Chuck Taylor of Billboard magazine once described Matt Zarley as "a crush for grown-ups, whose earthy machismo is quite the complement to his musical muscle." All that I can add to those flattering words of truth is that the pop singer/songwriter is a really nice guy. I recently had the pleasure to chat with Matt about his fabulous career, which has included the following highlights:
- His first professional job was at age 12 when he danced with Tony the Tiger in a Kellogg's Frosted Flakes commercial.
- He appeared on the TV series, Fame, when he was 16 before joining a touring production of Cats.
- Matt made his Broadway debut - while still a teenager - in A Chorus Line (other Broadway credits include The Who's Tommy, Chicago and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat).
- He has worked with such recording artists as Chaka Khan, Gladys Knight, Rebe McEntire, Vanessa Williams, Brandy, Melissa Manchester and Sheena Easton.
- His first solo album, Debut, was released in 2002 to critical acclaim, and its lead single, "You Always Want (what u ain't got)" was a Billboard club hit. His songs, "Where Did You Come From" (from his 2008 EP, Here I Am) and "While You See A Chance", have also climbed the Billboard Dance charts in recent years.
- And last - but certainly not least - in 2002 he became the first openly gay man to be featured in People magazine's "Hottest Bachelors" issue.
Let’s begin with your new single of “We Belong”. How did this recording come about?
Bill Bennett, who's a DJ, approached me about a year ago about doing a single together, and I had mentioned to him that I would be more interested in doing a single that benefited a foundation or an organization rather than just doing a random single together. So originally we had talked about doing a single for the No Hate Campaign, and I thought of "We Belong" for that. But that didn't work out because they had already committed themselves to another artist to do a song so we let that go. Then Bill came back to me several months later and said, "Why don't we do the same song for The Trevor Project?" And I said, "I actually have a relationship with The Trevor Project so I would love that." I love the work that they do - and the lyrics of the song are really kind of open for interpretation in my opinion. I sort of look at them as a much broader message - and it seemed like a good fit. So that's how it came about.
What was your inspiration for your new album, Change Begins With Me?
I was in a relationship for four years and had a break-up about a year and a half ago, which then led to a lot of soul-searching and evolving and learning life lessons. So it's been kind of a cathartic, independent therapy session for myself. What the title of the album - which is the title song - basically means is that nobody really has control over their lives but themselves. I think sometimes we fall victim to blaming other sources for not giving us the job we want or not finding the love that we want. We all do, and I think I just learned that if you want something to change in your life, you have to change it for yourself first. And that sort of encompasses the whole project.
Now let’s go back a few years to your Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes commercial. How did a 12-year-old kid end up dancing with Tony the Tiger?
I was in a dance competition and a guy named Roland Dupree, who used to have a really big dance school in L.A., saw me at this competition. He knew my dance teacher and reached out to her and said, "We're having an audition for this Kellogg's commercial at my studio on Saturday. You should really bring your student to audition." So I went - it was my first audition. I was very green and had a lot of energy and spunk. Then about four years later I actually got a scholarship to that same dance school.
Did you enjoy appearing on the TV series, Fame?
I only did one episode, and I was in talks to do the final season - but then I ended up getting Cats instead that summer. But I had a really good time on the show. It was fun.
What has been your favorite role on Broadway?
Tommy was definitely my favorite. The show and just the overall experience was really special.
I kind of got smart and realized that if I wanted to do more than the musical theatre world in New York that I really had to cross over to more of a singer/actor/dancer instead of just being a dancer all the time - which I'd been doing since I was a teenager. So I really started studying music and voice. Music has always been my number one passion, and I started doing demos when I was in my early 20s. And it had always been a lifelong dream to record an album. Unfortunately, it wasn't a very good experience in terms of the business side of it. It's an age-old complaint from most artists that record labels are awful - but the creative process was great.
How did you become the first openly gay bachelor in People magazine’s “Hottest Bachelors” issue?
My publicist was pitching another client of his to People magazine, who came back to him and said, "Is this client openly gay?" And he said, "No, but I have another client. I'm not sure if he's really ready to be open, but I'll send you his stuff and you let me know what you think." So he sent them a press kit - it was right before my album came out. Then they said, "Ask him if he'd be interested." So I talked it over with him - and I was like "I have nothing to hide, it's a non-issue for me, it's always been a non-issue." It wasn't something I really wanted to highlight, but it seemed like an opportunity at the time that I needed to grab. It was an honor to be the first one. It was cool - but it kind of happened by default.
What made you take a three-year break from show business? And what made you return in 2008 with a new EP, Here I Am?
At the time I was living in New York right after my first record came out. That unfortunate experience with the record label wasn't a very positive one, and I kind of got depressed over the whole process. My expectations weren't met in the least. It's a situation I've heard over and over from artists so it's not that unusual. But when you pour so much of yourself into something that's so personal and you're promised all these things and nothing really materializes the way you hoped for - it's a letdown. So I was living in New York and had just broken up with someone that I was with for a year and a half and I was going to auditions that I didn't really care about and finally I just realized, "I don't want to live in New York anymore. I want to move back to California where I'm from and I want to leave the business for awhile and just sort of clear my head and do something else and be closer to my family." I think artists, actors, musicians live, eat and sleep everything in this business all the time, and I just got tired of that because there's so many other things in this world to experience that I wanted to be able to do. So I moved back to L.A. and then after a couple of years, I was doing this concert at the Ford Amphitheatre that I was asked to sing at. I hadn't sung in two and a half years and I was nervous - but it was an unbelievable experience and I thought there's no reason why I can't do everything or whatever I want to do. I don't have to be just one thing, so that's why I started working with my producer again and we released Here I Am about six months later.
What recording artist has been the most fun to work with over the years?
Chaka Khan. I did a show with her in Vegas - the Stevie Wonder concert - and she's probably the most unbelievable musician I've ever worked with - just what she can do and still can do, it's kind of extraordinary. And she was the sweetest thing to work with.
What is your favorite thing to do in L.A.?
Stay home and play with my dogs and have people over and hang by the pool. I'm definitely a homebody. But I love taking people up to Runyon Canyon just because it's so beautiful and you can see the city. I've never really been into the whole Hollywood sightseeing thing because I grew up here, so I kind of let my friends do that on their own.
If you could go back and give your 17-year-old self a wise piece of advice, what would it be?
Probably to "stay present". I was really ambitious when I was young and I think a lot of times I didn't solely enjoy the moment and the process.
My favorite comfort food is:
When I was growing up, I never missed a television episode of:
Today I never miss a television episode of:
Tabitha's Salon Takeover. She's awesome.
If I was stranded on a desert island for a year, I would want to listen to:
India.Arie. Growing up I was obsessed with Whitney Houston as a vocalist. She was probably my first influence as a singer. I would study what she would do - her and Babyface were really big influences. I would probably take the "Best of" both of them and all of India.Arie's albums and I think I'd be good to go.
Three of my favorite movies are:
The Color Purple - my favorite movie - Broadcast News and E.T.
If I was asked to choose the Sexiest Man Alive, it would be:
Jake Gyllenhaal or Ben Cohen.
If I could have anyone in the world – living or dead – be a guest at my dinner party, I would invite the following people:
Abraham Lincoln - I used to be fascinated by him - Michael Jackson and Bea Arthur.
What's next for Matt Zarley?
Next is getting the first single out, which is in May. It's called "WTF" and you can sort of figure out what that means. It's a dance song and I actually wrote it with Mark Picchiotti, who's a really great remixer/producer/DJ. It's very different than anything I've ever done. It sort of has a little bit of David Guetta, a little bit of the Gaga thing. I don't usually do that kind of stuff, but I wanted to do something really really fun. I'm surprised that no one's written a song called "WTF" at this point, but it's one of those songs that kind of wrote itself. So that comes out in May. The album is probably going to come out in July or early August - we kind of want to work the single the first half of the summer. I'm going to Austin next week to finish writing the album - I've got four more songs to write - and hopefully raise some money for The Trevor Project with the single and just start to get my summer organized with appearances. I kind of have my head wrapped around this album project. I think it's the best I've ever done with the best material - and the most personal. I'm just really excited about it.
Thank you, Matt, for getting Deeper with us here on the Dish. To learn more about the man and his music, check out Matt's website at www.mattzarley.com. You can also become a Facebook fan or follow him on Twitter. And click here to download Matt's "We Belong - The Trevor Project Single" from iTunes or Amazon.