Levi Kreis isn’t merely a run-of-the-mill hit-chasing troubadour — he’s s a pop-soul evangelist whose pulpit is the stage and whose songs are his sermons. Whether he’s crooning about the end of a love affair, lamenting a sexy backroom encounter, or lifting his voice in praise to the high heavens, Levi Kreis doesn’t just sing a song… he embodies it.
It stands to reason then that Levi’s junior album, Where I Belong, is as much a joyously, soulful collection of contemporary standards that traverse the musical spectrum as it is the heartfelt testimony of a boy from a small town in Tennessee who grew up preaching the gospel in fundamentalist Baptist churches across the South and then spent years in “reparative” therapy attempting to pray away the fact that he’s gay. Ultimately, he found himself abandoned, denied, and betrayed by elements of the very Christian community he had once so desperately fought to be accepted by.
As it was with his previous albums, One of the Ones and The Gospel According to Levi, each of the tracks on Kreis’s latest release help to bring more vividly into focus the autobiographical portrait of a singer who refused to be “repaired” by the Christian community that raised him to think he was broken or bullied into playing it “straight” by the mainstream community of major music labels that courted him along the way. Just like the words of his new single from Where I Belong suggest, Levi Kreis clearly wants “everything or nothing at all.” And with a busy career that currently combines touring with a new album and a critically acclaimed starring turn as Jerry Lee Lewis in the hit musical Million Dollar Quartet, it seems as though Levi is getting exactly what he asked for.
As he celebrates the exclusive debut of the video for his new single “Nothing at All” here at Advocate.com, I sat down with Levi for a conversation about the very personal spiritual journey that inspired his new album, what it means to reconcile faith with sexuality, and how the last few years have brought little change for gay and lesbian Americans from less urbanized parts of the country who still struggle to simply be accepted as the “God-created” human beings they know themselves to be.
Advocate.com: With your third album, Where I Belong, it genuinely seems that you’ve finally found your voice and that you’re actually presenting Levi Kreis’s naked, unbridled truth in song. Would you say that’s an accurate assessment?
Levi Kreis: I’m glad you feel that way, Duane, because I absolutely feel that. I feel like it took me being on the road for over 300 dates and doing two studio albums to sort of be able to very specifically define the truest representation of who I am musically. And it’s no surprise that brought me back to the church and my gospel roots with a little bit of a Southern flair [added] to it.
[This album] just feels more accurate and honest from a musical standpoint. I’ve always been pretty open and willing to be vulnerable… but it feels nice to have both the musical aspect and the lyrical aspect come together in a way that I feel is really a true reflection of who I am.
It’s interesting that you describe this new album as a more honest example of who you are, because I get the sense that you’re having much
more fun with this record than you did on your debut album, One of the Ones, which was, dare I say, a much more somber, heart-wrenching affair.
Yeah, [One of the Ones] was not necessarily what you’d play on a hot summer day if you wanted to feel good about life.
Writing is my therapy. It’s how I deal with wherever I am in life. At the period of time in my life [when I was recording] The Gospel According to Levi, I was dealing with wanting to articulate what my past was… come to terms with it and let it go. And [the album] accomplished that for me. I have been able to let that go and it feels really freeing.
Now Where I Belong represents yet another new direction for you in much the same way that your sophomore effort, The Gospel According to Levi,
represented a significant departure from One of the Ones. But would it be fair to say that this new album symbolizes not a compromise but a
meeting point for you between the two musical extremes you previously explored?
I like the way you put that because if it feels like Where I Belong strikes a balance it’s because I finally feel balanced. I never want to take away that old desire I had as a kid to be a music minister and I’m always going to want to make music that is positive, inspirational, and healing. But there’s just no brooding in my life
I think that acceptance and coming to terms with what my past has been has put me in a place of such gratitude for all the stuff that you and I both know that we’ve gone through — for my roots and [for] that installation of faith — that is still instilled in us and a part of who we are.
[It’s about] putting all of the misconceptions aside and saying that I’m really OK to sit here in balance and harmony with the absolute protection of the whole journey.
Did something specific happen to bring about your newfound balance? In other words, was there a catalyst for this change in your life and your
outlook, or has it just come as a result of surviving the journey?
Wow, that’s a really good question. First of all, I think that there was a bounce-back effect that happened with me internally after doing a year of press for The Gospel According to Levi. Laying my story out over and over and over — and having a passion about pushing diversity and seeing the commonalities between all of us — the bounce-back effect of all of that was that I didn’t realize that for years I needed to get that off my chest. I really did need to surrender myself to a very specific message like that album. [On The Gospel According to Levi] I said my peace…and that message was out there. With Where I Belong… it was an expression of a weight that had been lifted off my shoulders.
Another answer to that question is that I have, after becoming more regular inmy church in Los Angeles, begun to put a lot of emphasis on forgiveness. I actually put a journal together where I [acknowledge] that we all do what we know based on our limited knowledge and experience — that no one has per se done this to me — that we are all a complicated mess and [that] our history makes us all who we are [in a given] moment.
Therefore I can visualize that person in my past and say, “I realize that you do what you do based on your limited knowledge and experience, that it’s not about me and I understand that we are on a journey and I choose to see the God expressing himself through you, [so] I choose to forgive and let go.”
I filled that journal up with probably 200–300 pages because when you really start to do that homework, you begin to realize all these little things that have been picking at the back of your brain that you probably haven’t even thought of before. It is the most releasing experience. So I think that probably correlated with the experience of The Gospel According to Levi to maximize this whole freedom that I felt by the end of that campaign.
You know, Levi, I hear a joy in your voice now that wasn’t there when we last spoke and it really shines through in the music.
[Laughs] Absolutely…absolutely. That’s good. I feel it.
You know, whereas I might have felt before that the purpose of my voice was to confront, now I feel that there is a broader, more all encompassing purpose that I have adopted for my voice. Acceptance is a huge part of why my voice…does sound different. It feels different for me completely.
On the subject of acceptance, you have finally recorded “Stained Glass Window,” which you origina
lly wrote for the Del Shores play Southern
Baptist Sissies. That song and that play were both very personal for you, weren’t they?
Yeah. Del Shores put [Southern Baptist Sissies] up in 2001 in Los Angeles… and it kind of developed its own life.
“Stained Glass Window” was a song I wrote based on the play because that play happened to be a very defiant moment for me in that I was
able to put aside my internal conflicts.
I had just showed up in L.A. fresh off the bus [when] someone dragged me into this play called Southern Baptist Sissies, and by halftime — I like to call intermission halftime — I was in my chair in the fetal position bawling my eyes out. I had no idea that so many other people had gone through what I had gone through. I didn’t re
alize that my story was the story of other people. I was floored.
Del Shores happened to have been sitting behind me at the time and he leaned over and asked me if I was going to be OK. I said, “I don’t know who wrote this play, but it’s
just tearing me apart!” [Laughs] And then he said, “I wrote it. Hi. I’m Del Shores.” We got to talking about my six years of “reparative” therapy and growing up in the church and [Del] extended his hand and said, “You can come back and see this play as many times as it takes you to put your past behind you.” So I think I went to see the play 36 times. [Laughs]
Somewhere along the way, one of the monologues from the play called “All the Colors” is what inspired the writing of [“Stained Glass Window”]. A lot
of Del Shores fans and some fans of my own have wanted that song to be recorded for a very long time, so it brings me much joy to finally have
a copy of that song on an album.
That song is a testimony, so I’m sure your fans appreciate the fact that you’ve recorded it. Speaking of which, you once told me that fans often come up to you after your shows to share their personal stories and how much they relate to your own personal odyssey. Is that still the case?
And I am still amazed at the amount of [stories]. I never fail to be amazed at the [gay] youth who are still struggling, because it is a reflection of the communities that they are from and how [those communities] have not advanced in their thinking.
Now that I’ve been sort of urbanized, I sort of don’t realize as much as I used to that there are areas of the country that are still very much thesame as they were when we were growing up. It’s always a little bit of a shock when a 16-year-old comes up to me after a show and says, “My dad just kicked me out and I don’t know what to do” or “I don’t know how to come out to my mom or to my friends” — just to hear that they’re still dealing with very personal conflicts, with their religion and who they are as God-created human beings, still amazes me.
I keep thinking that our consciousness in this country is a little bit further along than sometimes I find that it is when I hear some of these stories.
Listening to you talk about your spirituality and your beliefs, it’s clear that you’ve genuinely struck a balance between your faith and your sexuality for yourself. But for many in the gay and lesbian community what you believe is quite simply not their reality because organized religion has put them down and served as their primary foe for so long. What do you say to those folks about God?
I would say that if you have known love that is true, then you have known God because God is love.
We don’t have to beat ourselves into believing any sort of doctrine…and we don’t have to try to wrap our brains around any concept that may be highbrow, high-minded, or might be coming from elders that we grew up with…or even our moms and dads, which is the common place that sort of thinking comes from.
The fact of the matter is that all we have to do is to choose to see and we will see God. Look for that divine intelligence that is in back of all that is brilliantly alive
and you will see it.