Simon Curtis is thoroughly enjoying a creative rebirth. A wide grin spreads across his face as he adjusts the red, backward-facing baseball cap atop his head and begins talking about his latest artistic adventure as one half of the newly-minted electro-pop duo Wrathschild.
"It was such an organic transition from being solo artists to forming Wrathschild," he says of his new partnership with fellow indie music star Wolfy. "We'd both been working with the same producer and writing songs together for other people for a while, so when we felt like our solo careers were at a bit of an impasse, a collaboration was just something that made sense."
The duo announced Wrathschild's formation in March, debuting their first single and music video, "Fall Into Love" shortly thereafter. Curtis says the track, an ethereal ode to romance, is just a taste of what fans can expect from the band's feel-good sound.
"People adhere to music in a deep and spiritual way. It has a lot of power," he adds. "We're very conscious of that and want to make sure we maintain positivity in our music, because -- and this might sound hokey -- but we want to make sure we're putting good out into the world."
In addition to writing uplifting tracks, Curtis asserts that one of the ways in which he intends to put "good out into the world" is by being a visible, out gay artist who isn't afraid or defined by his sexuality. But that's not always how he felt.
Today, at a quiet coffee shop in northern Los Angeles where both he and Wolfy have joined me for an interview about their ongoing collaboration, Curtis shares the story of how Hollywood taught him to fear a fundamental part of himself -- and how he overcame it.
Raised in Tulsa, Okla., Curtis says he felt drawn to both music and acting "as far back as I can remember." By the time he was 10 years old he landed a role in a national touring production of the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. He credits the experience with positively shaping his belief in his own talent, which led him to move to Los Angeles at the age of 18 to chase his dreams of a career in entertainment. But as amazing as his previous experiences had been, Curtis was about to learn a darker side of the industry he'd come to love.
"I remember one of the first managers I ever worked with had a sit-down dinner with me the week before they signed me and the whole conversation was about how I needed to butch it up if I wanted to have a career," Curtis says as he gently blows the rising steam from a cup of green tea. "I had recently come out to my friends and family. I was dealing with a lot in terms of being comfortable with who I was, and here this person was telling me I needed to hide it and get a fake girlfriend or it was over."
"Hearing something like that can really can really fuck somebody up," he adds. "Especially when you're just getting your first shot in the entertainment industry and you want to succeed so badly. You'll do whatever they tell you to do."
Reluctantly, he followed his manager's advice and soon landed the role of Royce Du Lac in Nickelodeon's 2009 musical TV movie Spectacular. But while it appeared his Hollywood dreams were beginning to come true, Curtis was terrified that discovery of his being gay would destroy his budding career.
"By the time I was on set shooting that movie I was living in a state of constant fear that somebody would find out," Curtis says. "I was deathly afraid I would be asked about my sexuality in front of someone who shouldn't be hearing about it, because at the time, I was out to my family and close friends. So I had a really hard time denying it and I felt ridiculous every time they'd have me do something like record YouTube videos and PSAs where I talked about dating girls."
Despite his best efforts to keep his true self hidden from those he worked with, Curtis says he was routinely belittled by publicists who told him he acted "really gay." However, an even bigger blow to his self-esteem came the night of the 2008 MTV Video Music Awards when he met up with his fellow cast members to walk the event's red carpet and promote the upcoming release of Spectacular. In preparation for the numerous questions the young actors would be asked that night, Curtis says an executive for Nickelodeon was drilling each of the cast members with practice questions, and that's when he momentarily let his guard down.
"She asked me, 'Who are you most excited to see tonight?' and this was the night Britney [Spears] was rumored to be making her big comeback," recalls Curtis. "Everyone was excited because we knew we'd get to see her at the show. So I just kind of flipped out and started talking about Britney and went all in. I'll never forget the look of horror that came over her face while I was talking. Suddenly she just stopped, gave me a look of disgust, and said, 'That's not going to work. You're going to have to tone it down.' In that moment I went from being excited to be doing the biggest red carpet of my life to feeling so ashamed of myself. I was terrified to even speak."
As bad as Curtis felt in that moment, an even worse experience soon dragged him down to greater depths, causing him to walk away from the world of professional acting. After booking a guest-star role on Disney's Hannah Montana, Curtis says, he landed a lead role in ABC's 2009 reboot of the '80s sci-fi cult classic V. But shortly after he was informed he had the part, he says an executive replaced him with another actor, implying that Curtis's perceived sexuality made him a poor casting choice for the series. A week before Curtis was supposed to fly to Vancouver to start shooting, his agent got a call and was told Curtis "wasn't capable of selling sex to girls enough to be on the show." He lost the job, and "That was such a bad moment for me and it sent me into a depression," Curtis says. "I remember thinking, this is not what I want do. This does not make me happy. I don't know how anybody is happy doing this."
Depressed, disappointed, and ashamed, Curtis says he spent several months in a "dark and sad" head space before he pulled himself together and decided he wouldn't let the bigotry he'd encountered in the entertainment industry discourage him from his goals. But rather than "play the game," this time he was determined to go his own way. He soon began work on his first album, 8Bit Heart, releasing it independently as a free download in 2010 to drum up a sizable fan base.
His plan worked.
The album was generally well-received and would eventually rack up more than 500,000 downloads. Curtis followed up with his sophomore album, RA, the following year, which debuted at number 20 on the Billboard Dance/Electronic Albums chart.
"Having people in my ear telling me I wasn't good enough being myself, that I couldn't be a viable marketing tool for them because of who I am really tainted my earlier experiences in the industry," Curtis says, noting he no longer fears any potential negative side effects being out may have on his career. "I won't ever go back to that." Neither Nickelodeon or ABC answered requests for comment about Curtis's side of the story.
Being out is a decision with which his band mate, Wolfy, agrees wholeheartedly. "I think it's awesome and I don't ever worry that Simon being out will have a negative effect on Wrathschild," she says. "Yes, he's out and he's gay, but he's not out to be a gay artist. He's an artist who happens to be gay. I love that over the years we've seen some of the biggest names in music come out, and that's forced people to realize their art is what's important, not [their sexuality].
"I'm also thankful to see music is moving in [a more open and inclusive] direction and that we're beginning to see more people who are comfortable with being out from the beginning of their career," she adds.
While his success as an independent artist was responsible for recharging his self-esteem, Curtis says it's his decision to live openly in all areas of his life that has both freed him creatively and given him greater focus -- a focus that's continued to grow since he and Wolfy decided to form Wrathschild along with producer Ray Reich .
Their new single, "Angeles" -- a bittersweet nod to the city of L.A. that will be released Monday -- is a track the two say sprung from a deeply personal place.
"L.A. is both the city of dreams and the city of broken dreams," says Curtis. "You could say the song is our diary, our experience. It's an anthem dedicated to that feeling of loving and loathing Los Angeles."
Wolfy adds, "It's a lot of observations we've made through just being here. It's bittersweet, but it's still really hopeful."
The two are still hard at work putting the finishing touches on the first Wrathschild EP, but they aren't content to sit back and keep their sound to themselves any longer. They've already begun lining up a series of live performances, the first of which will fittingly take place at L.A.'s own Tiger Heat, the biggest gay Thursday night event on the West Coast.
As he finishes his tea, Curtis leans back in his chair and says, "We've spent the last two years hibernating, finding that universal voice and I think we definitely have found it. What we're doing now, it doesn't sound like my voice. It doesn't sound like her voice. It just sounds like our voice, and we couldn't be happier about that."
Watch the music video for Wrathschild's "Fall Into Love" below and for the latest news on the electro pop duo visit the official Wrathschild website.