Out singer-songwriter David Orris speaks with GLAAD about using music to share his unique story

You may have already heard the music of out singer-songwriter David Orris if you're a fan of TV shows like Smallville, Felicity and The Real World, but with his new album Retrograde Boulevard coming out March 31, Orris will hopefully reach an even wider audience.  As the openly gay and Buddhist son of a high-ranking Evangelical leader in Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, Orris' story is certainly one many people will find interesting. Orris took some time to speak with GLAAD about his past, how music has helped him share his story and the evolution of the music industry.

GLAAD: Your newest album Retrograde Boulevard deals with a lot of things in your past, including your conservative religious upbringing.  What can you tell us about your story and how it's explored on the album?

David Orris: My father is an ordained minister who has been in a line of work evangelicals call "Christian Ministry" throughout his career. He was the president of Campus Crusade's publishing house Here's Life before working in similar posts at a couple other Christian organizations before finally ending up Pat Robertson's director of marketing and was instrumental in helping to establish the Christian Coalition.

But as wild and weird as my evangelical Christian upbringing was for me, and as much as I've long since let go of most of it, it impacted me deeply. As a person and as an artist. And the several-years-long process of recording the dozens of songs that were eventually whittled down to the 11 tracks on Retrograde Boulevard has been interesting for me. I like to let whatever is going to come through... just come through and "get out of the way." Sometimes, the way I've explored and processed the often very painful and difficult journey as a gay man coming out of such a dogmatically and emphatically anti-gay world has been subtle, but most often, it's been needfully blatant.

While writing love songs like "Nowhere I Could Run From You" has been revolutionary for me, it's been equally so writing songs like "I Don't Know" and "Polite" which were about anger and disappointment in gay relationships. It sounds funny in 2014 to say that finding my voice as both a songwriter and a gay man was incredibly empowering for me, but it wasn't that long ago in my life when I had to work incredibly hard to hide who I was from everyone. So to go from that kind of shame and hiding who I am as a gay person to singing about the bliss or betrayal I feel over a guy is, like I said, pretty revolutionary.

GLAAD: When did you first begin playing music, and what role has it played in your life?

DO: I apparently came out of the womb singing and playing. I don't remember this, but my folks have told me that my first gig was at a Child Evangelism Fellowship conference when I was two years old. They placed their always-singing son on a stage in front of 5,000 people and I guess my "Jesus Loves Me" was a hit. I started piano shortly after that and was working my way through Czerny exercises, Mozart and Bach inventions by the time I was 4-5 years old. Music has been front and center in my life ever since.

GLAAD: Though you grew up in a conservative Christian environment, you now self-identify as both gay and Buddhist.  What was the experience of coming out to your family like, in both cases?

DO: I was scared for a long time and just didn't do it. While I was a student at Wheaton College, I went through ex-gay "therapy" as part of a Chicagoland group called Overcomers under the umbrella of the Exodous "ministry." I was going to cure myself of it and never have to divulge it. That was my big plan. The strange thing the men in those groups did for me was simply to show me the obviously ludicrous nature of the whole ex-gay thing.

But I came out to my parents as gay right after Wheaton and Buddhist not long after that. My mother's response was (and to this day, sometimes still is), "You know that sweet Kellie is still single.  She always liked you and she's so pretty." So I'd come out to her again.  My dad is clearly uncomfortable with it when I talk about my partner Jeremy of seven years, but they've actually now met and I have to give them both some credit. I was visiting them last summer (after several years of not speaking at all, so this alone was a big deal) and my mother heard me on the phone with Jeremy. And you could have knocked me over with a feather when my super-evangelical, super-devout mother said "You know, he really loves you. You have a special connection with him. You should marry Jeremy." While my mouth was literally agape and before I could say "Wow…" she added "Not that I don't think it's sin 'cause it is." 

But for them, that's progress. And part of my journey with my parents has been to let go of expecting them to be who they aren't. They love me in their fashion. They just assumed they'd raised a heterosexual son and I think that's a big mistake for any parent. We've got a long way to go, but we've come a long way already.

GLAAD: Your music has been featured in several hit series including Felicity, Smallville and several MTV series. How does it feel to see your music played in the context of other people's stories?

DO: I am an enormous TV and film junky. When I was younger, Felicity in particular was actually one of my favorite shows and I'm a huge J.J. Abrams fan, so that placement especially meant a lot to me. For me, it's actually one of the biggest thrills to see my music used in a cool or cinematic way.  And you get an incredible opportunity to connect with a lot more people through TV and film. I actually just got a really sweet letter from a girl in Boston a couple weeks ago saying she had originally discovered my music on that episode of Felicity and couldn't wait to hear Retrograde Boulevard.  It's impactful in so many ways and I would absolutely love if it were to happen again with this new record.

GLAAD: You're currently working on several musicals, including Invisible which recently premiered its first staged reading in Los Angeles. What can audiences expect from that?

DO: I'm so glad you asked. I'm really proud of the work that David Hollingsworth (my insanely talented and very-funny book writing partner) and I (composer/lyricist) have done in writing Invisible. Invisible is a John-Hughes-esque retelling of the HG Wells classic The Invisible Man set in a high school in 1988 about a nerd who accidentally turns himself invisible while trying to use his science prowess to become popular. It's a pop/rock score that pays homage to the '80s and we've gotten a tremendous reaction to the show already. And I'm beyond thrilled to report that Saddleback College in Orange County is working on producing the next draft as a staged reading and it will be performed there on campus April 30th. It's open to the public and we'd be thrilled to see people there.

GLAAD: The last few years have seen an increasing number of musicians and performers come out as LGBT, and continue to be successful.  Have you yourself noticed a cultural change from inside the music industry?

DO: Absolutely. I think with the democratization of the music industry over the past years, we're seeing a big shift. The gatekeepers of the music industry have dwindled in numbers and there are fewer people standing at those industry gates telling us what artists have to be. The artists of the past 20-40 years that I've really connected with and had a special admiration for and responded to were artists that had something they had to say. Something integral to who they are. I think if an artist from the LGBT community has something authentic, people respond to it. And we're definitely seeing that. But I think what we're seeing is just the tip of the iceberg. LGBT artists have long been denied a legitimate spot at the table. The Elton's and Melissa's and other tremendous gay artists who came before largely had to hide who they were to claim their seat. I think that's less and less true. It's an exciting new paradigm shift and I can't wait to see where it takes us next.

Retrograde Boulevard drops March 31, but is available for pre-order now on iTunes with an immediate download of single "Nowhere I Could Run From You." Keep up to date with David on Facebook and Twitter.