Two out singers are taking the roads less traveled in the realm of pop music with their latest releases, both trying to expand the horizons of pop music.
For Cary Nokey, the drag alter ego of songwriter and producer Rob Fusari, the keys to the pop kingdom were there as he produced massive hits for Destiny’s Child (“No, No, No” and “Bootylicious”), Whitney Houston (“Love That Man”) and Will Smith (“Wild Wild West”), and cowrote and produced five songs on Lady Gaga’s debut album, “The Fame,” including the hit “Paparazzi.”
Rather than pursue further success under the name that is associated with so much success, Fusari remade himself into a decadent pop-glam rock star in the form of Nokey.
Nokey said he couldn’t pursue the kind of career he wanted as Rob Fusari.
“There was a point in my career two years back where I kind of thought of it as the end of a chapter. I felt that this new chapter had to be under a different name,” he said. “It just didn’t feel like it was part of Rob Fusari’s journey, per se. It almost felt more like a relay race. This is the handoff that happens. Rob Fusari was the leader that brought it to a certain point. I kind of had to step out for this gig to breathe and live in a certain light. So it felt like a whole different chapter of the peaceful journey that had to be handed over. I progressed to a point where I wasn’t just performing in drag or a costume. It was just me. I always say something has to die for something to live. It’s almost that. Rob Fusari had to die emotionally for Cary Nokey to live.”
He added that the success he had as Fusari actually created more obstacles in his new persona instead of opening doors.
“It’s somewhat of a deterrent,” he said. “Something I learned pretty soon in this chapter of my journey is people can think of you as one way. It’s very difficult for people to change their perception. The major players and executives at record companies were of the mindset of ‘Why would you do this?’ It was hard for people to accept and it still is. It’s not like I can go to an artist like Beyoncé and say maybe I can open up for you on tour because it’s not how someone like herself thinks of me. She knows me as Rob Fusari. So I have to be an artist who starts at the bottom.”
Part of Nokey’s rebirth includes the recent release of the video of his latest single, “American Dream,” on YouTube and a stint as the opening act of “RuPaul’s Drag Race: Battle of The Seasons 2015 Condragulations Tour,” which hits the Trocadero Theatre March 7.
“It’s a hard grind. It’s a lot of shows and a lot of writing,” he said. “That’s what I’m doing now. The ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ tour came about when I was playing a show where I opened up for Adore Delano last year in New York. I got that gig from doing a lot of Lower East Side ground-up gigs in clubs that got maybe 50 or 25 people.”
Nokey said he is committed to his new persona and doesn’t see himself writing for other artists again any time soon.
“There’s no way I can put my heart and soul into what it takes [to write for other artists],” he said. “When I write a song for an artist, even if it’s a one-off, I really have to dive into it on a whole different level. When it works like it did for someone like Lady Gaga, the life of the artist gets inside your head, your body and your soul. So I don’t know how to put my mind, soul and creative heart into writing for other artists [as Nokey]. I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing it.”
On the other end of the pop spectrum is out songwriter and singer Matt Zarley, who just released two versions of his latest album, “hopefulROMANTIC.” One version is the score to a movie he wrote and the other an album of more pop-oriented versions of the songs.
Zarley said it made sense to create two incarnations of the record.
“When the songs that were going to be used in the film were evolving, there was some reworking of the arrangements,” he said. “Every song was half the length of the original. So when I was compiling the actual albums, to me it was confusing to have them all on one album. For the listener it got kind of convoluted so I thought, to keep it clean, I’d do it separately: the regular pop album and the reworked versions for the film. The full versions of the songs in the film were too long. I started cutting my stuff and it served the film so much better that way. The soundtrack is much shorter than the pop album but it has elements that my producer and writing partner Andy composed that are not on the pop album. The soundtrack is pretty short and sweet.”
Zarley said he wanted to bring his theatrical background and influences into the realm of pop music.
“This particular project was unique because when I was starting to write, it became a much bigger concept than it was initially,” he said. “It became a more cohesive whole. I had a much different set of things I had to achieve, which was really challenging and really fun. This stuff fit together and worked, telling a story cohesively and cleanly. That was different for me. I was making a musical, essentially, but I think all the songs can stand on their own. That was my main mission: to make sure these songs can still sound like pop songs and not like theater songs. I wanted them to work on radio and on stage at the same time, which is kind of unusual. You really don’t hear pop music on stage and vice versa.”
Zarley added that success of performers like Idina Menzel and shows like “Glee” on the pop charts have opened the door wider for artists who come from a theater background.
“I think ‘Glee’ was really the one that did it,” he said. “It blurred the lines. When those songs on ‘Glee’ started charting in the top 10, I don’t think [the industry] was prepared for that, but that’s what people wanted. Which is great for people like me who come from theater but do pop music. This project is the perfect example of that. It’s not a true pop record and it’s not a true musical-theater record. It’s a true hybrid.”
Matt Zarley’s “hopefulROMANTIC” is out now. For more information, visit www.mattzarley.com.
Carey Nokey performs at the Trocadero Theatre as part of “RuPaul’s Drag Race: Battle of the Seasons Tour,” 9 p.m. March 7, 1003 Arch St. For more information, visit www.carynokey.com.