The Great Smoky Mountains are a world away from the Great Plains, but the prairie is nonetheless on the minds of popular vocal duo Jason & deMarco while they grab a few days rest in Gatlinburg, Tenn.
The reason is because the musical and life partners have agreed to headline a benefit concert in Charlotte to mark the 10th anniversary of the death of anti-gay hate crime victim Matthew Shepard. On Oct. 6, 1997, the University of Wyoming student was brutally beaten and left tied to a fence to die in the lonely expanse of Laramie’s great wide open.
Jason Warner and deMarco DeCiccio live in Houston and Los Angeles. They are in Gatlinburg to visit Jason’s retired parents and the getaway has come at an opportune time. Their new album, “Safe,” has just been released on the men’s own RJN Music label (mega music retailer Best Buy has picked it up) and in the previous two and a half weeks they’ve performed in six cities spanning from Hawaii to Ohio.
Jason & deMarco’s fame has grown substantially over the last year thanks to a multi-format hit song and an absorbing documentary that examines their music, home life and Christian spirituality.
The romantic clip for “This Is Love” was named 2007’s “Music Video of the Year” by LOGO. DJ Scotty K.’s thumping remix became a surprise Abercrombie & Fitch in-store favorite. After making the film festival rounds, the documentary “We’re All Angels” debuted on Showtime in June and was issued on DVD last month. In September, the duo was covered by America’s pop-culture bible, People magazine.
On Nov. 7, Jason & deMarco are slated to top the bill for the “Stop The Hate” memorial concert at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. (The following evening at 7 p.m., they are in Raleigh for a free concert sponsored by St. John’s MCC. The next morning they perform again during the church’s regular Sunday worship service. See “Out & About” in this issue for details.)
Joining Jason & deMarco at “Stop The Hate” will be singer-songwriter Randi Driscoll and the Queen City’s LGBT chorus, One Voice.
Driscoll’s work has been featured on her own albums, in commercials and documentaries and even on the hit TV show “Dawson’s Creek,” but her finest career accomplishment might be “What Matters,” the song she wrote and recorded in response to Matthew Shepard’s death. The track has become the official benefit single for the Matthew Shepard Foundation.
The Foundation and Campus Pride, a national group working to create a safer campus environment for college students, are the beneficiaries of the “Stop The Hate” concert.
Q-Notes spoke with Jason & deMarco by telephone while they were in Gatlinburg.
What does it mean to you to be a part of this memorial concert?
deMarco: This is a big part of what we do. Jason and I feel that not only do we have a career, we have a responsibility to help change the world in whatever way we can with our music and message. Just like Judy Shepard and Campus Pride are doing, we want to make a positive impact. We want to bring a message of unconditional love, replacing hate with unconditional acceptance.
Jason: On the anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s death, it’s amazing to think about how much healing has taken place because of the work Judy Shepard has done around the country.
Is anti-gay violence an issue you’ve had to face in your own lives or with people you’re close to?
dM: We have not had to deal with it directly, but we have dealt with it through people who have written us and emailed us letters. We actually have two binders full of letters we received after our film hit Showtime, from people talking about all the things they have been through. So, this is something that’s very important to us and anything we can do to make a difference, we’ll do it.
How intently have you been following the presidential race? Are you guys openly supporting a candidate?
dM: We’ve not been secretive about the fact that we’re voting for Obama for president. When I hear him speak and when I look into his eyes I see a leader. I see something this country desperately needs — someone who can pull us out of the valley we’re in now.
J: We watched the vice presidential debate and were struck by the fact that the only thing Biden and Palin agreed on was their opposition to gay marriage. But, as frustrating as it can be, we have to look at how far we’ve come. Since Stonewall…well, even since Matthew Shepard’s death we’ve come a long way. America moves in baby steps but we’re definitely headed in the right direction. And, in my lifetime, I believe we’ll have same-sex marriage in this country.
After the success of 2006’s “Till The End Of Time,” did you feel any pressure to equal or better that album with “Safe”?
J: We felt pressure, but not really for that reason. Our fans always come up to us and say “Guys, there’s just something about seeing you live; there is an energy there that’s incredible.” Our thing this time was how can we more replicate that energy in the recording process.
dM: We decided to go old school. Instead of bringing in musicians we’ve never met, laying down parts and then laying down vocals until it’s perfect, we got together in a room with our new band and jammed for days to get into the same head space. About half of the album is recorded with the band. We played each song four or five times and picked the best take.
How does “Safe” reflect your evolution as artists?
dM: It’s a little more sophisticated, but at the same time it’s more organic and more laid-back. We redid some of our earlier songs and it feels like there is a night-and-day difference between them and the original versions.
J: It’s important to listen to your fans. They told us they wanted to hear our voices more so we made that a key point. We also embraced the idea that less is more. On the first six songs there are a lot of pockets of space.
dM: This is a constant learning process for us. Our sound continues to grow and evolve just like we do.
How did your cover of U2’s “One” come about for the new album?
J: Bono and U2 are a huge inspiration of ours. They charted new territory because they are highly spiritual — which is why the Christians tried to claim them — but they are completely mainstream at the same time. “One” is the perfect example of that.
dM: Bono is an incredible person who doesn’t put up with any bullshit. The message is to stop focusing on people’s differences and to start focusing on our similarities and, yes, our higher power. Treat others how you want to be treated because we are one human family. It really is that easy.
Will you be touring extensively to promote “Safe”?
dM: Yes, we’re working on setting up a tour in the new year. In fact, this memorial concert is the pilot. We want to tour with our band, which is something we haven’t done because it costs a fortune. We’ve played lots of churches in the past and now we want to branch into universities and community centers.
J: We’ve been producing ourselves, so the Matthew Shepard concert will give us an idea of what the 2009 tour might look like provided this works. Basically, the show will be the kick-off of the “Safe” tour.
Because you are openly gay and openly Christian, it seemed that you were initially regarded as almost a novelty act in both spheres. Did it feel like that to you?
J: Well, our first big, mainstream exposure was being on cover of The Advocate in 2004. That introduced us as the poster boys for gay Christians reconciling their faith. It’s what everybody knew us as. The problem was when we were being considered for bookings like Gay Days at Disney or on a cruise ship, someone would say “what about Jews, what about non-believers — we don’t want to upset them.” The thing is, that’s not who we are.
dM: The stories about us changed with the release of “This Is Love.” After that, they were talking more about “their love for each other…” Our spirituality became less important than the fact that we’re boyfriends. At this point we’ve given up trying to control how we’re perceived. We just live in the moment and make the most of every opportunity that comes.
How do the two of you balance your private relationship with your work as musical and business partners?
dM: That’s the big money question (laughs). I think Jason and I decided a long time ago that if we’re going to make this work we might as well enjoy it. But, of course it’s a struggle sometimes — all we can do is the best we can.
J: Our biggest arguments are not over our relationship but important career decisions. It’s a blessing in a way because we come from different worlds and can play devil’s advocate and come to a good decision. It’s what’s helped us come this far without major label backing.
dM: Also, this can be lonely work. When our friends are home on the weekends and want to do something, we’re always on the road. Eventually, they just stop calling. Jason did this for five years by himself; I did it for a year and a half. That makes us really try to be patient because we know we’re lucky to have each other.
“Stop The Hate” Concert with Jason & deMarco, Randi Driscoll and One Voice
Friday, Nov. 7 at 7:30 p.m.
Rowe Performing Arts Center
(available at www.stophate.org/concert):
$30 general admission
$15 college students with valid ID
Tickets at the door:
$40 general admission
$25 college students with valid ID
$100 (includes priority seating, gift bag, post-show dessert reception)
Proceeds benefit the Matthew Shepard Foundation and Campus Pride