ROBERT URBAN: NYC's ROCK WIDOW KEEPS THE MUSIC ALIVE!
by JED RYAN - P.M. Entertainment Magazine
|You'd be hard-pressed to travel through the untamed jungle of the
NYC independent music scene and not sooner or later become aware of dynamic
native New Yorker Robert Urban. He self-identifies first and foremost as
a singer-songwriter, but this Manhattan muse is also a poet, writer, producer,
multifaceted instrumentalist, and activist. And that's just for starts! All
these roles are linked together through Urban's unyielding commitment to
the GLBT community and his equally passionate commitment to maintaining high
standards of artistry for the whole world-- musically and otherwise. His
creative endeavors seek to break the society-imposed walls that separate
us between gay and straight, male and female, rich and poor, mainstream and
underground. Through his work as a producer and supporter of the arts, Urban
also works to tear down the barriers within the GLBT community. The list
of artists he works with encompass a wide range of sexual orientations and
identifications, styles, geographic locations, and musical genres. Robert
Urban has appeared in PM Entertainment Magazine at least three times through
the last few years, making news for his performances, productions, and for
just being seen at some of NYC's big events. As one of the most visibly
"out" musicians in the Gay Apple, I couldn't imagine a better celeb to speak
with in an upcoming issue of PM. But in the meantime, here's the full, meaty
interview. Even as a fan and friend of Mr. Urban's, I soon learned that
what I knew about this true Renaissance man only scratches the surface!
Here's Robert Urban, Outmusician of the Year 2006, in his own words.|
PM: So, Robert, what are you currently working on, creatively?
RU: Here at Urban Productions Recording Studio in Manhattan, I'm currently producing songs for gay singer/songwriter Morry Campbel's upcoming debut CD entitled "Long, Long Way Home". Right now this includes a jazzy pre-release Christmas single we've rushed for release called "Frightful Weather", which features gay keyboardist Dan Man Jovi. I'm also playing guitar, bass, drums, keys & other assundry instruments on Morry's album.
| This week I'm also finishing up the new Christmas single "Xmas
Joys" for gay singer Roger Kuhn. He will be filming a video for it - it's
a fun, dancey throwback to 50's/girl group/early glam shuffle-rock. Roger
currently has a rock video "What's Your Name?" at Number 7 on the LOGO channel's
"New Now Next" hit list. That's yours truly on black Les Paul electric guitar
in the video. I produced "What's Your Name?" for Roger here at the studio.
In June of 2007, I had the honor to be asked to perform in France at the
Paris Hard Rock Cafe for the international Jeff Buckley 10th anniversary
of his death Tribute show. Plus, I got a free week in Paris out of it!
It's an interesting story: I was invited because none of the international
acts offered to do Buckley's cover of Benjamin Britten's "Corpus Christi
Carol"-- It's a bitch to sing and play-- so I offered and they invited me.
Thus all the songs on Buckley's "Grace" album were covered for the concert.
In a way, as I was the only (openly) gay performer at the show, doing a
song by a gay composer that Buckley also did (and, considering the controversies
over Buckley's own sexuality...), I kinda felt I was "representin''" for
Buckley's many gay fans. There's pics of my performance at the Paris Hard
Rock under "Pics" at my www.MySpace.com/RobertUrban.|
This summer I recorded gay pop singer Matthew Duffy's vocals for his current new CD "The Healing Machine", which will be released in November. I also play bass and guitar on his CD. Additionally, this month I produced a new bonus track single for Matt. It's a full-band, dance-pop cover of the Cat Stevens' classic hit "The Wind" - different from the accapella version Matt sings on "The Healing Machine". "The Wind" is already getting airplay on radio shows around the U.S.
PM: Wow! That's some schedule. You have your hand in so many aspects of the independent music world. Between recording your own music, producing events and for other artists, and performing with R.U.B., which has been the most rewarding?
RU: It's all kind of blurred into one big music-making effusion, I guess. One thing I've learned - it's an honor to be a musician. I love playing. Whether it's for my own stuff or for others - it all just kinda pours out now. I guess of the three aspects of my work you mentioned, playing my own stuff is the most rewarding (and the most traumatic!).
PM: No doubt! In "Rock Widow", the title track on your album of the same name, you sing about how many of your former bandmates from the past have retired from the music business. But you are still involved in music as well as other creative endeavors. What motivated you to keep pursuing your art that many of them didn't have?
RU: Well (Laughs), there's seems to be three main things that eliminate rockers, especially hetero ones, over the years: drugs and/or Jesus and/or girlfriends. I suppose going bald and getting a paunch may also be a factor.... Luckily I've more or less avoided the pitfalls of all these. Personally speaking - I'll play 'til I drop.
PM: We can all be thankful for that! (Laughs)
RU: Most straights will say they became a rock musician so they could meet more girls. My answer is really the same - only mine is tailored to my gay orientation. When I was in high school it became apparent to me that I could hang out with really cool, good-lookin' rocker dude guys if I was in a band. The rest is history. Now, my goals are hopefully based less on wishful sex and more on lofty artistic ideals - but I think there'll always be a bit of male-bonding fantasy in my pursuit of music.
PM: Do you still keep in touch with your former bandmates through the years?|
RU: I do with many. Over the years, we get in touch - especially as we collaborate on converting old analog band tapes to digital, or old band photos to image files, etc. Drummers seem to be especially long-lasting friends. I guess they are the least diva-ish. My trusty bass player Steve Sullivan played bass for me way back in the 1980's. At that time, he quit music to get a PhD. He moved to Washington, DC. Now suddenly after 25 years, he's moved back to NYC and happily we're back playing together. Go figure. The bond between musicians-- It's one of life's special joys.
PM: I've noticed that! Which album from your discography means the most to you, creatively?
RU: Gasp! I love all my children equally! Seriously - "Godless" I think is the best "singer-songwriter" album I've done. "Elegies" has my best instrumental work. "Rock Widow" is my best overall "rock" effort.
PM: What makes Robert Urban's music distinctive?
RU: I have no idea. For better or worse, permit me to opine: A queer dares to wield electric lead guitar (the greatest phallic symbol of our times) in the vein of classic blues rock? The combo of rock and classical music styles? Philosophical, nihilist, Nietzschean, pretentious lyrics? Probably my throwback-to-the-late-60's psychedelia style of sound!
PM: When you listen to your earlier works, do you hear your own progress in your guitar work?
RU: In the very early recordings, I sure do. Lordy, it was a struggle for me. When I was coming up, rock was pretty much a straight man's macho game-- I always felt like the odd man out looking in. But actually, when I listen back, I'm better than I thought I was at the time. I was always so hard on myself. Now I listen to some of the guitar solos on my retrospective "Who I Was" CD, which is compiled from my 80's recordings, and I they really make me feel proud.
PM: Where did the idea of the annual New York City Fresh Fruit Festival come from?
RU: I've produced some shows for them; performed for them, and have been a consultant member of their Board of Directors, but honestly I have no idea where they came from. You'll have to find and ask an original "Fruitie"! They are an odd bunch of bananas (so to speak...)
PM: "Odd" is a good thing-- and so are bananas! (Laughs) What motivates your in your sense of community? Like, when you wake up in the morning (afternoon?! evening?!), what's the driving force that makes you want to do more for the GLBT community?
RU: It's just a natural gravitation towards kindred spirits - since I'm queer I tend to gravitate towards my own kind, I guess. And since I'm a musician I lean towards the LGBT arts community within the larger LGBT mainstream establishment.
| When I was a student back in Connecticut, I had a phenomenal private
music teacher, a gay man who's name is Burton Hatheway. Burton is still active
and teaching today, . He taught me so much. I could never repay him for
all he's done for me. He once told me the best way to pay him back would
be to do for others what he did for me. I often think of him in all my musical
doings. It's rarely noticed or spoke of in the GLBT community - which is
unfortunate - but there is a strong generational continuum that goes on:
Younger gays learn from older gays in deep important ways. Essential culture
gets passed down. It's is not just a hetero phenomenon. |
This may sound REALLY corny - but I feel like the more I give it all away, the more I have. I have found that if I can help a gay artist with his or her musicianship, it is very empowering for them-- and helps them gain self-esteem so as to better tackle all the social obstacles the world throws at them. I tend to let others sort out their own "out" issues. I don't preach "outness". But I can tell you that a solid, confident gay musical artist is in better psychological shape to be "out", if they so choose to be. To tell the truth, my strongest sense of community is not even with other queers - it's not even with other humans. It's with the natural world. I'm more at home alone with plants and animals than I am with humans. That's why I also do garden design for townhouses as a side-career here in Manhattan. I'm happiest when I can spend a day with only non-human natural flora around me. Humans are a part of my sense of world community, but sadly, whether straight or queer, we have pretty much wrecked the planet.
PM: You're talking to an animal lover, so I agree! Animals-- and plants, I guess-- are always more loyal than people. How do you feel about artists that use Outmusic to further their career, then shy away from the gay aspect after they achieve some level of "mainstream" recognition? For example, artists that submit their work to the Outmusic Awards and may even win, but don't put a link to Outmusic on their website?
RU: You are talking to someone that has about a dozen links to Outmusic on his website! (Laughs) That being said, I'm not sure I wanna get mucked up in this issue. The last thing I wanna do is run around playing the "outer than thou" game. Frankly, you should know by now that any artist that would use an LGBT arts organization to advance his career would probably also use everyone and everything around them - so Outmusic need not feel so especially victimized. On the other hand, as founder of Gay Guitarists Worldwide, I know of many musical artists who are very out and proud and who are not even members of Outmusic. Along those lines, one might point out that the powers-that-be in Outmusic "use" the Outmusic membership for their own self-interest ends. The game plays both ways, you know.
PM: Hmmm... I never thought of it that way until now. Along those lines! Do you believe people should always be "out"? I believe that everyone has a right to privacy, yet I also believe the world will never know how many of us there are out there unless we all come out of the closet en masse.
RU: I don't really care too much whether someone is "out" or not. I am used to dealing with artists. Artists can have notoriously messed up lives. All that messed-up-ness can be a great source of turbulence, originality, and inspiration. For example - If the very troubled Beethoven really understood himself, we might not have all that glorious music. But do keep yer eyes on the prize. The goal of all this "outness" is for the distinction between "gay" and "straight" to eventually melt away and vanish - and for everyone to be as one. I'm queer but I'm not separatist. In our gay establishment, the loudest voices calling for "outness" are often the shrillest and most separatist and most heterophobic. We should be "out" out of strength, not "out" out of weakness or fear or hatred. It's bad enough our modern culture is so unnecessarily polarized between the "gay" and "straight", between "out" and "closeted". In life there really are no clear borders. In any case--- in our current high-tech, tabloid-obsessed society-- no one can stay closeted for long anyway. So if you're queer and you know it, you may as well be "out" because everyone will know it if they want to know it.
|PM: True! I have to know the answer to this. It's
been really bugging me. Some people have speculated that in the independent
gay music scene, the male artists are motivated mostly by financial gain
and the hopes of being signed to a major label, whereas the female artists
are mostly motivated by their love of making music and their sense of community.
I've asked so many artists about this. What do you think? |
RU: (Laughs) "Financial gain" ?!?!? I pissed my life away to play music. I turned down careers in other, more lucrative fields to strum my geetar. I'm satisfied if I can just eek out a living doing it. Actually, your question is a deep one. I see it in a different context. The problem plaguing many gay male artists is more of a "diva-wanna-be" fantasy issue. It's not that they mainly want to achieve financial gain, it's that they wanna be a STAR! It has been my experience that lesbians are more rooted in the fundamentals of real, live, meat-and-potatoes music making, and have developed their own network for doing do. Too many gay males wanna be frontman and thus mistake star power for talent. That being said, look around at the current arts scene in America: EVERYONE is mistaking star-attitude for talent. Rock has devolved into a bunch of 17-year old "senza talenta faceheads". Hey, am I ranting yet?
|PM: I was hoping you would! Are you currently working on a new album?|
RU: I should be.
PM: In addition to making music, producing, and performing, you also write reviews for www.AfterElton.com. You must get to see a lot of what's going on in popular culture. How do you feel about the recent explosion of gay culture in independent film and music, on the Web, and especially on TV? Do you feel it's an accurate reflection of our community?
RU: The explosion is good. What's bad is that most of it is bad! I suppose the explosion is an accurate reflection of SOMEONE's gay community, but not mine. (Sigh!) So many offerings seem to carry the maudlin weight of old-school 1980's gay sensibility. Of course, as I've said, gays have the right to be as superficial as straights - so we end up with ca-ca like "Another Gay Movie" and "Queer Duck"-- films which are actually no worse than what Hetero Hollywood cranks out. Gays are trying soooooo hard to find a zeitgeist or pop social norm for themselves-- perhaps too hard. Having been discovered by reality TV, we all try to put on such a good face for each other and for the mainstream straight world. The problem is, gay sexuality cuts across all kinds of men. Some of us just wince at the thought of a "gay norm".
PM: Is there a major label artist, gay or straight, male or female, from the past who has been an unsung hero, or who never got the attention they deserved? Like, who may have been a great influence on you?
RU: (Sigh!) For me, it's the great rock artists of the era beginning with the Beatles, running thru the mid-sixties British invasion, and onto the glorious psychedelic late 60's. Of all of them, Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull had the strongest influence in me, especially as a guitarist and showman. I even studied flute to mimic him. There's actually a lot of Ian Anderson-inspired music & lyrics in my songs - which today may be unnapreciated by today's listeners.
PM: How important is it to keep the music "pure"?
RU: Very! It's the purity that lies buried deep down inside. In this world, which humans have pretty much wrecked; and in which everything is mere media fodder and nothing is important anymore, one can only hope for a little purity. It's like a holy grail. Of course, I'm not exactly sure what you mean by "pure" -- so I'm answering in a general musical sense.
PM: You got it! When I say "pure" I mean the music. I have no problem with dirty lyrics! Do you have any special friendships with anyone else in the gay music community?
RU: Well, there's YOU! (Laughs)
PM: Aw, thanks! And I'm not even a musician!
RU: I guess my partner of 20 years, NYC restaurateur Morgan Humphries would be high on the list. I don't really have many queer friends in the "Let's hang out!" kind of way. I'm not that social in that I go out with "friends" much. Being partnered kinda does that to you. I'm more likely to go hang out with straight friends. And I'm even more likely to spend my day alone. But in the way I work with many LGBT artists-- in my capacity as music producer, private music instructor, bandmate, arranger, composer, etc.-- I do get to know many people on a very deep, substratum kind of "soul" level. In my work I have to be kind of an empath at times-- and if "friendship" is not quite the right word, there is a knowing bonding that goes on. It's quite profound. It certainly is "special" to me.
PM: What's the biggest professional problem that gay musicians will have to face in their path to success? And, I mean "success" not just financially but "successful" as in "spiritually fulfilled".
RU: Well, I think talent is a universal. Having real talent and real inspiration can overcome the obstacle of homophobia and anti-gay politics. That being said, we could use less divas and more solidly talented artists out there in Gayland. And THAT being said, this is a problem for the whole mainstream world and not just for gays. As for prospects for gay artists becoming successful these days, beware. The U.S. is becoming a really weird place. It ain't pretty. Like Rome before its fall, people in the U.S. are becoming reactionary, seeing spooks everywhere, hating, dividing, fighting. The U.S. is becoming alienated from the rest of the planet, and the U.S. government is more and more alienated from the majority of U.S. citizens. Things are bound to get even more ugly as it all goes down the tube.
| The BIGGEST problem facing all musicians-- gay or straight-- is
that the world is mutating towards a kind of virtual fakeness in the arts
- where nothing is of any real value any more. The music entertainment industry
is morphing away into some kind multimedia charade of CGI digitally doctored
fantasy of perfection. I don't know if people will even be listening to
music in twenty years. It may not provide enough sensory stimuli to be entertaining.
They may prefer to hardwire their brains into some kind of multi-media multi-sensory
experience... Perhaps enhanced by a new round of specialty drugs.|
PM: Wow! You've just given me enough food for thought to keep me full for a week! So, without the benefit of a major label, can an artist achieve financial success, motivated by just their love of making music?
RU: I don't know about "financial" success, but if "salvation" is considered a success, I'd say "yes". You may be confusing "artists" with "entertainers". Artists do what they do because they HAVE to do it, whatever the results. "Entertainers" are in show business, and are thus more apt to be good at making money from their craft. As far as I'm concerned, anyone who loves music is of a different, special breed. To be able to make music is a great honor. If one tries very, very, very hard, it's possible to make a living doing music. One thing is for sure. Those who don't try do not achieve financial success.
PM: Is any segment within our community underrepresented in the media? Even in the gay media?
RU: I think the transgender segment is grossly underrepresented. Many gay men still mistakenly confuse transgendered persons with drag queens. Hopefully this is all changing. The LGBT world may discover that transgenders are the new up-and-coming force within our community. We should embrace them more than we do. Most transgenders I've met are solid, responsible citizens who have their feet on the ground way more than lots of gay men I know. Our community could benefit from their levelheaded, no-nonsense approach to life.
PM: I agree. At an Outmusic Open Mic a few months ago, the host introduced you as "The Last Outmusician", meaning that with the Outmusic Awards on hiatus, you would be the last artist to win the title of "Outmusician of the Year". You later told me, "The last? I was the first!" You clarified that you were out at a time when for a musician, being out meant pretty much being ignored by the media or even career death. Did you ever have any issues with being out at that time?
RU: (Laughs) At the Open Mic I think I was actually making a self-deprecating joke on how damn ancient I am.... As for Outmusic's award, I know some view it as the "OUTmusician of the Year Award". I always saw it as the "outMUSICIAN of the Year Award". The outness for me was always just a given - it's the "musician of the year" part I cherished.
PM: Great point!
RU: As I'm sure all gays have, I did have issues with coming out in the past. For me, the issues were more personal. It may sound odd, but in my youth the guys in my band meant more to me than what society thought of me. I could care less what my management thought of me, but if my gayness put off one of my bandmates, it really hurt.
PM: A few of your songs deal with the conflict between certain religions and being out and proud. Have you ever experienced that conflict personally?
RU: I was raised Roman Catholic. Yet I was "out" even as a teenager. I can remember while in high school, I was confronting my Catholic pastor and demanding to be excommunicated because, technically, according to the Church, gays were sinners and should not be members of the Church. I was such a wise-ass. In responding to my heady demand, my pastor said smugly, "We won't give you the satisfaction!" I thought that was a great answer. It's funny. So many gays have issues with the church. But really, the Catholic Church has been the gayest institution for the last two thousand years! Everything about it - the ritual of the Mass, the monasteries, the church art, the all-male club of priests and apostles, the all female club of convents, the Jesuit logic, the appeals to passivity, gentleness and "love of all men"... It's all so iconically gay. It's also self-hating and conflicted... but soooo gay. Although baptized Catholic, I could never be one. I see only the blind indifference of Nature, as would a follower of Zen or Nihiilism. I could never believe in a God. God is just an idealization dreamt up by some patriarchal straight men who were so conceited as to imagine that the world is ruled by someone who thinks just like them. It's really pathetic when you think about it. I can't believe women follow along with it. But the Church itself never really bugged me. It's toothless. I actually consider myself fortunate to have had a private Catholic education. It was a way better education than what the public schools had to offer. Plus I know I may have been beaten up by bullies in a public school. Anti-gay sentiment is like gayness itself-- it cuts across all religions.
PM: How true. So, on to lighter subjects. Where are your favorite places to hang out in New York City?
RU: I'll never tell!
PM: Hmmm! Many native New Yorkers say that New York City
is not as exciting as it used to be-- with the dearth of so many gay bars
and clubs, sex clubs, performance venues, etc... What do you have to say
about that? |
RU: If you mean some kind of romantic notion of artsy/cruisy gay bohemia, I never cared too much for those kinds of places. If you mean the loss of lots of liberal gay sex, you may also be thinking of pre-AIDS-era NYC. I think some of the complaining is just the bemoaning of lost youth - which is only natural. For what it's worth-- the parks are still here, if you know what I mean....
PM: Not at all! (Laughs)
RU: But, yeah, it sucks. NYC is going downhill for all kinds of reasons. It's becoming a joyless artless place for money-making, soulless breeders. The NYC theater scene has turned into some kind of dreadful Disney/Vegas hybrid (kinda like all entertainment these days...), but the NYC opera, ballet and symphony scenes are still real, excellent and thriving. I especially like to go to the opera whenever I can.
PM: What element of New York City, if any, do you miss?
RU: I miss all the small and mid-sized live rock clubs. They used to be everywhere. China Club, Cat Club, CBGB's, TRAX, S.N.A.F.U...
PM: What does "Gay Pride" mean to you as we enter 2008? Has "Gay Pride" become just an overused, hollow term?
RU: I think the concept and the term was historically and psycho-socially necessary. It served to counteract the incredible amount of unfair self-hatred and guilt inculcated in us during the pre-gay liberation era. But I don't think of myself as "proud" of my given sexual orientation any more than I am "proud" of my given hair color. However, I most certainly am GLAD I'm gay. Not a day goes by that I don't observe the mess that is the straight world and say to myself, "thank god, I'm not like that!" Hallelujah. I think it' was Freud who observed that homosexuality is the sexuality of children and of the ancients. We are a very special kind of creature in the overall scheme of things. That's way we are often mythically depicted as angels. We are way more than just a drag-queen atop a float in a gay pride parade.
| If the term "gay pride" has lost some luster - perhaps it can morph
to mean newfound LGBT political clout. The LGBT community needs to coalesce
into a potent voting block. Other minorities have pulled it off, we can
too. It's time the politicians kissed OUR asses for a change.|
PM: I agree. They'll start kissing our asses when they realize they need the votes. I personally feel that it's too much of a compliment to call politicians whores; "real" whores are usually much more moral people and more fun to hang out with at parties. hey, am I ranting yet now?! But anyway, Do you ever get the time to just sit back and relax in your fabulous apartment?
RU: Less and less it seems... But with the recording and teaching studio located here, I do get to spend a lot of time here-- albeit working. Actually, we just totally redid our bedroom. You must come and see!
PM: Sure will! You are also in a unique position in that you are in a long-term relationship. Do you have any "secrets for success" in that field?!
RU: Morgan and I get asked this a lot and our answer is always the same. DON'T THINK ABOUT IT! Don't "talk about the relationship" too much with your partner. Keep some anonymity in the sexual relationship. Keep the sex trashy. Don't drown in too much lovey-dovey stuff. Seriously - I think one key factor is that we both work different hours from each other and thus we don't get to see each other nearly as much as we wish we could. The result is that we are always trying to find time to be together-- which for guys, gay or straight, is a good thing. Guys need space. Guys need "alone-time". Too much time together is not good. That's when lovers start seeking outside stimuli. Out time together is rare and thus very precious. It's something we are always looking forward to!
There's always a lot to look forward to with Robert Urban! See MUCH more at:
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