Singing for Change
Out Performer Matt Alber Raises His Voice Protests ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ in Song
When I call singer songwriter Matt Alber for our scheduled interview, he asks if he can postpone it for about an hour. He’s got a very good reason. He’s recording a protest song about “Don’t Ask,Don’t Tell” (DADT).
A few phone calls and a few hours later, Alber and I finally connect and settle in for our chat.
“I am recusing myself from the mixing room,” he says. “But it’s hard not to go back in there.”
Alber tells me about his day. Though he lives in California, Alber is in Washington D.C. the night we talk. He’s on tour, with shows in Baltimore the next night. The day started horribly, he says. The venue in Washington canceled his show, so he had to find a new spot, which he did. The rest of the day improved and centered around “This is Who We Are,” the ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ song being mixed just steps away from him during our interview.
“We took our new song to the Mall and performed it in front of the Capitol Building with two members of the military who had been discharged under ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’” says Alber. “It’s exciting that this one little idea that we had a couple of days ago has turned into a reality.”
Alber wrote and performed “This is Who We Are” with Tom Goss. The song was inspired by the two sentences calling for the repeal of DADT in President Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address. They plan to release the song and give half the proceeds from it to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, organization dedicated to ending discrimination against and harassment of military personnel affected by DADT.
Alber speaks movingly of one of the discharged service member who stood with him on the Mall that day, a man who served the Air Force for 13 years and was in Iraq when the military went through his private e-mails. After his discharge under the anti-gay policy, he was subjected to a military police escort from the base “like a common criminal,” Alber says.
“Sometimes a song can be quite powerful, so we’re hoping this one turns into something that can unify everybody. It’s time to end it. We don’t need to wait another year. It’s just time to end it.”
Alber says that policies like DADT have fear-reaching effects beyond the military.
“When you’re 11 years old, and hear that gay people can’t be in the military, what do you think that does to your brain?”
That kind of homophobic dogma, coupled with his strict fundamentalist religious upbringing, effected Alber deeply.
“I almost didn’t make it,” he says. “I was brainwashed into thinking I was immoral and sinful. I almost didn’t make it. I’m lucky.”
Alber credits his own soul-searching and Mel White’s book Stranger at the Gate for helping him to reconcile what he’d been taught with who he knew himself to be. White, who Alber calls one of his heroes, played a key role in the right-wing Christian movement alongside Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. He was also a married man with children when he decided he could no longer live a lie and came out of the closet.
“That was the first time I’d ever heard of someone who called themselves a Christian and also accepted their sexuality,” Alber says. “That was a huge turning point.”
Alber is looking forward to leaving the frigid northeast behind and make his South Florida debut at Sunshine Cathedral in Fort Lauderdale on Wednesday, February 10, part of Art Explosion. He plans on performing his latest CD from start to finish, with a few twists and turns along the way.
His first musical memory took place in church.
“I sang ‘Do You Hear What I Hear?’ at church when I was eight,” Alber recalls. “I forgot the words. I remember putting my hands over my eyes thinking that if I couldn’t see them, they couldn’t see me.” The next night, he remembered the words.
His parents encouraged his musical talent. His dad studied to be a concert pianist and introduced him to classical music. “I would stay up late and watch him because he used to play piano in the middle of the night,” Alber says.
Alber is one of the lucky performers who has always been able to make a living from his art. Fresh out of college, he auditioned for and landed the one opening in Chanticleer, a 12-man professional classical ensemble. He spent five years with the group, touring the world and recording seven albums, two of which won Grammy Awards. He eventually left to go solo.
“I hit that point where I didn’t want to sing other people’s music my whole life,” Alber says. “I have something to say.”
He began writing his own songs while he was still with Chanticleer. He got a computer and other recording equipment and put together his first CD at home with his friend Jeff Crerie. Alber counts Debussey and Elton John among his musical influences—he recalls getting Elton John’s Greatest Hits from one of those old record clubs where you’d get a bunch of CDs for a penny.
In addition to his current CD, Hide Nothing, which contains a collection of lush, romantic and haunting songs, Alber just released a collection of dance remixes, which he’s looking forward to performing at some large gay parties. He is also the director of the Forever Young Chorale, a “very strange little glee club” in L.A. made up of gay and lesbian senior citizens.
Being an out performer was never a question for Alber.
“I was tired of growing up and seeing everything so hetero,” he says. “It makes you feel isolated.” When he made his first video, he was determined to show a beautiful love story between two men.
He’s currently involved in a love story of his own, a new relationship with a man in Iowa. “It’s new but it doesn’t feel new,” says Alber. “He’s the man of my dreams.”
It’s time for Alber to see what’s been going on in the mixing room with “This is Who We Are.”
“I hear them finishing the mix right now,” he says.