Steve Grand says it’s become trendy for gay celebs to come out in an “oh-by-the-way”-type manner. The 25-year-old singer/songwriter says that was never his style.
“People say this is no big deal anymore, who cares,” he says. “You know who cares? The kids who are still really struggling with this. The kids who feel like they would still rather be dead than live life as a gay person. I’m thinking about them all the time when I’m doing these things because deep down, we all just want to be loved. … We want to feel valued and understood.”
In 2013, the Chicago native took $7,000 of his own money to make a music video for his song “All-American Boy.” The now-famous clip — nearly 4 million YouTube hits logged — found him jamming roots-rock style (many called it country) and pining for a straight friend. Now having raised $325,000 from 5,000 fans through a Kickstarter campaign, Grand is releasing a 13-track album of the same name. The Aaron-Johnson-produced project is slated for a March 24 release. We caught up with Grand from his Chicago home by phone. His comments have been slightly edited for length.
WASHINGTON BLADE: Nobody sets out to be a one-hit wonder. You seem like you’re on a logical path to spinning the attention from the video into a sustainable career. How easy or hard has that been so far?
STEVE GRAND: I think I did a good job of keeping my feet on the ground. I went through the whole viral Internet star thing and that was big for a short time. I fumbled a bit in interviews and was trying to figure out if I was going to do shows right away, work on an album. There really was no plan and looking back it seems almost like a hindrance that the video and song came together so beautifully because I don’t think people realized it was really just me doing all that. People suddenly had all these really high expectations right away and I didn’t have a team, no manager, label, it was just something I did all myself with my own money made from playing bars on weekends. … It gave me a good jumpstart and exposed my music to a lot of people right off the bat and connected with a lot of people. I have to be grateful for that but it has a dark side too, for sure.
BLADE: Obviously the video wasn’t just something you did off the cuff. How calculated was it?
GRAND: I really wanted to start a grassroots kind of thing and I thought if I put it out there and people responded, that would be a good start to establishing myself as an artist so I just started asking around, finding people who did videos and eventually I met up with (director) Jason Knade. … I think I really stretched everyone and got a lot for my money. I was very passionate about it and I really cared about getting that song and video out to the world … but no, it wasn’t calculated in terms of anything after. I’ve said this a few times and it doesn’t seem to really stick, but I really did just upload it to YouTube and put it on Facebook and then the Internet did its thing. I wasn’t even sure who to reach out to. I remember thinking, “Oh, maybe I should e-mail Davy Wavey or something,” but it just did its own thing. Buzzfeed got it the next day and said I was the first openly gay country singer and I was like, “What?” I never really stood by that title but I was glad people were seeing it.
BLADE: When was it filmed and how long did it take?
GRAND: We filmed it in June of 2013 and shot it over three days. It was really hard trying to find a yard that we could bring all my friends as extras and have a place that looked like open roads and a campfire and light off fireworks and not get in trouble. I had so much trouble getting a place. No one wants to lend their place to a bunch of 23 year olds with cameras, fireworks and alcohol, but we did end up finding a place in Wisconsin through a friend of a friend. I invited like 200 people knowing maybe 30 would show up and I was right. We shot two days back to back, then a week later shot the stuff in a friend’s yard where it looks like the morning after with the fire and the garbage. Then we edited it right away.
BLADE: I guess people were skeptical because it looked so professionally done. So many essentially homemade videos end up looking so cheesy. How did you avoid that?
GRAND: Well, I insisted on looking at all the footage we shot even though nobody wants to do that because it’s so crazy, but I insisted. I was like, “Give me the footage.” I wanted to be sure we had absolutely the best shot of everything so I spent hours and hours going through it. I also really needed it to be up by the Fourth of July, that was my plan, me being calculating I guess. I thought that was the best time to release it so we had a very limited amount of time. The editor had his first edit, then we spent eight hours going over everything making tweaks. … I really just knew exactly how I wanted it to look and I knew the feeling I wanted people to have and how to achieve that. I was very inspired and very determined and also lucky to have some very talented people to help. … I drove myself nuts, though. My parents were starting to get really worried. They were like, “It’s a little scary how you’re so intense about this.” I wasn’t sleeping or eating, which honestly is why I look so ripped in the video. It was really going over every last detail right up until the last minute.
BLADE: When hip-hop made its mark on pop, country started sounding a lot like where pop/rock was in the ‘90s. Do you think that’s why you got the country sticker?
GRAND: Yeah, live drums, acoustic guitar now, people think country. And also the storytelling style and a lot of the visuals with American flags, old cars, friends by the fire, whisky — those are very country images I guess. I just think of them as Americana. I’ve never gotten too hung up on what it’s called. … If it sounds country to you, that’s fine. … I’m just all about making the song really shine and bringing out the beautiful raw elements of the song.
BLADE: There’s a lot of industry hand wringing about whether albums are obsolete. Why was it important to you to make one?
GRAND: It was something I always wanted to do. After “All American Boy” came out people were like, “You made it, you made it.” I’m like, “I haven’t done anything yet.” Until I have an album out and have played all over the country and the world, then I’ll feel I’ve done what I’ve wanted to do since I was 12. Right after “All American Boy,” all these offers came in, all this stupid shit like reality TV and you know, people saying you have to decide today what you want your career to be like. … My thinking all along was if I’m a good songwriter and a good performer and I think there’s an audience out there for me, if that is all true, then there should still be something left when this moment fades away.
BLADE: Will you tour?
GRAND: Yeah, later in the spring. We’re doing this thing in Europe for two weeks in June and the rest is being put together now.
BLADE: How did you feel watching Sam Smith at the Grammys?
GRAND: It was amazing and a testament to where we are today, which is a beautiful thing. I thought about what it would have meant to me as a young person to have seen something like that — Sam Smith just owning the Grammys, that was amazing. He’s obviously just so, so good and the industry has really embraced him. People everywhere just seem to really like him.
BLADE: What album did you wear out when you were 12-13-14?
GRAND: Fall Out Boy, “Take This to Your Grave.” I listened to that like crazy. That’s when that whole pop-funk-emo thing was happening.
BLADE: You played a lot in clubs and churches. What did you learn?
GRAND: How to be in front of people and give them an experience even when I wasn’t feeling it. You learn to perform and be on whether you’re having a bad day, hung over, sometimes sick, whatever. I learned it was my job to still play and make people happy.
BLADE: There’s no money in having a huge YouTube hit and not that I sense you’re doing all this for the money but surely in time you want to be able to sustain yourself doing this. You put a lot of money into the video. Was it worth it?
GRAND: Anytime somebody thinks I’m doing this for the money, I just laugh forever. I actually moved out of my apartment and back into my parents’ basement because I wanted to keep investing in myself and not throwing hundreds of dollars away for an apartment I was barely at anyway because I was spending so much time traveling to L.A. and recording. People have all sorts of priorities and so far, mine has been putting out something beautiful in the world, something people will connect to and giving people an experience. … I don’t care about living a glamorous life.
BLADE: You’ve done a lot of scantily clad photo shoots. Do all the underwear shots risk undermining a serious career?
GRAND: Those were all done when I was 19, so like six years ago. I didn’t do drugs or anything. My way of rebelling was taking off my clothes. I don’t own them and don’t choose my Google search so there’s nothing I can do about it. I’m not ashamed of them and I don’t feel like they’re any big deal … but most of the time now I don’t care how I look. Sometimes I’ll do a show now and people say, “Take off your shirt.” The only time I did that was for the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge in Lake Superior. But now, I don’t really care about showing off my body.
BLADE: Whatever ingredients are needed to launch a successful pop career in 2015 — whatever combination of looks, talent, and so on, to say nothing of drive, it would seem you were dealt a pretty good hand in life. Would you concur?
GRAND: Oh yeah, I’m never one to downplay that, absolutely. We’re not all dealt the same hand. I think I’m lucky to a certain extent but also lucky to have work ethic and passion and to care about what I do. … You really have to be in this for the right reasons because if you’re not, it’s just not worth it.
BLADE: You’ve said before in interviews you were not dating but focusing on career development. Is that still the case?
GRAND: Absolutely. And even if I was, I wouldn’t say. I like to keep some things to myself. I love life and sex and all that, but that’s for me.