One of the few highly visible, openly gay male artists over the last decade, R&B/dance singer-songwriter Ari Gold has broken many barriers on his own terms. His groundbreaking “Wave of You” music video got the ball rolling in 2004; and he continued to up the ante both musically and politically with his 2008 cover of The Human League’s “Human.” Now, he jumps into the fire more intensely than ever with a harder sound and startling new video (“Make My Body Rock”) as he attempts to walk the line Between the Spirit & the Flesh. (You can hear the interview in its entirety on BlogTalkRadio.)
Ma nishnah, Ari. This is Justin Kantor. It’s an honor to be speaking with you. How often does a gay, Jewish male get to talk to a gay, Jewish male icon? I was actually just listening to your very first CD, and I have to say that “Give Me All Your Love,” to this day remains a funky, funky track. On to the present, though: Are you now officially going by the stage name of Sir Ari Gold?
Yes. I was knighted by the Imperial Court of New York this past year at the Night of A Thousand Gowns. They do a lot of great charity work raising money for HIV-AIDS; so it was a big honor. I decided to take it on.
I guess it also works as a double-entendre, if you want to portray a dominant role.
Sure, except that I did the whole kneeling in front of queens at the ceremony — I don’t know how dominant that was!
You experience both sides of the spectrum, right?
You have to! In order to know how to dominate, you have to know how to submit.
I think Madonna said something about that at one time.[Laughs] I love how people get so funny about origin stories. Somebody made a comment about me wearing the leather mask on the cover of my new single and it being very “Erotica.” Let’s not forget that when Madonna did that whole S&M look, she was taking it from the gay community. I know a lot of people like to think that everything comes back to her — and I give her all the credit for making things popular; but let’s not forget where it really comes from.
Speaking of your new single, “Make My Body Rock,” it has a markedly different sound from your previous work. Is the title a tribute to Jomanda’s classic club hit?
I was aware of that song. My friend Kevin Aviance also did a cover of that. I love both, but it kinda was just the title that came out. The last time I had written a song that quickly was “Wave of You” — my first single that was ever out there. It just was one of those songs that wrote itself from beginning to end. It came from somewhere else. Call it God or whatever you like. It came through me and wrote itself very quickly. I don’t know if it was because of the other song, but I wouldn’t be the first songwriter to use the title of an old song.
What or who inspired you to go in this new musical direction?
I started working with Michael Colin, who’s an Israeli producer. We had never met; but he was a fan of my music. I don’t know how — he’s not gay. A lot of my fans tend to be gay; although i’m always pleasantly surprised when heterosexual females e-mail me or come to my shows. But the straight male contigency has definitely been my hardest nut to crack, so to speak. Anyway, Michael sent me a demo of what ended up becoming “Make My Body Rock.” That’s when I just wrote the song in two minutes. The sound inspired a lot of what came for the rest of the album.
I think that people will be pleasantly surprised. The album definitely has a lot of that electronic feel. My previous albums had a very R&B flavor and chord structure, but with some of that electro sound. And in fact, I get criticized for it; but I’ve always been a fan of auto-tune. It’s not because I can’t sing. I like the effect, and I was using it before a lot of the rappers started using it. So, that’s something that I’d like to continue to explore. I like to mix it up — to use it as an effect, but not as a primary way of hearing the vocal.
The album is called Between the Spirit & the Flesh. How did you come up with that title?
You know, I think you may be the first person to write about this, because I actually haven’t officially started the campaign for the album yet! The title came out of a conversation I had where I was talking about relationships and where I was at with a whole bunch of different issues with sex and love. Being torn between the spirit and the flesh really sums up so much. That’s really the human existence. The spirit is not a bad thing and the flesh is not a bad thing. We go back and forth in trying to get the right balance between the two.
You worked with a lot of different people on the album. Who are some of the guest artists?
I worked with some of the transgendered artists that are making really great music out in the scene. I really respect and admire their courage to put out original music and just be talented and fantastic performers. I have a song with Mila Jam, aka Britney Houston, and Peppermint Gummybear. I also collaborated again with Adam Joseph. Of any other openly gay artist out there, he’s my personal favorite.
I’m also very honored that I got the chance to work with Sarah Dash from LaBelle. She’s a really cool woman, very politically involved, and has been a champion for LGBT rights. She collaborated with Sylvester in the 1980s. A lot of people have said that I was the first pop artist to be openly gay from the beginning of my career. But really, the very first one was Sylvester, even though he was considered “disco.” Back then, people weren’t really talking about sexual orientation to the press. It was a different game. [Ari’s mom in background talking to him.]
Was she talking about Sarah Dash?
She was actually talking about Lynda Carter. I got to meet her recently. I’ve been waiting my entire life!
I saw your tweets. You’re pretty excited!
Oh, my God, you have no idea. I can honestly say that I don’t know who I would be if not for Lynda Carter playing Wonder Woman in my life.
You’re campaigning for her to play the mother of Wonder Woman, right?
Yeah! They’re doing a new TV series. i don’t know what David E. Kelley’s plan is for the storyline. But, the mythology of the series definitely includes Hippolyta, her mother. So, who better to play her than Wonder Woman herself? [laughs]
Cheryl Ladd of Charlie’s Angels also comes to mind when I think of Lynda. Maybe it’s because both actresses also started music careers around the time of their TV popularity.
Actually, the three posters above my bed growing up were of Cheryl Ladd, Lynda Carter — in the middle, and Jaclyn Smith. But it really was about Lynda, and a little bit about Lindsay Wagner from The Bionic Woman, I must admit.
So, shed some light on a couple other songs that will be on the album, Between the Spirit & the Flesh.
Well, the song I did with Sarah is called “Sparkle.” It’s not the Aretha Franklin song nor the one recorded by Diana Ross; but it does have something to do with both of them. I’ll just say that.
You can certainly make a claim to the Diana Ross connection!
That’s right, I sang back-up for her when I was a kid!
”We are the Children of the World”![Laughs] But on Between the Spirit & the Flesh, you have songs about the flesh and the body. “Make My Body Rock” is coming from that side. Hence, why I wanted the video to be really dark and “fleshly.” I didn’t anticipate how dark it would be until I started working with the director, Colly Carver. I didn’t know how bloody it would be. But it really is about the flesh, because at the end of the day, underneath the flesh is blood. “Sparkle” is the other side: the spirit. It’s very light and positive. You can’t have one without the other.
Let’s talk about the video of “Make My Body Rock.” I first heard about the making of it early this past summer, when you launched a campaign to get financing. I have to say when I finally saw the video, I was quite taken aback! I’m sort of a wuss when it comes to scary stuff. Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video haunted me throughout my childhood.
So, you don’t watch True Blood, I gather?
No! So, I’m probably missing that whole connection. I know you’ve commented that the video is partly inspired by that. I also read that you’re trying to send a message about heterosexual marriage?
Not so much a message; but we have so much of a cultural conversation about the merits of gay marriage. We don’t spend nearly as much time talking about hetero marriage and what are some of its problems built in — whether its a history of sexism and ownership of women, or high divorce rate, or child abuse. To put a spotlight on that is not necessarily a bad thing. Both Colly and I are interested in ways in which children are often used for the selfish desires of their parents. It’s an endlessly fascinating theme. There’s such a notion in our society that to have children is the best thing in the world. But, unless you’re really having children for the right reasons — really wanting to give your child a good life, well, so many parents put their issues onto their kids. There’s a metaphor for that in the video.
With regard to the child chase and eating, would you anticipate that some right-wing conservatives would point to it as evidence that gays prey on children?
If they want to claim that a fantasy music video is proof that gay people prey on children, that’s the most ridiculous thing in the entire world. This is art. Art is just that. You can’t look towards a music video to stake those claims. I don’t even play a gay man in the video. I play a straight man who’s married.
What about the line between art and reality?
Do I think my video is going to make people want to kill their own child and eat their blood? No. Anyone who thinks that needs to figure out some things about life.
When are you planning to release the album?
I’m hoping in February or March. We’re in the mixing stage. We have 99% of the vocals and 90% of the production done. Then we’ll do the mastering.
You seem to put an album out every three years, on average. As an independent artist, how much time do you put into the promotion of each album? Do you typically start conceptualizing and working on another right after the last one is finished?
I had the concept of this album as soon as I finished the last one, Transport Systems. I’m always writing and thinking about things. That’s a process that never really stops, no matter what I’m doing. I usually spend about two years promoting an album. That’s the life span to tour, promote, and put out singles. It used to be that most of the major-label artists did the same thing. I blame Mariah Carey for the precedent of putting out an album every year. I think that she was the first artist to start doing that; then Britney Spears started doing that afterwards. When you have all those people who are depending on you for their source of income, they have to make sure you’re putting out product one right after another.
Putting together an album is a constant process and evolution. There’s a whole business side that you have to deal with in order to get all your ducks in a row. Even in this day in age, with the Internet and home studios, it’s still a costly endeavor to create and put out an album and promote it.
As an independent artist, you’re free to represent yourself in a variety of artistic endeavors, sans the political confines of a major corporation. I’m sure your schedule varies a lot. Can you give a breakdown of a few exemplary “Ari Gold days” in your world of music?
I could start off with getting on my computer, returning e-mails, and being engaged in social networking. Then, I’ll go off to the studio to record vocals or to mix something. I might then go to a rehearsal because of a show I’m having that week. Then, I might come to my parents’ house for a steak dinner, which I just had — I’m a very fortunate man! Today, I had a meeting with the new press people I’m gonna be working with, and my manager.
You’re also involved in a number of endeavors outside of recording and performing. You recently started the “Search for America’s Next Gay Icon.” Tell me about that.
I really love supporting gay artists, people who are not afraid to be who they are. There’s still a dearth of folks out there in the mainstream — because there isn’t enough support in the industry. As best as I can, I want to give a venue to artists who can be as out there as they wanna be with their sexuality and gender, as long as they have the talent to back it up.
Are you looking to do this as a live event, or produce it for TV?
I’m still developing it. We were doing it every week in New York for awhile and had some amazing guest judges. But I’m currently searching for not only the next gay icon, but for the next venue!
Tell me about your DJ’ing.
I’ve DJ’d at The Cock and David Barton Gym here in New York. While I was getting this album together, the opportunity came up. I have so much great music in so many formats: music that I’ve downloaded on my computer; all my CD’s and albums. It’s so much fun to get to not only play some of the new stuff that I like; but also music that I’ve loved over the years. There are certain songs that I will never get sick of, and I try to incorporate them into every DJ set. Songs like “A Night to Remember” by Shalamar, or “You Used to Hold Me So Tight” by Thelma Houston.
I was thinking it’d be really cool to have an Ari Gold release on vinyl!
Actually, I did have one: the record I did with DJ Luck & MC Neat, “I’m All About You.” But, the executive producer I’m working with wants me to put remixes of “Make My Body Rock” out on vinyl. He thinks there’s still a lot of DJ’s out there who cherish vinyl. It’s something I’m thinking about if I can get the budget together for it.
You came out with your music at the beginning of the George W. Bush era. He didn’t acknowledge Gay Pride Month. In the time since, how have the dynamics changed for better or for worse for openly gay artists? What part do you think you’ve played in those changes?
In some ways, things have definitely changed and gotten better. In others, they’re exactly the same. First, even though it’s still very difficult for any of the larger companies to take a risk on any gay artists unless they’re coming straight off the American Idol stage — and even then there’s still a lot of drama and difficulty, the Internet has allowed people to reach fans and be who they are. It proves there’s an audience for it, and people want to see that and like it. That’s something I’m proud to have been at the forefront of. I think that other artists saw I was doing it and getting out there;and that meant they could. I was really happy to see other artists come out after that and be who they are from the beginning of their careers.
On the flipside, I’m still having conversations wherein people talk about promoters and people in positions of power who strictly associate me with being gay—and that turns them off. It’s really unfortunate that by being labeled, gay artists have to be limited. It used to be that certain artists were considered “female artists.” Women would say, “Why can’t I just be an artist?” Now, we no longer think of “female” as limiting. That’s just one adjective. The “gay artist” term: gay means so many different things. We see people saying “that’s so gay” in negative and positive ways. A show like Will and Grace is “so gay,” but it was loved by millions. Plenty of films and Broadway shows: La Cage Aux Folles, you cannot say it’s not gay. Just like you can’t say my music is not gay music. But does that mean it has to be put in a box and can’t be about so many different things? It can be about everything.
Many gay people’s reaction to Katy Perry’s “You’re So Gay” was really shocking to me. It was clearly coming from a negative standpoint; yet gay people embraced it because they thought, “Oh, wow we’re being talked about,” when actually, we have to check how we’re being talked about and who it is that’s talking about us. Where is it really coming from? So, it’s not enough to use the word gay to make gay people flock to it. But if someone is talking about what it’s really like to be gay and coming from an actual gay experience, that’s something to embrace.
I’m glad you mentioned that, because “I Kissed a Girl” came across as opportunistic to me, given the context of “You’re So Gay.”
Well, apparently Katy Perry never even did kiss a girl.
Throughout your career, you have also talked very openly about your Jewish upbringing. Have you had to overcome any notable hurdles in your career owing to that?
There have been producers who wanted to photoshop my chai necklace, or told me to change my name because it’s “too Jewish.” For me, to be proud of being Jewish is not to alienate people who are not or who don’t understand what it’s like. It’s just about a struggle of coming from a very oppressive and repressive religious background and still being proud of who I am and feeling connected to my culture and heritage. A lot of people can relate to that.
Who are you listening to now?
I just got Cee-Lo’s new album. I’ve been fan of his for awhile. There’s a song on there I couldn’t believe. I had basically had this idea for a song that I’ve already recorded and is gonna be on my album. He kind of did the same thing. It’s like, “Oh, shit!” I also just got some Brandy tracks. There are about 200 songs unreleased songs of hers floating around online. I’m always looking for more by her. She’s got an incredible tone. Her vocal ability is completely underrated. She’s one of the only real R&B/Pop singers who actually sings like a Gospel singer.
In an interview with Madonnatribe.com a few years back, you were quoted as advising aspiring artists, “The only reason to do it is ‘cause you love it. Everything else is gravy, so release all expectations.” Is that where you’re at now with your music? Do you have expectations for what you want the outcome to be?
There’s so much these days in our culture that makes fame and celebrity be the goal, when those are not the goal — they’re an outcome of doing the work that you feel passionately about. In this age, you don’t have to do anything to be famous. You can just live on the Jersey Shore and be famous. Those kids are just eight people. The chances of being one of them, not having any talent, and making it are about as good as winning the lottery.
In order to really deal with all things that come along with being an artist, making music, and performing, you really have to love it. If you’re just doing it to be famous, it’s probably not gonna last. The most important thing is to get out there. It’s easier now than ever to get your stuff out there. Always do your best work for yourself; but you’re always gonna be growing, so don’t concern yourself with, “This might not be the best thing I’m ever gonna do,” and allow that to stop you from getting out there. Getting out there is such an important step — allowing for the feedback, and learning how not to let yourself get discouraged by “no.” If you don’t have haters and negative feedback, then you’re not putting yourself out there, and no one’s gonna know about you. You have to have the confidence and strength in what you do in order to handle that.
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today, Ari. It’s been an honor and a pleasure, and makes my enjoyment of the music all the more relevant.
Thanks for being such a loyal, thorough, and in-depth fan. i’m just the same way with people that I like, too!
Keep up with Sir Ari on his official Twitter page.