Steve Grand redefines American values through his music & sets his own standards for HIV prevention
by Dann Dulin
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Sean Black
“To everyone out there—no matter where you live or where you’re from, no matter your age or race, the color of your skin, your sexuality or gender identity….to everyone out there who has ever been made to feel different, or immoral, or wrong, just for being who you are, this record is for you. Nothing that you are is wrong. You are exactly who you were meant to be.”—Dedication by Steve Grand on his All American Boy album
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]hese words emanate from Steve Grand’s raw core. The singer-songwriter just released his first album in March. He’s earned the accolades.
After saving up $2,000 and maxing out his credit cards, Steve rallied his friends together to shoot a music video. “All-American Boy,” a single about a man in love with his straight friend, is inspired by the crush thirteen-year-old Steve had on a fifteen-year-old counselor at Boy Scout summer camp. After uploading the video to YouTube, it quickly went viral. That was two years ago. Steve later did a Kickstarter campaign, acquiring over $200,000 more than his $81,000 goal. It was the crowdfunder’s third-highest success rate to date.
The album debuted on the Billboard 200 at Number 47 and sold 10,000 copies within a week. He’s appeared on CNN, Good Morning America, and Larry King Now. Steve has also appeared in many Pride parades around the country, as well as Pride festivities. He’ll be at Michigan Pride in Lansing at the end of August. Steve released his CD on his own label, not often done in the entertainment business jungle, especially for a debut album. It could prove to be a smart career move.
Almost overnight, he was branded a “Country Western singer,” but Steve adamantly denies that moniker. “I’ve been saying I am not a part of the country community until I’m blue in the face,” he breathlessly bristles with exhaustion. Granted, some of his eclectic tunes are in that genre; however, he also slides over to pop, R&B, rock, and even blues. “I’m not really concerned with how people label me, just as long as they listen to me!” He giggles. Steve’s a natural, and John Denver would have loved his homespun songs and heartfelt voice. Grand was inspired by the Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, Rolling Stones, Blink 182, My Chemical Romance, Billy Joel, and Elton John.
Here’s what he states on his website about the song “All-American Boy”: “What made the story impactful was the apparent dichotomy of a same-sex love story set against a very Americana backdrop—old cars, whiskey, American flags, and friends by a campfire.”
Singing with passion, commitment, and truth, Steve decided to call his album All American Boy because of his dad. When he and his brother were kids, his father would brag to others, “These are my All American boys.” They were Boy Scouts, played sports, and were good students. When Steve discovered he way gay, he realized he no longer fit into that “All American” mold. By naming his album All American Boy, however, he’s recovered that identity.
Raised in a strict Catholic household in a blue-collar Chicago suburb (“I was taught that gay was horrible….”), Steve came out to his parents when he was eighteen, but they were not happy with the news. After briefly seeing a Christian therapist, he now has his parent’s support. He presently lives in his boyhood home with them to save money for his career. (He plans on relocating to the West Coast early next year.) At nineteen, he dabbled in modeling and became a cover model for a gay publication, exposing his well-developed body. “It was mostly about me proving to myself that I could be ‘one of those model guys,’” he says thoughtfully of the studly dreamboat photographs. “I did it and now I can move on. I’m not ashamed of those pictures. But if I had to do it over again, I probably wouldn’t. I’m in a different place now.” He didn’t get paid for the modeling work, with the exception of posing once for a prom ad that later appeared on a city billboard.
In Los Angeles to perform a couple of gigs and make some personal appearances, Steve is staying with friends. Dressed in jeans, an aquamarine T-shirt, and black socks, he looks every bit the Midwestern guy—wholesome, clean cut, and fresh. Drinking diet Coke from a large bottle, he offers me a drink. I opt for a small can of Perrier and we settle in on the cozy porch, just outside the living room. The home is in a canyon, just a few stoplights away from the iconic Capitol Records building, long a symbol for hopeful musicians.
Kicked back in a woven cane chair, he appears at ease. I ask him what’s it like to be Steve Grand. “Never being satisfied with where you are at the moment and always looking to the next thing,” he instantly remarks. “I live with a level of anxiety about what’s going to happen next even though I’m very aware of ‘now.’ I’m trying to change because that’s no way to live. What I achieve professionally or don’t achieve doesn’t affect the way I feel about myself. I don’t think I’m fuckin’ special,” he asserts, adding, “I feel lucky and grateful.”
Steve’s drive is tempered by his need to give. He’s performed at such fundraisers as the Oklahoma AIDS Walk, Point Foundation, and New York City’s Bailey House. Like most singers who hope to reach others through their music, Steve aspires to higher ground by creating lyrics dealing with causes close to his heart: human rights, bullying, and HIV. Could there be a song in the pipelines about the epidemic? “I’m always open to writing about whatever inspires me at the moment. I want to do justice to the topic,” he voices with sincere directness. “Whatever I write about, I want to make sure I get it right!”
Steve shifts, lifting his legs up on the chair and crisscrosses them as he leans his elbows onto his thighs. He continues. “Empathy is one of my assets. I feel it’s important to be able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. And it doesn’t take long to do that, maybe ten seconds?” he asks rhetorically. “Keeping an open mind is absolutely key. I know what it’s like to experience discrimination, to be misunderstood or misrepresented, not only because I’m gay but for other reasons, as well. If you’re human, you’ve had all of these feelings. I think we have the responsibility to know better and to understand others. If you don’t, at least, give someone the benefit of the doubt. Most of the time, people deserve it.”
Though he has editorial model looks, there’s an aw-shucks way about him, as if he just stepped out of Mayberry. But don’t be fooled by such a simplistic stereotype. Steve’s the real deal. The self-described pessimist (“Unfortunately I am!”) is authentic, insightful, and intelligent—and knows what he wants.
Not long ago, Steve attended a dinner in San Francisco with some of his nearly 5,000 Kickstarter backers. He met a guy who worked at a suicide prevention hotline. He revealed to Steve that many gay kids call in and several times the caller would bring up Steve’s name, explaining how he made a difference for them. “That’s one of the reasons I sing,” relates Steve, teary-eyed. He closes his eyes for a moment, exhaling a heavy sigh. “I remember being that kid and I always wanted to feel like someone was speaking for me. Someone who made me feel okay for being who I was. I never had that,” he lightly broods, petting his friend’s dog who whisks by him. “In some small way, I hope I’m helping a few kids.”
At Steve’s album release party, he met a man who is living with HIV. The moving conversation led Steve to publicly speak out more about the issue. “This disease needs to be discussed freely, as people need to be seriously educated about it,” he declares vehemently, his hands briefly clasped together prayer-like, eyes darting upward. “I’m lucky to know a lot of people who lived through this nightmare and they’ve told me about what it was like to lose their friends.” He pauses, glancing out at the very tall shrub-fenced private yard. “This epidemic further cemented hatred of the gay community at a time they were just starting to advance after the sexual revolution of the late sixties and seventies. I think around 20,000 people died from AIDS [in the U.S.] before President Reagan said anything. [24,699 were reported dead by the end 1986.] That makes me so upset….” His square jaw and high cheekbones tighten and Steve’s peppercorn-brown eyes emblazen. A couple of shrill cawing crows land in one of the front lawn trees before they fly away. “You know, I can’t imagine being gay and growing up in that time. My success, in large part, is on the backs of people who have a lot of welts on them from that era.”
“I knew I was gay at thirteen,” he offers vibrantly. His first sexual encounter came as a high school freshman, with a guy who was a few years older. No condoms were worn. “I listened to this person, I relied on him, and in the heat of the moment…I just didn’t know. Afterwards, I was so scared.” Steve experienced guilt and vulnerability. “I grew up with a lot of shame about sex and sexuality,” explains Grand, summing up that he wasn’t properly educated about sex or STDs. “Looking back I can now see the reasons I wasn’t safe.” The next day Steve went to a clinic and got tested. While waiting days for the results, he was paralyzed with worry. “I would go to the high school bathroom during classes and nervously call the clinic to see if the results were in. When they did come in, I was so relieved.”
He goes on. “In the heat of the moment you’re always going to make the decision that gives you maximum pleasure. Make the decision beforehand!” revs Steve, taking a beat then chuckles in a firm voice—“No sudden moves!” He takes a swig of Coke. “Abstinence is ineffective. It’s bullshit. That philosophy puts people’s lives at risk. That did nothing to keep me from having sex. It only made me not ask the right questions and not get the education I needed.”
Steve gets tested regularly, though he’s always a bit fearful. “I think fear might keep people from getting tested and that is so dangerous. People are scared to face the truth. But not being tested, and you are infected, can only pass the disease onto others. You might as well know your status now, because at some point, you will have to face it.”
Currently single, Steve wants to be a dad someday. He admits to having a limited number of sexual partners. When he does date—the songster has a huge crush on Kevin Spacey and is addicted to Spacey’s series, House of Cards—he’s direct and upfront about STIs. “It’s a tricky thing to navigate. There’s discomfort,” he grants, crossing his feet at the ankles then spiritedly jiggles his foot. “You don’t want to be presumptuous right at the beginning because when you ask, then there’s an assumption that you’re going to have sex. It is a personal question but you have a right to know. I just ask, ‘What’s your status?’” he points out. Steve automatically assumes that his date is HIV-positive. “I mean, you’re putting your health in their hands. C’mon….Be realistic here. When you’re involved with someone, there are risks.”
Grand mentions that he lately saw the film The Normal Heart. “I had to stop the DVD and just sob,” blurts Steve of the heart wrenching early days of the epidemic, written by Larry Kramer, whom he considers a hero. “I’m not all that educated about the epidemic, but for the millions of people who continue to lose their life to AIDS all over the world, we need to really shut up about shame around sex and pushing abstinence. Instead of handing out bibles to people in Africa, we need to hand out condoms.”
The sun dims its daylight rays and Steve will soon be on stage. While gathering our belongings and rearranging the patio chairs, he stops and shines that winning Colgate grin. “I feel like a kid in a sand box [with my newfound career]. Just excited to keep building and exploring. I don’t care about material things. I wear practically the same clothes,” jests the T-shirt and jeans kind of guy. “I just want my music to resonate with people,” the singer expresses, then staccatos, “That’s my agenda. That’s what I care about.” Steve opens the screen door to let the dog in and soulfully concludes, “I want to make a difference….”
For more about Steve Grand, log on to: www.stevegrand.com. Abundant appreciation goes out to Mark, Kelly, and Davidd.
Dann Dulin is a Senior Editor of A&U.