Houston’s Singing Bear

There may not be room in Nashville for Mike Ator. Ask him if he cares. SPECIAL EXTENDED WEB VERSION

Mike Ator

Short hair, full-but-trim beard, killer smile, a bear of a man (in the nicest sort of way)—songwriter Mike Ator promotes his original words and music with his own vocal instrument, a deep, smooth sound, a bit on the country side. His highly original music, however, departs from the C&W formula, with occasional echoes of The Beatles or Joni Mitchell or other of his favorite inspirations, a style he calls Americana. Alluvial Soil (his collaboration with Los Angeles film composer Edwin Wendler) wrote the opening title for Dreamscape Films’ The Interior (see it and hear it at www.theinterior.tv). Ator is currently promoting his iTunes single “Happy” and an accompanying video to benefit OutYouth Austin’s Lance Benjamin Memorial Scholarship Fund. His first solo album, 37 , will debut in October. On the local scene, he has been wowing audiences at the Houston Gay Men’s Chorus concerts.

Ator recently returned from Miami where the chorus took part in the GALA Choruses Festival VIII, and talked with OutSmart about his music and his life.

video1Photo caption: Mike Ator sings out in his “Happy” video directed by JoséAntonio W. Danner. You can watch it at You Tube: Happy.

Brandon Wolf: How long have you been singing with the Houston Gay Men’s Chorus?
Mike Ator: I joined the chorus after hearing them in concert with the Dallas Turtle Creek video2Chorus in the summer of 2005. It was something to do, and I thought I’d try out. I’m now a regular member in the bass section.

You appear to really enjoy your participation in the chorus.
Oh yes! My affiliation has been a fruitful one, and I give a great deal of credit to them for helping me grow. It’s a great experience, and I’m in love with those guys.
I understand that the chorus commissioned you to write a choral version of one of your songs specifically for them.
Yes, it’s entitled “Angel Beside Me,” and it’s got a gospel feel to it. It was performed at the last Christmas concert, and most recently at the GALA Festival in Miami. I sing solo with the full chorus as backup.

Tell us a bit about the GALA Festival.
GALA is the Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses. They hold a festival every four years. This year it was in Miami.

How many groups attend?
This year about 130 groups. That’s about 5,000 singers. We took over most of the downtown hotels.

Is the festival a competition?
No, it’s an opportunity for each group to present a 30-minute set, over the course of a week. It’s meant to be a time for sharing music, and for leadership development.

You currently have a single entitled “Happy,” available for download from iTunes, which is very important to you. What’s the background of “Happy”?

Last summer, one of the chorus members took his own life. It was out of the blue, and so shocking. A lot us really didn’t know what to do with our feelings about it. No one saw it coming. We still don’t know the reason, but we know that he was in a lot of pain.

So “Happy” is your way of dealing with that tragic loss?
Yes. I’ve never dealt personally with grief this deep, and I was surprised at how hard I took it.

But why the title “Happy”?
Because he always appeared to be so happy. He was active in OutYouth Austin (their version of HATCH), never lacked for friends, and had no issues about being gay. But under the surface, he was falling apart.

Who filmed the video?
A filmmaker from Los Angeles, named JoséAntonio W. Danner. He flew in, and filmed it in two days. He shot about three hours of footage, but used no crew.

The video has a lot of recognizable Houston landmarks in it.
Yes, it does. And the scenes with the brick wall in the background were filmed outside the old Pig Stand Restaurant on Washington Avenue. It was already closed and deserted when we filmed there against their wall.

This extended version of Ator’s interview, which did not appear in the print version of OutSmart magazine (August 2008), reveals how Ator got started in music, who his musical influences are, what he thinks of the current music scene, where he works when he isn’t singing, and who he comes home to at night:
Brandon Wolf: When did you first realize you liked music?
Mike Ator: I was eight years old, and I spent the summer with my grandmother. She had a piano and an organ, and I learned to play my favorite songs by ear. Then I began to learn how to play other instruments.

Like the guitar?
Yes. I’ve been playing guitars for over 20 years now. In high school, I played with a garage band. We entered a couple of talent competitions, but that was the extent of my performing.

Did you want to be a performer?
Actually, no. I began attending meetings of the Houston Songwriters Association. That’s an informal group that meets once a month. Anyone can attend, and bring songs that they have written, for the others to critique. The group helps people hone their craft.

So you originally planned to be a songwriter?
Yes. The majority of people involved in music these days are songwriters, not performers. Songwriters work hard to come up with songs that they believe will be popular, and then sell them to recording studios, who give them to their contract artists to perform. Songwriters make their livings from the royalties of songs that become hits.

Your songs seem to have a Country and Western [C&W] feel to them. Won’t it be hard to be openly gay in that industry?
There are no openly gay C&W singers. There are only rumors. Nashville is run with a corporate mentality. They have figured out the sales formula, and they stick with that—appealing to lower and upper-middle-class audiences—who basically lean in the conservative direction ideologically.

So how will you be able to succeed in that environment?
I don’t intend to try to market my songs through Nashville. Instead of C&W, I will release songs that are classified as Americana—that’s a general term for such genres as folk, country blues, bluegrass, alternative country, rockabilly, neotraditional, and roots rock. Think more in terms of Emmylou Harris, Neil Young, and Bob Dylan.

The Dixie Chicks lost their C&W base when they spoke out against a conservative president, didn’t they?
Absolutely. Even their winning several Grammys that year didn’t make a difference. The Nashville executives got rid of them because they didn’t fit their sales formula. But this wouldn’t have happened to artists in any other genre.

Do you listen to C&W music?
I used to. But I haven’t in the past five years. The top 10 C&W hits usually have the same session artists. There are about three top guitarists who do all the songs. There are no unique sounds anymore.

Do you think that will ever change?
Actually, yes. Within 3 – 5 years, there probably will be few if any CDs. All music will come from Internet downloads. Although most people don’t know it, iTunes will sell nearly anything—you don’t have to have a label or be signed. More artists will be able to get their songs out there to the public. The final challenge will be the marketing of their songs.

Who are your musical influences?
Well, I’m an ’80s guy—I liked that era’s pop music, like The Cure. I like anything the Beatles did. Paul McCartney is my number-one influence and hero. I also like a variety of older C&W styles—Patsy Cline, George Jones, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, George Strait—and I think I have every Alison Krauss album. I listen to ’70s soul music and rhythm and blues—songs that aren’t real high tech and with simple orchestration.

You plan to release a debut album this fall. What’s the title going to be?
37 .

Did you grow up in Houston?
Yes, I did. I moved to Denton to attend the University of North Texas from 1988 to 1993. I majored in psychology, sociology, computer science, and music. And I worked for several years there with a grassroots AIDS organization in Denton.

I understand that you are now on the staff of the Montrose Counseling Center [MCC].
Yes, I am. I write grants all day long. I love MCC. It’s the perfect job—a great organization that has its act together. It’s well run, and that makes it easier to write grants. Also, I love being able to be out at work, and feel totally comfortable about it.

How is the grants business these days?
So far, so good. But the failing economy is problematic—grants depend on stock market gains.

What’s the most satisfying part of performing?
Just knowing that someone enjoys the entertainment. In truth, I’m a reluctant performer. I’m rather shy, and there is anxiety involved in performing.

So it’s not as easy as performers make it look?
No, not at all. I don’t have stage fright, which is a psychological thing. But I do have anxiety, which is a physiological thing. When I first began performing, and was the center of attention, my heart raced and I was short of breath. My voice had a shaky quality to it. I’m a perfectionist, and I want my music to sound just right. It’s easier recording a song because I can work at it until it sounds the way I want it. It takes a lot of effort to learn how to control everything when I’m on stage.

Have you ever forgotten your lines?
[Laughing] Oh yes! And they were lines I had written myself!

Do you have a significant other?
Yes, his name is also Mike. We met at a Let Us Entertain You [LUEY] Weekend here in Houston. We now live together in our home in the Westbury section of town, with our three dogs, Bucky, Paisley, and Hunter.

Is Mike a musician, too?
No, he isn’t. But he loves to listen to music, and he’s a great source of support. He’s very proud of the album that I’m putting together now for a release this fall.

Good luck!
Thank you.

Speaking from the progressive’s perspective, Brandon Wolf wrote the LeftOut column for this issue of OutSmart magazine.


Brandon Wolf

Brandon Wolf is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.

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