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Musician Rob Townsend Changes Tune With Gay Advocacy

ELISE HU, HOST:

Now a blast from the past - well, my past anyway.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HU: City money will help turn the old Gilbert Shoe building into a home for alternative arts.

That was 2005, when I was a reporter for a South Carolina TV station.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROB TETER SONG)

ROB TETER: (Singing unintelligibly).

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HU: Elise Hu, WYFF News 4, Spartanburg.

Teenage singer Rob Teter caught my attention for the piece that you just heard there. He later moved to Austin, and with his band, The Belleville Outfit, they had a pretty good run. In 2009, the group was nominated by the Americana Music Association in the best new and emerging artist category.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONCE AND FOR ALL")

THE OUTFIT: (Singing) When I know you're far away, I see you every single day. You make me high when I close my eyes.

HU: But in 2011, it was time for a change. Rob Teter moved to New York, took his middle name, became Rob Townsend and took his music in a new direction.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "U CAN B MY LOVER")

ROB TOWNSEND: (Singing) I like the way you're working. Keep it loose. You're keeping it tight. And you can be my lover. You can be my lover tonight.

HU: Rob Townsend joins us now from our New York bureau. Rob, it's great to talk to you again.

TOWNSEND: Elise, it's great to talk to you, too.

HU: So what was the transition like in moving from Texas to New York and going from a band to working solo? How did it play into the styles of music you chose to play?

TOWNSEND: There might have been some rebellion involved. You know, I grew up playing sort of folk bluegrass music. But New York sort of vibrates with quite a different pulse. And embracing the fact that I was gay sort of pushed me in a different direction as well. And even things as simple as, like, spending time at night in venues where there might be DJs playing - I was like, oh, my gosh, this is great. Why don't I incorporate this into what I'm doing?

HU: Last year, you put out a collection of songs, including this one that caused a bit of commotion. Let's hear a little bit of the song called "Skinny Boys."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SKINNY BOYS")

TOWNSEND: (Singing) Skinny boy in the ice cream line. I thought you was a lady from behind. Skinny boy...

HU: So tell me about this song. What was the reaction from both the gay and the straight community?

TOWNSEND: (Laughter) I'm not sure there was a reaction at all from the straight community. I'm not sure they know it exists. The - you know, the lyrics are kitschy, and they're not meant to be taken seriously.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SKINNY BOYS")

TOWNSEND: (Singing) Hey there, beauty queen. You're all the man I need.

And some people got it, right? They realized, OK, this is a funny song. Like, let's roll with it. But there was some backlash, yeah. There was a few, you know, publications that even went so far as to interview with me. We had the story ready to roll. And then at the last minute, the editor pulled it. And they said, we can't support this. This is a body image song that is promoting all the wrong things.

I was almost heartbroken that it was received in that way. And, you know, I guess I learned a lesson to be, you know, maybe a little bit more careful with that type of thing. And then the opposite lesson, of course, is what other people think is not necessarily my problem. And I'm still grappling with that.

HU: Earlier I mentioned that you put out a collection of songs instead of an album. And that's sort of reflective of the way the music industry has gone. It's sort of turned on its head lately. And it almost seems like the era of the full album release is over. And now artists are doing more and more what you're doing, releasing individual tracks when they want to. In the spirit of that, let's play a song you've just put out. This is called "Time To Turn The Heat On."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIME TO TURN THE HEAT ON")

TOWNSEND: (Singing) Reaching for a time, I can remember a time when it was easier. Morning you were leaving, you said you were so sorry. And I don't know, but I believe you were.

HU: How does this new music model work for you? Do you just post on SoundCloud and your Facebook page and spread the word that way?

TOWNSEND: Right, yeah, that works. There's also, you know, all kind of arrangements online now where you can submit singles. I'm very much a DIY musician. And if I have this song that I think is great and that means something to me, I just want to put it out there.

HU: But in the meantime, Rob, I've got to ask, what are you doing to pay the bills?

TOWNSEND: (Laughter) I have a part-time job. This is going to be funny. I teach sailing on the Hudson River.

HU: (Laughter).

TOWNSEND: You know, I'm doing what it is I know how to do, and that's music. And I can only hope that it will pay off at some point. And until it does, I'll teach people how to sail (laughter).

HU: Rob Townsend. Look for him on Facebook, iTunes, Twitter and monthly gigs at New York's Rockwood Music Hall. Rob, thanks.

TOWNSEND: Thanks, Elise.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEREVER YOU GO")

TOWNSEND: (Singing) My, how the time goes drifting by. We had our highs, our lows, but even though I loved you young and I will love you old. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.