Profile: Justin Utley
Justin Utley looks like he was born to be a rock star; his rugged good looks, tight jeans, charismatic stage moves and commanding vocal presence have made a major impact on the New York music scene. His debut album as a solo artist, "Runaway," blends singer/songwriter sensitivity with hard-rock attitude, all delivered with plenty of hungry big-city energy. It's quite a change for a kid who once was a best-selling Christian artist in Salt Lake City's Mormon community.
"I was the prince of Mormon pop with a couple of Mormon albums that did pretty well when I was 15," Utley confesses with a laugh. "The [Mormon Church] also has their own movie industry and I've written songs for some of those movies. There's this strange alternate universe of Mormon film and music in Utah. You go to the multiplex and you have the major films right next door to a missionary movie. It's a big subculture, but it doesn't really play anywhere out of Utah."
Utley grew up in a conservative house and was "forced into piano lessons" at a young age. He put music aside until high school, when he returned to the keyboard and started writing songs to release the emotions he couldn't get to any other way. He also found his way into musical theater.
"My mom got me into a play singing Disney songs and that kinda spawned my career," he says. "As I got older, I was in everything from 'Bye Bye Birdie' to 'Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.' (He recently was the male lead, Radames, in the Utah premiere of Elton John's and Tim Rice's "Aida.") When I told her I was gay, she said, 'I thought you just had commitment issues, but I should have known. You spent too much time alone with those He-Man action figures.' "
After high school, Utley started Found, a mainstream rock project that won a Slammy (awarded by Salt Lake's indie newspaper The City Weekly) for best new band. He also won Best Singer and Songwriter and was a featured performer at the 2002 Winter Olympics, but Salt Lake City was getting too small to contain his musical ambitions. "After the Olympics, I realized I had to get out of town to make the next step. There's a punk rock scene, but it's very localized. You rarely get noticed from outside. The gay scene is very underground in its own little sphere. Gay Pride draws about 30,000, but there's only one gay club in the entire city."
Before he left, Utley decided to come out, which was a generally positive experience. He also left the Mormon Church. "Brent, my first boyfriend, passed away suddenly during the process of coming out, and that was difficult. When I told my mom, she said she was sorry she didn't get to meet him, that he never came over for dinner. Everyone I told remained in my life and was very supportive except my Mormon bishop, who told me in a roundabout way that Brent passed because God did not approve of that kind of relationship.
"I wrote a letter to the church excommunicating myself. They say they allow everyone to worship as they please; yet they create an environment that's closed and make plenty of pro-family anti-gay contributions. They don't really live by the live-and-let-live rule they profess to follow."
Utley worked on "Runaway" while he was in the process of moving to New York, bouncing between sessions in Salt Lake and the Big Apple. He played most of the instruments himself, but invited Lance Yergensen, his bandmate from Found, to lay down some shredding electric guitar parts. The music has a bright live feel, bursting with energy and confidence. "Goodbye, Goodbye" is a rocking kiss-off to a faithless lover with a big anthemic chorus; "Little White Lies," based on Utley's disillusionment with the Mormon Church, has a '50s R&B feel and searing guitar work from Yergensen, while "Crash & Burn," one of Utley's most requested songs in his live set, is a bittersweet tune about overcoming life's difficulties, marked by Utley's pleading, emotional vocal.
Utley wrote and produced "Runaway" by himself. "My studio has digital and analog equipment because analog captures something digital can't. It opens up the soul of the music a bit more. "Runaway" has an introspective feel, with lyrics that I wrote before and after coming out, so the images are open enough that everyone can relate to them. Right now, I'm taking a break from performing and writing the next album, which is more edgy, more rock and a lot louder. "Runaway" was introspective and retrospective; the new music is about moving on and has a lot of power in it. I get so excited, I jump around the studio while I'm recording."
by J. Poet
Justin has been cast as the lead in the new country musical "Our Country", by Tony Asaro and Dan Collins in New York City, opening June 21 as part of the Planet Connections Theater Festivity! For tickest and more information go to http://www.ourcountrytoo.com/.
Justin Utley's official website: http://www.justinutley.com/
Justin's Guide to New York City