The first show I ever played in New York was at Pianos on the Lower East Side back in 2013. I didn't know anybody at the time—I was still living in Boston—and someone told me at soundcheck that we were ten tickets away from selling out. I thought, "That's crazy. Who could possibly be coming in this city where I have no fans?" When I came onstage, I saw a room filled with gay men that I had never met before. I was out-of-my-mind excited.
I started playing Pride events soon after that. One of the first ones I remember was D.C. Pride: Courtney Act was there, Bonnie McKee was there, Rita Ora was there. I remember arriving fresh off of a red-eye—I felt like sh*t, I looked like sh*t—and I got to the stage, which was in the National Mall overlooking the Capitol, and there were easily 10,000 people there. I remember being so overwhelmed by how cool and massive the experience was. The energy was incredible.
That was the first festival I had ever played where people actually knew the words to my songs. I remember singing "High Society" and the first two rows in front of me were singing along. As an artist, you have moments where you go, "I've made it"—that was one of those moments. It was thrilling to witness everyone celebrate who they are and what they want to be, regardless of what it is. Everyone was so happy that the day had finally come.
This photo has been floating around for a few days and I've wanted to post it but haven't had the words to accompany it. I'm starting to realize I may never have words to express my heartache for the families and loved ones of the Pulse victims. But then I look at this photo, at words I wrote with no understanding of how much we really need love and am so moved. I found a home in the LGBT community. As an ally, a friend, a sister, as a human being... So many of you found a home here too. So today, if you could, remind somebody that you love them. If you've never said it or if you've said it a million times, it doesn't matter, just share a little bit of your heart because we really need it today. We need it every day.
Then, in the fall, on the eve of putting out my new EP, this couple, Spencer and Dustin, made a marriage proposal video featuring "Somebody Loves You," and it went viral. That definitely solidified my career. The video went up on a Thursday, had a million views on YouTube by Friday; on Saturday, my manager was on the phone with every major record label in the country, and, by Sunday, I had signed my record label deal.
It's hard for me to write songs with a message if it doesn't have anything to do with how I feel about myself. The only inspirational songs that I love are the ones that come by accident because they are written honestly and authentically. I wrote "Beautiful" after the Pulse shooting—it happened the same weekend as my recording session. I was very moved and heartbroken by what had happened and wanted to take something awful and turn it into something uplifting.
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The first verse is me talking to myself: "Looking in the mirror, staring at my enemy / Every day's a battle with the girl in front of me / I tell her that she's perfect, but she's no good at listening / Some days, it's hard to love her / She never makes it easy." Sometimes I need a reminder from the song just as much as those who are listening to it. That's how I can sing it and tell the story: Everybody feels the same way, so let's figure it out together.
I'm really grateful to the LGBTQ community, because I don't think I would've had a career without their support. I didn't have another subsect of fans besides my parents—and they had to come to my shows because I made them.
As told to Claire Stern.