Exclusive Interview with Justin Utley.
CM: Justin Utley, pop icon?
JU: In today's world of "pop" icons, it seems to me that any—not all—are media-made, and the artist is a complete production of a record label and investors, so what you're seeing and hearing isn't truly an artist, but a scripted, produced, media celebrity. When I think of pop icons I think of the influences of John Lennon, Michael Jackson, or David Bowie. They defined their music, their image, and for the most part, had complete control of their art. In that case, it would be fantastic to be considered a pop icon. So sign me up.
CM: How has the big city been for your career?
JU: When I first got to New York in 2006 I was told I shouldn't be "out" until I made it. I took that advice for a bit before I realized that it was putting me right back to where I was in my Utah days. That wasn't going to work for me or my music, since I’m writing from within. If I can't be honest with my audience or myself, then why am I doing this?
CM: You’ve got sex appeal. Ever wish you didn’t?
JU: I'm grateful to have what I got. I would hope that it adds to whatever my appeal is as an artist. In reality, sex appeal does help
tremendously in the entertainment business, though not necessarily a deal-breaker in some cases. I've never resented it, but as a teenager I did struggle with not feeling comfortable, at all, with how I looked. Girls would talk to me a lot, which left some guys pretty upset, to the point I got called some pretty ugly things behind closed doors. So, I suppose at that point in my life, I resented any "appeal" I had going on, since I was pretty self-conscious. It took a lot of time to become confident that I wasn't all that bad looking, relatively speaking. Coming out was probably a big help in finally becoming comfortable with myself on all levels. I'd have to say I really owe thanks to my parents for not putting me into child labor, and for giving me fluoride pills as a kid. Helps with the teeth. Mormons take big pride in their smiles. I think it's an Osmond thing. My mom's side of the family is from Sicily, so that helps
with the complexion a bit too.
CM: You must not care a whole lot for Speaker Newt Gringrich.
JU: I think Gingrich is a fantastic example of what a majority of politicians today have evolved into.
CM: How was it growing up conservative in Utah?
JU: I grew up in a suburb of Salt Lake City. Compared to the rest of the state, the city itself is fairly liberal. The further away from the city you get, the more socially conservative it becomes. Most of my neighbors were Mormon, which is pretty common there. So I'd see most of them at school, at church, the grocery store. In Utah, the church is also a big social driver and a culture as well, which can pose a problem for those not of the flock. My first religious conflict was when I'd bought a can of iced tea in junior high school
and brought it home. The next morning my dad woke me up and gave me a stern reminder that God didn't want me having iced tea. Or coffee, or alcohol, or tobacco, or heroin. It was all part of the health code, which I hadn't realized included corn syrup-enhanced Lipton. The health code also included a directive to eat "very little meat", which it seemed most everyone turned a blind eye to.
So I had a feeling from that point that something wasn't quite on point. I wasn't very good at settling for a warm and fuzzy glossed over answer, or the infamous "we don't know for sure but we'll find out in the next life, so just be obedient and don't worry about it" answer. There were a myriad of other questions I never really got a direct answer to. I was told to not look outside church-approved sources, since they were all false, and that evil forces were trying to discredit the truth. "Just follow in faith and everything will be
CM: You made it through gay therapy.
JU: Growing up I wasn't too clear on what homosexuality was. But having it compared to bestiality was enough for most of us kids in ignorance to get the drift. One thing made absolutely clear to me, was that homosexuality was lumped into a category with sexual perversions, and second only to murder on the sin-barometer. Prior to my Mormon mission, I was interviewed by a Stake
President—the bishop's boss— to get his stamp of approval and was told, and actually shown in a current official church guidebook, that masturbation was a homosexual act. I was also informed that it can lead to homosexuality since it doesn't involve the opposite sex and, again, was directed to something a Mormon prophet had said. Of course, nothing more horrifying to any kid than being told by your spiritual leader that masturbating puts you in cahoots with the perverts and can make you gay. It invokes an immediate internal negotiation with God that you would never masturbate again so long as you don't have to admit it to the Stake President or bishop. Since admitting to it meant certain spiritual death. Or at least embarrassment. When I realized I was gay I was on my mission. I saw porn for the first time, at a bishop's house on his Internet history that hadn't been cleared. When I got home from my mission, I was encouraged by a bishop to enroll in one-on-one counseling with a therapist, in a facility run by the church and bound by church social-science, in addition to a group therapy. I was told I had a "condition" and that it could be treated. I learned that my "same gender attraction" was caused by something traumatic that happened to me as a child that I just didn't remember, along with any parental neglect or smothering that may have occurred. I believed it, partly because at the time I wanted it to be true, and partly because being told by God's chosen leaders made it true. I started therapy immediately. At first I was elated to finally not feel so alone, that there were other people like me. And it made sense to me at the time. Learned or conditioned "behavior" was what this "attraction problem" was about. Two years and many therapy sessions of self-convincing later, I realized that all of the convincing, praying, temple and church attendance wasn't fixing my "attraction problem". I did meet some wonderful people in the program along the way, but I wasn't any happier than before I started. It was actually the opposite. A church for an exalted afterlife promised only to married and devout Mormons seemed further and further from reality. I saw a lot of guys on medication, talks of suicide, and guys who'd been attending for years without any "progress". Meanwhile I met a guy from Denver online, so I decided to stop
therapy and try a different route. About six months into seeing each other, I got an email from his brother that he had died in his sleep. He overdosed. I was devastated. And I wasn't really out to anyone outside the confines of this therapy ordeal, so I went back to my bishop and was told that God allowed him to die because he didn't approve of one of His Latter-Day Saints being in a
homosexual relationship. At that moment I decided I'd had enough of the faith/fear talk. It wasn't going to work anymore. I had enough of it. I eventually left the church and sent the leadership an official resignation. A "self-excommunication" letter, as I call it. I now drink coffee and tea and I am completely and wholeheartedly happy doing so. Although I was always told happiness would never result from wickedness.
CM: You won for Best Actor in a Musical at the 2009 Planet Connections New York Theater Festival. What’s your take on the Broadway show Book of Mormon?
JU: It's fantastic. I recommend it to Mormons and non-Mormons alike. Interestingly enough, the references to some of the really peculiar beliefs mentioned, such as blacks being cursed, or the planet Kolob in "I Believe", are actual Mormon doctrines that aren't really discussed at all, outside church. I performed with Andrew Rannells, one of the leads in the show, at the recent "It Gets Better Holiday Concert" and talked about the reaction of church members versus the general public. There are some church members who
refuse to see it because they claim it presents false beliefs. But they eventually find they really don't know what the show is about. Keeping a closed book or closed mind makes for better comedy and shock value so, in my mind, why not be open to seeing it? Then again, it's this sort of thinking that got me into trouble with iced tea.
CM: How do you describe your music style for someone who hasn't heard you before?
JU: A little bit of Daughtry, Melissa Etheridge and Sheryl Crow mixed up with some Goo Goo Dolls, Rob Thomas, Dixie Chicks, and Jim Brickman. In short, alt country rock.
CM: Of the songs you've written, do you have a favorite? Your favorite from the new album?
JU: One of my all times faves is Shades of Gray tied with Goodbye Goodbye. As for my favorite from the new album, I would have to say State Of Loneliness and It Is What It Is are tied. At least for this month.
CM: What's next?
JU: Spending the next few months promoting the new album, filming begins on the Great Escape music video in February, and rehearsing for a full-band show in NYC this March. Then onto planning all the summer Pride gigs. Full plate again this year. I like it that way.
Find Justin on twitter @JustinUtley
As featured in Connextions Magazine, Issue 6.
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