If you factor in the rainbow t-shirts, rainbow packaging, rainbow routes on your car service app, it feels like there’s little for us left to accomplish for the LGBTQ community. Drag queens are superstars, trans women are on network television shows and anything gay men say is gospel. At the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, sexual orientation and gender identity have never been more progressively approached…right?
For the first time, R&B singer Saro has addressed his sexuality in song. His stellar new EP, Die Alone, is a beautifully frank depiction of queer love, with male pronouns to boot. In prior studio sessions, he would play down any traditionally-associated ‘gay’ qualities to appear more straight-passing as self-preservation. Alternatively, chart main-stayer Jesse Saint John, a Britney Spears superfan who ended up writing her songs, is also pursuing a solo career of his own—unashamedly flipping off critics claiming he could only write to one community’s experience.
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Ahead of New York’s Pride weekend, we asked the pair to discuss all things sexuality, songwriting and how minorities can make it in mainstream music.
First off, tell me a little about your relationship.
JS: Well, we’ve been together for *Laughs* We’ve known each other for four or five years. But we’re just both LA songwriter/musician people.
S: We like made out one time.
JS: Yeah. This is tea.
S: We met up at like a party or something, and then just like immediately clicked. We hung out a couple of times…made out, and that’s it.
How do you navigate your queerness in songwriting, especially when approaching these hetero bops for pop stars?
S: I mean, Jesse does a lot more writing for the superstars of the world than I do—its much harder for me because I find that the best writing I do is when I’m by myself. When I get in the room with other people and I’m trying to write something more pop-oriented, I take a more surgical approach so it’s hard for me to come up with stuff that I love.
JS: When I’m writing for someone else, I think of how empathetic I am and how I’m able to be available in whatever capacity they need from me. I love working for other people and getting inside their heads—that’s like part of the fun for me. I wasn’t really ever like that popular kid, you know? I never had that close group of friends and stuff so, for me its nice to be able to see what kind of similarities I have with other people. At the end of the day, I grew up relating to and cosplaying straight people.
Do you both feel that you’ve had a lot of creative control over your identity as an artist?
S: Definitely. I think that’s always been so important to me, just doing what I wanted musically and that’s why I haven’t like signed my life away yet. Like I started my own label so that I could keep as much of that freedom as possible. So that’s made it possible for me to just take it really slow and make the kind of music I want to make and be as true to myself as possible.
I think that now, even more so, because I was a little bit afraid since I haven’t always been as outward facing about my sexuality, but I’m finally becoming really comfortable with it. I’ve been out to my close friends and family for years but I never wanted to be like put in a box, or be labeled, so I was always a little
JS: I totally agree with you. It’s annoying, and I’m not speaking bad about it
because it sheds such an incredible light on the community but, it’s annoying that we’re gay every other month of the year and we are only supposed to have opportunities this month.
Right, what’s your take on the commercialization of pride and the corporate bandwagoning? Is it frustrating?
JS: I think it’s definitely frustrating but it’s also going in the right direction. It’s opening it all up to the right questions and the right debates.
S: Yeah. Any movement is good and I also think that so much positivity is happening, I’m honestly so excited about the future and just queer assimilation and visibility.
How much of and impact did the changing landscape have on you deciding to be more outward-facing as a gay artist?
S: Subliminally I think it had a huge part in the reason why I decided to
become more open about it. Artists like Troye Sivan and Frank Ocean—those are my peers and seeing them fucking kill it, it’s like why would you not want
to celebrate that? I also think it’s all about authenticity these days.
Jesse, why were you so averse to signing with a major label over an indie?
JS: I don’t want to look any inclusivity in the eye but, it feels like now people are being signed to majors to fill a quota of diversity and they don’t know exactly why they’re signing these artists except for the fact that they are from the LGBTQ community and can reach a new audience.
What’s the consequence of that? Just getting lost?
JS: Yeah! There are so many incredible LGBTQ artists that are being held back at their label because they don’t know what kind of music they’re looking for for this artist.
S: So many people get lost, so many people get shelved. You’re really looking at how many people the label actually signed. Its heartbreaking and it’s also one of the main reasons why I never signed with a major.
JS: Ive honestly never seen so many artists being dropped before. I mean obviously Saro and I are both LGBTQ so we have a lot of community and we’ve seen so many of our friends asking to be let go from their deal.
Being a queer artist, do you feel like you’re held to a higher standard of “wokeness” because you’re from this traditionally oppressed community?
S: Just from my perspective; yes, totally. Im also grateful to be from a marginalized community, and obviously, Im not the most marginalized community, so I probably have a better opportunity to create change. However, I am of the belief that representation matters and that any type of representation is positive for the community so I don’t think that you have to be the most vocal or follow in any patterns that people make.
JS: I think we definitely are expected to be more “woke”, I sometimes think I fuck up, and i’m not perfect, but I don’t think that’s bad. I love being corrected. I love being told that I heard the wrong thing.
It’s so funny to think about though because if you were a cis, straight dude, the word “advocate” would never even come into play with regards to your
JS: It doesn’t happen! It’s so annoying, I think everyone should be held to the same standards whether you care or don’t care. If you care about LGBTQ people to be “woke,” you should expect the same thing from your straight celebrities.
I want you to ask each other a question along the lines of what’s something that you didn’t see coming in your artist journey.
JS: Oh I have a question that I was thinking about: What was the
catalyst for that shift of you taking yourself out of that world of just being a song writer to focus on yourself and your art?
S: The truth is that I miss that world sometimes, even though I haven’t been out of it for so long. What made me want to focus on my artists project was the ups and downs of life. I needed to write my own music as a form of therapy. I just decided that I had so much energy and I could spend so much energy on that kind of stuff. Okay so, what is your most proud moment in your songwriting career?
JS: Oh my God, well obviously my biggest moment was writing for Britney Spears, my dream icon. I saw her live like eleven times and that was a huge thing for me and my family because we were really poor and so we would always try to scrounge up a way to let me see Brittany Spears so, that was a really huge moment for me when I heard her voice to the song that I wrote.
S: Do you ever feel like you’re giving the best part of yourself to someone else?
JS: I actually also wanted to ask you this question. I wouldn’t pitch a song that I wouldn’t be proud to sing and I wouldn’t sing a song that I wouldn’t pitch. I’m happy to work with someone and give them a part of me because they are generous enough to give me a part of themselves as well.
S: I feel like I’m kind of the opposite in the sense that I would never pitch anything that I would want.
JS: Totally. Thats how I’ve experienced so many artists. I talked to SIA and Charlie XCX because they, to me, are really good at being both artists and writers and for them, a lot of their songs are hit records, but they didn’t sing. Or, they’re songs that they intended to sing but gave to someone else.
S: One last question from me—when are you going to collab with me? When are we writing?
JS: I know! Literally whenever you want. After pride.
S: Perfect. We’ll do a date. Maybe we’ll make out again!
I love you both. Have there been any major setbacks that any of you can remember where you thought “Why am I even in this business?”
JS: Uhm…every day?
S: Honestly yeah. That is definitely a reoccurring theme.
JS: It’s like if you’re gonna take stuff like that to heart, then you can’t be in this business.
S: Yeah, I have a rule. Don’t mourn something for more than two hours I just give myself two hours to be depressed about it and then I go, “Get the fuck over it, keep moving.”
JS: Do you suggest that you starting over when a song isn’t working?
S: I love a clean slate and I love suggesting a clean slate.
JS: Yeah. Thats what I think is the best thing to do. I also, for my two hour rule, If you feel like the song is on the right track within the first hour or so, then it’s harder. I really respect Rihanna because she has this amazing ability to be like, “This is a hit but for someone else.” I don’t think any song is bad, I just don’t think it’s good for me.
Have you guys ever had your sexuality be an issue in the writing room?
JS: [Saro] you go first because I’m about to go ham!
S: Okay, so I like, and this may be problematic to say but, between Jesse and I, I’m more “passable” and I think that it’s a defence mechanism. I’ve maybe heard someone say a slur or something and I’ve walked out but nothing deeper than that.
JS: No, there are so many bad situations. I’ve had people straight up say to me, “You’re opinion doesn’t count because your opinion is either of a girl or that of a gay. We’re not trying to write something that a girl or a gay would say.” Like I’ve literally gotten up and been like “Okay then write it yourself then.” They would be like “Oh we can’t put two gay people in the same room because they’re going to come from the same perspective.” I was like…Wait. We’re both gay but that doesn’t make for similar writers.
S: If anything it makes you different.
JS: Exactly! Its just crazy to me that I didn’t think I would experience that. I did early on and now I want to work to the point that I never experience that again.
Are you at that point now?
JS: I am. I’m really proud of my surroundings and my story.
S: You know what works now, you know you have your people and that’s all that matters.