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Mainstream musicians may continue to make headlines for coming out of the closet, but Eric Himan has been out and loud since his 2000 debut. Gearing up for a national tour to promote his seventh studio album, Supposed Unknown, which will be released May 2 on his own Thumbcrown Records label, the handsome, heavily tattooed Oklahoma-based singer-songwriter explains how the climate has changed for gay artists and why he has never been suited for American Idol.
Advocate.com: Congratulations on Supposed Unknown. How does it compare to your past releases?
Eric Himan: It has to be the most relaxed disc I've ever made. I used to book studio time and try to cram all the recording, mixing, and mastering into a little less than a month. But this time I asked my friend, award-winning transgender singer-songwriter Namoli Brennet, if she would produce this CD in her home studio, so I was able to take my time. Namoli did an amazing job producing and mixing this with me, and it was mastered by Chris Bellman, who has mastered CDs like Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill, Ani DiFranco's Dilate, and many more. There's something special about collaborating with people that inspire you, and that makes this new disc stand out from the others.
What's the significance of the album title?
The title comes from a lyric in my song, "You First" -- "I am constantly given advice at my shows to enter contests on TV that rocket supposed unknowns to fame and to wealth that many never see. Am I still an American if that is not my dream?" Many times I get questioned because I don't audition for shows like American Idol. Although I'd love the exposure to a wider audience, and I have no judgment for those who do audition, those shows aren't for me. My goal isn't to become the richest and most famous musician that I can be molded into; it is to make a consistent living and to continue growing as a working musician. Without the big push of a record label, publicists, and agents, I decided 10 years ago to become my own billboard, tour as much as I could, and put out CDs every year or so. Thanks to Ani DiFranco and other indies for showing me the way.
What was the inspiration behind "Dust," the first single from the new album?
"Dust" is a song about the jealousy and competitiveness I've seen and sometimes felt in the music world. I love the albums from the '60s where musicians backed each other up and didn't make a big deal about it, and I hope to always have those relationships with my other singer-songwriter friends. But there are moments where opportunities knock for some and not for others, me included. So the song comes from those moments where I feel like I'm getting pretty far on my indie path, but then another musician takes the fast track, and I feel like I didn't move one bit. I didn't notice many songs that address this issue, so I decided to write one.
I have focused on gay themes in the past because those issues were crossing my path, but with this disc it was a bit subtler. "You First" focuses on our leaders and how courageous it is to stand up for what's right, knowing you'll also make yourself a target for those who don't agree with you. The last song on the CD, "Out in the Outer Banks," has the most direct reference to the LGBT community. I wrote it after a trip to that [North Carolina] area last summer and had a great time performing there for a gay organization. There aren't any gay bars there, so they organize an LGBT get-together every Sunday on one of the beaches. I'll be returning this year for their very first Pridefest in June. Although they're getting a bunch of resistance from non-supporters, they're moving forward with the festival, and I'm proud to be a part.
More than a decade after your first CD, do you feel a responsibility to your gay audience to continue addressing gay themes and expressing your sexuality in your music, even if it means sacrificing some mainstream acceptance?
Because I have addressed gay themes in my songs throughout my career, I do feel that responsibility, and many have come to expect me to speak about it on each CD. I'm very proud of this fact, and I have never shied away for fear of not getting mainstream attention. My influences are songwriters who chose to address the problems they saw facing their communities, and I'm part of the LGBT community, facing our own issues as we get closer to equality in this country.
As an out artist, how have things changed for you since you released your first album in 2000?
I started playing Pridefests and getting exposure in LGBT-centered press early on in my career, and that definitely helped me gain an audience of listeners. There was more focus on me because I was an out gay male artist in a time when there weren't many out there in my style of music. I often got compared to Rufus Wainwright, only for the fact that we were both out male artists. Since then, I have noticed and performed with many more independent gay male singer-songwriters touring these days. We've had much more support for gay rights, seen more celebrities come out, and had the issues that face our community shift to the forefront in politics, but I've also noticed a decrease in gay media outlets and gay bars that have been beneficial to out artists such as myself. I've even overheard people in the gay community say that gay media and bars aren't necessary anymore because of more acceptance and integration, which I disagree with.Have artists like Adam Lambert, Chely Wright, and Ricky Martin opened doors for you and other out artists?
I don't see out artists getting picked up by major record labels because they find us to be more marketable, but I have noticed that being gay is becoming less of an issue, and the focus is remaining on the music. Keep in mind, though, that many of these artists came out after their major success. If these artists were out from the get-go, I wonder if they would have become as popular as they did?
Concertgoers can always look forward to fun pop covers at your live shows. Which songs are you toying with performing on tour in May? I vote for Gaga and Britney.
[Laughs] I've never done a Britney song, so you never know. I have covered Gaga before. I started covering pop songs because some of the best writers would be behind them. You can tell a great pop song because the sentiment still comes across when you strip it down to just an acoustic guitar and a voice. I've been listening a lot lately to the Cure, the Smiths, and early 10,000 Maniacs -- music that's old to many but fresh to me. Typically, the songs I'm listening to on tour are the songs that I end up covering, so expect to hear a few from these bands.
In a recent blog post on EricHiman.com, you wrote, "I have some big plans this year in the works for opportunities that will take my music to the next level." I'm intrigued. What are your career goals for the rest of 2011 and beyond?
I have become a big believer in intending success. This year, I made it my goal to work with those who inspire me, and so far, that's been the case. Radio has been a big player already for me in 2011 with "Dust" making its way on rock radio in the Midwest, and "Save the Afternoon," a ballad from the new CD, is already in rotation on Sirius XM's Coffeehouse Channel. I'm focusing on getting more radio stations across the country to pick up these two songs, and I hope to land some other songs off the disc in upcoming films by the end of the year. Though the rest is still unknown, I intend for Supposed to take me to great places I haven't been before.