YouTube’s been good to Eli Lieb. The Iowa-born, boyishly handsome musician, who’s amassed a faithful following with his own distinctive twist on radio songs, recently dropped his new intoxicating pop single “Young Love.” It’s sweet and liberating, and it features two lovers who just happen to be men (who happen to be cute, and who also happen to kiss). The video premiered just days after “All-American Boy,” in which out “country” hunk Steve Grand falls for a straight boy, became a viral hit. The two, however, couldn’t be more different.
And in this chat with Lieb, he opens up about why. The web sensation also talks about learning guitar from Ani DiFranco, not seeing himself as a heartthrob and how happiness was the key to his success.
How did you learn to sing?
Singing was always something that came naturally to me. I started when I was 12, and that’s when I was in my first musical theater show and when I first discovered singing.
At 16 you picked up a guitar for the first time. What was the first song you learned to play?
I don’t remember the first song, but I know it was an Ani DiFranco song. At that age I was totally into her and I learned guitar by listening to her songs. I don’t know how to read music. I never could learn. I don’t know any chord names, but if I can hear something, I can learn how to play it.
And this was before YouTube.
This was back in the olden days!
Why did you decide to move back home to Iowa after living in New York for so many years?
My decision to move back didn’t have anything to do with my career. I reached this point where I’d been in New York for 11 years and I just wasn’t super happy there; every time I went home to Iowa, I was just beyond happy. I told myself that if I went (to Iowa) I wouldn’t be able to have a career. I let go of the fear and went back and became so happy. Ironically, though I don’t think it’s ironic, that’s the time my career took off – because I was operating from this happier place. And with the Internet, I was lucky to do what I was doing from anywhere. All I needed was a music studio and video camera.
Where would you be without YouTube?
I have no idea. I’ve been making music since I was 16 and YouTube didn’t really become a huge platform until the last few years. I would’ve found another way of doing it, but thank god for YouTube and the Internet because it’s so much more accessible. Now YouTube is a massive machine and everybody is trying to make it their stage.
Would you consider reality TV shows like “American Idol”?
I’m never closed off to anything. If it’s something that feels right, I’ll go for it. If it’s something that doesn’t feel right, no matter what it is, I won’t do it.
I don’t get how you haven’t been signed to a major record label yet. How has that not happened?
(Laughs) I can’t answer that.
What’s going on with the sophomore album?
A lot of stuff in my life right now is changing for the positive career-wise. I recently moved to L.A. and I’m doing a lot. There’s a lot of change happening. I’m never gonna stop making music, that’s for sure. But I can’t be like, “My next album is coming out in a couple of months,” you know? But I’m making music every day, let’s just say that.
It sounds like things are in the works that you can’t talk about right now.
Why more of an acoustic approach to the upcoming album?
I’m writing a lot on guitar. It doesn’t mean the songs will end up on guitar, but my first album was experimenting with sound and learning to use all the programs. Now I’m more into the swing of things and my writing has changed a lot in terms of the music that I release. Now it’s pop music, which I love. I love a straight-up pop song. And that’s definitely my sensibility. It’s just the evolution of me as an artist.
After hearing “Young Love,” I have the sense you’re inspired by ’80s music and Taylor Swift.
Yeah, it’s funny the way that I write music: Whatever comes out is purely just what comes out. And it’s not overly saturated with influence, because I’m just making music all day long. I just don’t sit down and listen to stuff that’s going on, so a lot of times I think there’s a lot of energy in the air and ideas keep passing through. If it sounds like something, it’s a coincidence, I guess. Everything is in the eye of the beholder.
Was it a coincidence, too, that “Young Love” was released just days after Steve Grand’s “All-American Boy,” or was that released in reaction to his video?
I released this a week after his got released, and there’s no way I could’ve made that in a week. But people are accusing me of trying to ride his coattail. I’ve been planning this video for a long time, and it just so happened that his was released a week before mine was about to come out. So it’s the most bizarre coincidence.
The even more bizarre coincidence is that some of the shots in the videos are similar. That’s what blew my mind more. The reality is, it seems like a shocking thing when people release a video that has same-sex partners in it, but if you were to take away the firework scene or the car scene, it’s just the same as Rihanna and Adele putting out videos and both having love stories. But because it’s two guys, it seems like it’s trying to be the same thing.
And not just two men … two gay men. Does that change things?
What I’ve noticed with the comparisons to Steve and I: When I set out to make this video, I specifically did not want it to have a “gay theme”;I just wanted to be authentic to who I am, and who I am is this very comfortable human being in my own skin. My sexuality is just one part of who I am; it’s not something I focus on and I definitely don’t want to make it a big deal. So, when I was going to shoot this video, I knew it had to have a love interest, because it’s a love song and it just was not an option to me to not have a guy. I also wanted to shoot it in a way that was no different than any other video, where you just feel the love rather than being hit over the head with an agenda or a point of view. Not saying that was Steve at all, but I find a lot of gay stuff does have sort of a gay theme to it, which isn’t bad; I just didn’t want to do that. And Steve’s story is a different story than mine.
I guess I can say that we have different points of view and we’re at different places in our lives, and different people respond to different things. Some people, who are very free in their love and who they are, might relate to mine more because they see it as a celebration – about not having to hide who you are. But then there’s other people who might be struggling more and aren’t at that place in their life and they still feel that struggle and seeing (Grand’s version), they can relate to that more. They’re just telling two different stories.
Obviously there’s something in the air if he and I both release a video this close to each other with … I almost don’t want to say similar content; it’s just our people speaking out for who they are and showing who they are in the world, regardless of where they are in their life. I’m very happy to be able to show my story and the lack of fear and acceptance with who I am. I didn’t have an agenda with the video, and I feel very fulfilled that I can help people feel better about themselves and shed fear and be who they are. And as an openly gay man, I definitely want to represent the community in a positive way. There’s a sense of pride with it. I just want everybody in the world to just be who they are without fear, and that transcends way beyond sexuality.
Are you at all bothered by comparisons between not just you and Steve Grand but with other gay artists?
That’s something you get used to and understand. I actually have been really happy about the response to the video. Most people are saying it’s not grouped into this “gay” category. It’s just a video about people in love.
Has being out affected your career in either direction?
It’s affected it for the better. I think being independent and calling my own shots has helped as well. When you’re being your authentic self and you are free with who you are, you will gravitate an audience.
There’s a big part of the gay community who admires your music as much as your looks. Have you thought about yourself as a heartthrob in the community? And how do you deal with that flattery and attention?
Oh man, I don’t even know how to answer that. (Laughs) We all are human beings and we all have our insecurities, and people see you in a different way than you see yourself. But I don’t think of myself as a heartthrob. I don’t really know how to answer that question. It’s a really difficult one.
Because you have to talk about how good you look?
And it’s arrogant. There’s a very common misconception about me. People think I’m standoffish, but I’m not; I’m just shy. I am a super grounded, down-to-earth person, and I think the more that I put stuff out that is my authentic self, that comes across more. Nobody sees themselves as other people see them. I don’t know anybody who does. And if they do, a lot of times they’re a person you don’t want to be around. (Laughs)