Jonny Pierce (the Drums) Talks Gay Conversion Therapy, His True Voice and Fear

Life will never be perfect, but by honoring who we are and loving who we are, we can make it better.

VOICES is a new Talkhouse series in which artists will discuss current events through their own unique lens. For each article written, the publication donates to a charity of the musician’s choosing. Jonny chose the ACLU.
Brenna Ehrlich, Talkhouse Music Editor-in-Chief

Sometime in 2010 — in the moments leading up to the release of our first full-length album — my band and I sat down with what many would consider one of the leading high-brow news sources in the world. The publication was widely known to be leftist at best, moderate at worst, trusted and refined. At the time, I had never heard of it; however, after a quick but thorough briefing by my manager, I knew this interview had the potential to be important for our trajectory as a band. There had been so much hype coming off our debut EP and I had done so many interviews that another quick Q&A felt anything but daunting. In my limited experience with the press, I had thought of my interviews as free-spirited, honest and surprisingly easy — at least on my end.

The interview started out average as the four of us sat crowbarred into an old loveseat sleeper sofa in our tiny apartment just off the Lorimer stop in Brooklyn. The journalist eased in with questions about tour life, living in New York City, affording New York City, the music-making process and the formation of the band. Easy enough. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, our interviewer leaned in, quieted his voice and asked me a question that no one in the press had ever asked: “Is anyone in the band gay or bisexual?”

Not only was I not prepared for that question, I was full-blown scared to death to answer that question. Sweat quickly gathered on my brow as my face flushed with anxiety. And then my knee jerk reaction: I sat up straight, and with a decidedly lower-pitched voice filled with faux confidence, I turned the table on my inquirer and told him that a question like that was inappropriate and one I would not answer. I tried to paint myself as evolved and beyond that line of questioning. I tried to shame him away from ever asking me anything that personal again. I knew I had fucked up and immediately I was ashamed of myself. This was the chance to proclaim my truth to the world, honor my heart, and be an example to kids who were struggling with coming out.

I was scared of being called a homo. I was scared of being ostracized and abused.

If you’re reading this, you are probably thinking: “But it was 2010 and you were in an influential band, living in New York City and talking to a left-of-center newspaper with an open-minded journalist! How could coming out get any easier?” The truth is, I was still afraid to honor who I was in the public arena. I was scared of being called a homo. I was scared of being ostracized and abused. Where did this deep-seated fear of being myself come from? I can pinpoint it exactly: my parents.

I grew up in Horseheads, a small, dirty town in upstate New York. Both my mother and father were pastors of a medium-sized Pentecostal born-again church. Speaking in tongues, trading doctor visits for anointed healing oil, and “the laying on of hands” were day-to-day activities. To call us devout would be an understatement. We were full-on religious freaks. For example, every Christmas we would sing “Happy Birthday” as we gathered around a cake that my mother had baked — complete with candles and edible letters that spelled out “Happy Birthday Jesus! We Love You!” Also counted among day-to-day activities were the various physical, emotional and mental abuses delivered to my siblings and me via my mother and father mainly, but also others in the church. My parents believed in punishment for “sins,” and that would be fine with me if “sin” didn’t mean being yourself — in my case, gay — and punishment didn’t mean being beaten with a ten-foot fishing rod and/or subjected to gay conversion therapy.

Growing up was hard. It was dismal and lonely and overall very confusing. I longed for acceptance from those who simply could not accept me with good conscience, as their acceptance meant they were enablers — playing a part in delivering me into the hands of Satan and ultimately the eternal flames of damnation. The things I longed for were simple. I desired love and a sense of community and I looked everywhere for it, only to be met with obstacles and opposition.

There was only one chatroom that piqued my interest, simply called Gay Chat.

One day, my father surprised the household by introducing us to dial-up Internet. We used what seemed like a never-ending stack of America Online free trial CDs, which would come in the mail almost weekly, to access the Internet. To me, this was a game-changer. Each night, after my family would go to bed, I would feel my way down the dark, creaky staircase and get online. First stop: Yahoo Chat. There was only one chatroom that piqued my interest, simply called Gay Chat. One especially lonely night, I logged into Gay Chat hoping to find someone to connect with, or at the very least get off with. An anonymous user said hello to me in a private message, and we began to chitchat. After a few minutes he asked me what I did for a living and although I was working at a sandwich shop at the local mall, I told him I was a musician — probably in an attempt to come across as a bit more professional and grownup. When he asked me to send him some music I had made, I was delighted to do so.

You see, for the months leading up to this Gay Chat exchange, I had been locking myself in my bedroom — morning to night — writing and recording songs on an old Sequential Circuits MultiTrak Synthesizer I had found in our basement. My father had no use for it anymore, as the church had updated their keyboard section with new FM digital synthesizers. The analog synthesizer — complete with an onboard sequencer — was my savior, my outlet, my best friend. I had written a slew of sad but hopeful synth-pop songs and I knew there was something special about them. So I sent one over to him. He loved it. He asked for more and when I obliged, he became enthralled and then asked me for a photo of myself, which I quickly shot over.

I was being myself and thriving. It felt like a movie, but it was real and it was my life.

He then told me that he was a music manager living in New York City and that he needed me to get to New York City immediately to meet him. I left the next day — without telling a soul — met this man, decided to stay in the city, and, six months later, I signed to Columbia Records.

Two years later, I was putting out my debut album on a major label, living in a loft in Tribeca with my photographer boyfriend, traveling to Paris, London and Los Angeles, and enjoying a like-minded circle of friends I had curated in the city. I was throwing parties, I was playing gigs, I was making art. I was being myself and thriving. It felt like a movie, but it was real and it was my life.

One Sunday morning, after sleeping in, my boyfriend and I decided to walk a few blocks south to Odeon for some brunch. I remember the sun was shining and the sky was perfectly blue and other than my hangover, I was feeling good — peaceful even. After brunch we decided to meander through Lower Manhattan, hand in hand. We ended up winding through the West Village, where we heard loud cheering and pumping house music. Out of curiosity and maybe a little boredom, we followed the noise and eventually we found ourselves in Chelsea — and running directly into the Gay Pride Parade in all of its extravagant glory.

I had totally forgotten that the parade was happening at the time, and instead of feeling pride and excitement, I found my heart rate was increasing and an old but familiar fear began to stir inside of me. Before I knew it, the fear had turned into an all-encompassing panic. Out of nowhere, I started hearing voices from the past — voices of my mother and father — pleading with me to change my ways and save myself from eternal damnation. I started having short but vivid visions of myself literally burning alive in hell: engulfed in flames, in excruciating pain, shackled and alone. I let go of my boyfriend’s hand, looked him straight in the eyes, and told him I had to leave New York. I went straight back to the apartment, packed a small bag, kissed our dog on the nose and left for Penn Station.

I, for the first time in my life, became my own abuser.

Sitting on the Greyhound bus during the six-hour journey back to Horseheads, I found that I couldn’t cry. I wanted to cry, I felt like I should cry, but I couldn’t produce any tears. There was some sort of internal robot taking over — one that was devoid of feeling, one that was focused on “saving my soul” above all else, and one that ignored everything that made me human. I let this robot inhabit me and I, for the first time in my life, became my own abuser. Here I was, sitting on a rundown bus, leaving a beautiful life that so many would kill for, and voluntarily returning to the very place that had only brought me severe harm. Why? Fear: the same fear instilled in me from a young age; the same fear that was shoved down my throat every moment of every day as a child. The very fear I thought I had conquered years ago. Here it was, controlling me all over again.

By the time I had arrived in Horseheads, the transition was complete. I had become completely numb to myself and to all those around me. I gave up my music career, blocked all the numbers in my phone of people who were of secular mind — including my boyfriend — and immediately threw myself into reading scripture, attending church, speaking in church and evangelizing. Hell, I even tried dating women. I remember meeting up with Ashley Callahan at a Ruby Tuesday and trying my hand at acting straight. This was the new me: terrified and dead inside, but at least secure in knowing I would go to heaven and not hell.

This went on for months and months until, finally, my ex-boyfriend decided to go against my wishes and drive to my parents’ house and plead with me, in person, to come back to New York City with him. When I saw him sitting in his car, I cried for the first time since leaving him. He rolled his window down and said, “I miss you, Jonny. Come back to New York.” And just like that, the robot that had taken over my heart for so many months began to dismantle itself and I found myself jumping in the passenger seat, putting on my seatbelt and kissing my lover with abandon. I said nothing to anyone and headed back to New York.

Let’s jump back to the Drums era. It’s 2013. I have an apartment on 12th Street in the East Village. I am living as an openly gay artist. I am fearless and secure. By all counts, I seem to be thriving. I embark on yet another North American tour, this time in support of our sophomore album, Portamento. I had always had a hard time maintaining a strong, healthy singing voice while on tour. Normally, I would start a set singing confidently and by the time I got mid-set, my voice would begin to give out and then inevitably toward the end of the set, I would have to cut the last few songs because my voice would become too hoarse or even give out all together.

It was a scary time for me because I had seen many a voice doctor and had taken all their various instructions to heart.

It was a scary time for me because I had seen many a voice doctor and had taken all their various instructions to heart. I would gargle different concoctions of ginger, water, lemon and honey. I would take “silent days” and not speak unless I had an interview or some sort of press. I would do my vocal warm-ups religiously. I would put my head over a steaming pot and inhale deeply. There wasn’t much I didn’t do to try to correct the problem.

One day while in Portland, Oregon, I woke up on a show day and my voice was completely hoarse. I thought I might have to cancel the evening’s performance, so in desperation I asked my manager to find me a local voice doctor. He brought me to a voice specialist and this voice specialist introduced me to a speech therapist. I had never worked with a speech therapist before and so I was excited to hear a new point of view.

She had me open my mouth and say, “Ahhhh.” She then proceeded to stick a long, slender camera down my throat and focused it on my vocal chords. She told me to sing a song as best I could while the camera was pointed at my esophagus. I sang the chorus of my songs. She then gave me a piece of paper with a short paragraph printed on it. She asked me to read it aloud. I began reading.

She stopped me mid-sentence, took the camera out, looked me dead in the eyes and said: “Jonny. Are you ready? This is going to change your life. You sing correctly. Singing is not what is killing your voice. What is killing your voice is how you speak. You are talking in a lower register than what comes natural to you. Your natural speaking voice is higher.”

I was speaking unnaturally ‘butch’ without even knowing it.

As soon as she told me this, I felt shame and I knew exactly why. With all the progress I had made in accepting myself for who I was, there was still that lingering, subconscious fear — the same fear that caused me to run away from New York City years ago and throw myself back into the church. I was dealing with internalized homophobia. I was speaking unnaturally “butch” without even knowing it. I had subconsciously adapted this behavior at a younger age to avoid being identified as gay.

Sitting there in the doctor’s office, I was angry. Angry with my parents, with my past, but mostly angry with myself. Here I was thinking I was living proud and free, and all the while that same fear, that same self-hate, had not just fucked with my heart, my mind and my relationships, now it was fucking with my career, too! This speaks to the staying power of fear and the ideological brainwashing that takes place all over this country every single day. It is very real.

Since my visit with the speech therapist, I have tried to live in the spirit of self-awareness, so when I talk now, I try to use my natural voice. It took me some time to adjust, but the benefits of being myself are priceless. I can now sing for hours on end without a single glitch and I no longer fear touring.

All I can do is live with awareness and be vigilant in looking out for my true self.

I am now in my thirties. I still struggle with who I am from time to time, and I still see the shadows of an old fear standing in my doorway some nights, wanting to come in. I no longer make the mistake of viewing myself as fully present and completely free and unabashedly proud. I may always deal with some level of self-hate, but am so much further toward fully loving myself than I’ve ever been. I do think it would be naïve or even dangerous for me to ever think that I could never again be susceptible to fear. I see the light at the end of the tunnel, but I may never reach it. I just don’t know. All I can do is live with awareness and be vigilant in looking out for my true self.

There are millions of people in America like me who deal with their own fears every day — fear of being abused, shunned, ostracized, attacked and even killed. We fear we’re not enough or that maybe we’re too much. These fears cause us to back away from the beauty that is inside us, the beauty that is our full potential. And to make things much worse, we now we have an evil man who ran a fear-based campaign for the presidency — and won.

People who want us to live in fear have elected a man who thrives off of bullying and instilling fear in those who he views as abnormal. For many of these Trump supporters, this is an official green light to practice hate in their everyday lives. It is truly a scary time for all of us. This means only one thing: we all must stay alert and courageous and live in the spirit of awareness and love. Life will never be perfect, but by honoring who we are and loving who we are, we can make it better.

Jonny Pierce (writer, producer, and frontman of the Drums) has been an outspoken advocate for social justice with a focus on fighting discrimination toward the LGBTQ community. He is hard at work on the Drums‘ fourth album and divides time between New York and Los Angeles.