Todrick Hall and I recently had a phone conversation for the cover story of the new issue of Twin Cities Gay Scene magazine, out now.
Derek: I just wanted to say that as a big fan that is it an honor to interview you because I have been a fan since you did your original McDonalds drive thru video.
Todrick: Oh my God. That’s the first video that I ever uploaded. So, thank you, I really appreciate that.
D: Your new album “Forbidden” features other artists singing full songs alone like on “Straight Outta Oz.” what inspired you to popularize this approach?
T: Well I’m a musical theatre person and I’m normally am trying to tell a story with my projects. And so, if it doesn’t make sense for my character to sing a song, I won’t sing it just because it is my album. When I’m writing my shows I also imagine everything as an album that is cohesive for someone to listen to. I am a person who typically enjoys female voices more and so if people are similar to me then I think they would love it. Some of these people are just my favorite. It is like bucket list people that I would live to work with, they are my favorite vocalists, and they’re on my album. I have Brandy singing a song that I created. It is like something that I would never as a child fathomed could ever be possible. I’m getting choked up just thinking about it. It feels like such a huge bucket list thing. She is one of the reasons why I wanted to be a performer; seeing her, as an African-American woman, be the lead in “Cinderella” - the Rodgers & Hammerstein version that I grew up loving so much. It was really inspiring and it was one of the things that made me initially want to get into theatre and to start performing. And so to have her sing one of my songs, it is just like I said, a bucket list thing, and I feel every time I see it can’t believe that it happened.
D: I was just watching your “Behind the Curtain” documentary again the other night. In it you mentioned that Brandy and that specific role of her as Cinderella inspired you. Having her sing a song on your album must have been such a huge moment for you.
T: Yeah, it really was. When she told me that she was going to do it, I thought it was too good to be true. I didn’t tell anybody because I know that she is very busy she is an R&B legend and icon. And the fact that she even considered doing it is enough for me to be excited, but if she actually does record it, and then goes even a step further to show up to set and films it, I’ll be the happiest person on earth. And when she did, it was so much fun and she was everything I would of dreamed she would be. She stayed longer than any celebrity who has ever come and donated their time, she stayed longer than they all did. She wanted to rehearse and wanted it to be perfect for me. It was just really, really awesome. When I work with people like her, or Taylor Swift, they are divas at the top of their game. Or when I choreograph for Beyoncé, you see why these people are who they are, and where they are in their careers. Beyoncé was very adamant about making sure that she knew all of the choreography and it was perfect; the angles and that the weight was on the right leg that it needed to be. It’s the people who take the time to really perfect the finite details that it show in their product and in their brand and in their image every time they present it to their audience, and that is why they are the legendary icon stars that they are.
D: Your new visual album is even more ambitious than the last one. What was your favorite part of filming it?
T: I think my favorite part was planning, writing the songs and watching them come to life. Seeing the playback on the camera and seeing the vision was being executed properly. Often times when artists with limited budgets and limited resources come up with these crazy ideas, we learn how to settle with the 2nd or 3rd best version of the idea. With this project, I was looking at the playback and everything down to the wigs, the shoes, dresses, and the costumes. The details. The name on the tags, the scenery, the props and everything. It was coming out exactly how I imaged it in my mind when I was writing the music. That doesn’t happen often, so that was a really great feeling. And I think that was one of my favorite things. Also, just to see my friends come and to donate their time; I have so many friends that are talented actors and Broadway performers who I have learned so much from. To see it come full circle and for them to learn choreography from me, coming out at 6am, 5am to donate their time. My cousin had never danced on a music video before she came out. It was really a family affair, my LA family of performers, my real family, all my friends and fans coming together to make this. The people willing to stay up to 4, 5, 6, 7 in the morning to make this project happen in a very limited amount of time. What we did here was something that should have taken someone 3 to 6 months - to a year - to write. Another 6 months to a year to execute, and another 3 to 6 months to a year to do the post production and to post it. We did all that in 7 weeks, and it was an unfathomable thing. The fact that we have a team of people that were so persistent, so focused on the goal, was really awesome. I am really proud and blessed to have been surround by people that care enough about my work.
D: My favorite track is either “2003” or “T.H.U.G (Trade).” What is yours?
T: My favorite song switches from day to day. When I first started writing it, “Type” was my favorite. Lately before we were filming the project, “Apple Pie” was my favorite. I would listen to it every morning. “Painting in the Rain” is my favorite song to perform. I think it is a really cool metaphor. It paints a really cool picture, pun intended, when just listening to the lyrical content of the song and to watch it come to life on stage. I think it is a really cool image. I’ve always loved “Lose My Breath“ by Destiny Child since I was fresh out of high school; I have always loved things with drum cadences in them. So I picked that song for a number of reasons, as one of my favorites at the moment.
D: What it was like to choreograph the instantly viral “Kitty Girl” video for “RuPaul’s Drag Race” All Stars 3?
T: It was really, really cool. I think that the producers thought it was going to be an unfathomable concept. Like, “yeah, in the perfect world, we would have a one-take performance, but we don’t know if our girls and our crew, in the time we have, can do it.” I had so much faith in the girls and realized what a cool concept it could be.
D: My next question is about Twitter and social media. Today’s fans are quick to “cancel” their favorite performers for a misstep. It feels like entertainers are held to a higher standard despite the fact you are all human and we all make mistakes. How do you fell about this shift?
T: I feel that it is one of the things culturally right now, where people are just so used to doing things like that. I think that it is really sad that people can jump on the bandwagon and “cancel” someone that they were a huge fan of, as if they themselves don’t make mistakes. I think if we shined a light on every single person in the world, we would see moments from even our favorite people. I’m sure that there are things about Beyoncé that I would not like if I saw everything about her. If we were all perfect then we wouldn’t be human, we would be robots. So, I think those imperfect things are awesome. It affected me in [Season Two] of “All Stars Drag Race” when Alaska had a weak moment at the end, and some people online didn’t want her to win anymore. I was like, this person has really fought a great fight this whole season, has really stepped up their game, and killed so many challenges. The fact that those people would even consider not letting her get the crown because she had a breakdown in the middle of an intense process in which she has been secluded for months… It’s insane to me, but it also has taught me that no one is immune to it. I am prepared for whatever might come up, who knows what it’s going to be. I also have learned that people have very short attention spans and eventually they are going to forget what they were upset about, as long you don’t feed into it. When negativity comes my way, I try to send out positive messages if I feel like it is something that warrants a response. Then I move on, because I realize that tomorrow they will be upset with someone else.
D: I love that answer. That is very true. I noticed that your album was not released on streaming services initially, like how Taylor Swift had not put “Reputation” on streaming services at first. And it worked - myself and thousands of others bought your album on iTunes. I would love to hear your thoughts behind this release process.
T: Well, the plan is very simple. I am an unsigned artist; an independent. I don’t have management, or a record label. I spent almost half a million dollars of my own money on this project. So, that’s why with a label, I would have chosen something different. I know the popular roll out plan would be to put it on every platform individually, but unfortunately I have to find a way to make my money back for these projects, because it is not affordable for me to put it out for free. I’m already releasing the entire visual movie for free. I felt like, for me, at this time, until my situation changes where I have people helping me and funding my projects, I have to do whatever I can do to sell a product. I think it was worth it. Not to knock at what anybody else is doing, but not a lot of artists write their own music; they have so many collaborators. I write every lyric, every melody, to every song. The only part I didn’t fully write was Shangela’s rap in “Doll Hairs.” I wrote almost 45 songs for this album, and it was dwindled down to 30 songs. I choreographed every number, picked out almost every single costume. I was in charge of guiding the hair, wig and make-up department to the area they needed to be in, and picked out the lighting. I had my hands on every single aspect of this show. Most performers don’t choreograph their own dances or hire their own dancers and cast their own people. It is a lot that I personally do, because I want the project to look like something that came from my brain; my art and my creative zone that I was in when I wrote the song. For that, I feel like I know the worth of it. I know that $20 is a lot these days to spend on an album, but most people are not putting out 30 songs. Most albums don’t tell people a story with characters and a climax. I just felt that it was really important for me to do what I had to do to make business sense in some way, shape or form. This way, they have an option to pay to get it or they can wait for it to come out on streaming services, or they can watch the movie for free on YouTube. That way everybody wins.
D: It’s very high quality content. It makes it justifiable to actually buy it. Sometimes when artists have an album that isn’t so good - that has a lot of filler on it - it’s not really worth the $10 or $20, but yours is because it packs a punch in every track.
T: Thank you very much. I’m really proud of it.
D: I have one final question. I was wondering what your fans can expect from your Minneapolis show on April 8th?
T: They can expect a live version of what they saw online. In the encore, there will be other videos that I have done in the past. It is a fun time. I think my shows are a perfect blend of a musical theatre performance and a concert. You are going to get a storyline and be taken on a journey. It’s totally okay for you to stand up, hoot, holler, dance, and have a good time. I love this show because I think it has really cool, funny moments that have comedy. It has light heartedness. It has numbers that make you want to dance, and get really hood and ratchet if you want to, too. It will also have moments that are really touching, inspiring, uplifting and emotional. It has that raw spiritual-ness that you get on a Sunday morning in a gospel church, because of the well-rounded nature of the show. There is something for everyone, and I tried to write the album that way as well. The album includes pop, R&B, gospel, rock, musical theatre elements in it. It feels eclectic. There are songs that sound like were cut from the “Hairspray” musical, then songs that sound like Kirk Franklin or the Clark sisters would be singing, mixed with a song that Linkin Park would of sang. I have such an eclectic, diverse love for music that in my album, it doesn’t feel like I have to choose. I put everything together and I’m just so grateful that, in my opinion, it blends well together. With my album it’s like a buffet of music, and I feel my concert is the same thing. I think that everyone will come in and enjoy it, and it’s a really good time.
D: I’m really excited to see it. I’m actually going to be writing a review as well, so I’m really excited for your show. Thank you so much for your time today, this was an amazing interview and I appreciate the time you took to do it.
T: I appreciate that you took the time to do your research. I do lots of interviews and it makes a huge world of a difference when you’re interviewing with somebody who is clearly a supporter and familiar with your body of work. So I thank you for that, it’s very cool. I hope to meet you when I’m in your town.