Matt Zarley released his first album, Debut, in 2002, the same year People Magazine named him the first openly gay "Hottest Bachelor." Since then he's had numerous albums, appearances and is still going strong. In late 2011, he released his latest album, Change Begins With Me, featuring one of Billboard Magazine's top new dance singles, "WTF." Windy City Times spoke with Zarley on his work, life and loves.
Windy City Times: Your first album, Debut, received much critical success. You now have Change Begins With Me under your belt. How do these albums differ and what influences have led to your own evolution as a singer and songwriter during the last decade?
Matt Zarley: This recent album was cathartic. A bulk of the project was written after a bad break-up of a long-term relationship. I had to learn to come to terms with what had happened. This was a lot more personal than my older material. I knew what I wanted to say but didn't have an overall view of the end product. Being an independent artist is expensive. I needed an album with a long shelf life so I have lots of remixes of the songs on that album already released and coming up.
WCT: Whom did you work with on the remixes?
Matt Zarley: I was extremely honored to have Moto Blanco work with me on "WTF." I also have a great artist, Cahill, doing some remixes. I am extremely fortunate and grateful to be working with such great artists in their own right.
WCT: Now, "WTF" is based on a whirlwind romance that you had with someone described as a "famous Hollywood actor." Why the reluctance to divulge his identity? Has the song generated any word from him since your break-up?
Matt Zarley: Well, it was a whirlwind romance, like you said. Ten years ago I might have been more about making sure everyone knew whom that song was about, but I'm not about that. I wrote a song, got it out of my system and that was that.
It's funny that there is all of this buzz surrounding who it's about. I only off-handedly mentioned that he was an actor in an interview and it's grown to be this tremendous story. He's an "out" actor but people really caught on to the "famous Hollywood actor" angle.
We have talked since then and have made up. It's been superficial. I'm sure he's heard the song but I'm not sure he knows it's supposed to be about him.
WCT: When did you come out? Did you find it difficult? Why did you decide to come out when so many others on Broadway or in Hollywood or the recording industry still remain silent on their sexuality?
Matt Zarley: I came out when I was 21 and it was one of the best experiences of my life. I felt freer. My dad took it a lot better than my mom did. I think she had this vision for what she wanted my life to be and it was just more difficult for her. My dad just took my hand and said, "I know." I'm still very close with both of my parents.
It's so important to be yourself. Hopefully, that will make things easier in the long run. When I first started recording music and Debut came out, People magazine really wanted an openly gay guy to feature in their "Hottest Bachelors" issue. My sexuality was not something I had intended to push, but there you have it.
As far as the recording industry goes, Billy Porter was quoted as saying, "Matt Zarley is a do-it-yourself bitch." Personally, is it more difficult for an out gay man? I don't know. The major labels might ask, "How do we cover this up?" But I really don't know.
WCT: Your website, your press releases and a number of your interviews are focused on your personal appearance. Do you find that the focus on your body and your looks undermines your music?
Matt Zarley: Believe it or not, I have always had body issues. I started work as a dancer. I'm built like a football player. I don't look like a dancer. If I had to pick whether people remembered me for my music or my looks, I'd rather they respond to the music. The physical focus is so prevalentnot just for gay men but for everyone! It's exhausting! Unfortunately the gay community can sometimes be unforgiving or not as accepting when it comes to personal appearance.
I'm not a gym rat. I also do not want people looking at me and thinking, "God, he's a slob." It's much harder when you get older to keep that up. I just wish people could see past all of that.
WCT: Well, you look really put together in all your publicity photos. Who handles your look and your wardrobe?
Matt Zarley: I don't think I got that gay gene when it comes to clothing. I'm great when it comes to putting money into things for my home but not so much when it comes to what I'm going to wear. I think I drive my publicist, Michael Caprio crazy. I always seem to ask a day before a shoot, "What am I going to wear?" I worked as a dancer in New York City for years; there was no schedule for what you had to wear. Unless it was a costume, you just did your own thing.
WCT: Do you have any significant artistic influences that inform on your music? Is there anyone you've worked with who really "wowed" you?
Matt Zarley: Oh, of course! Babyface for one. I'm a bit obsessed. Also I am really obsessed with Whitney Houston. I used to study her vocals back in her heyday and she's been a big influence on my sound. I did get the opportunity to work with Chaka Khan and I can tell you she is probably the greatest musician I have ever worked with.
WCT: Is there anything you'd like to say to your Chicago fans?
Matt Zarley: Yes! Request me for Market Days! The audience there is so amazing.Also, get out there and support one another. The more we can help gain visibility for each other, the more out artists we'll have. This really stretches out into more than just music too. This could help all of our voices.
For more information on Matt Zarley and to see his upcoming appearances and hear his music, visit www.mattzarley.com .