It’s easy enough to be drawn in by Koortwah’s brilliant green eyes and bad boy exterior, but if you take the time to peek past his outward appearance you may be surprised to see what’s buried beneath.
This openly gay New Yorker is challenging listeners with an unusual sound and some very different subject matter. Singing about death, drugs, and even self-harm, he works to illustrate a whole different side of our gay community.
I was very excited to meet the man behind the curtain in an intimate conversation about everything from his sexuality to his struggles with drug addiction.
Koortwah began our talk with an explanation of what he hopes to accomplish with his music.
“I was a loner as a kid and talking to people was difficult for me. Music is my way of communicating with people that I might not otherwise be able to [speak with] conventionally. It’s a way of telling a story and getting people to listen to it.
I think we all write from our own experience, and belonging to a community that is still marginalized is unquestionably an experience. I think for me [it has been] a positive one. I think as an artist it’s part of your job to remain an outsider, and you know that’s what allows you to comment on what you’re seeing in a way that is fresh for people listening to you. If you’re a white kid from a well-off background, growing up in a First World country, it’s probably very valuable to have some marginalization so that you know what it’s like.
That perspective is something I cherish.”
Koortwah’s body is cloaked in illustrations of skulls, stars, and even pigs. While a picture tells a thousand words it was only natural to question the tale behind his many tattoos.
You’re going to be totally disappointed. The way that people are always disappointed when they ask about my tattoos. I’m sorry, I realize that I have a lot of them and I have enough of them that they define my image. I like tattoos but I don’t take them very seriously. To me they are kind of like jewelery that you don’t have to take off at night. As far as their meanings go, I think of them as not only literally, but symbolically, ‘skin deep.’
I have two flying pigs because I like pigs. I don’t eat pigs, I think we should respect pigs. I have a lot of animals because I like animals. I have a lot of skulls because I like skulls. I find death sort of fascinating and liberating and even terrifying.
I have an upside-down heart on my right cheek bone, which of course, from a distance people read as being a tear drop. So they think I am a gang member, which I am really not. It’s meant to be a playful turn on what’s generally a harsh tattoo.
[My first tattoo] was covered up so long ago. I got a rams head on my hip when I was fourteen. I had a lot of bad tattoos, but that’s what happens when you start so young!”
While his new video has launched him into a whole new realm of popularity, he’s not yet at the height of his potential. Quickly becoming a recognizable, yet unpronounceable, name in the gay pop scene, he spoke about what “making it” would look like to him.
Making it’ means something totally different for different people. There’s the pragmatic ends of it, which is being able to pay my rent. It is not having to do something else, just making my music.
When you’re emerging you are always chasing other people down. You want people to listen to your music, you want people to take your photo, you want people to do things for you. When you have made it they want to do those things for you; they are chasing you. It’s a role reversal.”
I always wonder what an artist enjoys most, the releasing of something that you have worked on for so long, the emotional connection you create with your listeners, or the feeling of performing live? Koortwah couldn’t narrow it down to one thing.
For me that’s an impossible question to answer so specifically. I’m involved in every aspect of [my music]. I write the songs, I make the songs, I produce the songs, I perform the songs, I rehearse the songs, and up until now I have made my own videos. There are things out of all of those elements that I really love. I see the whole thing holistically. I could be sitting alone in my room writing before anyone has heard a song; it’s lovely to think of it as just mine. But when you release the song you can watch the ownership of it divide amongst everyone. It’s not just a glib answer; I generally love all of it. There are obviously things that are less fun and there will be things in the future that are totally not fun, but there are so many things that I like about it.
While the music video for his song “The Wilderness” pushes past boundaries by displaying scenes of coughing blood and an almost epileptic collection of threatening images, it’s routed in a less-ambiguous depth.
From the perspective of the visual impact, I don’t want people to get bored. I want them to pay attention and sometimes that calls for using imagery that is both shocking and challenging.
I never thought of that footage as being controversial. There is some kind of very fast shock value to it. It is really about the idea that the struggles we have internally are violent and that there is a certain forcefulness that is required when you are motivating yourself.
I try not to read much of what people write about stuff that I have done. The risk there is, if they write something nice you get elated but if they write something not so nice you get all crushed by it.
While some aspects of his new video seem to shock his audience and others merely move to inspire, nothing ever comes from nothing. When asked if his songs were based on personal events he took a long pause before dismissing my simplistic interpretation of his self-expression.
I think they can be. I think that as writers we always tell stories through the lens of our own experience. So sometimes things that are happening to me are launching pads for a song. Sometimes something else could be the launching pad and my own experience will just work its way into it. The songs, as a whole, are not autobiographical. I don’t want them to be. It’s important to me that the songs be infused with meaning and substance. I want the stories to be told in a way that encourages and allows the listeners to find themselves in the song or [find] something in the song that speaks to them. As opposed to feeling like they are reading a page out of someone’s diary; which is not what I am interested in doing.“
The song is about, give or take, a rock star cliche. The song is about addiction. If “Candy in the Sun” has to be about one specific thing it’s about something that seems sweet and alluring at first and then just turns into a fucking mess.
Again, any of these experiences that marginalize you or that put you in a position where you are likely to be judged and that you struggle to get out of… you are your worst enemy in those situations. You learn stuff about yourself, you learn stuff about other people, and it would be kind of impossible if not irresponsible to not factor that into your subsequent songwriting.
The same way that would be true of writing a novel, although I imagine that writing a novel is much harder. A song can be about you and not be about you at the same time. Like I said, I do not limit myself to this principle of autobiography. The song can be about me and not be about me in varying degrees without losing any integrity or authenticity.
Whether smooth beats and daring lyrics that speak of things often unsaid peaks your interest or his undeniably attractive body is what pulls you to press “play,” there is no question that Koortwah is soon to be a star. Wrapped in tattoos and controversy, he has us begging for more.
You can follow him on facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/KOORTWAH
Do you have an artist you would like us to review? Email me at Connor@Guyspy.com