Now Hear This: Kevin Grivois [Tahoe, California]

Special Ké

When Kevin Grivois was signed to RCA in 1995, there were no ring tones, no music blogs, and no social networking websites. The concept of the Internet barely existed in the minds of the masses. Yet it’s through some of these very mechanisms that Kevin Grivois, formerly “Ké”, is being discovered by thousands of new listeners a dozen years after his debut album.

Grivois is far removed from the glittery industry scenes of New York and Los Angeles, haunts where he’d once made his home as a choir boy-turned-model-turned-singer/songwriter. These days, he surrounds himself with trees, waterfalls, and a menagerie of animals in the wooded area of Tahoe, California. He wakes at 6:00 AM to walk and feed his pack of dogs — not exactly what one might expect from the man who had the top selling single of 1996 in Italy (“Strange World”) and became the muse for Dolce and Gabana.

Grivois was never about easy pigeonholing, though, either in his life or his career. It was a quality that partly contributed to his short lifespan as a recording artist on a major label. After a period of hibernation, Kevin Grivois has reflected on what it all meant. He’s now positioned to re-enter the industry on his own terms, and determined to have his voice heard this time around.

From the Reservation to the Runway

A Cherokee Indian reservation in Oklahoma seems an unlikely place to begin the story of Kevin Grivois, but that’s where early life found him. His father and mother divorced when he was a child, and he moved with his mother to his grandparents’ house on the reservation, where life was fairly placid. Days were spent riding horses, turning over rocks, and watching water ripple through streams. Around seven or eight years old, a music teacher discovered young Kevin’s vocal talent. “From there,” he says, “I was developed. I was in a progression of boys’ choirs. I toured the world at one point at a really young age, too young to really appreciate what I was doing. It just sort of took over.”

1996 – Vogue

Seeking a refuge from the repressive mentality of Middle America, Grivois moved to London and spent the better part of his teenage years living in a “patchwork house” (government-subsidized housing for teens and ex-drug addicts). On a fateful visit back home to the reservation, Grivois met a photographer who propositioned him about a modeling gig in Los Angeles. Shortly thereafter, she invited him to move in with her. “It was a total platonic relationship,” he assures. “She just really loved the inspiration that I brought her, sort of a breath of fresh air. It was like having a little naïve, innocent person in house. She had grown up with people always having motivations. She was very successful, [but] she was having trouble maintaining friendships and trusting people. I became her sidekick”.

Through her social network, Grivois was introduced to celebrities in all facets of the entertainment industry. They recognized his talent and encouraged him to pursue a recording career, something that Grivois didn’t initially set out to do. “What I did was record myself a cappella and then stack it,” he explains, “doing the rhythm tracks with my voice and singing a lead vocal melody line. People thought it was just amazing. I was just me, bored, sitting there with nothing to do.” His “boredom” birthed a catalog of songs that distinguished him as a songwriter, rather than just another in a sea of pretty faces.

A revolving door of industry heavyweights clamored to help Kevin Grivois. Madonna had a meeting with him; Sheryl Crow shared her stories about singing back up for Michael Jackson and surviving a flop record before Tuesday Night Music Club (1994) hit. Famed songwriter Bruce Roberts (Barbra Streisand, Donna Summer) taught him some essential lessons about publishing, and k.d. lang connected him with Sire Records president Seymour Stein. A dinner with the legendary record impresario was a crucial learning moment for Grivois about what he might have to sacrifice to succeed in the industry.

“I was very much in love with myself,” Grivois laughs. “He wanted me to go in directions I didn’t feel like going. He said, ‘Look, if you’re going to have success, you’re going to have to go jazz or R&B.’ I said, ‘I don’t want to do that.’ A genre, to me, represented a prison. I still didn’t know who I was or what I was. I didn’t know how I would frame myself within that.” Soon enough, genre would become the least of Kevin Grivois’ concerns.

“Too Gay” for RCA

As buzz traveled from coast to coast, Kevin Grivois became entrenched in a bidding war among major record labels, each with its own idea of how he should be recorded and produced. RCA ultimately outbid Island and Warner Bros. “The nightmare started after I had made a decision,” he remembers. “I just unfortunately went for the largest machine available, instead of understanding that sometimes the smaller one works better. It also ended up to be at a time when the president, general manager, and marketing head were all fired a week after I signed. So, I was sitting there like, ‘Great I just got a great recording budget, but everybody’s gone who loved me.'” He recounts the loathsome details of the experience:

“It took a year to bring in new marketing people, a new president, a new general manager, a new everything, basically. They kept my A&R guy, luckily. What happened was they weren’t interested in the old regime’s artists, they wanted to sign their own favorites. There I was with a really good deal and stuck because it was a totally different regime. RCA went from a Euro/multi-national to a middle America/white man’s kind of record label. Dave Matthews did really well with that and everybody else fell through the cracks.”

Uncertain about what they’d inherited, the new regime at RCA conducted focus groups about Kevin Grivois, who was re-christened “Ké” because his last name was “too intimidating” for radio programmers. The ultimate consensus was that Ké was “too gay”. Though Grivois didn’t hide his sexuality, he didn’t flaunt it either. His songs were not gender specific and his music was mainstream pop/rock that could hardly be interpreted as anything stereotypically “gay”. He recalls, “They then wanted me to become a dance artist. I went, ‘Isn’t that just so obvious and stupid? I don’t have any dance artist skills.’ I said, ‘Why don’t you try to open your minds to the fact that you can be gay and not be a dance artist?’ They thought I wasn’t willing to work with them, when, in reality, they were just taking the easiest path that had nothing to do with who I was [as an artist].” Wary of their brand, RCA released Ké’s debut, I Am [ ] (1995), in only two U.S. markets, New York and Los Angeles.

Shortly after RCA deemed Ké unfit for the mainstream, established artists like Elton John and George Michael became more public about their sexuality and continued to sell records. In the past few years, younger male artists like Mika and Jake Shears have projected an unapologetic gay identity in their songs, if not in their personal life, without ghettoizing the gay culture or sacrificing their artistry in the process. Ké was just a little too ahead of his time. “I thought that I could be androgynous vocally, very straightforward sexually, and not be intimidating,” he says, “but I was, apparently. The frat boys that run everything were a little bit scared. I didn’t really realize how stupid the level of interaction would be.”

Learning a lot of lessons very quickly about self-promotion, the frustrated artist visited each major European territory with RCA’s head of international (one of his few allies at the label). Though Grivois wasn’t signed directly to the international arm of BMG (the company that owned RCA), the foreign affiliates were more than eager to work I Am [ ] in their markets while the head office in New York let promo samples of the album gather dust in trendy Manhattan boutiques.

Ké – I Am [ ] (1995)

Grivois put the money from his advance towards a band and embarked on an extensive promotional tour throughout Europe. Audiences adored Ké, whose somewhat androgynous voice and feline stage presence made him a striking commodity in the European markets. The extracted single, “Strange World”, saturated the airwaves in Italy, Germany, and Spain, while Grivois made the rounds of chart shows in each territory. “The international group was cheering and proud,” he recalls about his success with BMG. “I had done every major thing you could do in Europe, and they came back to America with this package to present at some quarterly meeting. It was almost like rubbing [the US company’s] noses in it, because the people that hadn’t believed in it got even angrier. They had already made up their mind and they weren’t interested. They still wouldn’t release anything to radio in the US.” Save for a Top 5 dance remix of “Strange World” by Junior Vasquez, RCA barely lifted a finger to work I Am [ ] in any meaningful way.

In addition to the record label’s blatant indifference, Grivois also found life as a new artist to be its own “strange world”. Rolling Stone, which had much more cachet in the pre-Internet era, would only run a story about Ké if he furnished photos of himself with other celebrities. Though he was caught in a whirlwind of strong personalities and the seduction of the high life, Grivois saw through the fragile façade of the rich and famous. “You’re realizing that they’re the most insecure people in the world,” he explains, “totally trapped in this place that they valued so much that they can’t see any value beyond it. They think that if their life isn’t working within that sphere, then they’re nothing.”

Despite his appalling treatment by RCA, Ké recorded a second album, Shiny (1998), which was released only in Europe. The end was nearer than Grivois realized. “I got really disillusioned at that point,” he says. “I paid for a video myself with no promotional money from the corporate office. I’m shooting my video in Italy and I got a call from my A&R guy. He’d been fired. I said, ‘So this means I am probably not going to be working with RCA anymore?’ He goes, ‘Yeah, it looks that way.’ Everything in life is about timing, and I had been in the right place at the right time… up until that point.”

Life after RCA included a short a stint at a boutique label owned by Sony. Better Way of Living (2001) was the sole release. Tracks like “You Walked Away”, “Dancing With the Moon”, and a cover of Shuggie Otis’ “Aht Uh Mi Hed” were among some of Grivois’ finest songs, but the album’s shelf life evaporated when the imprint folded and all the artists were dropped. Ké, essentially, disappeared.

The Resurgence of “Strange World”

Years later, the song that made Ké a superstar across Europe is finding a second life in the US. The lyrics go like this:

So close your eyes and just believe

In everything you’re told

‘Cause in this land of bright confusion

It’s easy to give up control

Strange world

People talk and tell only lies

Strange world

People kill an eye for an eye

The challenge of selling a song with bleak sentiments on Top 40 radio in the US is a near insurmountable undertaking. Not only was Ké gay, he wrote songs that captured the specious nature of people in power. This did not sit well with the brass RCA in the era when acts like R.E.M., Dave Matthews Band, and Hootie and the Blowfish ruled the kinds of airwaves that should have played “Strange World”. A song that had the potential to be a massive hit in the US fell completely below the radar.

Strangely enough, Coca-Cola later offered to utilize the song for a promo campaign, though Grivois turned down the deal. “I knew that it meant ostracizing myself,” he explains. “They would have just used ‘strange world’ over and over, but they would have never said all of the other stuff [in the lyrics]. I could have made quick money, but that’s about all I would have gotten out of it.”

With an election year now in full swing, various factions of the music industry have become interested in the song’s incisive political commentary. This, in part, has fueled Grivois’ re-emergence in the music community. He’s been approached about re-releasing the song and remixing it for radio and club play. There’s even the possibility of linking the song with progressive political and human rights organizations. Grivois has his own vision for the song. “I was going to put together my own little montage of images that I find horrifying,” he says, “whether it’s Darfur or animal experimentation. You name it, there’s no shortage of horrifying imagery. For me, ‘Strange World’ was a message song and I really did have an intention and intent behind it. It is sort of ironic how the world has regressed since then.” In a sense, “Strange World” was prophetic. As we watch warfare continue to rage, it is timelier than ever.

Dues Paid

“As soon as I was dropped from RCA,” Grivois remembers, “I got a lot of phone calls from really nice people saying, ‘Remember when you were so excited that you didn’t have to go through all the rigmarole of touring in a band? This is called paying your dues. The only thing that will stop you from success is you.'”

No longer immersed in the mayhem of major label machinations, Kevin Grivois is, happily, a free agent. In addition to re-fashioning “Strange World” for 2008, he’s collaborating with musicians all around the globe. He’s helping Italian artists break into the US market and teaming with two acts based in China, High Team and Miriam Yeung. Later in 2008, Grivois will do shows with High Team that lean more towards his jazz repertoire, pursuing the direction that Seymour Stein suggested so long ago.

The idea of plotting out some concert dates in the US is also gestating. “I’ve done smaller shows in America. I’ve never had any trouble filling up a small room, because I think the shows I do are conducive to that. It’s a much more intimate expression of the music. I’m not really about stadiums. I’ve done that in Europe, and it really is an odd sensation to see tens of thousands of people in front of you.”

In addition to his work with other acts onstage and off, Kevin Grivois hasn’t lost his passion for writing and recording songs. One of his more recent cuts was penned “because there was no real interest in me. It was kind of inside joke with myself”. A mixture of chic and smarminess unfurls on “Reason 4 Being Alive”. PJ Harvey was partly the inspiration for the song, as were the transsexuals and transvestites who Grivois befriended in Los Angeles. He explains:

“There was a place where I used to go eat breakfast every morning. About two in the morning every Thursday, the parking lot would be filled with trannies wanting to get laid, a few of whom were my friends. That’s what inspired that song. People instantly judging them. It’s more about being the insider judged and finding yourself even pulled into that life of judgment, and desire for the material success and the things that seem to matter, but inevitably don’t.”

Though Kevin Grivois hasn’t recorded an album in years, a whole new audience is discovering his songs online. “I am sincerely touched when anyone feels the music,” he says. When Grivois first started out, Bruce Roberts encouraged him to retain all mechanical and publishing rights to his songs so that he could still earn a healthy stream of income when not actively recording or performing. Because he owns all his masters, a makeshift “Best of Ké” is available for per-track purchase through SnoCap (the proceeds go to an animal rights organization).

For all the disappointments he faced early on, Kevin Grivois is not bitter. Looking back on the past 15 years and projecting towards the future, Kevin Grivois has realized it is possible to survive a series of professional setbacks and still flourish creatively. “There’s always a second chance,” he affirms. “There has to be. Sometimes your purpose is to remind people, ‘Don’t give up.’ Everyone loves to see a character who kept believing. My life has taken so many different twists. I might just end up being a jazz singer in Beijing,” he says. From Oklahoma to China and everywhere in between, the story of Kevin Grivois is ripe with new beginnings at every turn.

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