THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO LEVI KREIS:
On Yer Knees, Boy!
Interview by Jed Ryan
Singer/songwriter/actor Levi Kreis has a message to deliver to the masses... and you'd be hard-pressed to find as captivating a messenger as this out 'n' proud young artist. Levi has come a long way from his native Bible Belt, and Kreis hasn't lost his "good ol' boy" Southern charm (or his accent, for that matter!)-- but a lot has changed. Even if you haven't yet heard of him, chances are you've heard his music: his original tunes have been used in "The Apprentice" , "Days of Our Lives", and "Young and the Restless". As an actor, he co-starred with Bill Pullman in 2001's "Frailty", and he currently has two films in the works. One of them is the long-gestating filmed adaptation of the popular play "Southern Baptist Sissies", produced by the same company that brought us "Latter Days". Levi had been involved in that play for five years, and wrote the theme song for it. If the title alone isn't titillating enough, here's another reason to see it: Kreis has a nude scene. After his debut album "One of the Ones", nominated for the 2006 Outmusic Award for Outstanding Male New Recording, Kreis has just unleashed "The Gospel According to Levi", which features guest vocals by his co-writer Darci Monet and eye-popping CD cover artwork by Joe Phillips. In addition, on the way is a video for the 2002 song "Stained Glass Window" (which has achieved something of a cult status amongst Levi's fans), a dance remix of his new track "Bittersweet Salvation", and-- it's rumored-- a reworking of the enduring gay classic "It's Raining Men". But behind the music (and movies), Levi Kreis has a story to tell, and it's just as fascinating as his body of work. Levi Kreis is on the rise. Are you ready to get healed?
JR: First off, congratulations on the new CD!
JR: I can't wait to hear it in its entirety! So, Levi, where do you call home now?
LK: Los Angeles is home to me, with my new husband-- as of September 19th! We had a domestic partnership ceremony. I'm kinda, sorta legally married as far of the State of California is concerned. I'm originally from Tennessee, and I've lived in LA for about eight years, so I guess I'm an "LA-an" now.
JR: I know that you come to visit New York City frequently. What about New York makes it a place you keep coming back to?
LK: Well, #1 on that list is gonna be friends, obviously. I was so fortunate to acquire a small group of really incredible friends when I was living there... but, I love the music scene much more than I do in LA. It's more musical than image and polish, like Los Angeles is. There's more diversity, too, musically, in New York. So, to go out and enjoy the clubs in New York City is always a treat, in my opinion. There's always so much out there to take in. And GOOD talent, too, actually. And, of course, there's the energy. I would rather live in New York City than Los Angeles any day! I keep coming back and visiting every two months or so.
JR: Well, that's a good thing! You definitely have something a lot of independent artists don't have, which is a very loyal group of fans.
LK: Thank God, yes! I do, and they're always supportive, and they spread the word. I think there's always something to be said about that whole grassroots approach to music, and then once things kind of begin to be more exposed on the national scale, that's great. But you know that your career is going to have some level of longevity if you've really built that grassroots family following that will really be there to support you. They are vocal fans, too! I've gotten so many interesting e-mails over this last album: from preachers who have not come out yet and dealing with these issues I'm talking about on the album, or 19-year olds guys who will "Love Levi Forever!" It's just a wide array of support.
JR: "One of the Ones" was very bold, because it was all piano and vocals. It was very stripped down, but very powerful. How would you describe the sound of "The Gospel According to Levi", musically?
LK: Speaking from a musical standpoint, it's a very genre-bending album in that it will start out with a Scott Joplin-esque ragtime and then it'll go into something more pop and then more rock, and then go back to my gospel roots. It was a project that I approached more from the standpoint of being a songWRITER. I had some very deliberate intentions to say certain things, like about the Church and the lack of love, and a lot of the issues that the album talks about. I saw lyrics that I had created in front of me that really nailed exactly what I wanted to convey, and sometimes those lyrics convey themselves better in a different dressing. So, I allowed every song to be what I wanted it to be, rather than forcing everything to be within one type of musical style. It was a little jarring, I think, for probably some of my fans at first-- but the concept is carrying through, and people are responding strongly to it.
JR: I know that from the music samples I heard, the music on the new CD is more pounding, and more rhythmic, and... just different! For someone who has had "One of the Ones" in their head, it does make the listener think, "Wow! This is a different kind of sound!" You're experimenting a little bit.
LK: Yeah, and that's the interesting thing about an album like "One of the Ones". That really was the exception to the rule. That just happened to be the first album that I put out before the public. It was a departure. "The Gospel According to Levi" is very much what I enjoy writing, stylistically.
JR: When I've only seen you perform live, it was always just you and the piano. I've not seen and heard you with a full band yet.
LK: Yeah. I'm really excited to finally get my guys out on the road for some dates this year. It has been way too long to have not played with these incredible guys. And it's a totally new performance experience too, you know? It's so freeing to be away from the piano and to be able to jump all over everything and climb all over everything and just kind of be free.
JR: I'll bet! Now, I'm not too familiar with the "Christian contemporary" genre... or "Christian rock" or "Christian pop" or whatever you call it...
LK: You're fortunate! (Both of us laugh) I've lived through that!
JR: The only Christian music I may have heard is if I had inadvertently heard it on TV. Is that considered a genre of its own? When you were making music in Tennessee, is that how you would have classified yourself at first? Is that the direction you wanted to go into?
LK: Well, Christian contemporary music is definitely a genre of its own, called CCM. It's very different from gospel, which is what I grew up with. My grandfather introduced me to Mahailia Jackson and Andre Crouch when I was just a kid. By the time I was 12, I was singing and preaching in a different church every weekend-- a little evangelist! And a lot of those Churches, if not the majority of them, were black Churches. So, gospel music is the primary influence that I cut my teeth on as a kid. Eventually, when I got signed to the Christian record deal when I was like 18 or something, they obviously put me in the CCM market because I was a white kid, and white kids aren't really going to be marketed in a gospel music genre, which is predominantly black.
JR: Now, I know about your history in bits and pieces. Was the Christian label the major label you were heading toward before you decided to go independent?
LK: There's been a LOT of phases before going independent. I've gone through 12 major record labels, the last one being Atlantic. That's why I moved to New York, because I was recording the album there. Going independent was more of getting kind of fed up with the industry and saying, You know what? The times are changing. I can do this myself, and I'm tired of sitting around and waiting for some suit to "get it", because with so many labels, every time I was signed, they would have a producer who would kind of make me over to be something that I just wasn't. The last eight years, I was in a boy band, I've been the lead singer of a Radiohead-type of band, I've been blue-eyed soul... They just try to mold you into what's the "safest" thing. By the time Atlantic Records happened, I was ready to just kind of flip the bird and say, "You know what? I'm gonna do this myself. I can make a living out of this, I can beef up a tour schedule, I can get on the road 200 dates a year, and I can do this. It was more about being fed up, quite honestly. I had long left the Christian music scene by that time.
JR: Was part of it because you wanted to be out, and they didn't want you to be?
LK: That certainly did play into some of the situations. There have been a couple of music executives that we know are gay, but the bottom line comes down to the dollar bill. If they think that that's going to get in the way of marketing you to an MTV crowd where the highs school girls are gonna fall in love with you, then they are not going to take that chance... even if they are gay executives and probably want to support our forward movement.
It actually factored in a lot less than I would have expected, because most of the times with these labels I was very blatantly out.
JR: What's the relationship like with the Gospel music community in your hometown now?
LK: I really haven't had any involvement in the Church or in Gospel music for what is probably eight years now. When I moved to LA, I just started pursuing my own singer-songwriter stuff away from the Church. With the album that I'm working on now, I've seen the most interesting musical development: The new album brings me finally full circle back to the Gospels sound that I used to play and sing growing up as a kid. You listen to a lot of those old Ray Charles recordings and the old Aretha stuff, and that's just Gospel music. Joss Stone is that of our day, today. I think this 2008 album is actually going to hit a very specific musical style; it will be bringing me back to "mah roots" in that regard! So that will be my first kind of returning to that Gospel sound, next year. I've been estranged for so long!
JR: Well, if it gets people into a genre that they wouldn't normally listen to, then I think that's a great thing!
LK: Well, I certainly don't have the intention of making many "Standing Tall"s on the new album! "Standing Tall" is on "The Gospel According to Levi" and it has very inspirational, "almost Gospel" lyrics. The new album will be very Gospel in sound, musically speaking, but I think I've got plenty of those "Ah'm gonna help ya pick ya up an' get ya inspahred!" songs already! (Both laugh) Now, there's enough with relationships to write about. Building a relationship now with someone is such a brand new thing to me, and going from a very independent, work-obsessed individual to really investing and building and creating something with someone else is plenty of resource for writing material...
JR: ...but, in a good way! Instead of a bad way, like having a bad relationship!
LK: Right! Well, that's probably what "One of the Ones" was all about: a plethora of relationships gone wrong!
JR: Yeah! But later on, I would imagine, when you were singing those songs, your life had gone in a totally different direction... and I think that now, people can hear you do those songs and can distance you, the person, from the songs: like, OK, maybe you felt that way a few years ago, but now you're only SINGING about those things, not living them, like you had been.
LK: Right! I suppose that's true for a lot of artists. Once the material finally gets to the ear, it's kind of outlived!
JR: What's your favorite song on "The Gospel According to Levi?" Which one do you feel most attached to?
LK: Probably a song called "We're OK", which I wrote for my mother. When I was on the Gay.com tour last year with Eric Hyman, it was the first year that I had officially come out, professionally, and was marketed and known as a gay songer-songwriter. And it was kind of tough for my parents to deal with, you know? Dealing with being gay is one thing, but dealing with being gay and being in how-many-magazines across the country is another thing to deal with, you know? So, they had not come to any of my shows or invested any time or energy into my life for eight years since I left the Church. So, I continued to tell them when our dates would be near Tennessee, and lo and behold they drove up four hours to Kentucky, and in the middle of a set my mom walks in and that was her way of saying, "I'm tired of being a stranger in your life, I'm tired of letting our issues steal our relationship." And so, the very next day, "We're OK" just wrote itself. And we just did the music video for it. The music video will be hitting LOGO and HBO's "The Zone". For me, it's one of those songs that actually is the circumstances I'm living at the moment, unlike what we had just referenced with "One of the Ones". Me and my mother, as of finishing that song and playing it for her, are finally opening the lines of communication and beginning to realize that we don't have to agree on everything, and we just have to make a commitment to talk, to communicate, to be in each other's lives no matter what. It's fun to experience that now. It's really new for me, being able to talk to her every other day, and really beginning to deal with things we've put off for nearly 10 years.
JR: What's the hardest thing about being an independent artist?
LK: The hardest part is: even though there's been decent exposure, you're always fighting for more... and you don't have $100,000 sunk into promotion and that sort of thing, and you end up doing a lot of guerrilla promotion on the Internet... and I'm lucky enough to have a team now do that for me this year. Last year I was working 12-hour days on the computer plus I was out on the road all the time, and it was more than I could handle. For me, personally, that's the biggest challenge: getting the word out. Because when the word's out, if it's positive, people are gonna respond and like it. But they have to know who you are. So, exposure, I think, is the biggest challenge for any independent artist. At the same time, that's kind of overshadowed by the freedom that I feel coming from 12 major record labels and being able to say what I want to say, and produce it the way I want to produce it, and to do it the way I want to do it. It's a wonderful answer to the last seven years, of making a career of being courted by labels.
JR: What was the biggest lesson that you've learned from he whole experience?
LK: Knowing your heart and knowing what you want to say is essential for all of us in life, no matter what we do. But especially in the world of major labels, you can't afford to not know completely who you are, musically and lyrically; and what you want to convey; and how you would market it, how you want it to look... because especially now, the way the industry is, if it's not already a "done deal", finished product, they won't even sign it. Because, there's so little risk being taken in the major label world now. It's changing, and there's so many levels of transformation going on with downloading stuff and the Internet providing us independence with our path to our crowd... it's a ripe connection to our fans. The major labels are questioning where this is going to go. It's gonna be interesting to know where this goes in the next five to seven years. And I can say that with the experience that I've had with all the major labels, I don't really know that I committed to who I knew I was. I was still trying to hide a lot of the time and play it straight and edit my stories (Laughs) and try to keep up with little white lies so that people wouldn't know my business. I was "playing the game", like a lot of the actors who get off the bus in Los Angeles. I think that's even a harder industry to be "out" in. They've got to put on a face and play the game. They're never gonna be a young leading man heartthrob if they're openly gay, in their mind. Hopefully that will be changing! Knowing who you are and being committed to that is the essential lesson through all of that, I think!
JR: Yeah! How do you feel your fans will react when they see your sexed-up role in "Southern Baptist Sissies", and when they see the sexy promo pics of you and that kind of thing?
LK: They LOVE it! And it's so much fun!
JR: They may love it, but they'll still say that they don't...
LK: Yeah, I'm sure they're someone out there who's like, "Well, he's compromising his integrity as a singer-songwriter. Why does he really have to take his shirt off? Well, the answer is: A lot of gay publications won't let you in the magazine unless you're showing a little bit of skin! So, fight the gay publications, not me! It was really funny, actually, to find how many gay magazines would not do a photo spread or a layout or even a larger article because there weren't any kind of provocative pictures. Which is fine, you know? I think we should all be comfortable with our own body and all of its quirks and unique identifying marks!
JR: You can't underestimate the fact that there will be some people out there who are like, "Oh, well here's a good-looking guy with his shirt off...oh, wait! He's got good music too!"
LK: Well, you know, it's actually not just gay media. That's just the way of the world, the way of entertainment. Yo know, Beyonce wouldn't be in the forefront if she was "jus' ugly!" (Both laugh) or if she was dressed like a nun! It's just part of it, whether it's just gay media succumbing to it, or whether it's "Interview" magazine and "Rolling Stone"... There's always a level of that.
JR: So, what's coming up next?
LK: By May, I've got a good four or five months of being on the road every week, and I'm now six songs into the new album.
JR: Damnit! How do you do it?
LK: It's different every time. There are songs you slave over, and then there's material that just really does drop in your lap. And I think that because it's such a return to my roots with that gospel sound, my spirit is rejoicing that I'm back at something I know so well. The songs are just writing themselves so quickly. It's going to be a full-on effort-- with string sections and horn sections-- that is going to be really exciting!
JR: Most of us in New York weren't exposed to gospel music, unless you are African-American and went to a Baptist Church.
LK: Actually, some Churches in Brooklyn and Harlem are THE places to go if you want to hear some great gospel music... But "The Gospel According to Levi" is certainly not a gospel album. There's only one song on there that burst straight out of my gospel influences. The majority of the album is intended to be very hooky, catchy pop and pop/rock. There was a reason for that, because there were so many complicated things I was trying to say . I thought it might be easier to digest if the music was more "pop"-- easier on the ears. So, I would probably say that this is a theme album. A theme album that hopefully challenges us to start thinking more about religious diversity, which we find is hard to come by even in the gay community, where we know diversity. We ARE diversity! We have the rainbow flag, right?! (Both laugh) The whole point of the album is to say that a world with hundreds of different religions, all with their own name for God and their own holy book and everyone willing to die to stand for that their way is the right way, when are we going to realize that religious intolerance has been the single greatest thing in human history that has caused more death and destruction and war-- and still is-- and begin to realize that maybe our way is just ANOTHER way, and we can begin to make room for everyone's belief systems? And only until then are we gonna get past this craziness and this separatist consciousness that we kind of live with. The religious right is a perfect example of "We are right, and we have that religious-exclusive mentality", and it's just destructive. To challenge people to think about the idea of religious diversity, to challenge people to think that maybe we're ALL right, we're ALL correct, 'cause we all have our own journey-- is something that's kind of hard for a lot of people to digest. But, I've been excited to see that a lot of people come back and answer my conceptions in these lyrics with positive feedback and say "Yeah, it's about time!" But I think it's timing too, because we're living in an age where even 9/11 breaks down to the core of religion, and bringing justice for one God over another... and it's such a predominant thing even today when you watch CNN, with the politics we see and "moralities" factoring so much in political leaders who are trying just to make the best political decision, you know...
JR: "Morality" is always a subjective term...
LK: Yeah, exactly! But if somebody can walk away with that, then I've done my job. Growing up in the Church, and being an evangelist for ten years, and going through six years of reparative therapy to become straight, and studying so many different religions after that to get an idea of what I believe, and reconstructing my entire belief system... One of the biggest things I learned is that there's so many similarities in so many different religions, whether it's Eastern religions or Western religions. There is a common thread through all of them. To say that one of them is wrong-- because they don't believe in a way that I am familiar with, and I can't possible understand their culture and their belief system so it HAS to be wrong, and "You're going to Hell"-- is just counterproductive. And that's really the point of the whole album. That's what the lyrics deal with it. I talk about religion through the entire album, but it's such a confrontational nature, I don't know that anyone would really say it's a "religious" album, because it pretty much steps up and challenges the Church, and these ideas we were talking about: challenging the lack of love that has become sadly so synonymous with organized religion. I'm getting plenty of e-mails from people that say when I meet my maker on the other side, I'm gonna pay for these ideas that I'm promoting on this album. I've got some hardcore Christians who still believe that their way is the right way, and I'm leading people down the wrong path.
JR: Wel,l that means that they must have listened to it, which is a good thing. Hopefully they bought it!
LK: Well, yeah... I think they probably listened to one or two songs on my MySpace, and then realized, "Oh my God! He's completely defying the Church". I don't like it when artists kind of just bitch about a problem if they can't provide solutions, if they can't provide an alternative... and these people who are writing hate mail in the name of Jesus are not listening to those songs! It's been so interesting to hear the responses. I've kept a plethora of responses, all of them interesting e-mails-- some heart-wrenching stories about "I went through this, I can't believe you've been able to articulate my experience with the Church"... and then others are downright hateful. "The Gospel According to Levi" was a catharsis for me. I needed to do this album so that I could put the past behind me. I have nothing more to say now. I said it in the album, and I can now finally leave that painful history and go on and make an album that's just really strong music without having to have a theme plow through every song. So, it was very freeing to make the album!
No matter who your God or Goddess, Levi Kreis will promise you a spiritual awakening! Check out www.levikreis.com and www.myspace.com/levikreis
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