Photo by Ryan Bakerink
Scars, Nightmares...and Survival:
An Out Musician's Odyssey
by Michael Layne Heath
As a music fan, it's always exciting to make the artistic acquaintance of a new artist whose work had previously evaded your attention. So it is for this reporter to have recently discovered the music of Utah-based singer/songwriter Justin Utley. Released this past fall, Utley's third and latest album SCARS (Audio Union) is as tuneful, heartfelt, imaginative and experimental a pop/rock disc as you're likely to hear this side of the millennium.
An out, proud and outspoken (more on that later) gay man, Utley's musical and lyrical forte is very much rooted in classic singer/songwriter tropes - your McCartney's, Joel's and Elton's. Yet, not only are his songs shot through with a decidedly hard-won social conscience, Utley - from the evidence of much of SCARS - displays such a willing curiosity for coloring outside established lines as to align his work with that of more adventurous pop practitioners. Think of Matthew Sweet, The Posies, Let's Active and reach back to the venerated likes of T. Rundgren and E. Rhodes. It's altogether catchy, yet heady stuff.
As compelling as Utley's music is, his troubled, if ultimately triumphant, backstory is all the more so: growing up a devout Mormon in the suburbs of Salt Lake City, Utley sensed he was different from an early age, unable to quite suss out why, well into adolescence, and finally realizing he was gay after returning from the mandatory Mormon proselytizing mission. Seeking guidance from the local bishop of his ward, Utley was told he suffered from 'same-gender attraction disorder': "I was also told that 'gay' was a verb, and that you weren't gay if you didn't act on it." Two years of the controversial practice known as conversion (or "ex-gay") therapy followed. Eventually recognizing that it was not working for him, Utley stopped attending therapy and soon after began his first serious relationship with another man, which he calls "the best thing that ever happened to me." Tragically, six months after they had met, his partner died of a sudden, unexpected heart attack, setting a domino effect of traumatic proportions in motion.
Expecting grief counseling from his Mormon bishop, Utley was instead told that his partner "was taken away because God didn't want me in a gay relationship." Utley was then fired from his credit union job for being gay, his employer having intercepted office emails referring to his now late partner.
To compound matters, all of this occurred at a time when there was no laws on the books in Utah protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination in either housing or employment. Years later, testifying in favor of enacting such laws before the Utah state legislature, Utley recalled that dark period in his life. "I lost my job, the person I loved, and my faith in a community which left me vulnerable to someone's personal prejudice. My self-worth plummeted... I strongly considered taking my life. I could not escape the fact that no matter where I lived or worked, my orientation would be under scrutiny, socially, and professionally, and legally... there was nothing I could do about it. I am standing here alive today... because of the unconditional support of a wonderful mother, who refused to allow me to continue to believe I wasn't worth loving. The rest of the members of my family soon followed suit."
As a result, Utley made the decision to come out publicly, in addition to severing ties with the Mormon Church, sending what he called a "self-excommunication letter" to his local ward.
He had also decided to pursue a different, far more creative life's calling. Trained on piano as a child, later singing in local Salt Lake City musical theater companies - culminating in a featured performance at the opening ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Olympics held there - Utley moved to NYC in the early Oughties to further his musical career. There, he plied his trade on the local club and cafe circuit, while at the same time absorbing New York's sizable and historic LGBTQ culture.
While performing one night at the famed Bitter End club, singing an original song that kisses off a bad, ostensibly hetero romance, Utley threw in a chance ad-lib about his being gay. The audience's uproarious reaction caught the attention of the club owner; he encouraged Utley to pursue a more honest presentation of his music that would, as Utley himself recalled, "set [me] apart from the other 900 guys carrying a guitar on their back around town."
In 2009, Utley also took part in an Off-Broadway musical, Our Country, playing the lead role of a Nashville country music superstar who gets outed; the play would go on to be featured and win awards at several prestigious NYC theater festivals. From there, Utley's musical trajectory moved from strength to strength. His first album Runaway was released in 2005, and found Utley effectively setting out his musical stall: tuneful, tasteful backdrops in shades of country and folk with the occasional firework flashes of rock action (as on the single "Hold You"), all in the service of Utley's warm, supple tenor and lyric ruminations on life, love and loss from the gender-inclusive POV of a young, gay American millennial. Runaway also includes two songs that have become Utley standards, and staples of his live sets to this day: the impassioned "Shades Of Gray," written after leaving his conversion therapy program ("When I realized the world wasn't so black and white anymore") and the previously mentioned-and quite rocking-breakup song "Goodbye Goodbye."
For Utley, activism in support of the greater LGBTQ community was beginning to step to center stage as well. In June 2010, he released the single "Stand For Something," which he wrote in response to the fight for legal marriage equality happening across the United States at that time. Hailed as a new modern protest anthem, "Stand for Something" and Utley were nominated by the LGBT Academy Of Recording Arts for 4 OutMusic Awards, including Best Songwriter and Artist of the Year, eventually winning for Best Country/Folk Song of the Year. He has also been a recipient of the FBI's Inspiring Citizen of the Year award (twice), and named Artist of the Year by SiriusXM's OutQ Radio.
Utley's sophomore disc Nothing This Real, released in 2011, more or less followed along the blueprint of his previous album, while including such standouts as its moody, jangly title track, the Springsteen-like flight fantasy of "Great Escape" and the rueful, country fiddle-dappled "It Is What It Is."
During this time, Utley was fast becoming known as a performer and an advocate for LGBTQ equality and awareness, which included alerting those within and without the LGBTQ community to his personal experience with, and dangers of, conversion therapy. Indeed, Utley found himself quite the man in demand: a mainstay performer and fixture at Pride festivals and fundraising events from San Diego to Stockholm, sharing stages with the likes of Tegan and Sara, fellow Utah homeboy Dan (Imagine Dragons) Reynolds, comedienne Margaret Cho and Broadway star Billy (Kinky Boots) Porter.
In 2016, back in Salt Lake City and settling into a now state-legalized marriage with a local man (which would sadly end in divorce), Utley began to feel the need to shake his music up; to inject some fresh blood into his creative process as a songwriter, and "[explore] edgier, darker themes that I've always wanted to take on, but hadn't because I was told to stay in my safe zone." He found a willing collaborator in local producer and multi-instrumentalist Taylor "T-Harts" Hartley. Recommended by mutual friends, Hartley had an extensive CV of work with pop and dance artists, both local and national. With Hartley riding shotgun as a sort of combo of George Martin and Sancho Panza, Utley began assembling the pieces that, three years later, would make up SCARS. In advance of the album's release was another stand-alone single, "Survivors," a moving ballad inspired by and dedicated to those subjected to conversion therapy who came out the other side.
Finally released on September 10th 2019 (not so coincidentally, also World Suicide Prevention Day), SCARS is indeed a great leap forward both musically and lyrically for Justin Utley, a gamble that handsomely paid off for all concerned. The album is book-ended by two stately, piano-based ballads, a style close to Utley's heart, dating back to his song off Runaway, "The Apology (Wherever You Are)." The title track posits the idea that the slings and arrows of life, whether actual or imagined, are what make us all human and unique. According to Utley, it was originally conceived as a "loud, fast" rock jam inspired by the Foo Fighters: "I was channeling a lot of Dave Grohl at the time." That all changed when, speaking at a suicide prevention panel, he encountered a heavily tattooed trans woman and fellow activist, who told Utley that some of her ink was done to cover the physical scars from years of parental abuse. Utley was so affected by this chance meeting that he ditched the rock version of "Scars" entirely, as a way to pay due tribute. "Survivors," making a reappearance as SCARS' closer, is similarly transformed from its Bon Iver-fronts-Massive Attack origins into a soaring, exultant orchestral affair.
In between, the music of SCARS is engagingly, enjoyably all over the map: the thumping, glam-rock stomp-fest of "Hearsay!"; seething industrial rock beasts like the none-more-timely "American Nightmare"; the charmingly Beatles-damaged "I'm Already Down"; pop-punk jams that would more than hold their own in a Lollapalooza/Warped Tour setting. It's also evident that Utley retains affection for his gentler, country/folk roots, with songs like "Waiting For Love" and the introspective "Underneath My Skin." Energized by these myriad backdrops, Utley steps up with perhaps his most direct and righteously indignant lyrics to date, railing at hate speech, Big Pharma, the systematic abuse of LGBTQ youth and the dystopia of Trump's America--all the while never straying far from his wheelhouse of hope and universal love, even as it now expands to include (in the case of the song "My Drug") lust.
Similarly, Utley's vocals seem freed to inhabit a more expansive dynamic range: hushed and intimate one moment, full-on belting it out the next. Even his live appearance has gotten more confident: previously content to dress down, Utley on occasion now assumes a persona maybe best described as Macho Glam.
Summing up SCARS, Utley told Echo Magazine (echomag.com), "It's a pretty raw album, and the journey's pretty raw. I feel like this album is giving me the opportunity to open the flood gates and really put it out there in some different genres in different ways."
At the present time, Utley's future work, like with all creatives these days, is somewhat restricted by the COVID-19 pandemic but there are more collaborations with Taylor Hartley in the pipeline, as are projects like a long-considered album of cover songs. Utley also continues to speak out for LGBTQ causes; most recently, he worked with advocacy groups Equality Utah and Born Perfect to successfully ban conversion therapy in the state, the 19th to do so thus far.
Meantime, one can catch Utley's safe-at-home mini-set from the recent virtual Bear World Magazine Weekend event here: https://bearworldmag.com/digital-bear-weekend-justin-utley.
But definitely do yourself a favor and immerse yourself in Justin Utley and SCARS: the man has some important, relevant things to say, and what's to follow-if this disc is any indication-will surely be deserving of the attention of a wide and discerning legion of fans.
Photo by Ryan Bakerink
Here, PSF got to speak to Utley this past spring.
PSF: You have said that your early musical influences were basically whatever was in your parents' record collection, including the Beatles and Billy Joel. Do you remember the first record you ever bought? And what/who were some artists or records that inspired you to create your own music?
JU: The first album I ever bought was INXS, Live Baby Live. It was recorded at Wembley in London; the sound of the crowd and Michael Hutchence's distinct voice was really motivating to me to relay that much energy between myself, the song, and the audience.
Some other inspirations were/are Roland Orzabal (Tears For Fears), Eddie Vedder, Lennon/McCartney, Melissa Ferrick, Butch Walker, Brandi Carlile, and Frank Turner.
PSF: You have also said that as a child, certain films and TV shows offered early clues as to your eventual sexual awakenings. Were there any musicians or records that served a similar purpose for you?
JU: There weren't, actually. Music was never something of a sexual curiosity for me, or associated with sexuality. I assume that's probably from my upbringing: Mormons, especially ones in Utah, are notorious for not having open conversations about sex in general.
PSF: When recently asked who inspires your own live performing presence, you singled out Johnny Cash, Joan Jett and Freddie Mercury. What is it about those three artists that appeals and thus inspires you in this way?
JU: Their stage presence, artistry, passion and command of an audience are what draws me to them as icons and performers. Both stage presence and songwriting are things I look for and admire about singer/songwriters.
PSF: Do you write primarily on guitar or piano, or does it depend on what the individual song is saying to you? Having been trained on piano as a kid, how did you end up picking up a guitar?
JU: Depends on the song, really. More of my songs start out on piano now, just for chord charting and structuring, not necessarily that the song is piano-based. I picked up the guitar (literally) when I was 20, and taught myself how to play checking out the guitar charts from songbooks.
PSF: As a relatively new fan, checking out your early records, it seems songs like "Shades Of Gray" and "Goodbye Goodbye" (both from his 2005 debut Runaway) were breakthroughs of a sort, in terms of you beginning to feel more open about expressing yourself (and what you've called 'your story') lyrically.
In the case of "Goodbye Goodbye," in fact, a particular performance of that song, when you were making a go of it in NYC, was a pivotal moment in getting you to be more upfront as a live performer about your true self. Tell us about that night at The Bitter End.
JU: I decided to explain, briefly, to the crowd the reason I wrote the song... I found out I'd been an option for a girlfriend I'd made a priority, all while I was going through conversion (ex-gay) therapy.
It was after that gig that the venue manager came out and asked why I hadn't mentioned any of these stories before. Truth was, a music agent told me not to, since my past wasn't all that relatable, too unique, and didn't want me pegged as a "gay artist." But that night proved otherwise; that being authentic made more of an impression to the audience than any other artist that night.
PSF: Tell me about how you and SCARS producer Taylor Hartley initially chose to work together. What does he bring to the table that may have not been there previously, and what is your creative relationship in the studio like?
JU: I was looking for a co-producer to help push me outside my comfort zone musically and lyrically. Taylor was recommended by friends of friends who knew of his work which has been mostly pop. He was able to get me outside my norm, tighten up my tunes, and give them a new life I hadn't expected. I ultimately had veto power, though never had to use it. I really enjoy the different and diverse directions the new album takes.
Photo by Ryan Bakerink
PSF: Talking about specific songs from SCARS, the song "Waiting For Love" is, as you've described it, a throwback to some of your "earlier, more country-flavoredish" songs.
It also has a very fun video, in which you find yourself in a potentially hostile environment (a straight country bar), that fortunately has a happy ending.
Apparently though, the director of the video had an idea for a premise that you kind of took issue with. Tell me a bit about that.
JU: That's right... I talked about it on the Everyone's Gay podcast, in fact: the director made a cut of the video and sent it to me, and he told me, "Well, I created this scene where your phone goes off..."
A text in little bubbles like they had on House of Cards, when people are texting...you know, bloop bloop! "And it says, 'Hey, are you coming over?' and you say, 'Yeah sure, I'll be there in a second', and then all of a sudden you see a truck driving away..."
And I was like, "No, you don't need a cause for a truck driving away... this is a country video: I am in a truck because I just am. (laughter) I'm going on a dirt road because it's... a dirt road. The truck breaks down because it just breaks down..." All those kind of tongue-in-cheek references to country music video stuff.
PSF: In college, you had a roommate that came out in a rather more flamboyant manner than you were comfortable with at the time, as someone still closeted and alienated by certain perceived aspects of gay culture: discos, drag queens and such.
Flash forward to last year and you doing the hang with some prominent Utah drag artists, clearly having a blast, in the "Waiting For Love" video. Was there a particular moment or person you encountered that ultimately made you feel more relaxed around that element of gay culture?
JU: When I moved to New York City shortly after coming out, and after living there for over a decade, I'd grown to appreciate and understand a lot about LGBTQ history and our culture on many levels.
PSF: You have talked extensively and candidly about being put on medication - including those prescribed for anxiety, depression and PTSD - to suppress your feelings as part of the ex-gay, conversion therapy you underwent. How much of that experience informs the creation of a song like "American Nightmare"?
JU: A significant part of my experience in the Mormon religion, in particular the conversion (ex-gay) therapy, is referenced in the song... whether it's the medication I was put on, to not - as the lyric says - 'fitting their description,' to others being told not to associate with me because I had left the therapy.
PSF: And, at the risk of asking the obvious, what else was on your mind and going through your head when you wrote it?
JU: Religion, politics, the state of our world right now, all played a role in the lyrics of the song and video concepts.
(The video, which portrays Utley as a Jason Bourne-like figure attempting to escape from a nebulous but sinister cult, can be seen here below)
PSF: The variety of musical styles on SCARS is pretty remarkable, yet one song that totally made me sit up and take keen notice was "I'm Already Down": very much taking a few pages out of the Sgt. Pepper/"White Album" Beatles playbook. Also, as I hear it anyway, nods to Tears For Fears doing their psychedelic trip on "Seeds Of Love," even the Anglophile stylings of '90's Bay Area band Jellyfish. How did that particular song come about?
JU: "I'm Already Down" definitely has its roots in Beatles, TFF, and even Jellyfish: all bands I have an affinity for.
The idea for the song was to put melancholy lyrics with an upbeat, anthemic melody, with a heavy piano. Taylor and I played all the instruments, and he even added some odds and ends that made the song even more Beatlesque... things like layering about a dozen vocal takes for the choruses and outro.
PSF: Any abiding memories of the first Pride festival you ever performed at, or a particular moment out of those fests that stands out for you?
JU: One of my first Pride gigs was in Wichita, Kansas, which is also the headquarters of the anti-LGBTQ Westboro Baptist Church. It was really inspiring to see the LGBTQ community come out despite the overwhelming pushback of other communities. Their struggle and display of bravery, to me, represents the need to create our own Stonewall in the areas we live, instead of needing to flee to more inclusive cities.
"Their (Kansas') struggle and display of bravery represents the
need to create our own Stonewall in the areas we live, instead of
needing to flee to more inclusive cities."
PSF: A few tunes on SCARS seem clearly pulled from your recent marriage that sadly went south. How conscious were or are you of that when writing songs like SCARS' "This Is The End (I Don't Want To Forgive You)" or, even earlier, "It Is What It Is" (from 2011's Nothing This Real)? And does it ultimately serve as a cathartic act for you to do so?
JU: My relationships definitely have made their way into songs, especially on SCARS. "This Is the End" is very much about an ex, and was written directly about my experience in that relationship. There's some catharsis in it, but also a way to celebrate it.
PSF: People I have played your music for tend to slot you in with other LGBT-centric singer/songwriters such as Mark Weigel and Garrin Benfield.
Who do you, though, consider to be your contemporaries? I know you have spoken highly of Brandi Carlile, and singled out another singer/songwriter, Talia Keys, in a recent Facebook post.
JU: I would include Melissa Etheridge in with Brandi and the like... though I've not known about the sexuality prior to connecting to their music. I usually find out after the fact.
PSF: And speaking of independent artists: I noticed when I got my copy of SCARS, via Bandcamp, that the CD run was a limited edition. I assume, then, that much of your music is acquired these days via streaming services or as MP3's. As an independent music artist, what have you noticed to be positives and negatives of using such outlets, and sites like Bandcamp, to get your music out to potential fans?
JU: Yeah, the industry has changed a ton since I put out my first album. iTunes was merely a blip and people were still buying media in hard-copy format. Now it's the opposite, and owning a hard copy seems more nostalgic than anything. Digital has helped with accessibility, though it has definitely cut the revenue. Spotify and other streaming services only pay artists a fraction of a penny per play. So the focus turns to performances and other gigs to make up that significant difference.
PSF: Regarding the original and ultimately released versions of the song "Scars," were the lyrics the same but the melodies different, or do they both share words and music, albeit arranged (radically) different?
JU: Ah! Yes, the original version was very much a loud rock track [inspired by the Foo Fighters]. The melody and words are the same from that version as it was reworked it for the new album.
PSF: For quite a few years now, you have talked about doing an all-covers album: will it eventually come out? Likewise, originals of yours slated as singles that seem to have been orphaned in a way, like the song "Come Home" (written to bring attention to the plight of homeless youth)?
JU: Absolutely. They're more side projects as I focus on putting out new material (perhaps a single for the holidays as well). I have quite a few orphans that will be picked back up and dusted off. They usually fall by the wayside since often they don't 'fit in' with a certain concept or feel. SCARS shed a few of these.
PSF: The shortlist of songs intended for the covers album - Tears For Fears, Jesus Jones, Radiohead, James and the like - make it appear that you were your typical '90's Modern Rock kid.
As I have no sense of Utah other than the obvious cultural and religious touchstones, were there commercial or even college stations there in Salt Lake City where you heard such stuff?
JU: There is a healthy Alternative Rock radio presence in Utah. KJQ was an early station, which played the New- and Darkwave, and early industrial bands. KXRK (X96) was its replacement in the early '90's and is still on air today.
PSF: Any plans for a revival of the Off-Broadway musical you starred in, Our Country? Are you still in touch with its playwright, Tony Asaro?
JU: There is always a bit of hum and buzz regarding bringing that production back. Tony Asaro and I are still in touch, and I believe the original cast recording is available on iTunes.
PSF: Having checked out a bunch of interviews and documentary footage, knowing what you went through, and the hurt that at times is still plainly obvious in your retelling of I, one's heart truly goes out to you.
Which makes it all the more amazing that you have such a keenly developed sense of humor about the paths your life has taken, and just life in general. The appearances you've made on podcasts like Everyone's Gay and The Stephanie Miller Happy Hour are, at times, absolutely hilarious.
To what or whom would you say you credit for maintaining such a positive outlook on life?
JU: I'd have to give credit to my upbringing and my passion to be a change agent; that no matter what stands in the way, there is always a way around a mountain, and always a silver lining, even if you have to make one.
Coming out and having the support I had from my mother and others who followed was a huge step in that mindset. That's why it's so crucial for kids to have a support system when they come out.
PSF: What's next for you and Taylor? Is the creative relationship still strong for the two of you, and what can we expect it to produce in the future?
JU: We're collaborating on a couple of new tracks: one for the holidays and another to be out in the spring, to help promote a (hopefully COVID-free) tour.
PSF: I did want to address your political and activist involvement, which is supremely commendable, especially the work you did to get conversion therapy banned in Utah, the 19th state so far to do so.
Given such strides, what's your personal take on the general vibe or mood among members of the LGBT community in SLC/Utah at the moment?
JU: Unlike California and New York, Salt Lake City is one of the cities where it takes everyone, gay or not, to show up, support, and come together in order for progress to happen. Especially in the face of the church-controlled legislative issues where the public at large and a majority of constituents vote to the contrary.
PSF: Would you say is your favorite Saturday night record? (a nod to MOJO here)
JU: Deee-Lite's World Clique has made its way back to my playlist on Saturday eves... the loops, samples, layers and layers of them, defined that genre and decade. The entire album is infectious.
PSF: And your favorite Sunday morning record?
JU: Sunday mornings are pretty quiet, but usually Frank Turner if there's something I need to get me going for the day.
Photo by Ryan Bakerink
Justin Utley's Facebook site is https://www.facebook.com/JustinUtleyMusic/.
His official website is www.justinutley.com; his music is available to buy at https://justinutley.bandcamp.com/.
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