Matt Morris must be outed immediately: Yep, he was a Mouseketeer on The All New Mickey Mouse Club for four seasons, from 1991 to 1994. Oh, and he’s gay too. A tattooed singer-songwriter who grew up to cowrite hits for divas like Christina Aguilera (“Can’t Hold Us Down”) and Kelly Clarkson (“Miss Independent”), Morris made another indelible mark on pop culture with his impassioned performance of “Hallelujah” on the Hope For Haiti Now telethon alongside Justin Timberlake and Charlie Sexton. A close friend of Timberlake’s since their Disney days, the 30-year-old Colorado native recently released his soulful power-folk full-length debut, When Everything Breaks Open, on Timberlake’s Tennman Records. A happily married man, Morris breaks down his rules of honest living and humble dressing.
Advocate.com: Out included you on its 2009 Out 100 list. What did that honor mean to you?
Matt Morris: If you had told me even two years ago that would happen, I would not have believed it. Because I didn’t know how I was going to be out in the industry or how that was going to align with the release of my album. When it all happened, I was like, “Oh, man, Out has embraced me, I’m still putting a record out, and people are still responding to the music — these things didn’t cancel each other out!” It was wonderful and very gratifying.
What made you decide to be out professionally?
Because I’m married. I got married in California — pre-Prop. 8 in the little window of time that we could — and then I had a full-fledged wedding in Colorado, so it’s not just about me anymore. Being out has a different weight to it when you’re in a relationship. When you’re young and single, you can give everybody the CliffsNotes version of your life. But when someone else comes into the picture — what, I’m going to cut him out and not talk about somebody who’s really important to me? I have a life that’s made richer by somebody else, so if I start editing away those parts of myself for the sake of perceived career advancement, then doesn’t that sacrifice the integrity of the relationship and of that other person? And if it sacrifices their integrity, doesn’t it sacrifice my own integrity? I don’t need a tell-all feature to share that with people, and I don’t need to make it the primary point of every conversation, but I’m certainly not going to pretend my relationship doesn’t exist. I have more respect for it than that.
Do you think your average fan even knows that you’re gay?
I’ve got some fans who have been with me for 10, 15 years, and for them it’s no surprise at all. But I have a growing group of fans that I’m only now getting to know. They may’ve seen the Out spread or heard me mention my husband in an article, but I don’t think it would bother or faze the fans who probably haven’t read that press. Maybe it’s something about the songs I write or something in my voice, but I feel connected to the people who come to my shows. The more I can be myself onstage, the better time they have.
How is your husband, Sean Michael Morris, handling the growing spotlight?
He’s a very grounding force — which my mother appreciates. [Laughs] We focus on the life that we have, and we have a life that requires both of our focus. The spotlight is an amazing thing to be under. After years of waiting to put this album out, being up onstage and sharing music that’s really close to my heart brings a kind of joy that’s been missing from my life for a while. But happening at the same time is the other, ordinary part of my life that has to be nurtured and maintained in order for me to have the focus and the will to experience the big bright spotlight. I do not have a simple life, so I come with challenges, but we approach everything head-on. I included in my liner notes, “Every day we wake up and we make the decision to love each other, and every day that we do it’s the right decision to make.”
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.
So you could’ve been the first openly gay Disney star?
[Laughs] Oh, I don’t know if that would’ve worked out. By the time that whole thing was wrapping up, I was ready to be done working with Disney and go back home to figure out what everything meant.
Your father, Gary Morris, is an old-school country music star. How did your coming-out go over with him and your family?
My family and the country world are two different things. Being out would be a lot harder for me if I were a country singer because that good ol’ boy approach to the industry and what they’re willing to accept from men hasn’t changed a whole lot over the years. But overall my family has been really accepting. I’m 30 now, but it’s been a journey over the past 15 years or so, and it hasn’t always been peachy keen. There have been moments that were hard for everybody — figuring out what words to use, what has to change — a lot of normal things LGBT kids have to deal with. But I’ve come out of it feeling like my family loves me, supports me, and acknowledges my own family, which I’m grateful for.
You use a lot of gender-neutral pronouns in your lyrics. Is that a conscious decision so as not to confuse or offend gay and straight listeners?
It’s a conscious decision I made a long time ago, but it had less to do with me being gay and more to do with writing universal songs and exploring experiences that people on all sides of the identity lines could get with. I didn’t want to reinforce any stereotypes about how a man should sing to a woman or how men should express their emotions, because most of that gender-placing is just drag. But I have a song called “Bloodline” where I take a clear departure from that and write about a woman who’s raising her kids alone because this man isn’t in her life anymore. In the last verse I say, “I know I should’ve never left her.” In that moment I become that man, but that doesn’t betray who I am as a person because it’s just a song that’s intended to inspire your imagination. I’d like to think that I can experience emotions that are bigger than my gender or sexual orientation.
As universally appealing as you might strive to be, you must’ve known that you were pretty much writing for other gay men on Christina Aguilera’s Stripped.
[Laughs] Well, I was writing for myself and about things that resonated with me. A couple of those songs were girl-power songs, which gay men love, but I’ve got a 15-year-old stepdaughter and I want her to sing girl-power songs too. Girl-power songs are important.
I imagine it must be liberating to write for big divas. I mean, don’t you ever wish you could belt out songs like “Miss Independent” in your concerts?
Hey, I’ve actually been thinking about that. I got a request to perform at a roller derby in Denver, and I thought “Miss Independent” would be the perfect song to sing at a roller derby concert. There’s something unique that a woman can do with powerful music that I’m not sure I can do. Do you ever watch RuPaul’s Drag Race?
Are you loving it?
It’s genius! Because that’s an amazing way for these men to sort of blur everything and blend feminine beauty with this aggressive male competitive behavior and rough attitude — all while wearing couture. I’m not a huge reality-show watcher, but that’s a brilliant one.
Speaking of the ladies, you’ve toured with and opened for Indigo Girls and Joan Osborne — lesbian icons with large lesbian audiences. What did you take away from that experience?
They have amazing fans. The Indigo Girls audience was really receptive to me — warm, embracing, and totally willing to listen to songs with just me and an acoustic guitar. When I sang “Love” and mentioned my husband, the crowd would go crazy. I was like, “This is so cool!” It was a different kind of support than I was used to. It was really special.