“This feels like me”: Kevin McHale on his debut EP Boy
By Molly Hudelson
Photos / Mallory Turner
Most known for his role as Artie Abrams on Glee, Kevin McHale has been in the entertainment industry for over a decade. Before Glee, he was in the boy band NLT and had guest roles on The Office, Zoey 101, and True Blood; he’s since appeared in the film Boychoir and ABC’s mini-series When We Rise. Now, he’s officially launched his solo music career with the singles “Help Me Now” and “James Dean.”
McHale cites “Help Me Now” as “the easiest to get” and the song that “felt the most me in terms of – like the lyrics are super self-deprecating, I’m super self-deprecating, I knew the video would be sort of fun and weird.” Featuring a cameo from Nolan Gould (known for his role as Luke Dunphy on Modern Family), the “Help Me Now” video sees McHale controlled by virtual reality and dancing throughout the rooms of a house. It’s quirky yet undeniably catchy and very relatable.
“Help Me Now” and “James Dean” come from McHale’s debut EP Boy, out in June. “James Dean” touches on that moment “when you’re starting to see someone, and it’s moving from that point of casual dating to, ‘Okay, let’s be honest to each other that this is probably more serious than we’re saying’ and we clearly are both very in to each other.” It’s the moment where you realize it’s now on you to be upfront about how you feel (something McHale admits he’s not always confident enough to do in real life). Johnny Sibilly, from the latest season of Pose, plays McHale’s love interest in the clip, where we see our leading man contemplate his feelings and enjoy small moments with his new partners.
Before making Boy, McHale had worked on solo music “sporadically over the years,” but when showing songs to his friends, they would tell him, “this doesn’t sound like you.” Later, he finally made “Younger” (a different form of the song appears on Boy), and “even though it was a very different version of the song, I wrote it, and I was like, ‘Now I get what they mean. This feels like me – the verses sound like how I would talk to somebody in a conversation.'”
Finally, he was writing songs that would allow the listener to “understand who I was or how I interpret situations to be.” McHale teamed up with his friends, Justin Thorne, and Wednesday, to write and produce – but then Thorne’s hard drive got stolen. A year later, they started over and “James Dean” came to be “really quickly and organically”; the song was “super honest and blunt and conversational,” and felt like “a sibling to ‘Younger.'” From there, they kept going, and the five songs that became Boy were “the first time where I could look back at them and listen to them and be like, ‘I feel like this is a good representation of me, musically, and where I’m at with my life.'”
Redoing “Younger,” McHale admits, was “not the most exciting thing in the world… it just sounds painstaking.” They ended up creating two versions of the song; while “James Dean” feels “like it’s sort of thrown together, and because it came out of being an entire freestyle”, he wanted the track for “Younger” to contrast with the poppy hook and “sing-song thing at the end” and “not feel so put-together and polished.”
Speaking on his working relationship with Thorne, McHale says the two are “family at this point, and he knows me probably better than anybody.” They grew up together and were in NLT together as teens; they’ve now been roommates for seven years. Since McHale and Thorne are so close, they’re able to be “super blunt all the time” as they write and produce music together. McHale names “Arizona” as a prime example: “he produced the song… but he hates that song.” “Help Me Now” came out of Thorne not wanting to work on “Arizona”; when the EP was almost finished, they went back in and came up with a second version of the song. The resulting track combines the two versions, with regular chords and organ on the verses.
Though it’s an early listener favorite, Thorne doesn’t get the love for “Arizona,” but McHale appreciates his honesty, “regardless of how brutal it can be.” It takes time to build trust, and with a close and strong working relationship, “it should be about what’s best for the song,” no one is taking feedback personally. “We both want to make the best thing we can possibly make, or see this vision to how we’ve envisioned it,” McHale mentions, “so how do we make that happen?”
Although he listens to the radio, McHale also mentions artists like Sigrid, Brockhampton, and Kevin Abstract – artists who have seen success via streaming and song placements rather than radio – as influences in his writing. He wanted to write songs that showed a connected songwriting style and while he knew it would be pop music, mentions that he listens to so many different styles of music “that I didn’t really know what was going to happen.” He admires artists like Sigrid; seeing artists much younger than him that “don’t give a fuck” made him more comfortable in his own writing. “They’re creating their vision, however, they want it to be, and that’s what I should do, and I should stop living in like, fear of growing up media trained, and not saying what I want to say.” This new way of approaching a career in the music business has “fully resonated” with him, more than the “old school” way of thinking that he grew up with.
Boy is being released through Vydia, an innovative content platform, with McHale as their first artist signing. Vydia leaves the artistic decisions up to the musicians themselves, which is “freeing and liberation, but it’s also nerve-wracking.” Seeing people’s reactions to the music so far has been “crazy… cuz I haven’t put out music as myself ever,” but the positive reception to “Help Me Now” has been reassuring. Live shows and more music might happen later on, but for now, it’s been “really fun” to work with his friends to put out creative visuals along with the songs.
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