Carly Simon isn’t the first person to come to mind when comparing Matt Zarley to other singers (except for those luscious lips), but there is a connection. Simon turned the music business on its feminist ear in the ’70s with “You’re So Vain,” and Zarley might have just recorded the gay-rights sequel. “WTF,” the first single off Zarley’s upcoming album, “Change Begins with Me,” is about one of those gorgeous guys who seduces you, romances you, claims to love you, then disappears. It’s also a true story.
Zarley’s also not naming names, publicly anyway, but he’s still baffled by the incident. The relationship was “very intense, unexpected,” he says. “He emailed me on Facebook, wanting to meet me. It was fireworks; the connection was quick” L.A. resident Zarley even went to New York to spend time with the guy. “I was there for five days; it was sweet and romantic. Then I bought him a plane ticket to come out here. I never heard from him again.”
Most gay men have had their own “What the Fuck” romance, and Zarley thinks it’s partly symptomatic of the times. “People don’t talk as much now,” he says. “We text and email.” More puzzling to Zarley is that the guy didn’t acknowledge the situation. “He could have lied and said, ‘Look, I don’t want to do a long-distance thing,’” he says. “He could have closed the chapter.”
The guy didn’t turn the page, but Zarley did. “I got the song out of it,” says the singer, who’s also got a new boyfriend and a sense of contentment not always found in entertainers. We first met up for a drink at New York’s Barrage, and, rather than chat about interview topics, found ourselves reminiscing over ghosts of Manhattan past. The “WTF” video features a bevy of muscle men behaving badly (once upon a time they were called Chelsea Boys), which prompted a discussion of how the community has changed.
(Watch the “WTF” video HERE)
“The Nineties were about circuit parties and muscles,” says Zarley. “Now it’s about marriage. The working out was almost a way of compensating for masculinity. Now that being gay is more accepted, guys are a lot more comfortable; they don’t feel the need to pump themselves up.”
Twinks were among the many revelers sipping attitude at Barrage, which prompted an opportune segue. “I’m not personally attracted to that,” says Zarley of the Thin Look, “but I feel it’s great that people like how they are. Someone who is that type can be really sexy, and someone on steroids who works out seven days a week can be totally un-sexy.”
Zarley has a long history in show-business, starting in commercials, then hitting Broadway as a dancer/singer in shows like “A Chorus Line,” “Cats,” and “Chicago.” In 2002, Zarley had two firsts: His first album, “Debut,” was released, and he was the first openly gay man to be featured in “People” magazine’s 50 Hottest Bachelors issue, an honor he called “very flattering. They had tried to do it for a couple of years, but no one would agree.”
Honesty is such a lonely word in Hollywood, but most would agree that it makes for a healthy lifestyle. Zarley says that when he first entered the music world he planned to play the straight game, but “it became pointless. I looked at other areas where I could have influence. It’s more exciting if I can influence someone who’s younger and coming out. That’s more important than selling millions and millions of records.”
To that end, Zarley recently covered Pat Benatar’s 1984 classic “We Belong” for the Trevor Project, an especially daunting task for anyone. “I tried to be really respectful of what the song was, but re-interpret it,” says Zarley. “I didn’t do many vocal embellishments, vocal gymnastics, like Mariah, who does six notes for one syllable.”
(Check out “We Belong” HERE)
With honesty comes opinions, and Zarley, he has a few. He thinks “The Book of Mormon” is the best Broadway show since “Les Miserable,” but has a little more trouble with TV’s “Glee.”
“I wish the singing wasn’t so Auto-Tuned,” he says, while acknowledging the almost impossible workload of the performers. “It’s the same as using Photoshop. It takes away the uniqueness of the voice. It doesn’t sound like anyone.”
Zarley’s a huge fan of India.Arie and grew up on Whitney Houston (“she was untouchable; the best artist ever”). He also thinks Lady GaGa is amazing, if over-publicized. “She gets shoved down our throats,” he says. “There are four artists that are successful at a time and that’s it. The gay community act like she and Britney are it.”
As for Spears, Zarley is a bit bewildered by her current events. “She’s got wonderful star quality and she’s always had the “It” factor,” he says. “When she performs now there’s a vacancy there. I understand that you can’t go full out and be singing all the time, but she should be better than ever. I’m not sure if we should just be saying ‘this is okay,’ when there might be cause for concern.”
As a counterpoint, Zarley points to Janet Jackson, an artist who’s also known for singing along to the tune. The difference, he says, it that 45-year-old Miss Jackson can still ace the routine. “She may not be singing live all the time but she still knocks the choreography out of the park.”
There’s a curiosity factor in most of Zarley’s opines, a kind of hesitation that comes from someone who’s asking a lot of questions because he’s listening for the answers. Although Zarley moved from New York to L.A. in 1995, he doesn’t lack that sense of complacency those LaLa types are known for. He’d even love to do another Broadway show, if it was something rewarding.
“I’ve always wanted to do music,” he says of his decision to leave theater. “That was my dream. But I’d love to do something challenging.” Zarley’s goal, now, is to purify his instrument. “I’ve become simpler as a singer,” he says. “The connection of what I’m singing is more important.”
One thing Zarley doesn’t question is his move to Studio City, where he resides surrounded by dogs, family, and an admittedly quiet life. “We’re really spoiled here,” he says of the climate. “I was floating in a friend’s pool in January and I said, ‘Do you think everyone would want to live here if they knew it was like this?’”
Now that we know about the climate, what about the “climate”? “The work ethic is different,” says Zarley. “In theater, there’s no faking it. Sometimes people here try to get the end result; it’s a short-cut mentality.”
Which could only be a natural segue to… “That’s how I feel about ‘American Idol.’ There’s such little artistry; it’s all about the vocal gymnastics. You have a minute and a half to impress the judges. There’s a disconnect.”
A man with a pretty face, talent, and an opinion? I think I just had an “OMG!” moment.
For more information, visit MattZarley.com. All Photographs: JohnGanun.com.