This Rainbow Dragon Has Fire Inside: An Interview with Keiynan Lonsdale
For outspoken actor and singer Keiynan Lonsdale, his unabashedly queer debut album centers on sexuality and politics, making for a striking release in the age of quarantine. "There's rhythm to it: there's rhythm in blackness, and it's saying 'Stop being crazy, stop being dangerous, quiet the fuck down, and move your feet.'"
29 May 2020
For the next 12 days or so, Keiynan Lonsdale is going to try all sorts of muesli. This is an inherently good thing, as the multi-hyphenate performer is eager to get back to his family in his native Australia. Before he can properly enter the country, however, he must abide by the rules of the Australian government, which places incoming travelers in hotel rooms that they cannot leave for 14 days, thereby making sure they are not carriers of the novel coronavirus.
"So today was like a muesli and fruit situation," Lonsdale tells PopMatters, describing his breakfast. "It's actually a pretty good situation. And the government, they're paying for it."
As for how the prospect of contactless food pickups for two weeks sounds, Lonsdale is making the most of it. "I'm in this quarantine, and the best part about it is that it's allowing me to take stock of the past few weeks but also this year in general. Even the fact that the album has come out -- it's not the way that I expected to spend the album release (to be alone in a hotel), but it's quite therapeutic to be able just to journal and learn what I need and take stock. So for my health, I think it's the best thing I could've asked for."
Having just flown back from America, Lonsdale is in a precarious artistic situation. As an actor, he is perhaps best known for his role as Wally West/Kid Flash in the hit CW superhero show The Flash (as well as its various crossover programs Legends of Tomorrow and Supergirl), but also received accolades for his turn as a potential romantic partner in the breakthrough gay comedy film Love, Simon from 2018 (his character even makes a guest appearance in the Hulu television spin-off of that show, Love, Victor). Yet Lonsdale is also a singer who has been releasing music on his own for years. His earlier efforts weren't especially distinct, but he's grown more into his own skin with each new single. While he had minor success with tracks like "Kiss the Boy", it was his 2018 single "Preach" that showed Lonsdale in a new light: he is fierce, confident, proud, and unapologetically sexual.
Having come out in 2017, his open sexuality has helped define the course of his music, culminating in the 2020 release of Rainbow Boy, his first full-length record. It's a joyous, celebratory affair full of horns, slick synths, and Lonsdale's unique charisma. It's political, it's ass-shaking, it's queer as hell -- just as he intended.
Yet as excited and proud as he is of the album, how does one even begin to market it during COVID-19?
"I had a lot of videos planned, and there were certain elements that were not coming together," Lonsdales admits. "For some reason, I just couldn't complete the vision in my head -- something didn't feel like it was going to work. Then COVID happened, then quarantine happened, and that made sure of it, that it wasn't going to work in that way.
This whole album process has been a multitude of things, and it's been a very big project. I realize that there are certain parts that I could only really accomplish with a certain group of people, so through the COVID experience in LA, I realized that I could slow down [and] reevaluate everything. I'll shoot what I can when I'm able to home in Australia. It changed the plans, but if you have the luxury to adapt -- I came from a privileged position to be able to change my work and be my own boss in that situation."
That isn't to say that Lonsdale hasn't been able to put out anything. His lead single "Rainbow Dragon" came out in late 2019 and remains his most-viewed music video on YouTube. Plus, he's even managed to score high-profile appearances in mainstream fare like Camila Cabello's "Liar" clip. While his dream of making a music video for his fiercely queer anthem "Gay Street Fighter" has yet to materialize, Rainbow Boy remains a pulsating, defiant album that is unafraid in expressing its sexuality.
He paints a version of himself in the song "Magic Mickey" that wants to explore his carnal boundaries but is restrained because he's a public figure. "See I'm just tryna get liberated / But it's kinda hard being famous / He wanna dick down everybody / But he can't just trust anybody" he sings over a sensuous midtempo bass throb. In other interviews before Rainbow Boy's release, Lonsdale said that he's a bit nervous about people hearing his songs, but also notes how it's an aspect of his life that needs to be shared with the world.
"There's so much conversation about sexuality and coming out and accepting yourself and, you know, what's one of the biggest parts about that? The sex. And the love," Lonsdale notes. " And that's something I very much struggled with, as a lot of people have. It just wasn't accepting myself.
It was even just the act [of sex] itself, and what it meant and the shame that would come with that, and I was like 'It's got to go. I should feel free to explore this and feel safe in this but to express [myself].' A lot of people, despite being tolerant or accepting of 'gay', are still uncomfortable hearing conversations or songs about same-sex or queer love. So I just wanted to do my thing.
Also, I grew up with a lot of R&B listening to all that stuff. Trey Songz, Chris Brown, Mario, Boyz II Men -- so I'm just singing what I love, and I'm going to be pretty clear about where that's directed right now."
Rainbow Boy pairs nicely with fellow Aussie Troye Sivan's landmark 2018 album Bloom, which is also unafraid of giving contemporary queer romance a fresh new dance-pop perspective. On the string-swept and ever-shifting ballad "Destiny Road", he asks, "Do you believe in yourself, Rainbow Boy?", before noting that although "the oceans keep rising", he's "finally figuring out how to accept the current". The way Lonsdale describes it, that evolving, multi-layered centerpiece was also the hardest track to complete when working with his go-to producer and musical collaborator Louis Futon.
"I could not come up with the lyrics," Lonsdale says of the number. "I had the melody, and I had some of the lyrics here and there, but I really didn't know where I was at. The song itself is about being a little bit lost. I was like, 'I can feel it ... I just don't know fully where this comes in.'
Then we had another session, and usually, we had recorded at home. But finally, we had gotten to get into a studio at the Steakhouse, which is a recording studio in LA, and we brought in the strings and harp, and soon the players added in their magic, the lyrics just came. I started tearing up when they were playing, 'cos I was like 'Man, I can't believe this is real.' To be able to work with different musicians on the project was really a beautiful experience, and the lyrics started flowing from there. Music is collaborative, and you have to be patient and trust that things will come when they do."
Of course, having listed artists like Boyz II Men and Trey Songz as some clear influences, it's not surprising when he vocally and musically circles some of his idols' trademarks across Rainbow Boy. You can hear it in the joyous Prince-in-the-'90s-esque horn romp at the end of "Gay Street Fighter" or strutting down a Michael Jackson-indebted vocal line on "I Confess My Love". As Lonsdale tells it, such telegraphed melodic phrases weren't intended going into the songwriting sessions.
Photo: Clifford Prince King / Courtesy of Shore Fire Media
"I don't think we went into any session and was like 'I want to sound like this artist'," Lonsdale tells us. "But as we were playing, we could tell how things felt. Michael Jackson has always been my biggest inspiration, so once we sort of kicked into 'I Confess My Love', [it] had a sort of [Michael Jackson] groove to it -- something that feels like that. Things would sort of come out that way.
Even with 'Gay Street Fighter', I hadn't really rapped like that, and we had been listening to some Anderson Paak recently, and I love the rasp. I remember 'We can explore the rasp, we can explore anything.' So I certainly did, as we were going on, sort of understanding where we could pull from others and within myself. But mostly it was just fun, I guess."
As much as Lonsdale still wants his album release to be marked as a sexy and fun occasion, he's not oblivious to the things going on in the world right now. His Twitter account posts about petitions demanding justice for murdered first responder Breonna Taylor, and shares articles about how Aboriginal people are dying in the custody of the Australian police. On Twitter, he follows only one account: Black Rainbow, which lists itself as "Australia's only 100% Indigenous suicide prevention organization for Indigenous LGBTI people." (Lonsdales says that 50% of the proceeds from "Gay Street Fighter" go directly to Black Rainbow.)
Even on his generally-playful album track "White Noise", he takes a guised political stance against "all the white noise that we just don't need", even opening the song with the charged line "They call us monkeys / When they be monkeys too / Ain't no denying / 'cos what we see is what they do" -- and yes, you can dance to it.
While Lonsdale notes that the mere fact that Rainbow Boy exists at all makes it a political record, "White Noise" is his pointed song to date. "That song: it's just me speakin' the truth," he explains. "The fact that it came out when it did is pretty powerful because there's a lot of times where I've played that song for people and sometimes they couldn't even tell what it was about -- which his crazy, 'cos the first line is 'they call us monkeys when they be monkeys, too.' For me, it just proved how necessary it was, 'cos I was kinda like 'What's going through your head if you don't know what this one's about? It really couldn't be more on the nose.'
"I mean that's just music in general, but I hope it speaks to people. There's obviously a lot of conversations happening right now, and a lot of emotions and necessary work that's being done, and music plays a big part in that. I hope that the song is one thing that can either provide people with a better understanding if they aren't quite understanding the necessity of equality and dismantling the system.
On the other hand, I wanted people to feel invited to the party. [So] yeah, there's rhythm to it: there's rhythm in blackness, and it's saying 'Stop being crazy, stop being dangerous, quiet the fuck down, and move your feet. Can you feel what life could be about?'"
As Lonsdale rejoins his family soon and begins working on what the next phase of Rainbow Boy's promotion will be, he's also having time to reflect on his musical career up to this point. When pressed, he can come up with one regret and one proud accomplishment he's managed since he started.
"It's not a regret, but I'm not a trained musician, and I would've loved to have gone to music school," Lonsdale says, "It just would've been awesome to surround myself with that and learn more of the fundamentals in that kind of environment -- but I do that now. It's work I've had to do a bit later.
"My proudest accomplishment? I'm proud of everything, but I'm really proud of this album. We worked really hard on it, and especially with where the world is at right now, I'm very proud of the work that we've done and the intentions that were put into it. I'm proud that we didn't hold back, 'cos there were so many chances to hold back and you can't. And if anything, if it's something you believe in and you're fighting for what's real and what's the truth, you have to go all the way."
Photo: Clifford Prince King / Courtesy of Shore Fire Media
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