Steve Grand: On a New Album, Being a Sex Symbol, Social Justice, and More!
In addition to being a musician, Grand has become an active figure in the equality movement. He has performed at Pride events around the nation and has partnered with causes such as The Human Rights Campaign, The Anti-Violence Project, Bailey House, the GLSEN Respect Awards, Out & Equal Workplace Advocates and the March on Springfield for Marriage Equality.
Born in Chicago and raised in Lemont, Illinois, Steve struggled for many years to accept himself as a gay person. Always feeling like an “outsider,” he turned to music for comfort and strength, taking piano lessons and learning to play guitar and flute.
Now Grand is coming in at number eight on Out Magazine‘s Most Eligible Bachelors of 2015. Gay singer/songwriter Steve Grand might be single but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t millions of men (and probably some women) who are in love with him. In return, Grand, who made his name singing about unrequited love in his hit single/YouTube video “All American Boy,” is about to unleash a bounty of love on his fans (who helped him raise funds via a Kickstarter campaign, resulting in the third most successful campaign in Kickstarter history) with the release of his long-awaited full-length album All American Boy.
Not only did Grand wisely include his groundbreaking hit song, but he also used the tune’s title for his album’s moniker. More than just a pretty (stunning, really) face, Grand is the complete package (so to speak). He’s a talented pianist. He’s got a strong and stirring voice. He also writes catchy songs that are equally timeless and timely. For instance, Grand’s “trans brothers and sisters” get a shout-out on the stadium-sized anthem “We Are The Night.” Drawing from many different realms (country, pop, and rock among them), Grand releases his album this week (March 24), much to the delight of his fans.
When you look back at the process of funding and then creating your first album, what do you reflect on fondly?
Steve Grand: The fact that almost 5,000 people chose to contribute still has me pinching myself. In the moments I start to doubt myself, reminding myself that so many people believe in my work as an artist that much is very affirming. Reaching the goal within the first 17 hours of the campaign, only to have it go on to quadruple by the end was quite a triumph.
As far as the actual making of the record goes, there were many triumphs and many challenges. Getting over “demo love” is a great challenge. Demo love is when, after hearing it so many times, you fall in love with the original demo of the song, even though it was never intended to be the final product. The problem there is that you are never able to evaluate the official, professional recording with objective ears, because, whether conscious of it or not, you are comparing it back to the old demo. It makes it impossible to know whether your dissatisfaction with the new version is because it is actually inferior to the demo, or if it is just your subconscious reacting to the friction created between what your ears have come to expect from hearing the demo so many times, and what they are actually hearing in the new version.
Songs like “All-American Boy,” “STAY,” and “Whiskey Crime” were re-recorded for the album (except for the vocals). So I was very careful and critical when we were recreating these songs that people had already come to love.
I feel very confident that Aaron Johnson (my producer) and I did a good job staying true to the magic of the original recordings, while improving on the sound quality and production. Being able to finally get those songs to shine the way I always dreamed they would makes me feel a great sense of accomplishment.
You’ve been working on music for a long time. Were you prepared for the kind of overnight success that you’ve experienced?
SG: No. I don’t believe anyone ever is. But I think even especially for me. I didn’t have any plan. No manager, no label, nothing, when “All-American Boy” came out July 2, 2013. Looking back, I have to say I did a good job keeping my feet on the ground. In a moment like that, all sorts of people are going to swoop in and try to tell you what you need to do and how you will be the biggest thing on the planet if you do X, Y and Z. I never bought any of it. It’s all bull shit. The only thing that matters when you are an artist is the quality of your work. With YouTube and Twitter, you’re not going to sneak anything by anyone. People know when they are being fed something that isn’t authentic and they don’t appreciate it.
Before releasing “All-American Boy,” the people who knew about what I was doing would ask, “So what are you going to do when it’s done? How are you going to get it out to everyone.” And my answer was always the same: “I’m going to get it just right, then I am going to upload to YouTube and share it with my friends on Facebook. The rest will take care of itself.” And that’s exactly what I did, and that is exactly what happened. Though now I wish I did have more of a plan for what happened after everyone had seen it, but I am where I am now, and I feel grateful for where this has all brought me.
The Minneapolis fans stood out in the rain for you at Pride. What did that fan devotion feel like?
SG: That meant everything to me! It’s cool that you remembered that! They kept trying to tell me that the whole thing was going to be shut down, and that we wouldn’t get to play. I was really intense about letting them know that we would be going on no matter what; that my fans didn’t wait out there for nothing. And it turned out to be a blast. There was a unique energy up on that stage, and a very special bond between us and the audience. I’ve never had that feeling before or since, and I’m so grateful that I had it at all. It was because we had fought to make that connection.
You’ve mentioned that this album is about relationships of all kinds. Are relationships the biggest influence for your music?
SG: Well I look at everything in life as some sort of relationship, so yes. The strength and quality of those relationships vary a lot, but it’s all about making a connection with someone, or something. There are songs about love had and love lost; there are songs about a relationship with a moment, and there is even a song that is just about a relationship with whiskey. It’s not all good and it’s not all bad. “Whiskey Crime” sounds like a fun, silly party song to some, but others read something darker into it… the fact that I am personifying alcohol, a drug, and talking about it like I would be talking to a romantic partner. It’s not always black and white. That’s part of what makes art compelling.
Any other over-arching themes to this album?
SG: There are a lot of moments on this record that will resonate with people who are making that awkward transition from youth-hood to adulthood. I think it has always been this way, but I feel that transition is a longer, much less defined one for us millennials. I think there are a lot of reasons for that, one of them being the economic crisis of 2008. As a whole, we are taking longer to establish our independence; to start our careers and to start families. I think it leaves a lot of us feeling disenfranchised and just generally bummed out that being grown up hasn’t turned out to be everything we were promised it would be.
What gets your creative juices flowing? What gets you in the mood to write?
SG: I’m an intense person, so I react to a lot of things in an emotionally intense way. I’ve learned that it really is a lot for the people around me to take, so I turn to songwriting in those moments as a way to release whatever is building up inside me. So certainly those kinds of moments inspire my writing. I think a lot of my best writing comes when I am in a darker place, so even songs that are generally upbeat with uplifting themes have some sort of dark undertone, though I’m not sure most listeners will hear much of that.
“We Are the Night” was written when I was working at Minibar in Boystown, so that is already 4 years ago or so. I was just 21. Being in an environment where nearly everyone was gay and out to have a good time was exciting to me. It was also frustrating because I was working while everyone else was having fun, but it got me dreaming about having my moment to shine one day. I promised myself that I would do whatever it took to make my voice heard; to make my community’s voice heard. That is the kind of energy that inspired “We Are the Night.” Being young and free and feeling connected to the people around you, and the kind of empowerment you get from that.
“All American Boy” was your first big hit and now it’s the title of your debut album, where did the inspiration for it all come from?
SG: When I was a young boy, my dad would pat my brother and I on the head and brag to anyone that was around: “These are my All-American Boys. They build tree houses, they play sports, they do good in school, they’re in the boy scouts… they are just your All-American Boys.”
That stayed with me for a long time, and when I realized I was gay, it occurred to me that I was suddenly excluded from that idea of what it meant to be “All-American.” It bothered me that just because I was gay, I was suddenly cut off from claiming all of these things as part of my identity.
I named my album All-American Boy, because it represents the reclaiming of an identity for myself as a gay man that I was kept away from. That is empowering, and I want my fans to know that they can be whoever they want to be, regardless of their sexual orientation, or gender identity, or race, or religion, or anything like that.
Thinking ahead to the second album, do you think that will be a fan-funded project as well?
SG: [Laughs] Whoa, whoa… slow down, the first one is not even out yet! I have no idea. Way too early to know any of that.
Fair enough. You are very hands-on with your career. You’ve said before that you looked through all of the footage for the All American Boy video. Is this level of hands-on attention something you’re going to carry with you into future projects?
SG: I am a terrible delegator. I never liked group projects in school. I just wanted to do everything, unless someone else in the group, with an even bigger personality, stepped up to be the leader.
I know I really need to work on that. It’s not something that comes naturally, but I will drive myself nuts if I keep myself involved in every step of every process. The problem is that every time I try to hand something off, I am never happy and end up doing it myself anyways. Unfortunately it just reinforces that sentiment that “If you want something done right, you got to do it yourself.” I don’t want that to be the truth. It shouldn’t be the truth and it doesn’t need to be. I just need to step up my game in that regard.
Can you tell me about the process of making this album? The release date kept being bumped back. Are you a bit of a perfectionist?
SG: Totally. I drove myself nuts with this album, but I am very proud about how it all turned out.
I’ll say that when the song first came out, the only thing I cared about was finding a producer to make a full record. I got reality TV offers and all of that kind of stuff, but I was only interested in using the attention I was getting as leverage to get to work with an accomplished producer. So I just starting googling the names of all the established producers I knew, trying to find emails and manager contacts and all of that. I aimed very high and of course got turned down a lot, but I kept at it.
Aaron Johnson, who produced the first two The Fray records and Eve 6, was one of the producers who got back to me. He liked my demos and my story. We talked on the phone and really hit it off. We agreed to track four songs together in December of 2013 and then decide whether or not to finish the record from there. We liked working together so in the spring of 2014, while my KickStarter campaign was still running, we recorded another eight tracks.
After the 12 tracks were done, I still felt like something was missing and I began to panic. So I started to reach out to song writers to do some co-writing sessions. I ended up getting two tracks out of the co-writing sessions (everything else is written only by me): One of those tracks is “Red, White and Blue”. I wrote it with Larry Dvoskin and Itaal Shur who wrote “Smooth” by Rob Thomas and won a Grammy for it. The other track was “Soaking Wet” which I wrote with Andrew Allen and had a group of guys in NYC called The Elev3n produce it.
What would you like to be remembered for? What will your legacy be? Musically or otherwise.
SG: I would like to be remembered as someone who stubbornly carved their own way in this world; as someone who inspired people to be their true selves through my work as an artist and the way that I lived my life; as someone who remained positive and determined as ever to make the world a more beautiful place, even when it was throwing a lot of darkness my way; someone who lived as a liberator and a uniter and who really cared about doing all in my power to leave the world just a little more beautiful than it was when I first got here.
Ambitious, I know, but that is all part of it for me. People should dream big and aim high and not be afraid to say “Hey, I care, and I want to make the world better in my own little way.”
When you were in Minneapolis for Pride, you were pretty bashful about people catcalling you. Do you own your sex symbol status, or does that term seem weird to you?
SG: I don’t think of myself as a sexy guy. And I’m really not trying to be humble or whatever, that is really how I feel. I’m a big dork. I don’t have much game. I appreciate that people think that I’m nice looking, but there is a blurry line between feeling appreciated, and feeling objectified. Either way, I’m just going to keep doing me.
You were recently named one of Out Magazine‘s 100 Most Eligible Gay Bachelors. That’s gotta count for something? I also assume that means you’re single?
SG: It’s sweet of them that they put me there. It’s all in fun, to me at least. I don’t look at that as an accomplishment, but of course it is nice to be thought of and included.
I make a point to not talk about my romantic life. I wouldn’t say if I were single or not. I feel entitled to keep at least that for myself for now at least.
You’ve said before that it matters that celebrities come out as gay. Can you tell me more about that?
SG: Yes. It definitely matters to the kids growing up in middle America and other small towns all of the world. I don’t think anyone would argue that young people are shaped, in varying degrees, by entertainers and athletes.
I wasn’t exposed to any openly gay celebrities that I connected with as a young person. I was very sheltered, and for the few openly gay figures I knew about, I didn’t feel any sense of connection to them. The “gay world” seemed scary and intimidating to me as a young person. I think there is such a larger, more diverse group of openly celebrities now and that is wonderful. It makes all the difference to young LGBT people growing up. Having role models is so important, and there are all sorts of great people young queer kids can look up to now.
You’ve also been vocal about other issues, talking about race, gender, and class. You seem very committed to social justice and equality in all of its contexts. What led you down the path of being outspoken about these topics?
SG: I’ve been very fortunate in many regards in this life, but I still know what it is like to be an outsider. Life’s experiences continue to humble me and help me see that we really are all just human. We all want to feel loved and valued and understood. I don’t think anyone gets into this life wanting to hurt others, and that makes me feel like we should try to be good to each other. You never know where life’s journey has taken someone.
To keep up to date with Steve Grand and to order his debut album, head to www.stevegrand.com.