Photo courtesy of Billy Gilman

“My life is 99.99 percent creativity, and for creativity you need hope, you need love, and you need an element of passion,” quips out and very proud Singer-Songwriter Billy Gilman. “But if there is a doubt or a fear of just being yourself, there is a cloud over your very foundation, and if there’s a sadness or a paralyzing fear just because you’re scared of people finding out who you really are, your work IS going to suffer – immensely! So for me, the victory isn’t money or any award or even a great record. The thing is just to sing in front of a crowd, knowing that they full-on know who I am, what I’m about, and what I represent, and it’s totally OK. …Then I can really ‘Rock It’!”

Far more than just simply another erstwhile child star or interesting “coming out” story, Billy remains a stand-out talent for numerous other reasons. And he’s bringing them all to Kansas City where he will be appearing at this year’s Pride Fest on Saturday, June 2,  at 10:45 p.m. – the crowning act to a day full of gold-medal-worthy entertainment!

As far back as 2000 at the tender age of 12, Gilman was urging us to speak (and sing) in “One Voice” – the name of his monster debut hit. Shortly after, his first album drew critical acclaim, not to mention a Grammy nomination. Early on it was evident that the boy had a pristine voice and a humongous range with a rare, clarion kind of resonance and quality many vocalists work their entire lives trying to achieve. Just as thrilling, it has only gotten better and more developed with age.

Now at age 30, Gilman is experiencing a newfound freedom combined with some enviable career growth. What’s more, he continues to exhibit a sagacity and empathy that belies his youth, effectively giving him the added insight to enjoy it all.

“I’ve been a professional singer since I was nine years old,” he observes. “Now, really for the first time after almost 21 years, I feel I can just go and meet people, being fully comfortable in my own skin – and that is totally because of all the wonderful advancements that the LGBT community has been experiencing. To truly not feel like I have to hide something, or not say a certain thing about what and who I am, is really the greatest feeling. I’m totally ‘in my skin,’ which makes the work and the effort that much stronger – and that much better!”

Billy also broke new ground in November 2014, only five hours after his friend and fellow country singer Ty Herndon publicly revealed his own sexual orientation, when Gilman himself posted a video on his YouTube channel revealing that he too was a gay man. “When I told my coming out story on YouTube, I didn’t want it to be a cover story on a magazine or a headline from a show like Oprah or Dr. Phil or whoever,” he explain. “I really didn’t want to be gaining fame from my life in that situation; that’s not what I’m about! I’ve never been about exploiting something – particularly this – to make a dollar.” His conundrum then was how to make his announcement and reach enough of the people he was trying to reach, those he knew would be heartened and maybe even empowered by his revelation, while neither manipulating any media outlet nor being manipulated in turn by any of them.

“I was really perplexed as to how to go about telling people about the struggle to be who I am in this business, so I decided that YouTube is such an amazing platform because it has the chance to go viral, but that’s only if people grab on and can really understand and feel something within the video. This was coming from a very personal side; if it happened to go viral, that’s what would happen,” he figured, “but at least it’s out there for people who might be struggling themselves to see.” As Billy points out, his “confession” absolutely did go viral, garnering thousands of views in only a few hours, essentially creating a dialogue on the impact of sexual orientations in country music.

“The comments and emails that I’ve gotten from kids in Middle America or in rural situations that have no voice are heartbreaking,” Gilman reports. “Perhaps their parents aren’t the most supportive, or their family life is rough to the point where maybe they’ve even been thrown out into the streets.  … I’m well aware that when I come to Kansas City, there may in fact, be kids or young adults who are probably struggling with that, and that’s what I hope to bring these people – young and old – and be a voice for them. We all need to band together; it’s just as simple as that!”

Clearly for Billy, “One Voice,” the same anthem that first made him famous, has over time become more than merely a song or a collection of random lyrics, but rather a strong and very personal “life philosophy” that drives his everyday doings – artistic or otherwise. It’s also more evidence that Gilman is himself a stalwart figure of change who is touching lives and making a difference with every song he sings or every appearance he makes:

“I hope so,” he agrees. “I have such a wonderful job that allows this opportunity to totally tell my story in a way that’s beyond anything ‘monetary.’”

He stresses that “the real ‘payoff’ for me is to know that I did my job the very best I could, whether in the recording studio or on stage, to tell my story in such a way that it might actually help someone.” Realizing that his voice and talent can serve in many different situations, he continues: “I can go on as a singer, but knowing that I can possibly shine the way for someone so they could feel empowered or inspired, is to me, I think, the greatest gain for me in my career.”

His advice for those who may feel disenfranchised and who worry about taking steps toward completing (or beginning) their own coming out story is similarly as well-thought-out and sagacious as it is compassionate: “I myself come from a very regimented family – if not strict, let’s just say right-wing (some are registered Democrats, but they can be very conservative Democrats) so I was VERY reluctant to come out to my family.”

He grants that even with his background in show business, this admission was still fairly overwhelming and he was very intimidated – even scared. “That’s because at the time I didn’t know anything, let alone how they’d react,” Billy maintains. “Finally when I did, though, it was as if nothing had happened. …They just embraced me and said, ‘We’re more upset that you didn’t say anything! We don’t understand why you would have wanted to keep it from us.’”

Nonetheless, Gilman acknowledges that he was one of the lucky ones who have so understanding a family: “Not everybody has that,” he concedes. “The thing is, once you know and accept what and who you are (and that in itself is so brilliant), once you find your happiness – your nucleus, find the safe place for you as well.” He suggests checking out a local chapter of an LGBT program, or a supportive organization or activity to become a part of. “It can be anything,” he reiterates, “but find a safe haven in case something should go wrong. ... It could even be a relative you could turn to where you know that you’ll be OK, because although a lot of times coming out is a remarkable discovery, sometimes it isn’t.

Photo courtesy of Billy Gilman

Even today, unfortunately, coming out stories are not always glamorous. It’s not always what you see on YouTube with people crying with love and acceptance. I’m a very harsh realist when I need to be so I think that’s very important given this potential type of situation.” He recommends finding such facilities and services as LGBT publications (like Camp Magazine) and even online. ‘Which is the wonderful thing about this day and age. Finding where you belong will help the situation blossom correctly. Support is there if you look for it; no one need suffer from abuse!”

So who does Billy himself count among his own inspirations? “There are quite a few,” he readily states. “Of course there’s Ty Herndon; I’ve known him since I was … My God! Since I was twelve years old, and he’s like a big brother. He and I really bonded after the whole coming-out thing. He stayed in country music whereas I have now since ventured out of it, so his fight is even a little bit harder than mine because I’m now in an industry where it’s a lot more acceptable.”

At the same time, Gilman quickly takes the opportunity to reaffirm his dejection that this thinking remains so prevalent in so many areas of modern life—and even entertainment. “It’s unfortunate in that sexual preference or identity should be acceptable anywhere because it’s our lives. It’s not something that we just wake up and go ‘Oh, I think I’m going to be this for the day. It just doesn’t work that way, yet that’s how many mentalities still operate! This makes me commend Ty all the more. He does a lot of Acceptance shows every year in Nashville, which I’ve actually been a part of two years in a row.”

As Gilman also mentions, others whom he truly admires include a few more iconic musicians too: “There‘s the likes of Freddy Mercury or Elton John; those are certainly Pioneers –and Melissa Etheridge, she’s another legend! You don’t really realize how behind the makeup and the aesthetic, there was the genuine fight because she was sailing in uncharted water, but still remained who she was and now she’s winning Emmys. What an example of vindication! Maybe someday I’ll even come out with a Ty Herndon-RuPaul medley,” he chuckles.

Photo courtesy of Billy Gilman

In an effort to redefine himself to audiences, Billy made the bold move of appearing as a contestant on NBC’s The Voice in 2016 where he was a leading contender as part of the team led by Adam Levine. Indeed, when it comes to listing his personal favorite or even life-altering professional experiences, Gilman doesn’t bat an eye: “I would have to go with my appearance on ‘The Voice. Even though I started when I was young, at that age you were told what to wear, you went where your parents told you to—and you listened to the music your parents played in the car. That’s how I grew up, where naturally country music was always around me, so that’s what I felt I should sing.”

Trouble was, as he grew to be around 14 or 15 years of age, and was by then an established recording star, Billy came to the realization that neither his voice nor the style of music he was most eager to try out was really suited to either country or western, leaving him feeling stifled by his own success. “Even though I was drawn more toward pop like the music of Adele or Celine Dion, I kept at what was expected of me because I was scared to say or try anything different.” “That is, until I was on The Voice, and finally! For the first time in my life I could just let ’er go and sing a beautiful ballad, allowing my voice to do what it could do naturally, while not feeling like I’m gonna get yelled at for this song because I’m going too far out of my spectrum. …I finally was me!”

Happily, viewers responded in a humongous way to his act of professional daring with over 20 million views on YouTube. “And I have over 50 million views from that entire run,” grins this former American Music Award winner, “so to see the public response demonstrating that they get it, I think that’s been the life-altering moment for me so far!”

Such is the essence of an artist evolving, which is always remarkable to witness—and witness the public did to the tune of making his rendition of Celine Dion’s “I Surrender” the No. 1 best-selling track for the week of Dec. 6, 2016, on I-Tunes alone. “From that, I learned whenever you’re speaking from your soul, or from to your gut, go with what these deep instincts tell you!  Harvest that ability to listen to your intuition, because 90 percent of the time it’s never wrong! In this case, I knew that my voice could do it, and I knew what set me apart was to be able to stand on a Celine Dion song and do it my way, and the people went ’wow’! That’s what has always separated me and now I do it in all my shows. And I’ll certainly do it in Kansas City, too.”

Photo courtesy of Billy Gilman

Billy has performed in Kansas City several times before, including at least one other summer event in addition to a few radio remotes (“I mean this was like back before the Civil War,” he jibes, “but these were going back a few years!”). He looks forward to returning to the area for such a special event as Pride Fest. “This is sort of a first for me as far as Kansas City’s LGBT community. I have not actually had the opportunity previously to be Billy Gilman, the person, in Kansas City yet, so I’m really pumped to see the festival and to feel the love and get to know people.”

He likewise notes that in addition to his concert he hopes to meet fans more directly beforehand: “We always do a table and I meet and greet there for however long it may go. It may be thirty minutes, it may go two hours, but I always sit there and meet the people that want to take time to say hello, and I try to get to know them and get to know their various stories, so I’m very excited to see what’s to come.” Turning to the subject of the actual songs he plans to perform on the Pride Fest Stage, he divulges: “When I go about putting shows together, I really try to tell my own story through the songs, so I’ll throw some in for people who remember me from ‘back when’--and I’ll always do ‘One Voice’ because that song still stands up.”

Billy recounts one time when he failed to include what many consider his signature piece, and how he was “rightfully put through the wringer, getting all kinds of comments from fans saying ‘we really need to hear that song’! So I’ve put it back and it’s never left the show ever since!”

He also adds that as a performer he loves to try out songs that he feels he can pull-off with integrity. “I’m not just singing a song to fill a five-minute time slot. It always means something. For instance, I try to close my shows with Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ because if that’s not an example of what is going on in this world and how we need to live, I don‘t know what is!”

The rest he allows will be a good mix of other numbers he finds inspirational in some way, along with a few “fun songs that we can cut loose to and have a good time with; you can’t always be preachy. Of course I’m also going to be singing songs from The Voice that people will know from the show, and that they voted for. … I hope they’ll leave with the feeling that we’re all in this together – and together, we can win! I mean, when we come together and create ‘One Voice’ – it’s massive, and it’s timeless, and it WILL make a difference!  I hope with certain songs those in attendance can take away the knowledge that there still IS a fight we have as a community on so many levels, and it’s worth fighting – and we CAN win it!”

“I’ve always said, and I’ve always applied to my life: I demand respect with my music, with my life. … I will always do it in a respectful manner, so I should only get respect back. Even if I don’t get respect back I still know that I am holding myself in a respectful manner, so that’s on those that are being disrespectful, and I just choose to let them go.  I always tell people: ‘Be your own source of light, do it in a respectful manner, and watch the flowers bloom! ”

 

 

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