After seducing music lovers both gay and straight, crooner Matt Alber’s gorgeous, soaring, and sumptuous voice is about to serenade the Southwest for the first time
by Steven Foster
Photo by www.photografton.com
It’s very in vogue now, this whole End Of TheWorld business. Of course, there was the premature ejaculatory buzz from polemic whack job Harold Camping, but everyone and John Cusack’s mother knows the actual date—courtesy of that time-obsessed tribe of clockwatchers, the Mayans—is next year. But even before our collective consciousness got serious about our supposed May 21 global deadline, another end-times view came into focus, courtesy of a thrillingly talented singer named Matt Alber. His end ended with a Mad Men-flavored barbershop waltz sealed with a full-on, balls-out, man-on-man gay kiss.
Jesus is coming? Look busy, indeed.
Alber’s eponymous YouTube video has racked up nearly half-a-million hits and counting—big numbers for anyone, but even more so for an out gay singer without a Simon Cowell endorsement (or a tube of mascara) to his credit. The buzz-worthy clip features the wholesomely appealing crooner getting a close shave in a sunlit barber shop before tangoing with a fellow customer, as they are serenaded by Alber’s own aching, soaring, skyscraping marvel of a voice.
The video was an instant hit and garnered acclaim from the gay media and straight public alike. Suddenly, everyone within earshot was in love with this gilt-throated tenor. Clarion-clear, full-bodied, and rapturously emotive, Alber’s powerful pipes recall Rufus Wainwright without the showy, sometimes self-indulgent theatrics. Alber’s songwriting similarly avoids Wainwright’s lyrical impenetrability, while still reveling in head-swirling romanticism. When Alber sings “I don’t wanna be dangled over the edge of a dying romance,” he breaks your heart while making you swoon. You’re Cathy to his Heathcliff. And whether you’re dangling or not, you definitely feel the fall.
“I would say, generally, writing a song does not come easy. It’s something I wrestle with for a long time,” Alber admits. “In particular with that song, I was going through a tough time in a relationship.” The song, he confesses, “was kind of a Hail Mary pass to try and keep it together.”
Beautiful as the song may be, the tactic didn’t work.
“It’s a tough spot to be in,” he says softly of being in a doomed relationship. “Nobody really wants to be in that spot.”
Alber is in Canada at the moment, on a tour that has taken him from his latest residence on the small, picturesque island of Vashon, near Seattle. He comes to Houston on June 18 to perform at Jones Hall with the Gay Men’s Chorus of Houston, and later that evening at the Hard Rock Cafe. The GMCH gig acknowledges his past as a member of the lauded choral ensemble Chanticleer, with whom he won two Grammys. Like most Grammy ensemble winners who don’t share clout on the level of, say, U2, Alber received a certificate instead of the iconic gramophone statue—a common industry-wide travesty he happily tosses off.
“It’s plain-looking, but who cares?”
His solo performance at Hard Rock is more representative of his life now, writing, composing, and singing his own material that comprised his 2009 freshman solo release, Hide Nothing.
“I sang with Chanticleer for five years,” remembers Alber. “It was sort of like extended grad school. Also a chance to be in a fraternity, because I totally missed that in college. It was a really wonderful experience, and I’m still close with many of those guys.”
But like any member of an ensemble, whether you’re Stevie Nicks or Damon Albam, the group dynamic doesn’t necessarily allow one to spread creative wings as broadly as one would like. So it’s fitting that Alber’s Hide Nothing opens with the quivering, tentative, yet ultimately soaring anthem “Monarch.”
“It’s basically a metaphor for the monarch butterfly. It takes them four generations to migrate away from California, and then in the fifth generation—somehow, miraculously—they go all the way back to California in one lifetime. And that kind of sparked the idea for that song. I wondered, what lifetime am I on? Am I on the one that’s making my way back?”
He pauses slightly and then admits, in an uncharacteristically grim confession for the usually sunny Alber, “I do wake up some days and feel like I’m barely going to make it a mile today.”
“We were dating at the time,” recalls “Monarch” video director Dan Whitehall. “His album was about to come out and he played the song for me and I thought it was incredible. It was a cool contradiction…sort of a haunting melody with a beautiful, hopeful message for a potential future.”
Alber is living up to that predicted potential, and he freely acknowledges that he is a glass-half-full kinda guy. This guilelessness is part of his appeal. Internet comments abound with sentiments expressed by listeners both straight (“I heard your music and told my wife to get her purse, we were going to see you that night. Then we went home and made out to your music.”) and gay (“I’m 68 years old and forgot what it was like to feel romantic. Thank you, George.”).
The broad-spectrum love would play well with the Leno crowd, but his defiantly left-leaning politics might keep him from sharing Jay’s middle-America sofa anytime soon. Alber’s not afraid of a homo liplock, nor is he shy about strumming a scathing sonic assault against Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. In a video for the song “This Is Who We Are,” Alber and fellow gay singer Tom Goss are flanked by two soldiers booted out of the military before the policy was repealed. In short, he has nothing to hide.
It’s easy to get the feeling that if a soul-sucking Hollywood PR hack would get hold of him, Alber could be the next Josh Groban. That is, after the agent forced Alber to keep his big gay mouth shut, effectively shoving him so far back into the closet he’d be crammed shoulder-to-shoulder with Jim Parsons and Matt Bomer. Alber would be much more famous and a helluva lot wealthier, but would he be any happier?
It’s not a stretch to see the hit potential. Alber is media-ready attractive, without being so Ford model fabulous as to intimidate. He’s as wholesome as Idol’s Scotty McCreery—just add some muscle and replace the creepy scowl with a shy smile and devilish twinkle. His eyes alone—emerald green, flecked in gold—are almost as hypnotic as his voice. Born in Kansas, raised in St. Louis, Alber epitomizes Midwestern sensibility, an upbeat attitude combined with a kind of corn-fed compassion and a present-yet-never-overbearing spirituality. When he waxes happy, he does so without sounding like some publicist-trained Pollyanna.
“I have the best job in the world,” Alber says. His honesty is probably beyond reproach, and refreshingly, his lyrics do have weight—an emotional heft that grants him much-needed gravitas for a pop singer. And his gigs are as prolific as they are varied. His repertoire, like his voice, smartly flips through the musical playbook, never landing on a page long enough for you to decipher his next move. In one moment, he nails the stark heartbreak of Elton John’s classic “Rocket Man,” despite delivering the song in the middle of a sunshine-splashed backyard barbecue. He covers “Mad World” with so much Darko that even Donnie would approve. His staggeringly beautiful rendition of The Roches’ holiday tearjerker “Star of Wonder” played over a critically acclaimed episode of the hit series Bones—during a funeral. At Christmas.
But just when you have Alber pegged as a closet moper, he shows up as the scheduled entertainment at an A-list-studded ceremony where Oscar-winner Kevin Spacey received the Eugene O’Neil Award. His selection? An original composition of his own—a Bobby Darin-flavored swing number.
Despite the inherent yearning in his songs, a “Sunny Side of the Street” motif isn’t that much of a detour for Alber. He’ll be the first to admit he has a lot to be happy—and singing—about. He’s in a relationship that even he wondered if he’d ever actually find. “We’ve been together for about a year and a half. I met him while I was on tour, actually. I sang a concert at his house. That’s how we met.”
And like any songwriter mining his own life for material, the meet-cute became inspiration. “He took me on a really wonderful first date. Basically it was a sunset walk along the Mississippi. I wrote a song about it. It’ll be on my new record.” That said, it’s singing for a larger audience that gives Alber a singular thrill.
“I get to sit with my guitar and sing for people,” he says. “I feel like somewhere in the middle of the concert, if it’s a really good concert, everybody just forgets about the reasons why they don’t get along with each other. Hopefully you walk out of there feeling a little more connected.”
And at a time when so many are trying to separate us with all manner of rapture predictions, it’s nice to see that somewhere, someone’s singing about keeping us all together.
Matt Alber appears with the Gay Men’s Chorus of Houston on June 18 at 7:30 p.m. at Jones Hall (bayoucityperformingarts.org), then at 10 p.m. at Hard Rock Cafe Houston (rocktheplaza.org). Proceeds benefit Pride Houston and Bayou City Performing Arts.
Steven Foster is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.