American singing sensation Steve Grand burst onto the music scene out of nowhere in July with his moody country-style ode to unrequited love, All-American Boy, and its accompanying proudly gay video that quickly went viral on YouTube.
What made him immediately stand out – apart from his male beauty, soulful voice and undeniable talent – was his world-be-damned openness about his sexuality.
The 23-year-old hunk, who started writing music at the age of 11 and later (there is a God) dabbled in underwear modelling, had been rejected by the music industry because of his uncompromising insistence on being himself.
Undeterred, he self-produced his music; recording vocals in his parents’ basement and self-financing his videos. He’s since released a second single Stay and its video; confirming that Grand is continuing to unrepentantly express himself as a gay man through his music and imagery.
Since then, he’s spoken about his struggle to come to terms with his sexuality and even revealed that he was in therapy for years in a misguided and obviously failed effort to “become straight”.
Grand has in just a few months garnered a global following of adoring fans and has been performing all over America and branching out across the world. And he’ll next be appearing in South Africa in December. Mambaonline spoke to the talented, humble and gorgeous star ahead of his African tour.
What attracts you to the country music genre?
I’m never thinking, “What genre is this going to fall into?” when I’m writing a song. For me it’s all about the message, the story, the melody, and how the production of the song best supports all of that. That being said, I do like all kinds of music, including country. Country, for me, is about good story telling and not being afraid to draw on things that are familiar, both in the content of the song and in the musical choices. It all depends on how I’m feeling. Different music takes us to different places.
Who are your musical influences?
My dad was the first person to inspire me to play music. Many of my musical inspirations align with his. The Beatles, the Stones, Led Zeppelin, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Billy Joel. Later on, I began listening to music my parents didn’t quite understand like Blink-182, Green Day, Taking Back Sunday, Brand New and Fall Out Boy. But it was dad who got me started. He would listen to a song and tell stories about what each song meant to him; where he was in life; who he was dating, what car he was driving. He made me realise the lasting power of music – how a great song can take you back to the moment you first heard it. From that point on, I knew that’s what I wanted to do in life, create something so real and beautiful that it stays with its listener forever.
Pic: DNA Magazine (2010)
How do you feel now about your, some would say risky, decision to come out as a gay artist? Do you feel that you made the right choice?
I was out in many aspects of my life before I took my first big step in releasing my first original song and video, All-American Boy, so it wasn’t a “coming-out” for me on a personal level. But YouTube certainly was a bigger platform. I am a songwriter who draws on my thoughts and experiences when creating music, so there wasn’t much of a choice for me to make. Love is something we all feel. I don’t believe a love story becomes any less universal just because it is between two men or two women.
Has the music industry finally started taking you seriously since the release of All-American Boy? Are offers coming in or do you plan to stay independent?
I’ve gotten interest from different corners. So far, I’m remaining independent, but I’m not closing any doors for the future. Right now, I am concentrating on creating music that is good and real for the people I’ve already connected with.
You’ve spoken about your struggle to come to terms with your sexuality. What was it that made being gay such a difficult issue for you personally?
I grew up in a tight-knit Catholic family. Being gay was never something that was talked about when I was growing up. I was taught to believe the church’s stance on homosexuality. My siblings and I were pretty sheltered as kids to the point that I didn’t even think being gay was a real thing.
How old were you when you first realised that you were gay?
I was 13 when I realised I was gay. But even before then I knew there was something different about me that I was never able to put a finger on. So when I realised that I was attracted to men, I felt my whole world collapsing. I felt trapped and prayed that I would find a way out; that the feelings would go away. So the journey to accepting myself was a long, trying one.
What are your thoughts on Pope Francis’ more welcoming tone towards gays and lesbians?
I’m happy to see that things are at least moving in the right direction. We have a long way to go, of course, but considering how old the church is, I think it’s certainly something to feel good about. What I feel even better about are the changes that are happening on a smaller, more grassroots level. Every Sunday for years, I played piano and sang in four different Catholic churches. At one final mass where I played, I stood before my congregation and, among many other things, told them that I was gay and that I believe I am no less in the eyes of God because of it. I received a standing ovation for that. And even the aftermath was nothing but positive. The priest, who was very supportive of me, told me he has received nothing but positivity and support in regards to that mass.
After your experiences, what are your thoughts on the use of therapy or prayer to try to “convert” a gay person into a heterosexual?
I believe it’s wrong and quite clearly just does not work. Doing anything but affirming someone for who they are is always wrong and always hurtful and always has lingering consequences.
Do you think that with your overtly gay videos you run the risk of only appealing to a gay audience?
It’s been amazing to hear from many different kinds of people who connect with my music and feel moved by it. I think that’s because my music includes a lot of universal themes that everyone can relate to; love, friendship, the trials and tribulations of growing up, the struggles of self-acceptance, being accepted by our family for who we are – and of course, unrequited love.
Steve Grand and co-star in the Stay video
As an openly gay country artist you will always be known not just for being a singer and songwriter but also as a groundbreaker and for having a social and political impact…
Regardless of the title or genre, I’m grateful and humbled by whatever bit of difference I have made, or will make, for the people I’ve been able to connect with through my music. The best part of all of this has been the people who walk up to me and say, “I’m from a small town. Thanks for telling my story. Thanks for giving me a voice.”
How comfortable are you with the idea of being a role model? Is it something you believe you can live up to?
I think the best way any of us can be a role model is by being our true selves. I am flawed just like any human being, but I try to do my best.
Who have been your own role models in life?
My parents come to mind first. They’ve worked hard and have made so many sacrifices to give my siblings and me the best life they could. It’s something I’ve come to appreciate more and more as I’ve gotten older and have gained perspective. They’re not perfect, but they have never stopped learning and growing.
You’re clearly comfortable with your body. Were you always well-built and was this comfort with your physique always there?
I started feeling self-conscious about my body when I was in middle school. I was so skinny, I hated it. I started working out in high school and eating as much as I could. Even as my physique improved through college, I was still self-conscious. I found that accepting any part of yourself, whether it be your appearance or something else, takes more than achieving any sort of tangible goal. While it helped that I was working out a lot and eating right, learning to be comfortable with myself took a lot more than that.
How do you feel about your underwear and almost nude modelling now? Do you think that some people might take you less seriously because of it?
I came from a restrictive household and being photographed almost nude was sort of my rebellion. It was all part of growing up and discovering who I am. I still don’t believe the human body is anything to be ashamed of. But I’m in a phase of my life where I am focused on my music.
Are you still up for posing in your underwear, or less, when required?
Damn! (The world weeps…) Do you think that gay public figures should be urged to come out to their fans?
I think we’re always better off when people are being honest about who they are.
What advice would you give to a closeted gay performer who’s thinking of coming out?
It feels better to be out and honest about who I am. I think being honest about who you are is the only way to have an honest, deeper relationship with your fans. It’s just better this way!
Same-sex marriage has been legal in South Africa for almost seven years now. Why is this something that America has struggled so much with?
Congrats to you guys! That makes me very happy. Well, there are a lot of answers to that question, but I’ll just say that it seems to me that we have an awful hard time letting go of our puritanical roots. There’s a lot of progress being made here – and a lot more that still needs to be made.
The video for All-American Boy is all about unrequited love. Is that something you have a lot of experience with?
Of course it is! I think we all have had that experience, gay or straight. I have fallen for straight guys growing up because I grew up in a town where gay people just were not visible. I thought I was almost the only one.
On a lighter note, do you have any groupies yet or a name for your fans (e.g. Mariah has Lambs and Gaga has Monsters)?
They named themselves the GrandFam! I love my fans so much.
How is your love life these days – and has it improved or gotten worse since you became a celebrity?
Well that is one thing I choose to keep private.
Fair enough. What are you most looking forward to when visiting South Africa?
I am really looking forward to all the wildlife and the game reserve I am going to! I’m also going to Table Mountain! I will be in South Africa for about two weeks, so mostly I’m just looking forward to using a lot of that time to learn and explore.
What can we expect from your shows?
You can expect a mix of original music, including Stay, All-American Boy, and some not-yet-released music that will be on my upcoming album, plus some covers – classics and pop hits.
Steve Grand’s South Africa tour has been cancelled. More details here.