Justin Utley :: Taking a stand
There's a pure and genuine sincerity in singer/songwriter Justin Utley's approach to his music. It even translates into how he openly and honestly chooses to live his life. While most other contemporary pop artist conform to the expected rhythm and grind of overly-produced and popularized dance tunes, Utley cuts more cleanly to authentic guitar-driven songs with deep narratives running through his profound lyrics. Justin Utley speaks the truth after all.
With his earnest smile and hunky sex-appeal as marvelously talented as Utley is, he's equally as accessible and personable. All the things one looks for in a role-model fit to represent the diversely rich gay community. After all he admits that among his musical inspirations he counts Melissa Etheridge as one of his influences -- and that's saying a lot. With the recent dramatic rise in gay teen suicides, Justin Utley's story should serve as an example and a testament to the mantra "it gets better." He's certainly an example of that.
Utley was raised as a Mormon, in a family of artists. He connected instantly to music, even when most his family were all gifted and talented with paints and pencils. "I couldn't draw a stick figure to save my life." He started taking piano lessons, but stopped when he began to play things by ear. "It's a big no-no whenever I would through in notes that weren't there; I just wouldn't follow the rules." This was frowned upon in his faith.
Questioning his faith
He often found himself having to listen to favorite artists like Tears For Fears and Stone Temple Pilots in private -- in seclusion without having to share his interest in these artists for fear that it might draw attention.
I couldn’t help but comment on the obvious and intense amount of isolation in the Mormon culture. Justin conveyed to me an interesting experience he had when he began going door to door introducing neighborhoods to the Mormon faith; part of the expectation and mission of being raised within the Mormon faith. "I remember meeting someone -- he was black -- and feeling weird that it felt weird that I had never met a black person before. This is a human being." Utley began to research aspects of his religion. The results often led him to question his faith. "I eventually found out that it was mostly due to the civil rights movement that certain aspects of the faith were changed... including when it came to instances of polygamy." With few avenues open to him and most more than often closing, Justin admits "It made me wonder why we weren’t always getting the whole story."
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Asserting his identity
Eventually Justin began to struggle with his asserting sexual identity. "As a teenager you are meant to keep yourself morally ’clean’, but I never really connected to girls any more than as close friends," he admits. "It wasn’t turning me on [to be with girls] but I was on the path," so it was easy for Justin to resolve his conflict and continue to prepare for his missions as a Mormon. "I would obsess over the underwear section of the Sears catalog -- but I just chucked that up to my desire to be ideally more masculine." It was during his mission that he began to realize that he was a homosexual -- he actually experience gay porn for the first time... at a bishop’s house. "It was instantly a turn on and I knew I was gay... but it freaked me out." Utley hoped that God would take this "thing" away from him, and later on during his college years and after he had completed the mission he had his first sexual experience with another man.
When Justin didn’t return the affections of this early companion he found he also couldn’t relate to or understand the young man’s desire to actually couple as boyfriends.
"There’s no room in the Mormon Doctrine for pornography or doing anything that is even leading up to sex with someone of the same sex -- it’s extremely cut and draw." It is that stern discipline that often causes the conflict among gay youth who fear the consequences of challenging the status quo. "You risk your church membership completely if you oppose what leaders state is the position of the church." As a young man, Utley found himself morally conflicted and began to pursue at the suggestion of his bishop, therapy to deal with his same-gender attraction. "One of the questions you’re asked is if you sympathize with any gay or lesbian type groups or organizations." Ironically this is the same group that would more than likely spend their time performing and listening to Broadway musicals [I’m sorry I couldn’t resist a little editorializing, but at least Utley shares in the laugh].
In the beginning Justin found comfort connecting to some other individuals who felt the same way he did. "I had felt completely alone and for two years committed to the process. I thought this was curable." Which focuses on isolating the problem and getting rid of it. "But I had to realize that I was born this way. I just wasn’t attracted to women." Justin had also met someone, a man in Denver that he was connecting with emotionally. Once the decision was made, there was no turning back.
With the release of his concept album Runaway Utley finally explored and channeled all of his emotions and experience in a collective and connective piece of contemporary pop/rock that spoke to his strength and spirit. And certainly the joy and despair, loss and longing of his long journey to self-acceptance. "I believe my music is still inspired, but it’s more about my experiences," and Justin’s own reflections on his faith. Which he admits is still very strong, but of his own design and not relegated to the strict regulations of the Mormon faith. "Their are people that think we may be soulless, but Jesus didn’t hate anybody. There are people who actually get it -- we’re all human beings."
Connecting with his character
Cut to today. As Justin prepares for the run of his new musical Our Country, which is already being heralded as a centerpiece of the New York Musical Theatre Festival.
Tony Asaro wrote the musical Our Country that Justin Utley stars in. "It’s totally coincidental," Asaro tells me. "I hadn’t really heard he’s story when I met him -- I just came across his picture on the internet and I was blown away. Justin was the character I was envisioning in my head when I was writing the show." After calculatingly tracking Utley down on the Internet, Asaro familiarized himself with his music and was astounded by "The character is All-American looking -- eating apple pie -- but the moment I heard his voice, I had to meet this guy." Everyone has agreed that Justin Utley was born to play the part of Tommy Dautry, the outed King of Country.
"What’s really interesting about the show is that it’s intended to appear as if [down and outed] country artist Dautry is relegated to performing in some back room of a gay bar," Utley shares. "I read the script and it was fantastic." Utley certainly connected with the main character’s journey. "The concept appealed to me of what would happen, especially in the country music scene, if an artist was outed and how he would find his way back."
Similarly the country has recently had to respond to popular country music artist Chely Wright, who publicly announced her own sexual orientation and received great support from her piers in the industry. But in the case of Our Country and its lead character, can the same be said for a male counterpart in the same industry who decidedly reveals his own homosexuality. "That’s what the show is really all about -- it’s his first show on his comeback tour -- except he’s not booking stadiums, he’s in a back room of some leather bar." And as the show takes this tongue-and-cheek approach to telling this music star’s story, its message is both timely and very optimistic. "Tommy discovers he can be true to himself and his music."
The single "Stand For Something" is Justin Ultey’s latest anthem. The benefit single was released this past summer and the song was always intended to support non-for-profit organizations. "People will be able to submit their stories," he says of the upcoming Stand For Something website. "It’s a place where everyone can share their stories about [what else] standing up for something."
The website will also give information on supporting local non-for-profit organizations that support the community and civil rights including marriage equality. In this day and age, this week in particularly where we’ve mourned the tragic losses and potential of young people among them Asher Brown, 13 and Tyler Clementi, 18, two examples of youth who are finding it hard to identify and connect with role-models that they can relate to, through the efforts of artists especially the work that Utley is doing, outlets are being created to support those in need. Clearly sending the message that it gets better.
Justin is also enjoying the cross appeal that his music is getting. "My music is getting out there -- it’s surprising to me when I get responses from people who don’t realize that I’m gay. Some people don’t put 2-and-2 together right away." Though most times his music is autobiographical and written from his experience and perspective, Utley does have a message that everyone can connect to in his emotionally stylistic song writing. "There are people who are often feeling that they are on the outside looking in, and that’s certainly something that I write about. It’s nice to know my music is getting across to all audiences," he humbly admits. "It’s great that they’ve found meaning in my songs. That’s my goal."
Utley is currently working on a new full-length album project that is expected to release next year in May and will be supported by a series of appearances across the country.
Justin Utley stars in Our Country book by Dan Collins, Music and Lyrics by Tony Asaro as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival at the Hudson Guild Theater. Remaining performances are on October 12 and 13, 2010. For ticket info visit the show’s website For more about Justin Utley and to buy his CDs visit visit his MySpace page and/or his Facebook page.
Watch Justin Utley perform "Runaway":