Music for boys…and everyone else

When out actor Anthony Rapp and out writer Dennis Hensley decided to make their own music, they learned what it really means to be an independent recording artist. The two part-time singers talk about their full-on dedication to their music, being out, and whether Flashdance is better than Manilow.

BY Advocate.com Editors

June 01 2001 12:00 AM ET

Just because Jennifer Love Hewitt and William Shatner have both done it doesn’t mean making an album when you’re already gainfully employed in another field is a piece of cake. Just ask actor Anthony Rapp and writer Dennis Hensley—both of these out artists have recently recorded independent CDs of their own music and lived to tell about it. 

Rapp, star of the hit musical Rent as well as films such as Dazed and Confused, Adventures in Babysitting, Six Degrees of Separation, Road Trip, and the upcoming Ron Howard drama with Russell Crowe, A Beautiful Mind, released his disc of original alternapop tunes, Look Around, late last year. (It’s available via his Web site, www.anthonyrapp.com.) He will be performing songs from it—as well as a few choice covers—at New York’s Fez at 8 p.m. on June 11, 18, and 25.

Meanwhile, Hensley, author of the comic novel Misadventures in the (213) and the upcoming Screening Party, recently saw his first single, “Shotgun,” from his debut disc The Water’s Fine, named as the number one song on GayBC.com radio for the first quarter of 2001.  He’s also putting the finishing touches on Evie Harris: Shining Star, a short film he’s cowriting and directing for Outfest, Los Angeles’s gay and lesbian film festival. 

Over coffee at the Virgin Megastore in New York’s Union Square, Advocate.com brought the musical multitaskers together to discuss the highs, lows, and in-betweens of setting their lives to music. 

Hensley: You had a gig last night, right? Rapp: Yeah. It was at a college in New Jersey. We sold 26 CDs. 

That’s awesome. I’ve probably sold 26 CDs since the beginning of my recording career. [Laughs] Have you had any rude awakenings since you embarked on this project?  Yeah. I guess it’s that even though I have some small degree of fame in certain circles, it’s been hard to get anybody to review the CD because some outlets don’t review independent CDs. I was spoiled by the fact that Rent got so much attention so easily. We didn’t have to do anything. People were just interested. 

I had a similar experience. I’ve kept a really good database of people who liked my book and I sent them a flyer about the CD. Not one of them came back [with a review]. What I realized is people need to hear music to respond to it. It’s also hard for people to find the CD. We’re getting a little distribution in stores but most of our sales have been though the Internet. 

The Internet’s made a huge difference for independent musicians. A lot of the exposure that I’ve gotten has been from Web sites like Outvoice, the Stonewall Society, and GayBC. I was talking to another gay artist with a CD recently and he was feeling defeated, and I asked him how his Internet sales were and he said he doesn’t even have a computer. I was shocked.  When did you start writing songs? 

In like ’91. I was singing and dancing on cruise ships, and I would go up in the lounge and write songs after doing some lame show like That’s Broadway!  [Laughs] I bet you have great stories. 

It’s all going into my second novel. Suffice it to say, there were a lot of jazz squares being done on shaky floors.  What about jazz singers being done on shaky floors? 

Well, now that you mention it, one or two. Actually, the guy who played keyboards on my record, Tom Gire, I met working on the ships 20 years ago. So after my last contract, I came home with all these songs I’d written, and a few days later, I was at a Gloria Estefan concert and I met this guy backstage, Norman Arnold, who was just starting to produce music. So we started working together. I listen to that early stuff now and I cringe. But I think it’s important to be a little deluded about what you’re doing, because if you really knew how shitty some of that stuff was… You’d be defeated. 

Do you look at some of your earlier work and cringe and think, Thank God I didn’t give up?  Oh, yeah, more at things I’ve written than I do at the acting. 

When did you decide you were going to make a record?  I had written songs a few years ago with a friend, and then I got Rent and I sort of got that feeling of being in a rock band out of my system. But then having been out of the show for a couple of years, I started to get the itch again. So a friend of a friend hooked me up with this singer-songwriter in Nashville named Joe Pisapia. We were just hanging out and he started playing some guitar licks and this song sort of appeared, like magic, in the air between us. 

I sort of believe that about songs; that they exist apart from you and you just kind of find them. It’s interesting. Some of my favorite stuff is indie rock that’s a little bit out there. But my music is not that way. It’s other things. 

I think it’s important to accept who you are and what comes out of you. Like I’m never going to sound like Bono. I’m just not. I listened to too much Manilow and did too many musicals in college.So, Nashville…  So we did a four-song demo and we were really happy with it. Then we thought, Do we want to try to go to a major label? Three of my friends from Rent had had major-label nightmares, so we decided to just do it on our own and create a label. 

You also did a kick-ass CD-ROM music video on your disc. I so missed the boat on that.  It just happened because my friend Danny, who has a nice digital video camera, heard it and he was like, “Dude, I love this song! I want to do a video.” It cost about $2,000. I’m really happy with it. 

So what’s Nashville like? Did you go to the Bluebird Café and try out your songs?  No. We were in the studio for hours and hours every day. I got a little stir-crazy because things close early and there’s only one really good restaurant. I’m a little bit of a New York snob that way. [Laughs] What was it like recording in L.A.? 

It was all about take-out Thai food from Toi on Sunset. I got a deal on a really great studio but only on Sundays, so recording was spread out for over a year. Then, after I had recorded nine of the 12 songs, I decided to pay my vocal coach, Ken Stacey, to come in while I recorded the last three. And it made such a huge difference…  You had to go back and do the rest of them. 

Exactly. It’s strange the way projects evolve. You start out thinking, We’ll just do it as cheaply as possible, then elements start coming together and make it better and you realize you can’t compromise anymore. I just shifted into this Zen space of like, How much does it cost? Fine, I’ll write the check. And everything takes longer and costs more than you think it’s going to. You just have to accept that and have faith that you won’t regret it.

What are you most proud about with your CD?  I’m proud that there’s a boy-boy love song on it. 

“Just Some Guy,” which is my favorite.  My collaborator, Joe, is straight, but he was so cool and willing to help me write that song. I was nervous about presenting it to him because it’s very intimate. 

The guy that you wrote it about, does he know about it?  Yeah. He really likes it. 

I think that song would be a great gay prom theme.  Thank you. It’s funny—at last night’s gig, there were a lot of female fans. I’m very out, but they don’t hesitate to be supportive, which I’m really happy about.

I think part of it is that women can relate to the way you sing about love and men. I really dig chick singers for the same reason. I’m much more “You’re so vain” than I am “I wish I had Jesse’s girl.” Women seem to get that, when it comes to relationships, the bottom could drop out at any moment.  What song are you most proud of? Probably “Shotgun.” I wanted to write a song that could be like a theme song for my book, so if there were ever a TV show or movie, I’d have something to put up for consideration. I’m such a multimedia tie-in whore. So normally, I just write what comes out, but this time I had an idea of what I wanted it to be like, and it was really cool that it came alive in the way I wanted it to.  Your novel, Misadventures in the (213), is very funny and arch, and your songs are really open and vulnerable. That was surprising. I think people that know the book expect my music to be like novelty, smart-ass songs, and they’re not really. I guess music is the place I go where I can express romanticism and disappointment in an honest way without having to tweak it with a joke.

Who would you like to do a duet with if you could sing with anybody?  Sinéad O’Connor. I remember being in a record store and hearing this voice, her voice, and I thought, Who is that? She’s actually one of my heroes, even though she seems crazy. Who would you like to duet with? 

My favorite is this Canadian singer, Jann Arden, who had that song “Insensitive.” When she’s not breaking your heart with her music, she is stand-up-comedy funny, just hilarious, which I love.  Who were some of your influences? 

Growing up, I inherited a bunch of 45s from my older brothers and sisters, so I was always into pop singles. You know, when you see people’s desert island discs and they always say like Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles and Bob Dylan. My list would be Olivia Newton-John, Herman’s Hermits, and Barry Manilow. If I went on that show The List and really told the truth, I would be laughed out of the studio. One of my friends says my CD “makes Wilson Phillips sound like Hole.” And it’s true. What was the first record you ever bought? Flashdance. 

Attaboy! Soon after. I got Footloose and Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual. Fourteen was a very pivotal year for me because then I discovered U2, Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, Simple Minds, the Smiths, the Cure. 

I was very into Spandau Ballet and Wham! at that point. I admit it. Wham! was the first concert I ever went to. 

Did you think George Michael was gay then? I didn’t think anything. I didn’t have awareness. 

I was in college and I didn’t have any awareness. My first album was Elton John’s Greatest Hits, and I played it on my little blue record player. The cool thing was, I went into Book Soup, this book store in L.A., a few years ago and the girl at the counter said, “Guess who was just in here and bought three copies of your book?”  Elton John? 

Elton John. I was so excited about that. I like to pretend that one was for him and one was for Donatella Versace and one was for George Michael, because at the time they all could have used a few laughs. I met Tori Amos when I was doing Rent. She’s one of the people that I’ve gotten really starstruck by. I’ve just begun to think recently, Should I try to send her a CD? 

You have to. I want to make sure that— 

Anthony, put it in the mail! But I want her to get it and listen to it, and I’ve no guarantee of that, and that would be depressing. 

What have you got to lose? While I was working on my CD, I got to interview a few music people, like Emilio Estefan and Glen Ballard, who produced Alanis [Morissette]. I sent them the CD but I never heard anything back, but at least I tried. I got some great advice from Glen, though, during the interview. He said, “The most important thing is that your music communicates. It’s not about how big is your voice, how loud, how strong. Does it communicate?” That was a great lesson to me, because it’s easy to feel like you’re a lightweight, that you have no right to be doing this.

What’s it like for you to go back and listen to your CD? Because sometimes I really like [mine] and other times I just think it’s unlistenable. I had one listen like that, where I thought, This sucks. And then got that out of my system, and then it’s just like anything else. Some people will like it and some people won’t. 

I think what you hope for is that the people that would like it are able to find it. Did you find that you learned a lot about the creative process, in general, by making a CD? 

Oh, yeah. I discovered that if you take that leap of faith and commit to a project, other people will rally for you in a way that is so inspiring. Right. Commitment calls people. I just found some New York musicians to play with and I sent the bass player a CD to listen to, and he called me and he was like, “I really like this.” That guy’s life is music and he was into it. That’s really gratifying. 

When you’re in the middle of it, you just think it’s never going to be done. At one point, I told my roommate, who’s also a singer, “If I die in a plane crash, you’re going to finish this record,” because it took years. But now that it’s done, I actually miss the process, so I’ve started to work on some new stuff.

Music has been such a good friend in my life. Like, last spring was really hard; my mother was diagnosed with cancer, and there were some other dramas, and it was just rough. And in May, I remember going to see Trisha Yearwood in concert and I could literally feel the music healing me. I thought, I’m so glad I lived through that to be here for this. Being in Rent was like that for me. My mom became ill right after we did the workshop of Rent, and then she was ill for a long time before she died. Singing those songs helped me deal with all those feelings. 

Have you thought about writing your own musical? I’d like to try it at some point. Actually, I’m about to do a workshop of a musical based on the movie Mask where I play Eric Stoltz’s character. 

You’ve got to get Cher to be Cher [laughs]. Were you ever involved in the GLAMAs, the Gay and Lesbian American Music Awards? Yeah. I won a GLAMA for Rent. It was really nice. 

They’re not doing it anymore, which is too bad. I got in on the last year. I got nominated in the Country category for my song “The Water’s Fine.” The coolest part was when they read your name and your album cover slides across on the big screen. That was worth the plane ticket to New York right there. Did you ever in your career consider not being out? No. 

When I first started performing, I’d have these talk-show fantasies and I would craft these Michael Stipe–Ricky Martin kind of vague answers, but as I got older I just thought, What a crock. Just be who you are. The difference between me and my actor friends is that I think acting is about creating somebody other than yourself, an illusion, and writing, at least the kind I hope to do, is telling the truth. But I think acting is telling the truth. You’re finding the truth of the story. Ian McKellen said that he feels like he’s become a better actor since he came out publicly because there was no longer anything that he was having to compensate for or hide. Now, for some actors, being closeted may make them more interesting because that might create some sort of tension in their work. 

That makes me think of [a certain leading man] in [a certain award-winning film].  It’s hard for me to evaluate his acting because I’m so angry at him. I met him when I was 14 because we were both in plays and he invited me to a party at his house. I was bored, so I was in his bedroom watching TV and didn’t know everybody had left, and he came to the bedroom and he picked me up and lay down on top of me. 

Oh, my God! What did you do? I squirmed away and went into the bathroom. I came out and I excused myself, and he’s like “You sure you want to go?” I always wonder if he remembers it, because he was pretty drunk. And he’s had so many. 

Have any of your representatives every pressured you to stay in the closet? No, but there’s an out young singer-songwriter that I’ve become acquainted with who was being courted briefly to be in a boy band, and the record executive said to him, “We will concoct a girlfriend for you.” He was like, “No, thank you.” 

You always hear stuff like that happens, but then you wonder how it actually plays out, like does she come out of a box marked “Girlfriend”? I guess she gets paid. 

What does a good beard go for these days, I wonder? Have you ever heard one of your songs unexpectedly, like on the radio or something? 

Well, yesterday I took my friend’s spinning class, and he played one of my songs without telling me he was going to. That was cool, but then you’re nervous someone in the class is going to go, “Turn that shit off!”I tried spinning once, but I didn’t know anything about the tension knob. I almost killed myself. 

Yeah, you’ve really got to know your knob. I think that should be the theme of this whole conversation. So do you want to make another CD? Yeah. I’ve written one song since the record, a stalker song, told from the point of view of a stalker. 

Good, because I think stalking really gets a bad rap. Do you want to make another CD? 

Yeah. But I’m going to try and get another novel done first. Sometimes it’s hard to balance it, but it’s nice to have other things going on so your happiness isn’t tied to how well the CD does. I think I’d go insane if it was my only thing, but I still believe that I can find my little niche. I don’t think I’ll ever lose that faith.

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