Pop star Wrabel made the charts in 2017 for his touching tune The Village, a seemingly unlikely athem about anti-transgender discrimination in schools and towns. He’s since earned a spot on the Out 100, performed at the LOGO #TrailBlazerHonors, and pulled off a sold-out tour to audiences across the country.
This December 9, he joins Cyndi Lauper and a lineup that includes Jake Shears, Ani DiFranco and Sandra Bernhard for the True Colors Fund Home for the Holidays concert, an event presented by AT&T aimed at ending homelessness among LGBTQ youth.
Queerty sat down with Wrabel to discuss the big show, music and life on the road.
So you’re taking part in the True Colors Fund Home for the Holidays benefit. 40% of all homeless youth are LGBTQ. What does that mean for you as a gay man?
I think, to be very honest, I’m the kind of person…the guy that gets stopped outside the grocery store and signs up for every charity ever!
When it’s kind of something that is this close to my heart, and I mean, I’m gay. I grew up gay in church. I was never kicked out of my home, but I’ve been through—we’ve all been through our own ups and downs, and we’ve all had to stand up to our own adversity. It just feels kind of natural and necessary to support the True Colors Fund. Anything for my LGBTQ family. It doesn’t feel like I’m stepping outside myself, it’s like I’m stepping inside myself. It’s part of who I am, and my community and my family.
As someone who has influence outside our community, do you feel like you have a responsibility to find solutions to social problems?
I absolutely do. I 100% do. The people that have really inspired me are the people who have just been themselves. I think something as simple as being yourself, and I try to share my story—as cliché as that sounds—and just kind of be vocal about things that I’ve been through and things that I care about. I feel like the biggest thing I have to say is that nobody’s alone in anything. We go through all types of stuff, but whatever somebody’s going through, somebody has gone through it before, and someone will go through it tomorrow, or the next day, or in five years.
That idea has given me a lot of help when I was coming out, and when I was getting out of church. I was like, I’m the only person to ever get kicked out of a church. And well, that’s not true. And I found resources that showed me that, and people that showed me that. We’ve been through this. I try to never forget what we’ve been through. And it breaks my heart that my past is someone’s future. So anything I can do to help someone through that, or to try to change something if that’s not the case, I’ll do anything I can.
How did you get involved with the True Colors Fund and the Home for the Holidays benefit?
It’s partnered with AT&T Live Proud, and I had played this little acoustic session for Out and one of the guys that was running that is now with AT&T and kind of put a little bug in our ears. Then I played the LOGO Trailblazer Honor this year with a tribute to Cyndi Lauper. After that, I was asked to do this. And it was like one of those emails where I didn’t even finish reading it: I just called my manager and said “yes, say yes.” It’s just an amazing event to be a part of.
When Cyndi Lauper calls, I hope everyone answers.
Yes, oh my god.
Right?! What strikes you about the True Colors Fund’s approach to combating homelessness?
I was just reading about that the other day. I feel like they’re so visible, and creating a mobile app to give real-time support and help. It’s so creative, and it’s so real. It seems like the work that they do is real and not kind of oh, this is what we do. It’s very action based. And it’s so visible and so lovely. It feels kind of love based and passion based. And I think that’s where the best help comes from—people who are so passionate about it. Which is kind of rare, even in charities nowadays.
You mentioned the Logo Trail Blazer honors, where you actually sang “True Colors” to Cyndi.
Oh, that was so scary. It’s very rare to have a true, once in a lifetime opportunity. And when I was asked to do that, after I got over the initial excitement of I can’t believe this is happening came this wave of anxiety and nerves, and realizing this is literally a once in a lifetime opportunity. But to be really honest, singing “True Colors” and she’s sitting right there, it was frightening. But what an honor to be included in that, and to honor someone like Cyndi.
And now you’re performing at a concert for the True Colors Fund which she’s actually hosting…
Did you listen to her as a kid? Was she someone you idolized?
Yes and no. I didn’t listen to much as a kid. My Uncle Carl used to sing to a lot of Frank Sinatra. He was like an insurance salesman, or something. And he loved singing, so he recorded like 250 covers to like karaoke tracks. He’s my hero. But, you know, “True Colors,” the song itself has been a huge inspiration. Just picking apart those lyrics and thinking about what it means, and you know, I think for anybody that’s gay or has really anything that’s different, that song is an endless well of warm and fuzzy feelings. She really stepped out, and said things I think a lot of people need to hear. And that song will never, ever, ever, ever, ever, lose that. It’s rare to have a song of such inspiration and such strength. That will literally never leave. Every generation of people who feel like weirdos will always look to that song.
It’s one of the really, reliable sort of queer anthems. “The Village” is such a beautiful song and a kind of transgender anthem too.
Well thank you very much. The song came about from these two kids that I met on tour last year.
I was playing a show, and I was going out to my bus, and there were these two kids standing outside the stage door waiting to talk to me after I played. And I was just struck by them. By everything about them really, I don’t know how to describe it. They were so themselves. Just present. And it really got me, especially in the middle of a tour I get so weird and insecure and crazy and anxious on tour. I can go down quite the black hole. So to meet these kids, and talk with them, and their parents, and some of their friends that came to the show that night. We spent almost an hour talking that night. And after I did that tour, I did a solo tour, and then a radio tour. And each one stopped around that city, so I’d hit them up be like, let’s hang out. And just getting to know them, and getting to know their character and how they were so strong in this very simple way. And they were very honest about their weakness. And they were so comfortable, or very transparent about their discomfort. And that really struck me. And so, it was the day after federal protections were taken out of schools for transgender students.
Oh my lord…
And I was talking to one of them that day on my way to work. And kind of reading the headlines, and watch CNN scroll as I’m drinking my coffee is one thing, but to kind of hear what it was really like for a trans kid, and someone I call a friend—to hear what it was like in a public school that day was heartbreaking. And I sat down with two of my friends, and I said, Hey, I don’t know what this is or how to say this, or if we can say this, or what I’m even trying to say, but there’s a story here that I would really love to tell. And my intention was to just sort of write this really simple song and send it to these two kids. And we wrote the song that day, and I sent it to them, and I think the exact quote was, Dude, you need to put this out.
So I sent it to my managers. It started out as this little thing I wanted to do for these two kids, and it became the most important thing to me that I’ve ever done.
It’s funny how things like that work. When you were a kid, growing up in Houston, what was the attitude about homosexuality?
I came out later on, probably around 23. So I was ‘straight’ in high school. A lot of it was in my head. But there also wasn’t a lot of visibility. Like, I can remember one out kid at my high school, and everyone thought he was a little weird. And gay jokes. But a lot of it was internal for me. I wasn’t out, so I wasn’t really tormented. I was tormented because I was chubby and had braces and was in show choir and Renaissance choir and musicals. But I think a lot of it was internal for me. A lot of it came from the church, and feeling like, I don’t know, it always felt bigger than a jock bullying me in the hallway—this eternal and existential something wrong with me. I think I grew up thinking it was going to go away. I guess I didn’t even know. Looking back there were so many gay kids at my school. But when you’re there—it didn’t feel like anyone was visible. So it kind of almost felt like it was impossible, like, I can’t come out, there aren’t any gay people.
So you mentioned show choir and your uncle. What helped you come out?
I think I was kind of a late bloomer when it comes to music. I started playing the piano when I was like 15 or 16. And I started really playing because I wanted to write music. This guy called Aqualung is a brilliant artist, one of my favorites ever. And I bought his album one day at Barnes and Noble completely based on the cover. And I remember sitting in the parking lot that day in my car listening to it and crying. And I was like, this is what I want to do. And I think writing has definitely given me outlets—probably my biggest outlet—to kind of purge feelings I keep deep inside.
It’s surprising you’d say that.
But when it comes to, especially, relationships, I build up resentment and resentment and resentment and stay quiet and quiet and quiet. So music has always been a place I go to express myself. And once I came out and, really I think, even with “The Village” it changed my life. I know that’s cliché, but it changed my life and the way I see myself and what parts of myself I see or share.
And I think it was me just kind of coming into myself, and being proud to be gay. I’ve gotten to do so much LGBT press, and events, and I’ve worked with the Human Rights Campaign. I was in the Out 100 this year and got to perform at the gala. I attribute a lot of that to “The Village” and letting myself speak up when I want to speak up, and just letting myself be myself. I think I spent so long kind of hiding. I’m now kind of feeling like, what’s there to hide? I’m just a guy trying to figure it out. It’s just helped me to celebrate myself, and to celebrate like, literally everyone, and realize we’re all the same. We all have similar struggles, even though they’re so different. The feeling of being an outsider is everywhere.
Obviously then, your experiences as a gay person influence your work: Heartache, love, self-empowerment.
I think a lot of that. I just try to write things that are true. So I’m writing about my first relationship which was the one I came out into. And that was into the church. And then we got kicked out of the church.
So there’s a lot of…a lot of feelings in that, and a lot of confusion and a lot of hurt. I can always go back to that, though I did just write a song yesterday, actually, sort of a little bit of closure on that one. But “The Village“ is the first time that I ever really wrote about coming out. And having all the weight of the second half of the song be on the church and on that feeling of there’s something wrong. That’s such a tricky and toxic feeling. It’s something inside of you that’s not going away. I think that was the first time I really addressed any of that stuff. But, in general, I am always writing from a real place. So you know, my songs are ‘gay’ songs. And even with “Bloodstain,” that was the first time I ever used “him” as a love object in a song. All these little things, they’re like notches to myself. So there’s a song out there with my name on it that I wrote with my friends that’s true.
That’s awesome. Who would you rank as your musical heroes?
I love storytelling. I love Aqualung. I love Paul Simon and Bruce Hornsby. Kate Bush is absolutely incredible. I love stories so very much.
So think of yourself as a storyteller as much as you’re a songwriter?
Yeah, I like to. Even at my shows I feel like I spend as much time talking as I do singing, for better or for worse, but it happens.
How was your recent tour? Do you have any great stories?
It was really incredible. I was out with this girl called LEON, who I am a humongous fan of, so that was a treat. Just being able to share the stage with her every night. And we’ve worked together, so I was able to come out and sing a duet with her on a song that we wrote together, and that was really special. I think my favorite part was just getting to talk to people after the shows. So many of those shows I had kids coming up to me after with tears in their eyes thanking me for “The Village,” and sometimes telling their whole life stories.
Oh, and this gay couple got engaged at one of my shows during “11 Feet Tall.” It was the first time someone’s got engaged at a show. A guy hit me up on Instagram, and I saw “engagement.” I’m a hopeless romantic through and through. He was in Kansas City, and I was like, “I’ll do literally anything.” So I dedicated the song to them and then, like two-thirds of the way through the song I see all these flashlights go on and he gets down on his knee. They wrote me this beautiful card, and now I’m like, When is your wedding, I want to come.
You’d think they could invite you. It’d be the least they could do.
You’ve written for other artists too: Ke$ha, Ellie Goulding, Adam Lambert What is it like for you to have your songs embraced by such amazing singers?
That’s something that I don’t think I will ever get used to. I hope I don’t ever get used to it. Especially with Ke$ha–it’s just been incredible. This record, I can’t believe that I’m a part of this. Sitting with Ke$ha and this record…it doesn’t even feel like a comeback. It feels like her first record in a lot of ways.
It feels like the first time that people are really seeing her for her, and hearing her for her, and that is truly incredible—to be a part of that. It’s amazing to step into someone else’s world…and help them tell a story. It can be very inspiring to get different perspectives. Honestly, it’s very bizarre, and I don’t believe it every time it happens.
Home for the Holidays, the big show, is December 9. You’re taking the stage with some other very important musicians.
I’m really excited to play, and just kind of be there that night. I’m going to cry, that’s almost, like, a guarantee. I’m also really excited really to meet Jazz Jennings. I’ve been so inspired by her. I would love just to say hello, and thank you for sharing yourself and your story. She’s inspired so many people.
Do you still get stage fright with something like that?
Every time. I always think I’m not going to get nervous, and then I’m always like, no, you still get nervous every time.
Have you started working on your set list? Can you tell us what’s going to be on there?
I kind of usually…I think my manager’s on [the call]. I kind of get yelled at sometimes…
Amanda Witman, Wrabel’s manager: [yelling in the background] YES! [laughter]
…because it’ll be 20 minutes before the show, and I’ll be like I’m writing out my setlist. But I know I’ll play “The Village” 100%. And I kind of don’t know what else. I’ll probably play some stuff from the EP, and kind of feel it out.
So then with all your touring and your songwriting, do you still have time for a personal life? Are you seeing anyone right now?
Sometimes I have time. It can be very tricky. And it can be very taxing on any kind of dating situation, just being out of town so much. But, without saying too much–I’m in a happy place for the first time in a long time.
That’s wonderful to hear. After the big show, what’s next for you as we roll into the New Year?
There’s a lot of things I’d like to figure out before the end of the year with a new record in mind. And with the New Year in mind, my plan is to just spend the first one-two-three months just narrowing that down, and just going somewhere with somebody. Just finding somebody to help me realize them and put this record together. I’m really excited, and I’m so terrified also. In the past six months or so, I’ve just decided I just have to do this. There’s nobody else that’s going to do this but me, so I’m really trying to wrap my head around it and just dive in and make something I want to make.