Coming Out of the Dark
Tyler Glenn opens up about resisting suicide, losing his religion and being ‘unapologetically’ gay
By Chris Azzopardi | Photos by Meredith Truax
“To be honest…” Tyler Glenn begins, following a telling deep breath.
Glenn’s lead-in could serve as the prologue to his new no-holds-barred solo debut album, Excommunication. Here, however, it precedes the heavy moment when Glenn, the lead singer of Neon Trees, reveals he’s considered suicide twice this year.
Perhaps that comes as a surprise. The singer seemed vibrant and hopeful when he came out in 2014. At the time, Glenn was looking to reconcile his Mormon faith with being gay, and during our talk that same year he said, “I think that there’s a time and a place to come out, and I don’t know if waiting till I was 30 was the best thing, but it definitely has turned out fine, and I’m a happy person.”
A year later, Glenn received dispiriting news that left him feeling just the opposite: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints enacted a policy that prevents children living with same-sex couples from being baptized until age 18 – also, they must “disavow” same-sex relationships before baptism – and proclaims members in gay marriages subject to excommunication.
The church’s shameful decision had a destructive effect on Glenn’s well-being. “I tried to kill myself,” the singer confesses on the new album’s G.D.M.M.L. GRLS (i.e. “God Didn’t Make Me Like Girls”), “and I’m not the only one.”
During our sobering exchange, the 32-year-old ex-Mormon spoke candidly about his descent into a life-threatening low and how his own fans pulled – and are still pulling – him through.
When were you having these suicidal thoughts and what kept you from taking your life?
(Sighs) To be honest, it was earlier this year. For me, I believed in Mormonism, and I knew I was gay, and then I tried to merge the two together. Then, when the church put out a policy that clearly put same-sex couples in their place and in a marginalized box, it was just clear to me it was a toxic space. I started looking at things that I thought I knew were true my whole life and really began to see that those things weren’t true. I looked deeper and I fell down a rabbit hole. I felt the rug had been pulled out from under me, and I didn’t know what to believe in. It became really dark, and I realized how it feels to want to sort of, you know, leave. And, to be honest, even two months ago I felt this thought and saw my life sort of – I don’t know. It’s been a long road. I totally recognize now what it’s like to be that dark and to think that that might be an option, and it freaked me out.
I’m sorry you were having these thoughts just a couple of months ago. I hope that you have pulled yourself out of that rabbit hole.
I have. I hope I don’t go back. I know that I need to be stronger, but there are times when it’s just all fresh for me, and that’s the thing with this record: I’m still sort of living it. It’s not completely behind me.
How would you describe the feeling of being this beacon of light for young queer people, but at the same time experiencing the same struggles they’re going through? Is it conflicting for you?
It is. (Sighs) A month ago I went to Wyoming for a weekend with LGBTQ kids to speak with Matthew Shepard’s mom, to hear my own mom speak about being a mother of a queer kid, and then I just got to hear from kid after kid and adults as well who were pouring their hearts out. But the day before was probably one of the lower points in my life – of this year, at least.
I was on a plane and I was telling the lady next to me that I want to be able to tell all these people that it gets better, but I don’t know that for sure. Then to be able to go and spend a weekend in Wyoming and have my perspective and attitude change – those are the things that keep me from falling completely down that dark hole. So, it’s conflicting. It exhausts me because I’m actually just kind of an introvert. I know that about myself. But I am so in awe of other people’s strength, and I need them as much as maybe they need me sometimes. I need to hear that it’s gonna be good, that there’s a point to all this. So, I feel really bonded to my gayness, I feel really bonded to the community more than I ever have, and I’m really exploring that. That, I think, is one of the most rewarding things about this record so far for me.
What were you feeling during the process of writing and recording the songs for Excommunication?
I felt pretty out of my mind when I was writing a lot of it because I just felt compelled every day. I woke up and paced my apartment, manically writing beats so that I could sing the melody in my head. There are a few songs that didn’t make the record that are even more raw and pointed, but what ended up making the record is a body of work that showcases the highs and lows of this transition, as well as this coming to terms with identity. In that way, writing it was really effortless, but exhausting.
Recording it was one of the most creative, joyful experiences so far in my musical career. That’s what makes it worth it. It’s really rewarding. I hate to sound like this guy who’s like, “I don’t care if it’s No. 1,” or, “I don’t care if I have a hit off of it” – those things are important – but what’s driving this record is the real-life crisis that I’ve gone through and shining a light on those who are also going through it. To know I’m not alone is really exciting. So, if the record reaches the audience I made it for, then I’m stoked. To me, that’s success.
Which song on the album means the most to you?
That’s hard for me; there’s a few. There’s one called “Midnight” that when I see people’s reaction it means so much to me. There are a lot of songs on the record that talk about big questions and wondering about (my) purpose and feeling the hurt, but “Midnight” encompasses the universal experience of not really knowing for sure. Growing up Mormon, I knew the church was true. Now, to say “I don’t know” is really kind of freeing.
Tell me about “John, Give ’Em Hell.” Did you write that for excommunicated Mormon podcaster John Dehlin?
I wrote it for John Dehlin, yeah. I wrote it for John just as a friendship gift. It was on acoustic guitar, and I recorded it on my cell phone and sent it to me. Then, I just kept listening to it and going back to it, and I played it for my producer and he was like, “You gotta put this on the record.”
I’m sure you’ll be hearing this a lot, but Excommunication is the album I needed when I was 16. Has it dawned on you that you could save so many lives just by being yourself and putting this out there?
It didn’t at first. I literally was just doing it so much for my own sanity. It wasn’t until I started putting out songs from the record slowly that I got that feedback, and I’m just beyond stoked that that’s one of the reactions – that it’s helping people or carving a space for people, so that to me is a huge deal.
Where’s the feedback coming from?
Mostly from fans on social media. I see it on Reddit. I see it from a lot of LGBTQ people, and also just a lot of marginalized people in religion. So, it’s not just the gay community, but that’s meaning a lot to me because that’s the audience I intended it for. I’m glad that it’s being received by those types of people.
This album will likely define a lot of coming-of-age moments for a lot of LGBT people. When you were going through your darkest moments, which artists and albums did you find yourself clinging to during your journey to self-discovery? Who did you turn to for musical salvation?
Often it was The Smiths and Morrissey just because I looked at him as doing sexuality in his own way, and I always clung to that idea that I didn’t want to be defined so much by orientation. Even Lady Gaga, during 2008 and 2009, when she was first coming onto the scene, was such a breath of fresh air. I remember obsessively watching any interview I could find on her when she first started doing press for _The Fame_ and _The Fame Monster_. I felt validated as an artist and we hadn’t even made our first record as Neon Trees yet, but I just felt like, “Damn, hell yeah, thank you.”
Does she know you feel this way about her?
I told her briefly when I met her, but when you meet people you look up to – these icons – you don’t always get the two-hour sit-down conversation. I also have trepidation when I meet people. I don’t want to come off as the needy fan who just wants a picture, so I don’t know… maybe one day I’ll be able to.
When a fan of your wants to express the same sentiment to you, how do you navigate that encounter?
I honestly give a lot of time and space for that because I know how much it means to me, and I know my experience with meeting certain celebrities in the past who I’ve looked up to. I know that it’s meant so much to me when they give me their time. I try to give as much of myself to make sure people feel validated.
What inspired the “Who the Fuck is Tyler Glenn?” shirt you’re wearing in the video for “Shameless”?
It’s a riff on a shirt that The Stones used to wear. (Stones guitarist) Keith Richards used to wear a “Who the Fuck is Mick Jagger?” shirt when they first started putting records out, but also, I’m sort of in a moment where I’m asking, “Who the fuck is Tyler Glenn?” I’m on the search for the meaning and purpose of life much more now. Now, I feel way more whole than I ever have because I feel like I’m being a gay man for the first time even though I came out two years ago. I feel like I’m without filter – and I’m without a framework that never really had a space for me to begin with. Now, I’m just really free to exist and find out just who I am and what I want in life and what I want my life to be and look like.
What does it mean to you to be gay “without filter”?
When I came out, I came out as gay and Mormon, and for about a year after that experience I tried to reconcile religion and continued to try to fit the square peg into the round hole. I think now I’m kind of rebuilding my own framework. I’m still trying to fit into a space that doesn’t really have any room for me or people like me. I’m excited that I’m only 32, but at the same time I wish I had done that earlier.
I’ve always been worried: “How do I be a good Mormon?” “How do I be the right kind of gay guy?” Now, I don’t really feel like there’s one way in religion. I don’t feel like there’s one way in the gay community either. It’s way freer. Being able to hold hands with a guy that I’m seeing in public – I know that kind of sounds like baby steps, but I just feel so effortlessly comfortable in my skin and, honestly, it took me almost 32 years to get there. Where what usually occupied my thoughts was my nature, now I don’t even think about it. It’s so nice to live unapologetically.
Seeing as how bold and personal your solo debut is, where do you see yourself within Neon Trees going forward? Could you ever be this personal within the band?
I don’t know. It’s definitely been on my mind. I’ve had convos with the band and they’ve been really healing, and some of the members of the band who are still Mormon are unsure of how we carry on. I have the same questions. For me, it’s completely possible because I love my band and I love what we’ve done, but I can’t go back to it in the same way. If I’m able to write freely and if they’re able to feel comfortable creating with me, then I think we might be able to make even cooler records. But I don’t know.
I just can’t ever create anymore in a space where there’s a limitation. I wouldn’t say that Neon Trees is ever limiting, because for where I was in my life at the time it was completely as authentic as I could be, but I’m just not the same Tyler Glenn from even two or three years ago when we made our last record.
You’re sending a lot of messages to a lot of people with this album. But what message do you hope to send to Mormons who’ve condemned you and other LGBT people?
I want them to recognize that it’s not a tantrum, and that there are thousands upon thousands of voiceless LGBT people within even just the Mormon community who feel like they can’t ask questions and can’t have doubts and can’t be themselves. I want to be able to give a microphone to those people.