Nightspots recently had an opportunity to sit down with New York-based singer/songwriter/actor Justin Utley, prior to his June 29 appearance here in Chicago at the Pride North festival. Justin's sound is equal parts informed by his NYC- and theater-based storytelling and his upbringing in the musically-inclined Mormon church, of which he's no longer a part; he has even written songs denouncing the LDS's use of conversion therapy.
Nightspots: Readers new to you might not know you're originally from Salt Lake City, Utah, and are now self-excommunicated from the LDS church. So many of our best LGBT singer/songwriters come from conservative Christian backgrounds, including the lead singer of Neon Trees, also from SLC, recently out. What is it about that environment that you think breeds such a vital bed of great songwriting and performing?
Utah and the religious culture, it has focuses a lot on developing talents and the arts. Though, as with many great Utah-born musicians, most have to leave the state because it's quite difficult to make it in the music business living in Utah.
NS: You've been a New York-based singer songwriter now for a while. How has that city and its feel and people influenced your style?
So much happens in New York City that doesn't happen anywhere else. The diversity ( of people and art ), brutal honesty, grit, and the possibilities are what attracted me and still holds me here.
NS: Assuming a songwriter is always writing, are you working on new material currently?
And you're absolutely right. I was working on a conceptual cover album, and was writing the arrangements, when a lot of changes happened in both my personal and professional life. So I shifted gears, but the project on the back burner ( a simmer ) and am currently writing for a new project, with a single due out this fall.
NS: I know your fans will know your originals, but any good artist knows you have to toss in covers for the new listeners. What are your favorite covers to do and which is the most surprising for your style?
I've been known to throw in a cover or two. I think it works best when artists give a different life to a cover, rather than just playing it like the original. I did a piano cover of "Sowing the Seeds Of Love" in Bristol, England, a few weeks ago ( which is near where Tears For Fears came from ) and did a cover of "Laid" by the band James in London. Someone asked me once at a gig if I knew any Beyoncé tunes on the guitar. "Single Ladies" doesn't work ( it's one chord for the most part ).
NS: Finally, you're here for Chicago's Pride North. From your unique perspective, and coming up in a unique way from what most Chicagoans know, and how far you've come, what does Pride mean to you?
To me pride means learning from our past, respecting our present and how far we've come in our fight for visibility and equality, and recognizing we still have a long way to go.