A survivor of conversion therapy, Justin Utley still bears the Scars
Survivors is the debut single from Justin Utley’s third studio album – Scars.
I caught up with him for a behind-the-scenes look at the music.
Was there a therapeutic element to working on this track?
It definitely helped me use the frustration and hurt I’ve experienced and the causalities caused by conversion therapy into something useful. It is its own therapy in a way. Really, there came a point in my life where I needed to either pull the plug on life, or the therapy and all the ‘logic’ behind it. I’m lucky I chose the latter of the two.
What was the creative process for the video for Survivors?
Survivors started off as an official entry into the Eurovision Song Contest in 2017. Ylva and Linda, of Universal Music Sweden, contacted me about partnering up for the song. It did fairly well, and when the opportunity came to re-work it again, I started working with pop producer Taylor Hartley, who’s worked with some great artists from American Idol.
It was a risk for me, since normally I’ve produced the bulk of my own material. I’ve wanted to change direction and flavour of my music, and start taking more risk outside my typical comfort zone of Americana Rock.
With ending conversion therapy being at the forefront of my efforts and focus again, personally and politically, the song was brought to new heights as a pop single. The plan was just to release the pop single and music video to it. But, shortly after we finished recording the pop version, and had already begun working together on a full-length album, I sat down at the piano and started playing a piano version of the song, on the fly. Taylor really liked it, and instead of working on what we’d planned, we ended up reconstructing the entire song as an orchestral piece. It was breathtaking, and I decided to produce the music video to the song as the orchestra version, instead of the pop single version.
The director had the idea to bring in a narrative about a fight-or-flight moment, something not too specific, but an emotion that was broadly relatable.
Proceeds from the single are being donated to the Born Perfect campaign – is there growing support in the US for banning conversion therapy?
Born Perfect is one of the few national organisations that’s sole purpose is to stop the spread of conversion therapy, and is led by survivors. I’ve been absolutely fortunate to have worked alongside their efforts and bring awareness to their mission.
The support for the ban on conversion therapy is certainly growing, and is usually met with a disbelief that the practice is even still happening. But, that’s the most alarming thing to me, is that it has been re-branded, repackaged, and sold as something else – from support groups to retreats – some in an almost secret fraternal order or rite-of-passage process, and that it’s gone unnoticed for this long.
Do you ever think about how life would be different for you if you hadn’t been subjected to conversion therapy?
Everyday. Its not something easily gotten over if you’ve bought into it like I had. It was presented as the only option to me, along with using all too familiar religion-based fear tactics that if I didn’t do exactly as I was instructed, I would lose the chance to be with my family in the afterlife. The medications I was put on for supposed PTSD from the sexual trauma I experienced as a child – which I hadn’t – have lasting repercussions.
How do you hope that people feel when listening to Survivors?
That even if you can’t see a silver lining, you can still always make one.
Main image: Photo by Ryan Bakerink