral other than promoting the Kickstarter album and working on your album?
That’s the big two chunks. The album has been a huge project. There’s not just recording the songs. There’s picking the songs then there’s deciding exactly how they’re going to be. There’s me and going back and reworking things or changing my mind about songs or writing new songs with other people. Then we have to go and mix the songs and I’m heavily involved in that process as I am with pretty much every creative process in this whole thing that I’m doing. That’s just the sound, then there’s still mastering and designing the album cover and getting all the stuff ready on the inside, and all that stuff. There’s so many details. And then all Kickstarter rewards like meeting with people and drawing them with smelly markers.
What was it like doing everything independently without a label?
I wanted to be in total creative control. When you’re with a label, you’re really not sure what they’re going to do with you. I felt like there’s so many things now like crowdfunding and Kickstarter that make it possible for independent artists to say, “Hey look, this is the kind of music I’m doing, this is my message, this is what I want to bring to the world. I want to make this album and bring it to the world, will you guys help me?” It’s such a great thing. It’s such a democratic process. People don’t have to give, but people give to things that they feel are compelling and makes them feel like they’re contributing to something that makes the world better in some ways. So that’s it in a nutshell.
What were some of the main inspirations for the album? Any funny or interesting stories behind one of the tracks?
Well now that my Kickstarter folks have the album, I’ve been getting their feedback on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and all that. I see a lot of them, their favorite song, not by a long shot but definitely at least one of their favorites is “We Are The Night” and also “Better Off.” Those are both the two tracks I was close to cutting. It just goes to show I don’t have good taste when it comes to my music. But my producer fought with me when I first was like, “Let’s forget ‘We Are The Night.’” He was like, “Oh I will cry if you do that.” So I was like, “Alright, we’ll keep it on there.” So they ended up actually liking those the best which is interesting.
And what artists do you look up to?
I grew up listening to The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Elton John and Billy Joel with my dad. We’d listen to the oldie station when we were driving in the car. Even before high school, I was getting into Blink-182, Sum 41, My Chemical Romance and all those kind of pop-punk and post pop-punk, all that sound really inspired me. And Fall Out Boy. Top 40s music inspires me too, country music inspires me. I did live in Nashville for one year when I was going to Temple University so I think that country sound and style of writing has worked its way into me a little bit and comes off in my music sometimes. And I love pop artists, I love Lady Gaga, I think she’s a great artist of our time.
What did you think of her performance at the Grammys?
Oh it was amazing, it was so good. I was just like telling everyone about it, I was like, “you have to watch this is so freaking good.” And I was so happy that so many people started recognizing that and they’re like, “Wow, she really, really could sing,” and I’m like, “Yeah, she can!”
So what’s it like seeing the pre-orders for All American Boy roll in?
It’s just so wonderful and it’s so affirming and humbling that people have believed in me and kept their faith throughout this whole time. They’ve been really patient and I think it’s going to pay off. I’m really proud of the album and I think they’re going to love it and my Kickstarter people are already loving it.
What’s the next track you’re going to be working on a music video for?
I do have a video for “Time” that I’m still fiddling with. I don’t know when that’s going to be out. I was going to do one for “Whiskey Crime,” but now I’m not sure about that. I think I’ll see what fans are really responding to and go from there. I’ve done this by listening to them and using them to guide the direction. They’re part of this record that I made, I was thinking of them every step of the way.
“Back to California” is the last track on the album. What’s the story behind the song?
Yeah, thank you for asking about that. It’s really special to me. It’s definitely one of the most autobiographical songs. I wrote it when I saw my friend was getting married. This is a friend that goes way back for me. We became friends in middle school. We had a really tight bond and it was at a time when I wasn’t really able to accept my sexuality. And she really encouraged me to love myself. She was just a really, really great friend. It was almost threatening to me to have someone who cared so much. It was an intense and confusing relationship in a lot of ways. I think there were some kind of romantic feelings, probably more so coming from her end at some point, so it was just a really complex, intense, adolescent relationship that I think a lot of us relate to. I definitely bring that into the song and try to communicate that unique sort of friendship that gay men seem to find themselves in with their straight girl friends in middle school and high school. It’s a song about a deep, loving friendship and what that friendship does and how it changes over time, how it stretches and bends, sometimes it’s weaker and sometimes it’s stronger, but a relationship that’s lasted the test of time and those tumultuous years of youth and early adulthood.
How do you usually prep before performing?
I usually have a shot of whiskey. Can’t have too much, but it psyches me up and loosens me up a little bit. To run out on stage with my arms up, it takes a lot to do that. When you have people that come to see you you really have to show strength and leadership and confidence and it takes a lot to run out on there and say, “yeah I know these people are here for me and I’m going to give them a great show.” So I just really try to get myself in a good headspace and part of that involves maybe having a shot of Jack. I’ve been doing that less though, just trying to achieve that natural high and it’s been working out.
What artist or musician would you love to collaborate with one day?
Lady Gaga comes to mind first. I’ve never sat down with her but I feel like we would hit it off musically because I understand where she’s coming from musically and artistically, even when other people don’t. And she would just be a fascinating person to talk to let alone write with, so she’d probably be at the top of the list. And that Hozier guy! I mean that song “Take Me To Church” is just unbelievable, that’s songwriting right there, just amazing.
What benefits do you see from staying in the Midwest over moving out to LA or to NYC?
I think it gives me a unique quality. There’s just a different energy over here and I think that always affects whatever anybody is creating. I don’t know if I’ll stay here, but while I’ve been here I’ve always wanted to incorporate the city. The city’s a big part of me and I wanted that to be reflected in my work as much as it made sense. You don’t really see a lot of shots of Lake Michigan in music videos really ever. I think it makes it unique and fun and has it’s own really warm, special, unique Chicago summer vibe.
Are you familiar with Josey Greenwell, the out country musician who has rebranded as Nate Green? What do you think of his decision to remarket himself?
I don’t really know much about him. I just know he did a DNA photo shoot and he seemed to be out and proud and now he seems not to be embracing that side of him in the same way. Let me think what I want to say about this… It saddens me because I feel his decision to not be out and open in what appears to be actually in some ways going back into the closet professionally, I see it as a reflection on the sad state where people feel like they can’t be out. And I feel bad for him, that he for whatever reason doesn’t feel he can’t be welcomed as an artist and he’s branding himself as a country artist but he doesn’t feel like that he can make that part of his work. I think I wanted to be out because I felt it sets a good example. We need as many people out as possible. I felt comfortable doing that and I’m all about that for myself and I encourage other people to do the same. But I don’t know his story, what his journey’s been like, so I don’t want to make any judgement other than it’s a reflection of the world that he believes in and it’s a sad reflection for me.
I’ve read in other interviews that your parents were really protective growing up. How did you educate yourself on LGBT issues?
I was very sheltered up through going to Belmont University in Nashville, my first time away from home. My internet activity was closely monitored and all that, so I didn’t really know anything about the LGBT community or history until I went to college and started meeting gay people.
We’ve seen a lot of progress in terms of marriage equality the past couple of years. What do you see as the next frontier for LGBT rights?
Well we can’t forget about the T in LGBT. I think now it’s our trans brothers and sisters that we really need to allow to take the lead. We need to listen to them and support them the way they have supported us all these years. I feel like they’ve put their needs, they’ve taken a backseat, to really help marriage equality come through and help people accept gay people better but that doesn’t necessarily help trans people. I think we need to be there to support them now. There’s a lot of issues that community faces that gay and lesbian people don’t have to face. There’s issues of what bathrooms they can go to and there’s blatant discrimination against them and even the way society thinks of gender is problematic for the way they see themselves and want to be seen by society. We have a long way to go. We’re really just beginning now so we really need to allow trans people to take the lead.