Justin Utley is putting himself out there in ‘Survivors’ and in activism

The last time Justin Utley sat down with QSaltLake Magazine was in 2011 and much was different. We check back in with him after eight years to discuss all the music, loss, and growth he’s found in that time. As he prepares to release his newest album, Scars, and its anthem, “Survivors”, we hear about his inspiration and the hardships that he spun into the resilience of this deeply moving album.

Justin began the interview having just hopped off the phone with his collaborators, who had decided to swap out the last song on the album. The electricity in his voice was unmistakable, “It’s such a crazy time right now. It’s fun though; I wouldn’t do it if it weren’t.”

Scars is Utley’s fourth studio album and comes off the back of Nothing This Real in 2010, Runaway from 2005, and his first, Simplicity, from 1996. In the throes of creating and touring Runaway, Justin was inspired to leave Utah and head to musical mecca New York City.

“In uprooting my life, it was about risk and with that comes the consequences and a lot of things happened that were, all in all, for the better,” said Utley of his time out East.

It proved creatively fruitful as Nothing This Real earned him an OutMusic award and a slot performing at Utah Pride.

On the success of his last album, Justin says that it “helped really validate what I was hoping to bring to the table musically — it wasn’t something just I enjoyed anymore. That album helped me see that the songs that I was writing had real impact. As an artist, it has been really important.” The record continued to prove engaging to audiences as it brought Justin on an international tour, mostly in the United Kingdom and Ireland. “I don’t know; sometimes an artist makes a really cool splash somewhere inexplicable — it works for me,” Justin laughed. “I don’t mind going there.”

The sweeping success of the album took him all around the world and landed him surprisingly back in his home state of Utah. As he puts it, “I got to a point in my career in New York that I didn’t have to live there to do what I was doing. All I really needed then was an airport.”

Non-musically, his return home was not at all glamorous — he went through a divorce and suffered several family deaths.

“Needless to say, it has been the best of times and the worst of times. I’ve had my really high highs and really low lows,” Utley says. “I remember a review that a magazine did of my album in 2011, it talked about how I set this silver lining in all my songs and that it would be ‘interesting to hear what Justin has to bring to the table after some nonsilver lining moments,’ which was foreshadowing actually.”

Two weeks after receiving an unsuspected call from his aunt impressing her solidarity with him and her loyalty for posterity, Justin lost her to suicide. With no time to come up for air, a drunk driving accident claimed his stepbrother.

A new sense of maturity overcame him after these trials back home — shedding what he describes as this “euphoric naïveté” riding the waves of his hit album.

“It was these harsh realities that I had to face after having such a good experience. I had to roll up my sleeves like ‘no more mister nice guy.’ I knew I had to get more involved in these discussions and help to get conversion therapy back on the radar to end that practice. I actually fought my own demons by dealing with this stuff.”

Justin spoke faster and louder and laughed for a moment about his own intensity, joking, “I mean I haven’t cut my ear off yet like Van Gogh.” This silly thought led him to a recollection of an experience he had in Paris after a gig in Dublin shortly after his divorce. In a Van Gogh exhibit, he had what he describes as “one of those art moments that I usually roll my eyes at where people just stare at a painting, and I find myself asking is it really that interesting?!” Staring into the eyes of one of Van Gogh’s portraits, Utley spent about an hour wholly captivated and lost in thought.

While enraptured, he says he was wondering, “How was he when he painted this? It’s not as rough looking as the others, so was he having a good experience at that time? All those questions again that we will never really get to know. It hit me that we spend so much time to try to cover up what was painful, but in actuality, the pain is what makes it more beautiful. That’s what is the anthem of the album.”

These challenges were what brought Justin into his completely new musical energy, productivity, and sound. After weathering such profound moments of darkness and struggling with mental health, the singer-songwriter had a realization, “People don’t talk about that … this album is about those moments in life that are scarring and those moments that define us as who we are. As a culture, we spend a lot of time trying to hide them, but in reality, our scars are what make us beautiful and unique. It’s an act of courage to live with what we have to, especially today.”

It was with this rigorous focus on perseverance and healing that Justin met someone who inspired the title of his album and deepens his commitment to blending activism and art. He was asked to do a panel at Sundance Film Festival on mental health and suicide — topics which Justin knows very personally.

“I talked about the conversion therapy suicide parallel I had attempted actually during that time that I went through it,” he shared.

One of Justin’s fellow panelists was a trans woman and veteran who discussed what it meant to her to be recognized as trans in public.

“She is fully aware that her appearance is not passing and she doesn’t mind it because it gives parents the opportunity to approach her and ask, ‘Hey I have someone in my family who is trans or who has gender identity issues — how can I help them?’ Where, if she was passing, they wouldn’t know to ask,” Utley recalls, “‘It’s a blessing in disguise,’ she said.”

After they spoke, Justin approached the woman to share how powerful he’d found her words to be, and they got into a conversation about the meaning of her tattoos.

“She turned over her wrist and it said ‘survivor’ and it gave me chills,” Justin said, “I asked her what it was about and she said she got the tattoo to cover the scars from where her father beat her.”

That moment fundamentally changed the trajectory of his single, which at first was recorded in New York in the style of the Foo Fighters.

“It was such a fun song I didn’t mind that the lyrics got lost, but after I met her, I called my producer and said, we just have to rework this, it can’t be swallowed by guitars. It became the anthem.”

“Survivors” was written in collaboration with two Swedish songwriters, Linda & Ylva, originally composed for a Eurovision submission in 2017 and then retooled by Utley and performed by the University of Utah Chamber Orchestra. It is also his rallying cry against conversion therapy, a practice alive and well in Utah, and deeply painful for so many members of the LGBTQ community.

“So much goes unsaid and hidden, and it needs to get out there,” he says about starting the dialogue with this song, “When I got back to Utah I met up with some of the guys I went to group therapy with. I was excited to hopefully see that some of them had moved on into healthy relationships and when I actually saw them again, it was like time hadn’t moved — totally stopped. Everyone was still in that same space of the shame and the hiding, and it was really hard to see.”

Originally they had planned only to release a pop version, but his producer insisted on getting an orchestral arrangement together after hearing Justin warming up and playing a rendition of the hit on the piano. What he initially thought would be an extra track became a second version he wants to release alongside the other, as well as the score for the single’s music video.

Shot in the stunning art deco auditorium at Ogden High School, the video follows a little girl running from torment to sit and imagine the ballad being performed for her alone in the audience. The star of the piece is Utley’s niece, who did a formal audition for the role. Family is important to the performer, so he was thrilled to work with her on such a personal piece.

“I didn’t want the video to be about just me at a piano. I wanted some sort of conveyance of meaning from the song to make it into the video,” said Utley. “My niece has been raised in an environment where I told her to think of a time you were bullied, and she couldn’t think of one. She said, ‘I don’t let people bully me,’ and I just thought, wow. If every parent could empower their kid like that.”

When asked what he hoped young people like his niece would learn from his music, Justin answered, “That everyone is deserving of a friend and of love, because the fact that we exist is, alone, a gift. It’s precious. To lose people in our lives so quickly for reasons unknown makes life that much shorter. When I see her, I see a strength in a kid that I’ve never seen before, and it gives me a lot of hope. I hope that she is part of a generation that is part of bringing people together, rather than keeping them in silos. Working together is how we can get things done, and she gives me that hope — she doesn’t care who someone is, she’ll be their friend.”

It is precisely that coming together and building community that Utley thinks is the solution to the issue of conversion therapy in Utah. Made hopeful by the grassroots work happening in local municipalities, Utley says, “I’ve been meeting with members of different city councils and trying to bridge the gap. Some of them believe that it does work and they’ve heard people giving their experiences. I offer them a perspective that isn’t with a lawyer in the room where they would feel there’s something present that is threatening to them.” Having personal conversations with care at the root of his words is his unique and generous approach to these tough talks.

“That is the conversation that is not happening in the legislature. It’s all, ‘You’re a liar, ‘You’re horrible,’ and on an on. Let’s meet in the middle and just say this is that person’s experience. Talking like this helps move the needle of understanding back to the middle. I believe that’s the way it will come across in the state when it finally gets banned. It will be from a place of understanding.”

His activism is inseparable from his music. He describes his enduring passion by saying, “I’m not willing to compromise on getting the most happiness out of life and doing what I can to leave the world a better place — musically and personally.”

After so many years of writing and performing, the impact has become the most valuable return in his career.

“I have always kind of felt compelled in a song to make it about something. I am a very passionate person, and I feel very, very lucky … that I’ve had the support that I have had when I had it. I know that is not the case, unfortunately, for a lot of LGBTQ youth and members of the trans community. There is so far to go in understanding and taking care of that part of our community. Writing a song about the next party, or whatever, is for someone else to write, not me. I need to take what I have to say and put it in a form that will touch people or motivate them to do something about it, or grieve or whatever it is for them. I want to have an impact.”

The conceptual and emotional undercurrents of the album come out not just in the lyrics, but also in the sound. It has heart and brine and a heavy dose of energy behind each track. Utley says he unlocked this new sound by taking a leap of faith, “This album is a departure from anything I’ve done before; it’s kind of a gritty uptempo, anthem-y pop. I have been going with this safe classical rock, Indigo Girls kind of sound, and I wanted to do something different, but I just couldn’t figure it out.”

With the help of his producer, also a Utah native, he worked to put his finger on his next musical chapter, but that road wasn’t easy either. “I was scared of it turning it into a meaningless pop-y manufactured mess,” he said. “The first song we worked on was ‘Survivors’, and it turned out beautifully, and I asked him to work on the rest of the album.”

Utley’s request was met with an immediate “yes.”

With the help of his producer and his passion, Utley has achieved a wide spread of new territory staked out for Scars.

“You will hear some P!nk or Kelly Clarkson, like fuck you tracks, and then Nine Inch Nails sounds,” said Utley describing his own variety. “It’s a new cool sandbox I get to play in. I’m going everywhere in it.”

When pressed on what that is going to mean for him next, he shared that now he feels like it can be whatever he wants.

Justin will be performing at Metro Music Hall this fall to execute his Utah release. His parting words to QSaltLake readers were, “I get to do things like this interview, and it feels validating in the sense that I have put myself out there and I have tried to make a difference, and I see myself making some headway.”

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