Has being openly gay in the music business created any obstacles for you?
If there were ever any obstacles around me being out, they were internal obstacles. It’s not like I ever went to go play a show and they wouldn’t let me in the door, but the questions for me were always, “What’s the right timing? Is there a right timing? How do you make the choice to be honest? How honest do you have to be? What can remain private?” Those are all internal debates that can sometimes feel like obstacles and can keep you from making the right decisions.
You released When Everything Breaks Open on your friend Justin Timberlake’s Tennman Records. Do you think it would’ve been more difficult to get a record deal with other major labels because you’re openly gay?
I really don’t know because I’d never really pursued another deal. I don’t think you can look at my story as evidence that things have changed and the whole paradigm has shifted, but I do feel I hopefully provide proof that you can be openly gay and make good music. The better the music is, the harder it is for people to make the argument that there’s something wrong with you. Make the music good enough and people won’t care about anything else. Justin believed in me because of the music; to him, that was primary. I’ve met teenagers who want to be in the music industry but are worried about whether or not they should be out, and my advice is to do good work. Be who you are, but make your art the central thing — that’s how you become undeniable.
Have you felt pressure to be an active role model or spokesperson for the gay community?
I don’t feel any pressure to be at the head of the parade, but I’m not sure what we need as a community is any single role model or one leader of the movement. If we do, I’m not sure I’m that person. I do think that each of us can serve as a role model simply by living with integrity and by trying to be good people. My focus is on being honest about myself and sharing my music as honestly as I can. If I serve as a role model because of those choices, I’m happy to be that.
Because there are so few openly gay mainstream musicians, I think it’s safe to say that the average straight person probably thinks of flamboyant personalities like Adam Lambert or Elton John when they think of a gay artist. You’re certainly altering that perception.
Yeah, I guess I’m not particularly flamboyant, but when Halloween comes around, just watch out! [Laughs] I just grew up playing acoustic guitar and singing songs, and even when I worked at Disney, doing more outlandish performance stuff, it was a kind of character I was putting on. Those character performances can be really brilliant, and I love flamboyant people like Lady Gaga, but what I do is what I do.
You can rock a wool cap, and you’re always giving me a lot of black. How would you describe your style?
Talking to you is so different than talking to other interviewers because you say things like, “You’re giving me a lot of black.” I love it! [Laughs] I’ve been keeping it simple because I’m not sure costumes and outfits are what I deliver best. I just get up onstage and sing my songs, so it doesn’t really matter how fancy I look. I’ve been wearing a bit of a uniform — my black, maybe a suit jacket, and a hat — because I know it looks good on me; I can just show up and it works. It could be fun to wear something more showy and glittery, but I don’t think the timing’s right.
How did you come out to Justin?
I was out to Justin my last year at Disney, so he knew back then. It was like a shrug-your-shoulders “Yeah? So?” kind of thing. I don’t think it was a big surprise at all.