Steve Grand, the 23-year-old singer-songwriter who performed at the Pride concert in Loring Park on Saturday, sat down with The Colu.mn to talk about his coming out experience, his hope for the next generation of LGBT youth, and what it means to be “All-American.”
At the Pride in Concert show in Loring Park on Saturday, June 28th, one could almost see through sheets of rain the love that traveled between singer-songwriter Steve Grand and his audience, as he performed singles like “Stay,” “Back to California” and, of course, “All-American Boy” Grand’s first record. As rain soaked the fans that formed the crowd, Grand assured them that their own energy and love was what mattered most there: “It says so much that you care about love and peace and music,” Grand said to the cheering crowd of raincoat-clad, umbrella-weilding fans. “Thank you.”
Backstage, Grand was just as enthusiastic and appreciative. As he spoke about his music, his humbleness was the opposite of what one would expect from an artist who has had so much success in such a short amount of time. Since its posting on July 3rd, 2013, Steve Grand’s debut video “All-American Boy” has accumulated over three million views on YouTube, his “Grandfam,” Grand’s name for his collection of devoted fans, having steadily increased over the past year.
The “All-American Boy” video was the culmination of a long self-led initiative by Grand to get his music and message out there. Grand recorded the vocals for the song in his parents’ basement and maxed out his credit card to self-fund the video. Through the help of a Kickstarter campaign that, with nearly five thousand backers pledging over $300,000 in total, became the #3 most-funded music project in Kickstarter’s history, Grand gathered the funds to make his video. Within one week of its posting, the video went viral, and Grand found himself on “Good Morning America” and CNN. The video made Buzzfeed’s list of the “24 Most Brilliant Music Videos from 2013” and Out magazine included Grand as one of the most compelling LGBT people of 2013 in their annual “Out100” list.
One Buzfeed headline from last July read: “Meet The First Openly Gay Male Country Star.” However, Grand affirms that he is “certainly not the first. I am in awe of the trailblazers who came before me.”
Grand also rejects the common characterization of his music as country music. “‘All-American Boy’ definitely has a lot of country influences, and since that was the first song that I released, I think a lot of people heard that country influence and labeled it [as] country,” Grand explains. “On top of that you have the [“All-American Boy”] video, which had a lot of very country-esque Americana visuals: American flag, old car, driving up dirt roads, whiskey, all those things. I always thought of my music as more Americana–It’s kind of a celebration of classic Americana.”
While “All-American Boy” may thrive off American themes and imagery, Grand is hesitant to define himself as a patriot. “I try to be really objective and not get caught up in dogmatic [sic],” he says. “A lot of the problems we face in the world are because people are so dogmatic with their beliefs. I really believe in being reasonable.”
“We’re not a perfect country,” says Grand. “There’s a lot we could be doing a lot better… But I still love this country because I really think that there’s so much room for growth if you’re willing to fight. . . I know that we’re not equal in terms of racial and ethnic backgrounds and sexuality and gender identity—I think a lot of these things make it difficult for people to move up the social ladder—but we’re getting better. I like to focus on that and say we’re doing a good job and keep moving in this direction.”
The LGBT rights movement has seen unprecedented growth in the past five years, an evolution that parallels Grand’s own widening of perspective since he attended his first Pride in 200 at the age of nineteen. “[I] was just in high school… and I was really like, ‘This is gay pride,” recalls Grand. “I think a lot of people really thought of it as a gay rights movement.”
Nowadays, by contrast, “There’s been a focus more than ever on the trans community, and I think that’s so incredible,” says Grand. “The gay rights movement is not the same as the trans movement or the gender queer movement—that’s really important to me. Gay rights are not trans rights.” Grand emphasizes each element of the acronym as he says, “as a community of L-G-B-T-Q people we need to all support each other.”
As far as the gay community is concerned, Grand says, “We’ve come so far with getting marriage equality and so many things… We have a long way to go but we’ve made so much progress. Now it’s the trans community. We really need to make sure that we’re there for them, that we support them,” he says. “That we give them all the love and support that they have given us… The rates of violence against trans people, especially trans women, and especially trans women of color is so much higher than any demographic—we really need to keep pushing the focus on that.”
In addition to his musical work, Grand has become an active figure in the LGBT movement, partnering with causes such as The Human Rights Campaign, The Anti-Violence Project, Bailey House, the GLSEN Respect Awards, Out & Equal Workplace Advocates and the March on Springfield for Marriage Equality.
A lot has changed for Grand since he first realized he was gay at the age of thirteen. In a small suburb of Illinois, Grand was active in the boy scouts and in his church. Upon realizing he was gay, he says, “I wanted to evaporate. I was raised in a place where being gay was the worst thing. Kids said ‘fag’ and ‘gay’ as the worst insult—it was like the lowest thing, like lower than dirt. And then I realized—I’m that.”
Nonetheless, Grand came out to his friends in the eighth grade, and he continued to express himself through music and journaling. Grand’s parents found out that he was gay by seeing an AOL instant message he had sent to his friends. “They were shocked and initially not welcoming at all,” says Grand. His parents, Grand says, “They never expected to deal with anything like this. They had to come a long way. I applaud them for that and I applaud all parents that make that journey out of love. I think it’s a testament to our parents’ love.”
To kids struggling to come to terms with their own sexual or gender identities, Grand says: “Hang in there. Believe me, you will find your people. . . Have hope in that.” He continues, “Be who you are… It doesn’t matter if you like musical theater or like football or like… Judy Garland! You could or you could not take part in that, but it doesn’t matter—there’s no shame either may. Don’t let anyone make you feel like you have to ascribe to anyone’s value system—just be yourself and you’ll find your people.”
“The song ‘All-American Boy,’” Grand says, “is not about being American. It’s about saying that you can have any identity that you want; it’s there for you to claim. No one should tell you otherwise.” Grand explains that the inspiration for the song came from his childhood growing up in Lemont, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago: “I remember we’d walk outside Church, and I have an older brother, too, and we’d be walking with other parents in town or after mass, and [my father] would pat us both on the shoulders and say, ‘These are my boys. They play baseball and they get good grades and they’re in boy scouts—they’re just the all-American boys.’ And that’s kind of where I got this idea of making the song ‘All-American Boy’ and making the identity album… I wanted to reclaim this idea of what it means to be ‘all-American’ and [make it so] that it could include gay people,” Grand says.
Some have criticized “All-American Boy” song and and video, citing Grand’s whiskey-drinking and pursual of a straight boy as negative gay stereotypes. “There are fair criticisms of ‘All-American Boy’ and I think it’s good that we have a discussion about it,” Grand says. However, “I think it’s kind of silly to paint me as this horrible role model because I’m perpetuating negative gay stereotypes like drinking and going after the straight guy… I don’t think those are exclusive to the gay community.”
Grand elaborates, saying that his music should not be thought of as a representation of the gay community as a whole: “I think the lesson that we need to learn is that no one good person is ever going to represent the whole community.” It’s no secret that out gay singer-songwriters with record deals are not common. On the risk involved in being such a singer, Grand says, “I will take that gamble because someone’s got to do it. And if no one else is doing it, then I’m gonna do it. Maybe people don’t like how I’m doing it, but I’m doing the best I can,” Grand says. “And I’m doing it with a really good, honest heart.
“This last year has really made me kind of reflect on the person I am and what I want to leave behind,” says Grand, “Especially for my young fans. They’re growing up and they’re needing people to look up to and kind of be inspired by and say, ‘I can do that.’”
Backstage, as the rain slowed outside the tent in which this interview took place, Grand not only expressed gratitude, but also hope for the future: “I’m so happy for this next young generation of gay people that are getting to see that there are so many incredibly inspiring people to look up to,” Grand says, citing Michael Sam and Laverne Cox as examples. “It really is a great time—there’s discussions going on that need to be going on. Kids have it better than we’ve ever had it.”
Ultimately, for Grand, music is about connecting with people. “I love bringing that energy [onstage]—Looking out there and seeing people happy, that’s the most rewarding thing in the world,” says Grand. “I got up there and I was able to make people happy and make people sing along—Even if they’re just tapping their foot or even if people are moved by my words… whether it’s light or on a deep emotional level, it’s great to bring that energy and be part of that and see the energy that I’m giving reflected back in the audience. It’s the most incredibly rewarding thing.”
“I really want to say thank you to all of my incredible fans—my Grandfam—who have supported me in any way,” Grand says. “Whether they’ve shared ‘All-American Boy’ or ‘Stay’ or ‘Back in California,’ on Facebook or had a friend listen to it or watched it themselves, I want to say thank you—and especially to those peopple that contributed to my Kickstarter campaign. Whether you gave one dollar or a hundred dollars I’m so incredibly grateful,” says Grand.
“I don’t take the responsibility of putting out a great record lightly—it’s all I care about… Everything is going into this record,” Grand says of his first full-length album, slated for release later this year. “I care about my art. I care about communicating something to people. I care about leaving something behind after I’m gone.”
For the moment, though, Grand continues to connect with fans on a friendly, loving, personal level. Onstage, in a break between songs, Grand emphasized the importance of Pride and self-love. Looking out at the audience, a relatively small group of fans who braved the rain to see this performance, Grand made a toast to Pride. Raising his glass in the air, he said, “It doesn’t matter if anybody else can—you can love yourself. And that’s all that matters. Cheers, guys.”