Professional fraternity man by day and roving entertainment reporter by night, Buck Cooke moved to Atlanta in 2000. Armed with a passion for pop culture and rabid appetite for music, Buck scours the entertainment landscape for treasures in music, TV and cinema.
Levi Kreis revels in the contradictory nature of his life.
He grew up in an extremely conservative religious environment and even spent time years ago trying to become one of the ex-gays you always read about. That didn’t take and Kreis (pronounced “Krice”) now makes a living as an up-and-coming star on the music scene.
He’s been playing the role of Jerry Lee Lewis in the critically-acclaimed play “The Million Dollar Quartet” since 2007 and is ready to celebrate life and everything in it with the release of his third album, “Where I Belong.” Kreis took time out of his busy schedule to talk with Project Q Atlanta about the new album, life onstage as the legendary Lewis, and possibly venturing into dance remixes.
Q: What it’s been like for you to record the new album.
A: It’s felt like such a long process because I started recording the songs in April 2008. A lot of it was done before I got back into the groove with “The Million Dollar Quartet.”
After “The Gospel According to Levi,” that was a lot of stuff off of my chest. It was great totally about the things that CD embodied. I felt like that cleansed me a lot. I feel content at the place where I am at right now. I see so much freedom. I wanted to express so many positive things. All is well.
Q: I love “I Surrender All.” It’s great when you perform live and include those great old hymns, but it’s exciting to see it on the album.
A: That has always been my favorite hymn. I have leaned on that song. Sometimes the only way to get through something is to lean on a higher power. A lot of finding of where I belong is to really surrender. One thing I did was to change the lyrics a bit so that my Jewish friends, my Buddhist friends, can relate to that. I am sure there will be someone who has something to say about that. [Laughs.]
I always want to incorporate [hymns] into my album. It was part of how we grew up. It’s in our make-up and it’s in our blood. It’s mashed potatoes and fried chicken.
Q: Another song I’m happy to hear on an album is “Stained Glass Windows.”
A: Del Shores and I talked so much about that song and debated on whether to have that on the soundtrack for “Southern Baptist Sissies,” but he’s been having so much success with the “Sordid Lives” TV show that the movie got pushed back.
This album felt like the right place for that song. I feel like the songs I am writing now are the most of who I am as an artist. I think it took me three albums to get there, but this is the most consistent I’ve been as a songwriter.
Q: Explain “This Girl.” It certainly raised my eyebrows, so I’m sure other fans will have the same reaction.
A: I’ve been surprised that no one has asked about it. “This Girl” was inspired by a girl names Jessica that I knew in Seattle a couple of years ago. I wrote it about her and the attraction I felt for her. I thought it was silly to be an openly gay artist who is out and in the gay media to go back in time and explore some things that happened to me occasionally in the past. I am not bisexual, but sometimes when the right chemistry happens, it doesn’t matter that it’s a woman or a man.
That song is all about her and I think the whole crux of the song is when I say “Kinsey’s over in the corner having a laugh while I am walking the floor, doing the math.” We’re all individuals and have our own experiences.
I wonder how strange that is for us in the gay community to think about. I am sure there will be people who say “I totally get it” and some who say “WTF?” There will be some who think that I have a responsibility to speak solely to our community and this will be seen as a betrayal. My husband finds the song funny.
Q: What is your favorite song on the album?
A: “Not Afraid” has been one when I’ve performed it that it’s so close to me and so big inside of me, that it gets to me and is still hard for me to perform live. “Prayer for the Surrender” is like that, too. It helps remind me that it’s not about me. It’s about how we serve. It makes me think of that when I want to grab a hold of things and take control again.
I love the intro to “No Apologies.” I think it is so cool. I love performing that song because it is the most autobiographical. This is straight-up where I am from, no bones about it. The first six songs are more hook-y and then you hit “Stained Glass Window” and the album shifts from there and gets deeper. The title of “No Apologies” lets you know that I make no apologies for where I am from and the kind of music that I make. I wanted people to know why I am so relentless.
You walk a fine line between saying something that a blue collar worker can get or to realize that you’re using too much Christian terminology. I am most proud of “Gonna Be Alright” because I have been able to slide in a spiritual truth of faith and have it not sound churchy. I want to be gospel, but I also want to sneak that in and have people not know they’re hearing it but they’ll get that message.
Q: What’s it like playing Jerry Lee Lewis? Doe sit impact your writing and performing?
A: I’ve been playing him for nine months total. It’s the perfect tie-in to the new album. I had been working on this musical in workshops since 2001. The people who wanted to do this show knew I was Southern, played the piano and could sing. It wasn’t until Seattle that I got to play him onstage.
Once I settled into the role, I realized that experience refreshed in my mind my musical history. I grew up playing Jerry Lee Lewis’ music. By the time I was 12, I was playing “Great Balls of Fire.” I began realizing how that style of music influenced the way that I played. It took me to my roots of Jerry Lee Lewis, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin. Playing the role of Jerry Lee Lewis forced me to relive that and, in doing so, I found that as I was writing songs for this new album, it specified the way that I write, it specified the way that I sing. It helped me find the way to bring my music into a marketable entity.
As you know, I’ve been all over the place on my other albums. At the end of the day, there is a real, identifiable way I play the piano and deliver a song. Playing Jerry Lee Lewis was the perfect way for me to make “Where I Belong.” I wanted to capture that southern, ragtimey way of playing the piano. It’s enhanced my live performances, too.
When you’re doing eight shows a week and you’re on your 200th performance playing this larger-than-life man, it spills over. I can’t sit still. I can’t keep my feet on the ground.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: I’m going to assume I’m in the play until August now. They are generous to let me do some big shows to promote the album. We are pushing the album to media, working on videos, considering a remix for “Gonna Be Alright.” I am excited to do some Prides and to do some national appearances as well.
“Where I Belong” is available from Centaur Records. www.levikreis.com
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