An interview with singer/songwriter Steve Grand
by Gregg Shapiro
Photo by Joem C. Bayawa
In these days of instant Internet celebrity, overnight sensations are a dime a dozen. But Chicago-based gay singer/songwriter Steve Grand seems to be an exception with his song “All-American Boy” and its accompanying video. Sure, he’s breathtaking to look at, and that doesn’t hurt. He’s even put in time as a model. More than just a pretty face and body, Grand is a musician with a message. Striking a chord across boundaries, Grand’s song and video of unrequited love, set to an unlikely country music beat, has found a devoted audience and earned more than a million views on YouTube.
On the (boot)heels of this viral video, Grand has received attention and coverage from a variety of sources, including the Huffington Post, Good Morning America, and the Los Angeles Times, not to mention numerous LGBT websites and publications. A proudly gay voice for his generation and others, Grand is still getting used to being in the spotlight. I spoke with him about the experience, his music, and his future.
Gregg Shapiro: Steve, how does it feel to be a YouTube sensation?
Steve Grand: More than anything, I’m just grateful my song has reached so many people so quickly. And reached people that it has meaning for—people that feel the same way I felt and who resonate emotionally [with the song]. That’s all I hoped for. That’s all you can hope for as a songwriter, as one who makes music and performs. As far as being a YouTube sensation goes [laughs], I am more than one song and one video. I certainly hope that this is just the very beginning—the tip of the iceberg—of a career. Because that’s what I got into this to do—not to be a flash in the pan, [but] to continue to create good music that resonates with people emotionally.
Is there anything in your background or training as an artist and performer that prepared you for this moment?
I started taking piano when I was six years old. When I was four, I started making models of pianos out of cardboard. I was so fascinated even with just the aesthetic of a piano. I was obsessed with [the Peanuts character] Schroeder and his piano. I would go through different phases as a kid, as we all do, and I would get obsessed and driven to be creative. Whenever I would get into something, I would want to replicate it, express it in my own way out of cardboard. My parents picked up on it, and they got us this old, shitty upright piano, and we all started taking lessons. I was the one that was really into it, especially the piano. I took music classes in high school.
Did you give piano recitals?
At a local church, but it wasn’t a contest and I wasn’t being evaluated by someone from a university or something. My teacher was a stay-at-home mom, a very talented woman. I didn’t really understand music theory until I was a teenager, and then everything started to click. When I started to play guitar and started to listen to rock music, there was a guitar teacher who really helped develop my ear and helped me listen to things and feel things out. I feel like I have a really good [combination] of traditional, classical training balanced with playing by ear. I can read charts and sight read to some degree, and I also know what chords are being played when I listen to a song on the radio.
Because “All-American Boy” has a touch of twang, the song is being pigeonholed as country and even led to you receiving a favorable mention on a Nashville website. But being an openly gay musician in Music City can still be risky, as we saw when Chely Wright came out as a lesbian. Do you have any thoughts about that?
I never set out to write a country song. I would never dismiss [that] if it sounds like country to some people. That’s fine. At the heart of it, country music is good storytelling and “All-American Boy” is a story. So I think that’s where that comes from. I also think the imagery in the video leads people to give it that title. Even if I am labeled as a country singer, which isn’t a label I gave myself, I certainly wouldn’t want to take away anything from the brave men and women who came before me.
“All-American Boy” could just as easily have been arranged as a power pop tune, an acoustic folk number, or an electronic dance track.
With that in mind, are there plans for the song to be remixed for club play?
I’m going to let people do what they want with it. I’m not skilled enough to make that happen by myself. I would be open to hearing what that would sound like. I’m a songwriter. What I think a good song is is a song that can be totally stripped down to just vocals and piano or vocals and guitar—the raw, basic elements—and it still sounds beautiful. I think that’s one of the ways you know you have a good song. That’s something I always try to do in my writing. I think the songwriting should transcend any sort of trendy sound. So I would be up to hearing how [a remix] sounds. [Laughs] I’m a little nervous, but I’m not above that or anything. Of course it would be really cool to hear it.
Have you written and recorded any other songs?
Yes. I’ve been writing since age eleven, so I have lots of music that I’ve written. I’ve been recording for a long time, too. I’m always changing my mind, and I obsess over certain parts. Sometimes I’ll do a vocal take three hundred times, so things kind of take me a while. But I do have a lot of songs recorded. From the response I got here, it’s obviously inspired me and influenced what will come next.
Are you being inundated with offers from record labels, and if so, are you taking them under consideration or would you prefer to remain an independent artist?
I definitely don’t want to close the door to any opportunities or offers at this point. So I’m keeping an open mind. I believe that we’re in a day and age where we can do it independently. There are pros and cons on both sides. You have to consider who you are as an artist, what you want to be and what kind of impact you want to have. Ultimately, that all plays into the decision I’ll have to make. I don’t want to be rushed along into making a decision about something I worked toward my whole life. That’s absurd. I will be the one to decide when I make those moves. I’ve concentrated on the people for whom the song has already resonated and struck a chord with. I want to honor them and continue to give them my best work, work that’s from my heart and soul.
You mentioned the impact that the song has had. For a lot of LGBT folks, “All-American Boy” is instantly relatable because everyone has had the experience of being attracted to or falling in love with someone straight or unattainable. How personal is that experience for you?
Wow! What a good question. We’ve all been there, and I mean gay, straight, bi—whoever you are. We’ve all fallen for someone that we can’t have, but it especially rings true in the specific story for LGBT people. It is the story of my life since I was thirteen. I was always crushing on the straight guy. I think it’s always been there because I grew up in a place where gay people weren’t visible. I was always crushing on my best friends. I think that’s the case, probably, for a lot of us. The song isn’t about anyone specific. It’s the accumulation of experiences. I definitely knew the story, as far as the ➝video goes—all the imagery and things like that. I had a very particular vision in mind. I think all of that was influenced by everything I’ve been through, growing up and having this happen to me over and over again.
What kind of advice would you offer in that situation?
[Laughs] Hold on and don’t make yourself f–king crazy. It’s tough, but it’s going to happen. It’s a part of life. Unless you’re in a world that’s exclusively gay, which I think few of us are, it’s going to happen. I think there’s a great power in being able to express it. I needed to get the song off my chest because I feel like that’s how I reconciled how I felt. I think it has helped people. I’ve read their messages saying “Thank you for telling my story,” and then they tell me what happened to them with their guys. I try to play therapist. [Laughs] As a songwriter and performer, you get to play a lot of different roles that I’m in various stages of being ready for.
Because of your religious upbringing and what you went through with your family and ex-gay therapy, you are being looked up to as a symbol of strength and overcoming the odds. What does that mean to you?
It’s very flattering to be a symbol of anything like that. To some degree I feel like, wow, I can’t live up to that. [Laughs] Don’t put me in a position to be a role model. But the story is true. I don’t want to let people down. I got into this to play music as a way to express myself and tell stories. My focus now is not letting down the people who put their trust in me, and being there for them.
You had a gig performing at The Joynt in Chicago. Did you ever play originals, or did you stick to cover material?
If people asked for them, I would sometimes play originals. But I never played “All-American Boy,” though. [Laughs]
Have you gotten any feedback from your followers at The Joynt?
Yes, some. I had regulars who would come and see me all the time. I’ve gotten some
really positive feedback, and that’s been
What is the next step for you professionally?
I’m trying to build a team now, because this is a little bigger than one or two people can handle. Trying to put together a team of people who know, respect, and can see my vision and can help point me in the right direction so that I’m staying true to myself and true to my art. Then I want to start releasing more music. It’s a lot, and I’m just going, going, going right now. It’s going to be a while before I get a real vacation. [Laughs]
As we speak, you are at the airport on the way to New York. Have you been recognized?
Not so far. In my hometown I have, by people I don’t know. [Laughs] But not at the airport in my gym shorts—my hair looks terrible and I’m wearing an old T-shirt—not that I’ve been aware of, at least.
Finally, Steve, there is a famous tagline from the Diana Ross movie Mahogany which goes “Success is nothing without someone you love to share it with.” Do you share your success with someone you love?
I have lots of people that I love that have been there supporting me. Yes, I’m sharing it with my family and my close friends. I’m lucky enough to have quite a few people.
Gregg Shaprio also writes the GrooveOut column in this issue of OutSmart.