BWW Interview: BILLY GILMAN at Joe's Pub
Billy Gilman has been in the spotlight most of his life. As a child, he was a chart-topping singer with a throng of fans, award nominations, and all the success one could ask for. After having to take time off when the onset of puberty changed his voice, Gilman had some soul growth and rediscovered his voice, literally and artistically. A stint on the popular reality TV show The Voice introduced the man and his artistry to a new legion of fans, and now he's not only standing in the spotlight, he is living in the light. Proud, unapologetic, and content, Billy Gilman is singing the music he wants to sing and presenting the artist he wants to show the world.
One of the tasks Gilman has set himself is getting closer to his fans by playing smaller venues where intimacy rules. Before an upcoming night at Joe's Pub, Billy sat down for a phone chat with Stephen Mosher to talk about how it feels to be free of the chains that once held him down.
This interview has been edited for space and content.
So Billy how's it going?
It's great. The new year is here... I can't believe we're in 2020 and I'm about to kick my year off at Joe's Pub! I'm looking forward to it. We start rehearsals tomorrow, so that should be fun.
I was looking at the Joe's Pub website and it says that you're introducing some new music and a new sound for your fans.
Yeah! So, for people that may or may not remember, I came in second at the finale on The Voice. I really wanted to show the audience that was watching, that remembered who I was when I was young, that this voice is way different than what they may have remembered. And America brought it, they kept voting week after week. That gave me the insight that people really just want to hear me sing and that's really great freedom - I don't have to sit in a box. So after that, recording and writing has created my own kind of sound. It's exciting! We're going to be debuting a few new songs that night. It's just great to be able to just sing. And people, we don't have to convince them -- they just let me do my thing, which is just exhilarating in this day and age.
But there's no one telling you what to do anymore. You are a free agent doing your own thing now, aren't you?
Exactly. And because of that, I think that it's coming from such a nucleus of sincerity that people buy it more than me trying to be something that someone behind a desk is advising me: "This is what's selling nowadays - you should do that," even though it probably wouldn't look right. I think people bought into it more because it's coming from such a genuine place, which is my heart.
You've had to reinvent yourself a couple of times because you worked as a child, and then you had to come back as a man, and then you had to come back as a gay man and now you're reinventing your sound. Does it take any kind of a toll on you having to continually evolve in this way?
That's a great question, I've never actually been asked that question. I think it would be an exhausting situation if you had to keep inventing yourself in ways that are not true to your form. If I was trying to change to what's the number one sound right now, and having to conform to that and go beyond that, I think that would be exhausting, because you're chasing something that might not be true to what you want to do - you're trying to reach a goal. I've only had to reinvent myself continually like, "Okay, here's the newest edition." It's not like I had to reinvent in a level where it took a piece of me away. I just had to show everyone that I could sing again after coming from the child star thing, and I was praying to god that my voice would come back after the voice change, you know women don't have to go through what men have to go through vocally. I didn't even know if it would come back at all. And luckily, coming back as an adult, with years of training and fine-tuning it came back, and I think even stronger than what it was when it was a kid sound, and I'm very lucky. So it's always been a reinvention, just showing the latest version of me, because at the end of the day I am a very open book and I love to be transparent, especially with my fans. If that means coming to terms with who I was as a human being, well then that's not only gonna... If they trust me and people really respect me, A) they're not gonna care, and B) it could save someone's life, which it has. Luckily I'm on a platform where my voice is a little bit louder than most and if I could use that by just being me and possibly helping someone else along the way that doesn't have a voice, that's a great reinvention cause you're helping a bigger cause than yourself, you know?
Yes, I do. I imagine that living in the light gives you permission to give people the artwork that you want to give them.
You hit it right on the head. And coming to grips with who I was as a person, who I loved as a person, opened those doors. If I had gone on The Voice and tried to keep doing what I did, but I was still "not being honest" about who I was a person, I don't think it would've made sense. But totally coming to terms with who I was opened the floodgates for me to finally be in the driver's seat. And you're totally right. All of that coincides with the big picture.
So is there a new CD coming out with all of your new sounds?
We're releasing single by single digitally because that's what the majority of my people go to Spotify and Apple Music and Amazon. But we are in talks about creating an LP, an entire album in 2020. And it's funny that this is the year that marks my 20th anniversary in the music business - my first record came out June of 2000. It's funny how things come full circle. So there'll definitely be a full-length record in this new year. But we're releasing the singles one by one right now. I like that idea because it gives these songs a chance to live out their lives rather than put 12 songs on a record, and then your favorite track is number six and it never gets the light of day. I like to go one by one night right now.
I was looking at the tour page on your website and it looks like you play out a lot. Are most of the venues you play more intimate spaces like Joe's Pub and Rockwood where you played last year?
Yeah, Rockwood was fun, a totally different feel. I went to experiment in that realm and that was great fun, we had a great night. Joe's is totally different than Rockwood and I'm really excited, I've enlisted one of the best piano players that's come around. He just did Gaga and Tony Bennett's projects - Mike Renzi. He will be with me that night. I'm doing songs from The Greatest Showman, I'm going to be doing my stuff. It's really a different show than what I've ever done before. And it's totally me just being me and connecting with what my audience wants to hear. So in those moments, those shows are intimate... but there are shows that are 2000 seats, so it varies. I love the intimate because there's a connection there that you don't get in the bigger rooms.
I've noticed on your social media that you really do connect with your fans. That must be very rewarding for you.
Oh absolutely. That's the reason I do it. Of course, I do it because I love to sing, and there is no other way for me. Some people choose it, sometimes it chooses you and at 18 months old, my parents have a recording of me humming along to the Jeopardy theme. It's just what it is. And without them, I would've never... I keep going back to The Voice, but I would have been dead in the water if I didn't have my audience believing in me and voting for me. We have a very strong relationship, me and my audience, and I'm proud of that. They know I don't take them for granted cause without them, what have you got?
Speaking of your audience and your fans, have you been made aware of any effect that your coming out had on any of your young gay fans?
Oh, absolutely. Oh my gosh. The greatest thing is... so the majority of people, not to be rude but just to be honest, you don't remember. I have made a point, every concert since I was 11 years old, under my rule, I would go, if there was a meet and greet or a special thing that I had to do for radio or the newspaper, I would do that. Then I always made a point, right after my concert, to go out by the buses where people would be waiting around, and I would sign autographs. Sometimes it would last two and a half hours. You don't remember a mass like that, unfortunately; but with each of those meet and greets, the people that follow you and that literally grew up with me... you remember those faces, and you see them come into their own like I did... and for them to come to me and say, "You know, I've been coming to these meet and greets for 10 years and you helped me find the love of my life." Maybe it might be a woman to a woman, it might be a woman to a man. So absolutely the fact of me just living my true identity and true self has helped. It's fun to see these kids grow, as I grow, and still stay fans that you see grow, and now they feel comfortable they have someone to stand beside. Absolutely. I've seen it.
Who were your biggest supporters when you came out?
Oh, of course, my mom and dad. That's what I was most nervous of - I hid it for a long time. I don't know how I did, but I somehow achieved that. I was just nervous 'cause you just don't know. And everything was just over the top. They were more upset that I didn't feel more comfortable coming to them than I did. So, of course, my parents. Some of my people that have been with me for 20 years were so supportive. And of course, having a wonderful partner to do this with and have his side of the family be just as supportive. It means a lot, which means I want to work that much harder 'cause I know many don't have that. I don't take it for granted, and I see it quite often in my professional life, when a kid comes through the audience, whether it's a meet and greet, or they write me an email or a letter, and if I can help, then it's a win-win for me.
You just mentioned your partner online. I saw a picture of your hands together with your wedding rings. They're very unique looking. What are they?
So, actually no marriage yet! (Laughing) Everyone's questioned that! (Laughing) These are just rings to solidify our situation. Somebody brought this proposition to me - they came to me and said we're inspired by your story and we'd love to send you some ideas if you want some rings. And I said, "Oh my god, I would love that!" So I worked with them back and forth on a different style that I loved, a shining side and a granier middle, the silver. I loved it and I was proud of that and very thankful that they approached me and wanted to do that.
You are very vocally gifted. Do you still study voice after all this time or at this point? Or do you just have it?
Two hours a day. Every single day of my life. Finding new ways to warm up, finding new ways to breathe, finding new ways to do syllables. You know the one person that I really paid attention to in my life and how strict she was was Celine. When you think of Michael Phelps, when you think of Tom Brady, or you think of a gymnast, they just don't go out there and do all these amazing contortions and jumps and swings... and running marathons and swimming. It's constant, like any leg or arm, it's a muscle. And just like those professionals, you have to treat it with respect. You just can't expect to hit these notes. You've got to take care of it. So I'm constantly a learner of new ways but always stay true cause, as a vocalist, you can get wrapped up in some bad habits that you maybe got from another teacher, that wasn't the correct way of singing. So I still keep my core techniques that I know have lasted 20 years. But learning new ways to breathe and other things, yeah, absolutely. I'm a student, absolutely.
What did you gain from being on the voice personally, professionally, creatively?
So a couple of the greatest things came from that show was more of an intuition, more of my own feelings because no one knew, maybe four or five people at age 11 and 10, when I was doing these songs that I had shoved down my throat, "You gotta do this, it's going to be a success, you gotta flip this." So I would do this formula, and then I would go back to the hotel or my house and belt out to Shirley Horn singing, Where Do You Start, or I was singing Streisand's On A Clear Day. And I was like, "These hits that they're creating for me are wonderful and amazing but I just wish that someone could hear me wail. It's freaky what my voice can do, and I'm being held back." But I understood what I had to do. So when I went on The Voice I said, "It's my time to let go and totally let this voice go the hardest and farthest that it can." That's what I gained. And I was nervous. I didn't know if America would like it but it was totally what is just in me, completely and utterly within my body and soul, those kinds of songs. And I think it rang true and they believed it. It wasn't me trying to show off, it was me finally being me.
Okay. Play with me for a second. All right. You're doing a television special and you're going to have five guest artists on to sing with you. Who are you going to pick?
Oh (Laughing) Oh, that's a great question. For sure Streisand - I'd want to do like When Sunny Gets Blue or something from the archives, I'd love that! I would want to pick someone who you wouldn't think that would be an artist that I would have on. So maybe someone like... I grew up listening to Huey Lewis. I love him. I don't know if he still sings. I would have definitely have the likes of like Adele. I love Bebe Rexha. I love Jessica Vosk. There's so many. I don't know. It would be a two-hour special cause there'd be more than five!
That's a good list. You just mentioned Broadway actress Jessica Vosk. I'm aware that some time ago you took part in a reading of a Broadway-bound musical, but you did not come with it when it did. When are we going to get you on Broadway?
I've always been a firm believer that I would do it in a heartbeat if the role was right 'cause I'm not a trained professional in that field, so I would feel very unworthy of something that I might screw up. So if it was a role like when Reba did Annie Get Your Gun... it was like it was made for her. So if there was a role that really just let me uniquely be me, I'd be all over it.
Billy, you are one of the most fashionable men in the business. Do you do your own shopping or is there a stylist helping you with all those looks?
As you get older you know what really looks okay on you, and who better to figure it out than you, but it's a little bit of both. I was at fashion week this past September and I had help from a great stylist from London and she's wonderful. So it just depends. For my concerts and things like that, I do my own stuff. But for tailored events that need to have a little bit of a different edge, a different flare that I might not be able to grab my hands on, I'll have reinforcements.
Billy, I will see YOU at Joe's Pub on January 21st!
I can't wait to meet you!
Photos provided by Billy Gilman