Kevin McHale isn’t singing cover songs any more. After years of playing Artie Abrams on the landmark television show Glee, Kevin McHale is releasing his own music, starting with the first single, “Help Me Now,” from his upcoming EP later this Spring. The single feels like it could be right at home among other synth-driven singles by Carly Rae Jepsen or Troye Sivan. And the genre of music gives McHale a chance to show off a different side of his voice than what you might be used to.
As his debut single was about to drop, McHale spoke to Out about making unapologetically queer music, straight actors playing gay roles, and why he doesn’t love the thirst traps on his Instagram.
You’ve been teasing a solo project for a long time. What about now felt like the right time in your career to put out an EP?
I wish I had a good answer for that. It was just sort of, everything lined up where I had music that I wanted to put out that I liked that I felt was a good representation of me. I found some great people to work with who allowed me to do what I wanted creatively and now is the culmination of all those things coming together. I wish it was strategic, but I don’t have that foresight.
What are some of the influences behind your EP? Who were you listening to when you were writing or going into writing sessions?
I almost feel like it’s a culmination of who I’ve listened to forever. It’d be easy to say I was listening to this artist or that one. I listen to current hits, every Thursday night, but I still listen to lots of music from the 90s and early 2000s and that's ingrained in me. Like early 90s R&B, CrazySexyCool is always going to come out in the music and the way I sing, because that’s the time period I grew up in, but of course I’m obsessed with Frank Ocean and Kevin Abstract and SZA and Khalid and all these people who are out. Lorde’s last album, Janelle Monae’s last album! All these people inspire me, but it’s not always reflected in the music. You have things you like and then you vomit out the music and you’re not sure where the ideas or the genre came from.
People who watched Glee have definitely heard your voice before, but now they get to hear a different side of it. Are you excited for fans to hear that?
I am. I think the biggest takeaway from Glee was that people seemed to identify me from my voice first, which seemed cool and nice and sweet and surprising. I have even been recognizing a couple of times when people heard my speaking voice because I sound like a muppet, but if I get compliments on anything, it’s my singing voice. It’s hard for me to take compliments, but that’s nice. We sang a billion songs on Glee and it pushed us to be out of our comfort zone and do things with our voices that we’d never be able to do. People have heard me do that week in and out. This is another facet or extension of that. I was forced to sing really high, like higher than I was comfortable with on Glee. On this, I’m probably a lot more tame, because that’s my preferred singing style.
I would definitely describe your EP as “upbeat.” When you went into making it, did you think, “I want people to feel good?” or “I want people to dance?”
I didn’t go into it with that direction and I’m happy that that’s what you got from it, because that’s what I ultimately ended up feeling about it and I’m really happy about that. I went into it like, “I hope I don’t write a bunch of sad songs,” because this was about being really honest and celebratory of people’s faults and bluntly talking about my faults as a human being. In a way, that release and that expression of that was so freeing, it was reflected in the music. I was scared the songs would come out slow and there would be a lot of ballads, which I love, but that’s not really who I am. So I think it’s a good representation that it is upbeat — I am upbeat, I’m a positive person. Everyone’s going through their shit, but ultimately at the end of the day, I want this to make people feel good.
There is, however, a great slow moment on your EP, in “Arizona,” which is a very personal song. What was it like putting something so intensely personal out there?
That was a weird one! The story behind that is that I had come back from a trip and had this experience of talking to my friend Wednesday, who is an incredible songwriter. We had lunch and she asked how the weekend went and I told her what I was thinking. How I spent the entire weekend together with someone and we went to Arizona. And so I came home, she came over to my house, and we were working on music and she said, “I wrote a song for you,” or “I wrote a song as you” and she played a part for me that would become “Arizona.”
She added direct quotes that we had from the conversations we had over the weekend that I hadn’t even told her! LIke, she was a witch! She wrote that over two years ago and I held onto it because it meant so much to me. It was so overly real of what had happened, like direct lines of what happened. I felt that was the only way I could do this, if I didn’t think twice about being this personal. But that’s just me. I’m an oversharer and that’s what’s going to happen.
I haven’t put out music in the past because it didn't’ feel personal enough, but this was verbatim what happened and luckily she started that song out and it was beautiful.
There are some other male queer artists who have gotten flack for using gender neutral pronouns in their songs. You do the opposite. Your lyrics are very upfront about using male pronouns and talking about boys. Was there ever any question about whether you’d be more or less specific in your lyrics?
I think I’ve tried being less specific, like years ago, during the Glee years when I was making music, or at one point I was singing songs about girls like, “What the fuck am I doing?” Publicly I wasn’t out and I recorded 30 songs one summer and it was either without using pronouns or I was referring to a girl because I was working with people who I didn’t feel like being honest with at the time. And I stopped it, I felt awful, it didn’t feel right. Years later I was like, “What the fuck am I doing?” And there’s no point in doing this if I’m not going to write how I talk. I do it because I want to be me and have it be an extension of me and my experience. Once it came to that, it was never like, I’m going to try to shy away from it. If the lyric calls for it, that’s going to be what it is. I’m singing about guys so I’m going to talk about guys. I was so unhappy with what I was doing before that whenever I’d think about putting out music again, that’s what would happen. I allowed myself to write and sing freely and these songs came out.
I have a lot of friends who follow you on Instagram and who have definitely liked seeing you being more open to posting pictures of your body and posting thirst traps. How does it feel being vulnerable like that on social media?
Oh my god, I think I hate … I definitely don’t love the “thirst trap” things. I did this workout thing over the summer and was proud of myself for having done it and part of the arrangement was that I had to post before and after photos. I worked super hard and then I started posting those pictures and I posted one in my underwear and I felt so gross! I’m in awe of people who can do that and own it. And it was a learning experience of like, “That’s not for me!” I’m a little too self deprecating for that. The compliments were nice and I did work hard to look that way, but I don’t think I’ve posted anything like that since. Because I was like, “Kevin, you’re gross, you have nieces and nephews who follow you!” My sister texted me and her daughter was like, “Did you see what Kevin posted?”
Recently, your Glee co-star Darren Criss announced that he was no longer going to take any more gay roles after winning an Emmy for Gianni Versace. You obviously come from Glee, which had queer actors in many roles. What are your thoughts on straight actors playing gay?
I feel like this is a complicated subject. I feel like it’s two-fold. I feel like we as actors and entertainers need to believe that if a gay actor is auditioning for a gay role that we are treated equally as a straight actor. When it comes to your professional life, that’s what we all want, to be treated equally.
My thought is the best actor for the job should be getting the job and that their sexuality shouldn’t be keeping them from that. Who is walking into the room and being like, “This is my sexual preference!?” But the reason this is happening is because gay people haven’t been given the equal opportunity to get these roles.
In Hollywood, we’ve been correcting a lot more quickly than in other professions. There’s obviously still a long way to go. But the best actor for the role should get the role regardless of their sexual orientation. I don’t want to walk into an audition and walk out of it thinking I didn’t have an equal shot because of my seuxal orientation. It’s a hard thing. I played a straight guy on TV for many years. You want everyone to have the opportunity. And that’s the hard part, because we haven’t.
When you release your album, which of your Glee castmates would you most want to duet with you?
Oh my god, the problem is that I would do it with everyone, which would turn into the 200th Glee soundtrack. I think probably Amber [Riley] and Naya [Rivera], just because we have such similar tastes in music and when we’re all working on music, we all bounce songs off one another. We definitely share a similar view and taste in music, which is helpful.