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Billy Gilman plans weekend Bethesda show

Singer overcomes voice changes, industry norms to rebirth career

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Billy Gilman, gay news, washington blade

Billy Gilman has big plans to release new music he’s psyched about. (Photo courtesy Bethesda Blues and Jazz)

Billy Gilman
 
Sunday, Oct. 29
 
7:30 p.m.
 
Bethesda Blues and Jazz Supper Club
 
7119 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda, Md.
 
$45-75

Some people fight for years to break into the music industry but Billy Gilman became a star at the early age of 11. His debut single “One Voice” cracked the Billboard Hot 100 and led to a Grammy nomination and plenty of touring.

Gilman’s career started with a bang but began to fizzle when he suddenly seemed to disappear from the music scene. He reemerged with a coming-out video on YouTube that went viral in 2014.

Then in 2016 Gilman auditioned for “The Voice” by singing “When We Were Young” by Adele. He joined Team Adam Levine and swept the competition to become season 11 runner-up. Now Gilman is giving his music career a second go around but says this time it’s going to be more authentically him. Calling from his office desk in his home state of Rhode Island, the now-29-year-old singer spoke with the Washington Blade about his 10-year hiatus, coming out as a country star and if his friendship with Levine was just for the cameras.

WASHINGTON BLADE: What was it like achieving success so early? Did you realize what a big deal it was?

BILLY GILMAN: No. I knew that it was great. But all I was really concerned about was getting on a stage and just having fun. That was my main love. It was almost like a game. It didn’t feel like a job. It didn’t feel like a pressure like, “Oh, we’ve got to get to number one. We’ve got to sell this many units this week.” The pressure is now. Now that I know what’s going on.

BLADE: What were you doing in the 10-year break between your self-titled album in 2006 and your “The Voice” audition in 2016?

GILMAN: My voice really, I don’t know if it was from all the stress it was under traveling for so many years as a kid or whatever, but when my voice changed it was a very bad time. It took a long time for it to come back where I knew I could hold a show on my own and not have to worry, “Oh, is it just going to go and leave me?” It would stay for a song and then it would just vanish, no sound coming out. We would go to the doctor but there really wasn’t any damage, it was just the vocal chords figuring out what they wanted to do. It took two-and-a-half years for me to fully get back out on a stage and be able to hold a show. But I lived in Nashville through all that time co-writing. I raised $2.5 million for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

So, I was very busy I just really wasn’t doing my thing. I had to find other ways to work and be out in the public eye and not letting that flame die, hoping that my voice would come back. And it did and that began the process of relearning it. You can’t hit those extravagant high notes that you used to hit. You have newer, lower notes.

When you’re told what to act like, what to sound like, how to dress that’s just your mentality. It wasn’t until I started to song write that I realized who I was, and what I loved and what I didn’t like. I knew that Nashville just wasn’t going to buy into it. I was trying to fit the formula when I knew I wasn’t going to fit the formula anymore. But I stayed and cowrote songs for publishing companies, did recordings and all that for five or six years. I knew I wanted to change gears and let my voice do what it was put on earth to do knowing that it can again, which is big ballads. I would do my little country stuff on stage at 12 years old and then I would literally sign autographs, do my duties, get on the bus and just belt out Celine Dion and Michael Bolton. That was just where my voice really fit. But the gimmick was working at 12 years old, a kid singing country music.

So when “The Voice” called, and they had been calling for a few years and I had said, “No, I want to do it on my own.” But usually, if an opportunity comes up and goes away and you ignore it, well that’s your own mistake. But this one kept coming. They just kept persisting. So I said, “You know what if it keeps coming up so strongly in my reality, it’s for a reason.” So I finally gave in and auditioned and the journey really revved up.

BLADE: Did you feel like your prior experience gave you an advantage on “The Voice”? 

GILMAN: No. The only thing that helped me was I knew how to hold notes and get around things if I was sick. That helped. But you’re standing toe to toe not knowing what the hell is going on just as much as the person that came from selling cars or behind a desk. There really was no advantage and they didn’t treat me any different. To the onlooker, it looks like it maybe played a role but it really doesn’t. They’re all about quality in all forms. Everyone is the same. That was really great because I was a little timid to talk to anyone in the first couple of weeks in the process. I didn’t know if the other contestants would be upset if they found out or if anyone knew.

So, I didn’t want to cause waves because you never know how people are gonna react. But we really started to get friendly and became friends and family that hopefully will forever be friends and family. The winner of my season had a prior record deal and we didn’t know that. Everyone has a history more often than not. There’s more entertainers that were co-writers on big hits, background singers for someone really famous. Ninety percent of them knew what they were doing or had a name of their own in whatever way prior to the show.

BLADE: Your coach was Adam Levine. Do you still keep in touch with him?

GILMAN: I do. We talk. The ones I talk to are him and Miley (Cyrus) mostly. He’s great. He was very black and white. I like truth and I don’t like to be doted or coddled. It was neat to see someone really get invested in the situation and not just when the cameras are on. He’s awesome.

BLADE: Country music isn’t known for out artists in the same way a genre like pop is. Were you afraid of losing fans coming out as a country singer?

GILMAN: If I’m going to lose fans like that then I don’t care. I’ll go sing on a cruise ship. I will always be a singer. If I was losing fans because I was sending a message that really was not a good one or I went into rap or something that has more of a negative tone I could see that as a hurt. But me being happy and spreading peace and helping some other person possibly, if I lose fans over that then it was meant to happen. At first I told my family and then I slowly started to tell my team. But then I figured it’s no one else’s business. No one else deserves to know. I’m just a singer. You put my record on and you watch my video on YouTube and then you go about your life. You don’t need to know any more about me. Country music especially isn’t the case like that. It’s very family oriented and they want to know their artists. So they advised me to tell them because it was a struggle for me to be successful again.

And when I finally came out to my team they said, “You have no idea the stigma that’s around your name. It’s a horrible thing but that’s the reality of this town.” And I went, “That’s really disgusting. I have a hit song right here. And you’re not going to play it just because of my personal lifestyle?” That’s just the way it works. It’s actually mind boggling. But it is what it is. A high-profile magazine wanted a cover story and I said no because it looks like I’m trying to sell it or find success in something so intense. My team wasn’t too thrilled. But it’s not a publicity stunt. It’s just telling people the situation.

So I opted to do it on YouTube. Because if it were to go viral and do amazing that’s on its own, I didn’t push it. The amount of press that I got from it was great. But the amount of letters, emails that I got from kids in middle America saying, “I was kicked out my home, what do I do? But now I don’t feel alone and I feel like I have a voice to help me through this.” The positive outweighed the negative by almost a 100 percent. People are gonna say what they’re gonna say but they’re gonna do that anyway.

But musically, I was like holy shit where am I going? But I am a singer. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t. So I knew in my gut that there was no other way for me. I had to trust that it would be OK. Sometimes that’s all you have to go by.

BLADE: Being both gay and a country singer, do you feel an obligation to speak out on events like the Pulse nightclub shooting and the Las Vegas shooting?

GILMAN: The way I feel is every voice is important at certain times. I think that there’s a place and time for my ranting. I could be like one of these artists that get on Twitter every five minutes. But what is that really helping? If you live your truth and you live to help the cause in your everyday life that stands alone as well. I do plenty of events and speak on behalf of GLAAD and the LGBTQ community. It’s just about living your life and not backing down. That’s a win, that’s a stance. Not cowering and being proud of who you are no matter what you are.

BLADE: What projects are you working on? Any new music?

GILMAN: I’m working on some really fun stuff. When I stepped out on “The Voice” stage I told my team I really have to do me this time. That’s such a new kid term, “Do you.” When you say it, it sounds really gross but it’s true. I really had to be who I knew I was and who I created alone. I would go, “Damn it, I wish people would hear this.” But I just wasn’t ready yet to show that part of me. So when “The Voice” came I said, “I gotta do me I think I’m gonna do an Adele song as my audition song” and everyone said, “What?” And I said, “Yeah, that’s where I see myself.” I said this is the biggest platform to see if it will work because if people don’t like it they won’t vote, they won’t download.

Thankfully, America bought into it. It enabled a lot of confidence in that new lane. We just wrapped mixing some songs that will be released. We’re meeting with record labels so I don’t know how long it will take. I could always release it myself if that doesn’t work. But right now they’re fresh off the studio floor. I don’t know when it will come out but it is done. Both regular music and Christmas music. It’s great to have this music that I’ve never had before. It can contend with everyone else and I’ve never had that before.

BLADE: What can people expect from your show?

GILMAN: This one is a little different. It’s a very up close and personal night of songs. My old stuff that people remember, some new stuff. I learned from another very successful artist, “You can do a million original songs but just expect people looking for the popcorn, the beer or the bathroom.” If they don’t know the song you gotta throw in some stuff that they know. So I threw in this little segment, because it’s so popular on TV and YouTube, called Carpool Karaoke. It’s really been working and it’s fun. It’s a variety show of songs that I really love but on the intimate side which is always a fun thing every once in awhile.

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5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Betty Schuler

    October 26, 2017 at 1:39 pm

    It’s going to be a fabulous show!! #bgarmy

  2. Kemwit Tall Tree

    October 29, 2017 at 6:38 am

    What a cutie!

    • lnm3921

      October 29, 2017 at 4:12 pm

      That’s something no one can say about you!

      • Kemwit Tall Tree

        October 29, 2017 at 5:05 pm

        That’s because they must be blind! I’m hot stuff baby and in my prime too! Jon Hamm look-alike!

        • lnm3921

          October 29, 2017 at 6:52 pm

          So in your prime you look like a man that is pushing fifty? So a Jon Hamm flaming queen is not sexy! Just another woman with a dik!

          Won’t be long before you look like Bruce Vilanch!

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Music & Concerts

Forget streaming, the holiday classics return to area stages

Bring your proof of vaccination and check out a local production this season

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A scene from a previous Gay Men's Chorus of Washington Holiday Show. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

A year ago, the holiday season was streamed. But now, thanks to various protocols including masks and proof of vaccination, DMV theatergoers can come together and experience – live and in-person — both beloved classics and some promising new works. Here’s a smattering of what’s out there.

At Olney Theatre, Paul Morello is thrilled to bring back “A Christmas Carol 2021” (through Dec. 26), his solo adaptation of Dickens’ ghost story. Concerning returning to a live audience, Morello says, “While this is technically a one-person show, it’s really about the connection and collaboration with an audience, being in the same room, breathing in unison. I can’t do this without an audience and for a story that thrives on redemption, mortality, isolation, the need for community and connection, and the things that matter most, the timing couldn’t be better.”

Olney also presents “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” through Jan. 2. This musical “tale as old as time” stars out actor Jade Jones as Belle and Evan Ruggiero plays the Beast. olneytheatre.org

For the holidays, Synetic Theater at Crystal City is reworking “Cinderella” (Nov. 27-Dec. 26). Led by an all-female team of creators, this festive take on the classic fairytale is inspired by Afro-Latino music and dance. Directed and adapted by Maria Simpkins who also plays the title role. synetictheater.org

Last year, because of COVID-19, Ford’s Theatre presented “A Christmas Carol” as a radio broadcast, but now the fully produced play returns to the venue’s historic stage through Dec. 27. A popular Washington tradition for more than 30 years, the thoroughly enjoyable and topnotch take on the Dickens’ classic features Craig Wallace reprising the part of Scrooge, the miser who after a night of ghostly visits, rediscovers Christmas joy. fords.org

Another D.C. tradition guaranteed to put audiences in a holiday mood is the Washington Ballet’s “Nutcracker,” playing at the Warner Theatre through Dec. 26. Set to Tchaikovsky’s enchanted score, this charming and superbly executed offering takes place in Georgetown circa 1882 and features a retinue of historic figures along with children, rats, fairies and a mysterious godfather. Choreography is by Septime Webre. washingtonballet.org

The Folger Consort, the superb early music ensemble in residence at the Folger, will be performing seven concerts of “A Medieval Christmas” (Dec. 10-18) at St. Mark’s Church on Capitol Hill. A streaming version of the concert will also be available to view on-demand. folger.edu

At Lincoln Theatre, the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, D.C. presents “The Holiday Show” (Dec. 4, 11, and 12) replete with tap-dancing elves, a dancing Christmas tree, snow, and a lot more. The fun and festive program’s song list includes “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”, “The 12 Rockin’ Days of Christmas,” and “Boogie Woogie Frosty.” Featured performances range from the full Chorus, soloists, all GMCW ensembles, and the GenOUT Youth Chorus. gmcw.org

Arena Stage is marking the season with August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars” (through Dec. 26), a drama about a small group of friends who gather following the untimely death of their friend, a blues guitarist on the edge of stardom. Directed by Tazewell Thompson, the production features an exciting cast that includes local actors Dane Figueroa Edidi and Roz White. arenastage.org

Creative Cauldron is serving up some holiday magic with “The Christmas Angel” (Dec. 9-19). Based on a little-known 1910 novel by Abbey Farwell Brown, it’s the story of a lonely and bitter spinster who returns to happiness through a box of old toys. The commissioned new holiday musical is a collaboration of longtime musical collaborators and married couple Matt Conner and Stephen Gregory Smith (lyrics and book). creativecauldron.org

In keeping with the Yuletide spirit, the National Theatre presents two feel-good national tour musicals. First, it’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” (through Dec. 5), a musical take on Dr. Seuss’ classic holiday tale featuring the hit songs “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch” and “Welcome Christmas.”

Next up is “Tootsie” (Dec. 7-12), the hit musical based on the 1982 gender-bending film starring Dustin Hoffman as an out-of-work actor who disguises himself as a woman to land a role on a popular soap opera. The show boasts a Tony-winning book by Robert Horn and a score by Tony winner David Yazbek (The Band’s Visit). thenationaldc.com

Keegan Theatre presents its annual holiday offering, “An Irish Carol” (Dec. 10-31). Set in a modern Dublin pub, the funny yet poignant original work (a nod to Dickens) tracks the changes in the life of a rich but miserable publican over the course of one Christmas Eve. keegantheatre.org

At Theater J, it’s the Kinsey Sicks’ “Oy Vey in a Manger” (Dec. 17-25). Blending drag, four-part harmony, and political humor, the “dragapella beautyshop quartet” brings its own hilariously irreverent view on the holidays. theaterj.org

And through Jan. 2, Signature Theatre continues to brighten the season with its production of Jonathan Larson’s “Rent” directed by the company’s out artistic director Matthew Gardiner and featuring out actor David Merino as Angel, a preternaturally energetic drag queen and percussionist. sigtheare.org

The Music Center at Strathmore, also in Bethesda, is presenting a wide range of musical holiday offerings including “Manheim Steamroller Christmas” (Dec. 3 and 4), a multimedia holiday tradition; Sarah Brightman in “A Christmas Symphony” (Dec. 6 and 7); “A Celtic Christmas with Séan Heely Celtic Band” (Dec. 11); Washington Bach Consort’s “Bach’s Epic Christmas Oratorio” (Dec. 11); the beloved “The Washington Chorus: A Candlelight Christmas” (Dec. 16 and 17); and last but not least “The Hip Hop Nutcracker” (Dec. 20), Tchaikovsky’s classic reimagined with MC Kurtis Blow (“White Lines”). strathmore.org

And finally, something strictly for the kids: Imagination Stage presents “Corduroy” (Dec. 11-Jan. 24). Based on the beloved children’s books by Don Freeman, it’s the heartwarming story of a girl and her perfectly imperfect Teddy Bear. Best for ages 3-9. imaginationstage.org

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Music & Concerts

BETTY returns to DC

Queer band to perform at City Winery Dec. 5

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BETTY (Photo by Gene Reed, 2021)

Pop-rock band BETTY is returning to their District homeland for a holiday show at City Winery on Dec. 5.  

Fronted by Alyson Palmer and sisters Elizabeth and Amy Ziff, the band who are “rule breakers” and “equality rockers” have been touring, writing, and advocating for social change through their music since 1986. The band has been featured in shows like “The L Word” and “Encyclopedia,” and created their own off-Broadway show “BETTY RULES.”

The D.C. show will kick off a tour that will bring the band to New York City, Cincinnati, and New Hope, Pa. Elizabeth, who identifies as lesbian, said it’s been “incredible” to be in rehearsals for shows again after the pandemic put a hold on live music.  

“We’ve been together for so long. We are a family and we hang out and we’re friends and we play music together,” she said. “It’s our life.”

Amy, who is queer, said she’s excited to perform in the District where the band originally formed. 

“It’s so emotional because it’s where we grew up,” she said. “Not just musically, but it’s where we came out.”

Proof of vaccination is required at all shows. To purchase tickets, visit citywinery.com.

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Music & Concerts

We waited eons for this? New Diana album is colossal disappointment

Saccharine sentiments sink largely self-penned effort from diva supreme

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Diana Ross’s new project ‘Thank You,’ while hopeful and optimistic, is too musically weak to catch fire after the one-two punch of its opening cuts. (Image courtesy Decca)

Diana Ross’s solo albums are almost always inconsistent.

This isn’t unusual among R&B/pop divas; start wading past the hits and the same could be said for the album tracks of Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, et. al.

The few times she’s made a start-to-finish solid effort, like 1991’s “The Force Behind the Power,” 1995’s “Take Me Higher” or even 1985’s “Eaten Alive,” which works even with its campy title cut, they’ve never been huge sellers or featured any of her trademark hits.

However — and it pains me to say this — you have to go all the way back to 1983’s “Ross” to find an album as bad as her new release “Thank You” (★½ out of four), her first album in 15 years and her first of new material in 22 years. Pre-COVID, she was highly active with touring (and played the D.C. region many times), but her studio work had ground to a total halt.

A few things trickled out from the vault, like 2006’s delightful jazz album “Blue” (recorded in the early ’70s), but there was nothing new. And while it was always great to see her on stage — she looks fabulous at 77 (although you’d never know it from the vintage photo used on the “Thank You” cover) — her show varied little from year to year and her vocals were occasionally pitchy.

So while it’s great to finally have something new from the Motown legend — a studio workhorse all through the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s — this extremely uneven new album is a musical Hallmark turd that never met a feel-good lyrical cliche too saccharine or an easy listening musical bed too insipid.

It’s hard to place too much of the blame on Troy Miller (a veteran of Amy Winehouse’s band), who produced the bulk of the tracks here, as Ross’s fingerprints are all over it — she’s billed as executive producer and, in a career first, she co-wrote nine of the 13 cuts. Though she took a few songwriting credits here and there over the years (she co-wrote four songs on her 1982 album “Silk Electric”), on most of her albums, her songwriting contributions are zero. And although two of those — the bouncy title cut and second single “If the World Just Danced” — are unequivocally the project’s best tracks, Joni Mitchell she is not.

Here’s the good news — she sounds amazing. There’s a lustrous quality to her vocal work here, her range is truly impressive and the pitch never wavers. Some scoff, but I have always felt Ross is a great pop singer with considerable range and impressive interpretive abilities in a wide gulf of genres. She was never a Whitney or Celine, but she could coo (“Baby Love”), yearn (“Cryin’ My Heart Out for You”), burn (“Muscles”) and growl (“Swept Away”) as well as anyone. This album’s “Time to Call,” though weak, gives her a chance to unfurl several melismas in her highest register and she kills it.

Stylistically, while varied, the album as a whole is numbingly mellow. Three cuts (the solid “If the World Just Danced,” retro shuffle “I Still Believe” and horn-laden abomination “Tomorrow”) are dance tracks and almost all the rest could legitimately be dubbed easy listening. There’s cascading string work, decent (if hardly impressive) production and stylistic variation, but the flame dies out after the first two songs and, with such banal lyrics and painfully unimaginative melodies, never comes close to reigniting despite Ross’s conviction. It’s like seeing a truly good actress in a turkey of a play knowing she co-wrote it. You’re rooting for her, but you’ve spent most of the outing wincing.

One might argue saccharine and Ross have gone hand in hand back to the days of “Reach Out and Touch” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” — true — but it’s taken to a new low here. Of course, nobody expected Deepak Chopra-caliber insight, but with clunkers like “what is isn’t/what isn’t is” (on the Ross co-penned “All is Well”), “I’ll be the pillow where your head will lay,” (on daughter Rhonda’s “Count on Me”) or “the first time I saw your face …” (on mother’s ode “Beautiful Love”) — ripping off a lyric that blatantly should be illegal — this album’s scaffolding is so weak, one positively groans at the amateurishness of the songcraft. This is the chorus of “Count on Me”: “count on me/count on me/count on me/count on me.”

Siedah Garrett, a respected songwriter who might have momentarily elevated the proceedings, delivers one of the album’s worst cuts with the nauseatingly treacly “The Answer’s Always Love.”
I could go on, but you get the idea.

One might also argue, hey, couldn’t we use a little positivity today? Cut Miss Ross some slack and just be glad she’s back. True perhaps, but with material this weak and the thought of what this album could have been in more daring, imaginative hands, it’s downright frustrating.

With little chance of making any kind of dent on U.S. (or U.K. for that matter) pop radio and in her late 70s, I’d hoped Miss Ross, with no fucks left to give, might have done something brash and daring, but this is called playing it safe folks and sadly it’s a yawnfest.

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