The first time I wrote about Chicago singer-songwriter Scott Free was in 1998, for my old column Spot Check. He’d just released his first album, Getting Off, and was sharing a bill with lesbian punk greats Tribe 8, but even then he was no newbie to the music scene. Free had already been a house-music producer, a drag performer for Michael Hyacinth’s Tuck series at Foxy’s, and a staple booking at Joanna Brown and Mark Freitas’s Homocore shows. In 2000 he founded an LGBTQ+ performance series called Grinder; it’s since evolved into Homolatte, and it was still going strong at Big Chicks this spring until the ‘rona put it on temporary hold. In 2018 he released an LGBTQ+ family album (as “the Diesel Tykes”) full of collaborators and guest stars, and he’s also written songs for two musicals, Witches Among Us (2014) and Zombie Bathhouse (2017). You can listen to his queer indie radio station, Alt Q Radio, via the Live365 app.
Free’s work has long maintained an inspired mix of moods–gritty and passionate on one hand, lewd and playful on the other. His new album, The Last Revolution (Leather/Western), due July 3, is his first under his own name in 12 years, and it strikes a new note for him. He’s gifted in wordplay and not much inclined to hold back, and he draws on punk, hip-hop, and folk music for the new record’s ten straightforward, angrily earnest protest songs–which could not come out at a more appropriate time. Free throws down the gauntlet with the furious apocalyptic rap “The Beginning of the End (Climate Change),” and it stays on the floor, dancing around like Thing and making obscene gestures at all of Free’s targets: Republicans, Democrats, ICE, the fossil-fuel industry, the military, racists, homophobes. Free reinvents himself as a traditional fire-and-brimestone socialist balladeer with a radical queer spin.
Monica Kendrick: This is your first full-length solo album in a few years, isn’t it?
Scott Free: Yes–2008 was my last (The Pink Album). I’ve done two original cast recordings for two musicals I wrote–Witches Among Us and Zombie Bathhouse–and an LGBT family album by a pretend group called the Diesel Tykes.
How have you been doing in the social-distancing age?
I’m getting a lot of work done–music work, that is–so it’s all good over here. I’ve just had to sneak out to Evanston a few times to escape the curfew and the park shutdowns.
The album’s extremely timely. Were all the songs written fairly recently?
The only one that was written in the moment was “This Is Not Our Government”–it’s about the CARES Act funds going almost exclusively to the rich. The rest of the album was all written and recorded before these current events. About a year ago, I had made a decision to change focus in my writing and concentrate on social-justice songs–so the timing is pretty coincidental. But yes, it feels right to release it now.
Now really feels like a tipping point of so many injustices that have been building up for years. Was that what made you decide to focus on social-justice songs especially?
My decision to focus on protest music feels like a starting-over point for me as a songwriter. I have been politically active for many years, mostly locally through the Gay Liberation Network, a human-rights direct-action group. They have kept me focused on many social-justice issues. And I’ve certainly written political songs and LGBT rights songs, but often they came from a personal perspective. My goal now is to use the years of experience I have in the craft of songwriting to express more universal human-rights issues–to use the power of music to help with achieving those goals. I do feel a great awakening happening in this country. The Black Lives Matter protests are growing even more–expanding to challenge all of the horrible wrongs in the history of this country, from its very inception. This is a historic time we are living in right now.
You’ve been a player in so much of Chicago’s LGBTQ+ music and performing-arts scene for so long–what are some of the main changes and trends since the 90s that have been important to you?
I’ve been so fortunate to be in Chicago as a musician. I was involved as a producer in the original house-music era, I was part of the Homocore/queercore scene in the 90s, and I’ve been in the Chicago queer-music scene since then, which has been one of the most vibrant in the country. For me personally, the most gratifying has been my Homolatte performance series, which until the shutdown had been running for 20 years. My goal was to create an LGBT space for writers and musicians to work on their craft–to try things out in an inviting atmosphere. The act of sharing your art is what gives it purpose–and the ability to do that online is wonderful, but nothing can replace the human contact. I’m hoping we can return to that soon.
Just one more question for now: What advice would you give to a young queer artist just starting out now and wanting to make a difference?
To any songwriter starting out, I would say that when you are creating–dig deep. Think hard about what you want to say. These are the absolute best times for independent musicians, because there are no restrictions anymore–you can create whatever you want to, and put it out there. There is nothing to keep you from being honest and true to yourself–so go for it. You will create your best work that way. v