If you were a member of the LGBTQ community with access to social media in the summer of 2013, you know who Steve Grand is.
That was when the video for his debut song, “All-American Boy,” racked up over a million views only eight days after he posted it on YouTube, and made the unknown singer-songwriter into an instant celebrity.
The self-funded video (Grand maxed out his credit card to have it made) tells the poignant story of a young man in love with his straight male friend and features imagery of country roads, muscle cars and American flags – along with plenty of shirtless footage of its star.
It kicked off a whirlwind of media exposure, not only on the internet but on television shows like “Good Morning America,” and caused enough buzz to make Grand one of the LGBTQ community’s shiniest new lights. He even made Out magazine’s “Out 100” list for the year. Eventually, the video’s popularity was enough to fuel a Kickstarter campaign which allowed Grand to record and release his first complete album – titled “All-American Boy,” of course – in 2015.
Since then, Grand – who will perform at the Catalina Jazz Club here in LA on February 12 – has maintained a slightly lower profile, and the distance in time from the heady viral sensation that made him famous has given him a chance to reflect on the experience.
“It’s something to look back on now,” he says. “It’s almost like talking about a different person, because I’ve grown so much, I’ve changed. It was rough on me, in a lot of ways – when you get a lot of attention all of a sudden, it can be scary, and you feel really vulnerable all the time. I think I still had a lot of things to work through internally, like I was still on shaky ground, just on a personal level. I was still working on my shit.”
After all, sudden fame was a big leap for a kid from a quiet Chicago suburb who had always felt like an outsider growing up.
“I knew I was different from other boys,” Grand reflects. “I was into creative things, I was a little more sensitive, more into arts and music than sports – I always felt different for that reason.”
“Of course, those things don’t mean that you’re gay,” he adds, “but then, when I was about 12 or 13 and I went to my Boy Scouts’ summer camp, I got a crush on my camp counselor.”
“I didn’t know what this feeling was,” he reminisces. “It wasn’t sexual, nothing like that – but I remember wanting to have his attention, to be something special to him. Thinking it over, I realized that, for most of my peers who were boys, it was how they felt about girls – and I was having it about another boy.”
Later, when he was in high school, he went through the painful process of coming out to his conservative Catholic parents.
“There was conflict,” he admits, “but it was with myself – squaring my own values with being gay, and everything I understood about that from growing up Catholic, and from growing up in a household that was definitely more old-fashioned.”
“My parents had me a little later in life than a lot of my peers,” he explains. “They were older, and they weren’t into keeping up with the trends – once they had us their whole world was just about us.”
“My experience tends to have more in common with gay men who are a bit older than I am,” he muses. “10, 20, 30 years older – I feel a connection to them that I don’t always feel with my peers, I think because of my parents being old-fashioned.”
Through all these early years, of course, Grand was already obsessed with music. He started writing songs at 11, and says, “One of the reasons I wanted to make music was so that I could take what I felt, the pain I felt, and turn it into something beautiful. To me, that was always very powerful.”
There was another passion, too – working on his body, something which many of his current fans undoubtedly appreciate. It’s led to Grand being identified in many online profiles as a singer and model, something he disputes.
“I had my photo taken by a couple of photographers, just kind of for fun,” he explains. “It wasn’t my profession, or my aspiration – I was just working on developing my body, and I thought it would be fun to do some photo shoots. I did it all as a hobby.”
He laughs, “I’m as much of a model as any guy on Instagram that takes their shirt off for the camera.”
Even so, Grand has a sex appeal that surely played a role in the big splash of his early success. Even today, his social media profiles – which he describes as “quite active” – are full of Speedo-clad photos of himself, and the beefcake image is an undeniable part of his brand.
Still, for him, it’s always about the music.
Since his “All-American Boy” days, Grand has completed a second album (“Not the End of Me,” released in July of last year); he’s also spent a lot of time performing live, with long-term residencies in Provincetown for the summer, and, most recently, in Puerto Vallarta.
“I would say most of my time is about my live show right now, refining that and getting to be a better musician – right now I’m actually practicing guitar and piano more than I ever have. It’s easy to get lazy, and just rely on people showing up, but I want to make sure that I keep getting better as a live performer.”
He says playing live is satisfying for him in a different way than the long-term process of recording an album.
“So much of that is over a long period of time – there’s no immediacy to it. But this is more immediately gratifying – people come up to me after the show and they say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know what to expect, we really enjoyed it, you’ve made a new fan.’ Even though it’s only one person at a time, it’s just really gratifying to me.”
For his LA appearance next week, Grand returns to a venue he’s played before – and he couldn’t be more thrilled.
“I’m so excited to come to the Catalina Jazz Club,” he gushes. “It really is one of my top three favorite venues I’ve ever played. That piano – it’s one of my favorite pianos that I’ve ever played on, and the sound system is just so good, it’s just a great space.”
“I feel very lucky,” he grins. “I get to do things that I enjoy.”
There’s something heartening about the genuine “gee-whiz” glee in his voice when he says things like this; there’s a gratitude there that lays to rest any notion that Steve Grand might be just another social media poser, looking for validation through fame and fame alone.
“I’m doing what I love now, and that’s all I ever hoped for,” he says, simply. “I never want to sound anything but grateful.”