Playing to Strengths
Through Music and Advocacy, Singer & Actor Levi Kreis Helps Create a Love Revolution
by Chael Needle
It is a bit of a puzzle why Rodin made his figurative sculpture, The Thinker, so muscular. Sitting there, hunched over with his hand half-covering his mouth, the Thinker is so deeply engrossed in contemplation that he might just as well have been posed reclining on a couch, nose in a book, and eating bag after bag of Funions. Maybe Rodin was trying to suggest with the overwrought physique what it is that we cannot see, that thinking takes strength—inner strength to know yourself and the world and the people in it as creative forces; inner strength to translate thought into positive action.
Singer, songwriter, and actor Levi Kreis, like Rodin, is similarly interested in inner strength, and the interplay of contemplation and action. It becomes obvious, when you listen to his lyrics or watch his soulful performances at the piano or on stage and screen, or hear him speak, that he has spent a lot of time working out a lot of weighty subjects—self-acceptance, advocating for others, spirituality, unity.
Yet, the workout is nowhere near done—he poses questions, pursues answers. “Sometimes I think I’m so rife with import that it’s a big eye-roll for most people!” the East Tennessee native blurts, laughing.
“Well, I grew up as a seeker,” he says, providing context for his philosophical streak. “I grew up in the fundamentalist Baptist church and I took everything they said to heart, until I realized that I didn’t want to live in such a physically, emotionally, and mentally crippling fear of being an abomination of God. So, I began to explore.”
He studied Paganism, Wicca, the I Ching, among other established belief systems, until he settled into a metaphysical groove, a kind of leitmotif woven through religion and spirituality.
“For the last four years, I have done a lot of studies with all the major world religions for the purpose of distilling them down to what we all have in common. It was part of a program to become a life and spiritual counselor, which I officially became in June.” He has no plans for a career change at the moment, though. The journey was enlightening, and second nature to him. “I don’t know—some people like reading novels; I like reading philosophy!”
There’s no denying, however, that his music is imbued with a similar depth of thought. He’s a kind of warrior-poet who brings together mind, body and spirit to do battle with life’s challenges, be they artistic or personal, and to find a higher ground. But this is not a lonely venture, and not as stoic as it sounds. Facing these challenges is a chance to connect threads within the tapestry of life—a vibrant way to engage with others, to nurture emotional bonds, to empathize, to help empower.
His latest album, Imagine Paradise (Vision 9 Records), is a case in point. When the idea to record a sixth album bubbled up, the now-Chicago-based artist was still in New York City, perfoming on Broadway as the ballsy, fiery Jerry Lee Lewis in Million Dollar Quartet, a role for which he won a Tony Award.
With acting, you receive a lot of support, explains Levi, who costarred in the films Frailty and Don’t Let Go, and toured nationally with RENT. As a stand-alone musician, he would have to wear all the hats—press, marketing, and so on. He wondered if he had the time or energy to do a sixth album.
“It was an exhausting idea to think about going back and, as an independent, one-man business, creating this,” Levi shares. “But a friend of mine said, ‘Instead of giving up and going your way as an actor, [think about the fact that] you’ve really built something over the last several years since your debut album in 2005; so why don’t you let the fans decide?’ So I did.”
The decision of the fans, who discovered Kreis’s masterful musicianship and his rich, stirring voice across albums such as The Gospel According to Levi and Where I Belong, rang loud and clear. They responded to Kreis’s Kickstarter campaign in such numbers that even Billboard noted the success. He not only ended up crowdsourcing funds, but also crowdsourcing the raw material for all twelve songs that appear on Imagine Paradise. One of his project’s Kickstarter incentives—different levels of funding are rewarded with different perks—was a custom-written, personalized song for backers who came in at a particularly generous price point.
Writing the album changed up his usual autobiographical approach. When Levi phoned the backers for a heart-to-heart about their life experiences, it was as if other people were putting their diaries in his hands. Asked if he felt an added responsibility trying to translate the experiences of others, Levi laughs at his own foible. “Given my history that I’m so entirely codependent?! Of course!
“It was more nerve-racking to me than I ever felt writing for myself. I felt a remarkable degree of responsibility being able to honor their story and also look at their story from the glass half-full [perspective]. That’s why Imagine Paradise is such a positive, life-affirming album.” Indeed, Levi’s stellar voice transcends like a ribbon in the sky on song after song, whether it’s the dig-deep disco-funk of “So Much Better” or the sunny bounce of the anthemic “Any Way You Wanna.” It’s music that melts away your fears and makes you want to try new dance moves.
“If we were sitting around talking and you were telling me about something that happened to you and we were friends, if we were tight like that, I would want you to expect from me the fact that I would not let you live in your [glass-half-empty] story,” explains the singer about themes that emerged from the collaborations. “I’d be like: ‘You know what? I’m going to remind you of your power. I’m going to remind you that you have so much great shit going for you. I’m going to focus on the positive and [let you] know that all of this is a reason for something, that it makes you stronger. Let’s move on.’”
It’s the way he would expect his friends to be with him. “I wouldn’t want to wallow in any sort of disappointments, or those moments, those dark nights of the soul that life sometimes give us. I’d rather absorb the wisdom from [the challenge] and take a step forward from it, and that’s kind of how I felt my responsibility was, as a human being, with these stories.”
The creative process of making Imagine Paradise solidified for Levi one of his long-held philosophical ideas: We’re all one; we’re all the same. “We can have different stories and experiences, and call them different things, but the core human emotion is always the same.” He mentions the inspiration for one of the album’s tracks, “4 Letter Word”: a friend who shared his story about serving in the military under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and who struggled to nurture his relationship in an environment with no privacy, not even in e-mail correspondence. It was hard to say L-O-V-E, let alone keep it alive in a world filled with H-A-T-E. “My goal then as a songwriter was to find [the connection]: ‘Okay, what is the core human emotion here that I can access as a writer and contribute to this story?’” (The result would make the Bee Gees proud.)
The collaborations became a gift. “I can look out at the landscape of my friends and family now and realize: We all have different stories but at the end of the day we all want love, we all want forgiveness, and we all want to be heard, we all want to succeed, we all want to laugh. At the end of the day, we’re all the same.”
The other theme that buoys Imagine Paradise is the power of positivity. The verb in the album’s title is reminscent of Lennon’s thoughtful tune, a suggestion to listeners to take a proactive role. “I chose that title more from a metaphysical and philosophical standpoint as if to say, ‘Paradise is yours to the degree that you can imagine it.’
“Learning how to think positively is kind of like going to the gym. If you don’t go to the gym and you’re not doing curls and you’re not doing squats, then you’re not going to grow. If you don’t remain attentive and aware of how you’re actually utilizing your creative thoughts, you’re probably not going to be able to use them with the intention to create a life that’s a little more aligned with what your desires are.…
“It kind of echoes what I alluded to earlier about taking a positive approach to these stories. To say, ‘Oh, maybe nature is intelligent. Maybe this happened for an intelligent purpose that I am now willing to see, and utilize to become a more expansive human being.’”
This positivity is a counterpoint to the real forces in our lives that are trying to tear down our imagined paradises to put up a parking lot. Asked about the challenges that individuals living with HIV/AIDS often face in terms of stigma and discrimination, and, more generally, anyone who is starting to internalize negative perspectives from outside, Levi responds: “From a personal standpoint, I would inspire all of us in that position to do the work internally, to make a concerted effort to affirm and love who we are, and to realize that our biggest challenge sometimes is our biggest ministry to the world. The things that sometimes are laid upon us that appear to be crippling are the things that equip us to teach a world that doesn’t know.”
Teaching a world that doesn’t know can become frustrating. “I go back and forth from wanting to scream out loud to completely abandoning the idea of trying to make anyone think anything other than what they want to think,” says Levi about dialoguing with those who choose not to see any other perspective but their own.
“I do know that compassion and understanding is a process that everybody is engaged in, in one way or the other,” he offers, rather generously. “Where they are in that process is obviously vastly different from other people, who have actually been able to turn that [compassion and understanding] into a way of life, a way of thought, and a way of action. But I honestly think people who don’t understand need to educate themselves. I implore other people to sit down and educate themselves—because we’re only afraid of what we don’t know.”
But this kind of dialogue with those who put us in their moral crosshairs is not a step everyone needs to take until they are ready, says Levi. Those living with HIV/AIDS, for example, might need the strength of a “sacred circle,” as he calls it, a safe space filled with friends who will be there when you call.
Shares Levi: “I believe that to have a sacred circle that really nurtures and protects oneself is important for the duration of time that it takes someone to then maybe come out and be public about it, and be outspoken to their friends about it, and share their feelings about it, and educate other people about it.” It’s a little bit like taking the time to process before coming out. “But once they finally process and find a way to accept who they are, they will naturally begin to add their voice to their identity; they’ll begin to share, they’ll begin to reach out, and educate other people. And their boldness will educate other people.”
Faith communities may have a role in the fight against AIDS. “Regardless if it’s an all-inclusive or life-affirming religion or [thinking] back to the beginning with fundamentalist Baptist, I’m not a fan of organized religion, or religious administration. And I think I can completely embrace that now,” says Levi, who has given this much thought. “However, they are a reality in our society, and—you know what?—they serve a good purpose. There are a lot of people who find some incredible healing there, and I am one of them. I went to a religious institution—got me sober! And I’m now about four and a half years sober for crystal meth. So, they saved my life. I will not deny the fact that there is a role that they play.”
But faith communities, and particularly those in leadership roles, as Levi mentioned before, need to do the work of educating themselves about “what they can do to reach out and unify the spiritual community; to go out and actually be love. It’s fairly simple at the end of the day. God is love and love is action. It’s what we actually get up and do that is the most spiritual thing that we can do. That’s what I implore any religious organization to do, regardless of denomination. [The question is:] ‘What can you do?’ Because what we do to extend a hand to one another is the face of God.”
Levi Kreis put love into action recently with a fundraising campaign for Positively Living, a Knoxville-based social service agency that provides housing and care for those who are homeless and living with HIV/AIDS, mental illness, addiction, or a physical disability. For two months, he raised money through the sale of an EP of remixes of “Love Revolution (featuring Qboy),” a track off of Imagine Paradise. Although the campaign didn’t raise as much as he hoped, he was still impressed by the response.
“The truth of the matter is: any amount helps, especially with those non-profit organizations in small towns that are still facing a lot of that lingering prejudice. You know, I only ventured back to my hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee, back in March, as an adult,” he says about one of the stops on his Flying Solo tour.
He had some trepidation returning to a “fundamentalist, conservative community [while] having an outspoken, LGBT career.” Says Levi: “I did not have the story in my head that I would be welcomed. So, it took me all this time to go back to Knoxville! And when I went there my LGBT brothers and sisters helped educate me on what the temperature is right now in a place that’s not a highly metropolitan area.
“It’s still the conservative South, and while there have been numerous efforts of people to create churches that embrace the LGBT community or a gay and lesbian center, every effort has been thwarted by some really suspect circumstances so that our LGBT community has been left having no doubt that they’re under a very clear, measurable lingering prejudice.
“And here’s this little organization, Positively Living, that’s just there, caring for the homeless suffering from HIV/AIDS, addictions and disabilities. I was impressed that in a landscape that didn’t have a lot of resources that they were sticking it out. And in their day-to-day operations they do run into that stigma that those living with HIV and AIDS face.”
A spontaneous idea, the benefit EP reaffirmed his sense of purpose, “that art and creativity are here to make a difference,” he says. “It allowed me to learn more about Positively Living, learn more about what’s going on in Knoxville, and become more intimately acquainted with my hometown, which is very rewarding.”
Though he’s looking forward to a little break, he is still promoting Paradise. “We closed the campaign for the ‘Love Revolution’ remix EP on November 4 and an entirely different, U.K.-based [“Love Revolution”] EP was released on the 5th. That is out now on Enriched Records, and called ‘Rich B vs. Levi Kreis (featuring Qboy).’ And it’s getting a lot of great radio play, so we’re just in the middle of a really fun radio campaign and getting a lot of support from the U.K. and Australian stations. Sirius Radio continues to be there for us.”
Soon, Levi will take the stage, joining Seattle Men’s Chorus as a guest artist for November 30 and December 1 to help mark World AIDS Day and kick off the chorus’s holiday season. As it did last year, the chorus is partnering with Lifelong AIDS Alliance in support of the ASO’s holiday food drive and food program, Chicken Soup Brigade. He’s grateful that the Seattle Men’s Chorus called on him and he’s looking forward to reuniting with longtime fans in a city he adores. “The fans that I have in Seattle have been around since the debut album in 2005 and they are so fun to sing for! I can’t get enough bear hugs when I’m there.”
It’s not hard to imagine that Levi would be successful in finding connection with other people’s stories, whether on tour, in his advocacy, or on Imagine Paradise. Listen to him perform the gospel hymn “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” or Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream,” and you understand that there’s probably no musical direction in which Levi can’t venture. “Artistic ADD,” he jokes. But, despite his genre-jumping, he has learned over the course of making six albums what makes his music cohesive. “I always hear the gospel, blues, R&B background—I find that whatever sort of canvas I’m painting, that soulful quality that I cut my teeth on in the church, and then continued to absorb from R&B greats, always seems to be there in one degree or another. That’s something that I can’t seem to shake. I find that I’m learning more and more that that is where perhaps I am most unique, and I’m learning now as an artist to play more heavily towards that, which is really where I feel most at home. So, I have a feeling that, as I move forward with writing new material and creating another album, those R&B-tinged elements will be rather prominent.”
Those R&B greats he cited include Donny Hathaway, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, Marvin Gaye. “Carole King, too,” he adds. “I love how her lyrics are a great reminder of how to say things that we can all relate to, to say them simply but say them in a fresh and unique way. She never gets too complicated. It’s always accessible, but the way that she says it is always unique.”
The strengths of King’s musicianship sound like his positive approach to advocacy. He agrees with the analogy. “Absolutely. Simplify the message, allow it to be accessible to all, and say it in a way we haven’t heard it before so that someone is inspired to act.”
For more information about Levi Kreis, log on to: www.levikreis.com. Imagine Paradise is available on iTunes and through other music retailers.
Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U.