NEW YORK -- Openly gay singer Mike Acerbo is giving himself a wonderful Valentine on Feb. 14: the release of his debut CD, “The Search.”
“The Search” has a fairytale theme, and the combination of Acerbo’s higher-pitch voice and lush strings enhance that mood. Acerbo’s style invokes memories of Fleetwood Mac, Joni Mitchell and Kate Bush, among others.
In an exclusive interview with San Diego Gay & Lesbian News, Acerbo talks about how the CD has been a decade in the making, and explains why the project sputtered for a significant amount of time as he dealt with mounting personal problems that included hitting rock bottom with drug addiction. Acerbo, clean and sober for the past six years, says he has come to terms with the untimely deaths of three people near and dear to his heart, as well as coming out later in life than most gay men.
SDGLN: “The Search” is your debut CD and has 11 songs on it. Why was this CD 10 years in the making?
Mike Acerbo: I started recording a three-song demo back in 2001 that included the songs "Trilby" "Mother" and "Like the Tide" off the record. I was really unhappy with my vocals on the initial recordings and shelved it, intending to go back and finish at some point. For some reason I just never did.
I was a bit of a mess at the time and definitely had the "I can't finish anything I set out to do" personality. Instead it made complete sense for me to go back into the studio in 2003 to record an acoustic demo, which included the songs "The Search," "The Night Light" and "Beast." Go figure!
I stopped recording and pursuing my music shortly after that to get sober; returning in 2009 to record "Robbie.. That was a very spiritual experience for me and inspired me to record a full album. At that point I went back, transferred my old recordings into Protools, and they became the base from which "The Search" was completed.
SDGLN: The theme of the CD is a personal search or quest, told through an emotional musical journey. “The Search” has been described as a “dark fairy tale that stimulates all the senses.” Do you think that description is accurate, and why?
Mike Acerbo: Yes, I think it's a great description of the record. I wanted it to play out like an old tale. The oversized packaging of the CD, which includes the beautiful illustrations of Darcy May and a poem that I wrote, gives the physical presentation a storybook feel. The haunting textures and instrumentation on the album along with the lyrical journey of loss, confusion and hope reinforce the fairytale theme. So I guess all the basics are covered -- sight, sound, touch and heart.
SDGLN: You were born in The Bronx, but grew up in the hamlet of Pearl River, N.Y., about 20 miles north of Manhattan. Your teenage years were shaken by the death of your mother and a brother, as well as the tragic drowning of a childhood friend. Is the single, “Robbie,” dedicated to that childhood friend? This single is very touching, and the lyrics are very moving. How cathartic is that song for you?
Mike Acerbo: “Robbie” is a deeply personal and meaningful song for me. He was my best friend in grammar school. When I was younger and being taunted by classmates about my voice, which was high, he would defend and support me and tell me I could sing and that everyone else was just jealous.
In eighth grade at the age of 14, he drowned in the Delaware River. I was 13 at the time and never really processed my grief; I just didn't know how to. I started writing the song 12 years later when I could finally find the words to tell his story and contact my own sense of loss. It's very cathartic when I sing it and sometimes very difficult. Last time I did, I started crying on stage -- it took about a minute for me to start singing on key I was such a mess!
SDGLN: Overall, your debut CD is very impressive with its deeply personal stories about loss, about difficult relationships and the never-ending struggle to find one’s identity. Does this CD have anything to do with your accepting yourself as an openly gay singer?
Mike Acerbo: Absolutely. In my teens I lost my mother, brother and best friend. While all of this was happening I was discovering I was attracted to other men. This was devastating for me and the pressure to conform was completely suffocating.
I didn't come out until I was 26. "The Night Light" was written about being closeted and having hope that somewhere out in the darkness there was somebody just like me and we would find each other.
I made a conscious decision to just be honest about my sexuality even though it might make it more difficult for me. Despite that, though, I have to say the themes of my music are universal and I've always felt that art transcends sexuality or any other human differences. I mean who walks around saying "that lesbian singer KD Lang"? People just say, "I love her music, she has an amazing voice."
It is important for young gay men to know that I am gay, though, and that I've struggled, but I'm still here and I think that being gay is one of the many gifts God has given me.
SDGLN: How has being openly gay affected your career?
Mike Acerbo: I think being gay will affect my career, I haven't been around long enough to know how, but honestly I think it's an asset. It's an important part of my story and it separates me from the rest of the pack and makes my story that much more interesting.
SDGLN: How would you describe your musical style?
Mike Acerbo: I think musically I'm an amalgamation of all of my influences: one part classic rock, two parts folk, one part country, two parts Irish, one part pop, one part indie, which equals 8 parts Mike Acerbo.
SDGLN: Identify your musical influences? Fleetwood Mac comes to mind immediately.
Mike Acerbo: I LOVE Fleetwood Mac -- they are and always will be my favorite band! I also love Joni Mitchell; I was immersed in "Ladies of the Canyon" when I wrote a bunch of the tunes on this record. For pure songwriting, there is no one out there that comes close to Patty Griffin -- she has influenced my guitar songwriting more than anyone. I learned how to tell stories about people by listening to her stuff. Kate Bush is also a huge influence on me -- "The Hounds of Love" is just mind-blowing, and I listen to indie/alternative Internet radio all the time.
SDGLN: Your biography honestly notes that you spent about six years battling substance abuse. Have you learned the root of this issue, and what caused you to reach out for help? And how long have you been sober?
Mike Acerbo: Every time I think I've discovered the "roots" of my addictive behavior I find more roots and another tree below that! The process of self-discovery continues through life I guess, but I think the seeds of most of my issues were sown the day Robbie died and the following five years. I reached out for help because I woke up one day and realized that I couldn't stop -- I wasn't happy and drugs were not working for me anymore. So I went and got support and it was the best thing I ever did. I am six years sober, and without that I would not be where I am today.
SDGLN: Why did you choose Feb. 14 for the debut date for the CD?
Mike Acerbo: I chose Feb. 14 to release the album ‘cause I've never had a Valentine and I thought I would give one to myself. Who could top a record release?
SDGLN: What instruments do you play on the CD?
Mike Acerbo: I play acoustic guitar and some percussion instruments on the CD. I can play the piano as well and wrote most of the songs that way but truthfully I am not a great player so I let Geoffrey Kiorpes handle all the keys on the record.
SDGLN: What is playing on your MP3 player?
Mike Acerbo: I prefer to listen to my record player! Last album I spun was "Everything All the Time" by Band of Horses.
SDGLN: What is something your fans don’t know about you?
Mike Acerbo: You might not know it from my music but I like to goof around a lot and have a good time and I really don't take myself that seriously!
SDGLN: Single or taken?
Mike Acerbo: Single, available, ask me out!
SDGLN: Boxers or briefs?
Mike Acerbo: Ha ha! Briefs, definitely.
SDGLN: If you could have the ultimate dinner party and invite three guests (living or dead), who would be there and why?
Mike Acerbo: Right now I would say: Roger Federer -- I am huge tennis fan and I just think he is an amazing player. I'd spend the entire time trying to coach him through his next match against Rafa. Afterwards we would play tennis and I destroy him by exploiting his one-handed backhand as he is overwhelmed by my two-fisted wooden racquet attack ... Stevie Nicks -- She was my first rock obsession. I just love 1970s, early ‘80s Stevie, ain't nothin' better than that. In my fantasy we sing together and talk about mystical things ... Bill Clinton -- This guy rocks and just keeps rocking! I am so impressed with how much service he does for the world. It's nice to see a former politician working hard to give back. Bill would bring Hillary to the dinner, so this is a two-for-one special. I would thank her for marching in our NYC Pride Parade and try to convince her to run for president again. That would be an interesting dinner -- Hillary talking foreign policy to Stevie, who is reading Hillary's palm, while I'm coaching Roger ,and Bill is trying to hit everyone up to donate to one of his charities. Ha!
Mike Acerbo's "The Search" can be ordered HERE.
Ken Williams is Editor in Chief of SDGLN. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @KenSanDiego on Twitter, or by calling toll-free to (877) 727-5446, ext. 713.
Mike Acerbo singing “Trilby”
Mike Acerbo singing “Robbie”