Justin Utley is an award-winning musical artist who released his third audio album titled “Scars” on September 10. The date aligned with World Suicide Prevention Day, a cause that is important to Justin who lost a family member to suicide and has personally struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts. The former Mormon, now out-artist, will perform tracks from “Scars” at Triad Theatre in New York on Saturday.
Justin recently discussed his music and more via an exclusive interview.
Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you discover your musical ability?
Justin Utley (JU): My parents enrolled me in piano lessons, almost as a default since my dad and my brothers had been able to paint Bob Ross style from birth. I tried to paint a sunset and it looked like a one-dimensional finger-painting (because it was). A few years into piano lessons, I got curious how people wrote the songs I was playing. I started listening to a lot of my parent’s records. Billy Joel. The Beatles. Cyndi Lauper. I started jamming out to my piano lesson music instead of playing it as written. So, I got fired from piano lessons so-to-speak. Vocally and on guitar, I’m self-taught and figured if I wanted to play gigs, I needed something portable. As far as singing, I tried to match the uniqueness of artists who have a distinct style. The kind where you know who the artist is before its even announced, even if it’s a song you’ve never heard. I found my voice during high school, and went off from there into some musical theater, and eventually started a band.
MM: Do you write lyrics or melodies first?
JU: Most come at the same time. An idea or lick comes to mind, so the mood and lyrics come nearly at the same time. The song branches off from there. Besides that, I have a lot of piano music I’ve never written lyrics to. At this point I’m sure I could, since they’re pretty self-contained, and forcing lyrics over them would be robbing them of their own identity.
MM: What experiences do you most draw your inspiration from?
JU: In a cathartic way, everything from my past to my present. I make references to both, and each album represents a specific time frame in my journey. Whether its love, loss, politics, suicide, my experiences with conversion therapy; the songs are all sourced from some pretty deep emotions.
MM: How does the “Scars” album compare and contrast with your first two releases?
JU: I feel that I’ve been able to let go of the safe zone I was in before. Musically, personally, and professionally. I’ve taken risks in all those areas, and had some pretty significant scars along the way, but all for the better. The new material is more up-tempo, anthemic, vocally dynamic, and even more fun to perform.
MM: How did the loss of your partner lead to your considering to take your own life?
JU: It was a dark time. Walls close in pretty quick when put in a situation that seems insurmountable. The police told his family it was a heart attack, but the toxicology report showed he had taken at least half a bottle of sleeping pills, with other pain medications. I was struggling with my sexuality at the time and had attended conversion therapy for two years prior to dating him. So not only had I lost someone I deeply cared for, I had also failed at the expectation that the therapy would work if I tried hard enough. The church I belonged to taught that homosexuality was (and is) a thing next to murder. So, the spiritual, cultural, and social ramifications were huge if I were to have come out. Instead, for all anyone really knew, my “friend at the gym” died.
MM: How close did you come to ending your life?
JU: When I tried to reconcile what had happened — the therapy not working, and my boyfriend’s death — I went back to my bishop for some kind of guidance. Instead I was rebuked and told that Brent was taken from me because I was not supposed to be in a homosexual relationship, and as a Latter-Day Saint (Mormon), more was expected from me. I was then called to repentance and asked for specifics and details about the sexual transgressions I committed with Brent. It was a painful, shameful process. I was told I had to have godly sorrow: not for losing Brent, but for the sins I committed. I was told what I’d done threatened my eternal salvation, and would cut me off from living with my family in the next life. I grew up a devout Latter Day Saint (Mormon), so these weren’t just beliefs. They were my reality. The pain got so bad that I had planned out how to end my life. It was just a matter of when.
A friend of mine who’d I’d been vaguely texting could tell I was not in a good place, and he called the police. The police ended up visiting my mother’s house, and I eventually agreed to meet the police to ensure that I was ok. At that point, I was embarrassed and even more ashamed of myself. When I got to the location, I agreed to meet them, I saw there had been an accident. I found out that my mother had been following behind the police to make sure I was ok, and was now being pulled out of her car which was totaled underneath an SUV. I waited in the ER for hours for her to be released. When she finally came into the waiting room, she sat next to me, bruised and bandaged, and said “if this is what it takes for you to know you are loved the way you are, I’ll do it again”. That night changed everything for me.
Being open about this isn’t always comfortable or easy. But it needs to be on the table. Today, in Utah, suicide is the leading cause of death of kids, teens, and young adults. Pretending this isn’t a preventable tragedy or sweeping it under the rug isn’t going to make it go away. Instead, it erases the lives lost and allows the epidemic to quietly continue.
MM: Looking back, were there warning signs? What should people look out for in their loved ones?
JU: There are a lot of signs, so it’s hard to tackle. Depression is usually a starting point, and when or if that sets in, it’s a crucial point of intervention, and often caused by outside influences. During that time, help feels more possible to get for the one experiencing it. But once the walls keep closing in, things become critical. For me, I felt absolutely trapped, hopeless, and withdrew a lot of social contact to the point of rarely leaving my house. Generally, I flux between being a homebody and being out on the road and touring. But I was basically shutting down the world around me.
MM: Can songs like Scars help others?
JU: Yes. The emotions I invested in them are tremendous. It’s an album about the Scars that make us who we are. Especially the ones that almost broke us. Ones that perhaps aren’t on the surface. Scars aren’t always visible, and we all have them. Scars are what make us unique and beautiful. We shouldn’t be covering them or pretending they don’t exist. We should acknowledge them, learn from them, and even celebrate them.
MM: What would you like to say to anyone out there who is feeling alone, depressed, and possibly suicidal?
JU: I know that the darkness feels suffocating and it looks real because it is. But it’s not permanent. It may be hard to see now, but the darker and longer the shadow, the brighter the light is that casts it. There is always help available to get you out of that space where there appears to be no way out of. Once you’ve found that safe space, reach out to someone else who might be struggling to find it. Empathy is more powerful than sympathy alone, and that outreach can be life changing.
MM: What other songs on the album should we look out? Which are the most personal to you?
JU: “Hearsay!” Is a supercharged Joan Jett meets Freddie Mercury anthem about being who you are without apologies, and to not give those around you the power to say otherwise; “This Is the End” – what started out as a sad piano ballad got turned on its head into a fast, pop-styled breakup song. “I’m Already Down” is one of my favorites. Experimental and Beatlesque, the feel of “American Nightmare” gives me the visuals of a non-descript Matrix night club in Berlin circa 2000, with some Trent Reznor feels. “Underneath My Skin” is an almost theatrical piece about letting go. Probably one of the most heart wrenching songs I’ve written, and the vocal take is raw and authentic. “My Drug” is dancey, gritty, and addicting. I wish it went on longer. So, I put it on repeat at least twice.
MM: What are your ultimate career goals?
JU: To matter, to make a difference, to be unapologetically authentic, and hopefully change the world one gig at a time. Sure, a Grammy would be great, a major tour with other big music players would also rock. But if it comes at a cost to be silenced about parts of my story, or to censor what I say, especially about the leadership bullies in the church of my youth who are still contributing to Utah’s suicide epidemic, I’ll pass. Religious leaders aren’t exempt from being held accountable for their words. So, I’ll take being an agent for real change and making an honest difference over photo ops. At the end of the day, what matters is the impact I have.
MM: Where have you performed recently and what performances do you have planned for September?
JU: Was recently in Dublin, London, LA, and Ptown doing shows, and had a full album concert in my home town of Salt Lake City last weekend. Next up, I’ll be performing an album release concert in New York City on the 14th at the Triad Theater.
MM: Is there anything else that you would like to talk about?
JU: The album is out now on bandcamp and my website, JustinUtley.com. Its available Sept 20 everywhere else. Oh, and there’s interest about this album on vinyl. So, stay tuned for that!
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