Tony Award winning Levi Kreis performs at Knoxville Pride

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Tennessee born singer-songwriter Levi Kreis has always exposed himself through his music. From the reflections on his debut album One of the Ones to the personal struggle with his religious upbringing on The Gospel According to Levi, some may say that Kreis bares it all.

Kreis releases his latest album Imagine Paradise June 20 and fans will get to see a whole new side of Kreis—dare we say a bit more (and less) exposed at the same time?

One glance at Kreis’ upcoming album cover and you may imagine more than paradise. Covered in nothing more than sharpie marker, Imagine Paradise kicks off a sexy new chapter in Kreis’ career and he’ll supply a double dose of summer heat to his home state releasing the album the same week he headlines Knoxville Pride.

But Imagine Paradise almost didn’t happen. Following his 2010 Tony Award for his portrayal of Jerry Lee Lewis in Million Dollar Quartet, Kreis admits to a bit of a crisis in his life’s direction. Kreis found the allure in the Broadway/acting machine compared to the many hats he had to wear as an independent singer-songwriter very attractive. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to do another album,” he said.

Urged by a friend to let the fans decide, Kreis turned to Kickstarter to see if a new album was “worth the endeavor.” And the answer was a resounding yes! In August 2011, Kreis’ Kickstarter campaign was named one of the most successful fan-funded music projects at the time by Billboard.

The collection of songs on Imagine Paradise charts new territory for Kreis. “This is the first album I have created that isn’t thoroughly autobiographical,” Kreis admitted. “It’s the first time I’ve walked away from my own life experiences and gave my art to other people and making other peoples’ lives my muse.”

Those people, whose names are scrawled across Kreis’ body, are the fans who helped make Imagine Paradise a reality. “The cool thing about [this] was I made a lot of discoveries that impacted my life when I began to delve into the stories of my fans.”

One of those discoveries is “4 Letter Word.” Kreis penned the track after hearing about a fan’s struggle to maintain his relationship while deployed under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. “You [couldn’t] be transparent with your phone calls, or your emails and the relationship really suffers in a way none of us would know unless you were in that situation,” Kreis shared.

Another song was born from the stories of a fan’s activism during Stonewall and the period following when the GLBT community was finding its voice. “I wanted to create a song that embodied his passion and commitment for our LGBT history,” Kreis said. The result, “Love Revolution,” will be the album’s second single.

In addition to the album’s perspective switch, Kreis also gambled with a different sound. While piano production marks a majority of his past efforts, the decision to move to a more upbeat, soul-steeped sound that exudes heavy dance beats, disco deviations and 70s and 80s R&B influences paid off.

Growing up in the churches of East Tennessee, an early introduction to gospel influenced Kreis’ song craft. “When you’re singing gospel you learn how to sing from a place of conviction,” he shared. “It’s that same kind of passion—without me even realizing it—that became such a part of what I do. From a musical perspective and a contextual perspective I can trace a lot of my albums back and find some good East Tennessee influences.”

Kreis will showcase those influences when he takes the stage at Knoxville Pride June 22 at The World’s Fair Park. Although he remembers attending Nashville Pride years ago, this will be his first Tennessee Pride performance.

After years of struggling with conflicting messages from the church and learning to accept himself, his upcoming Knoxville Pride performance is more than a homecoming celebration for the man he is today, it’s a celebration to showcase what happens when we learn to love ourselves.

“It’s time for us to step up as gay men and lesbian women to own our place as spiritual leaders for our community,” Kreis said. “That is where my passion is. I speak of this for Pride. I think Pride is a great thing. I understand the history of Pride and what Pride has been, but I think it’s important for Pride to become something else in this day and age. Pride needs to begin with yourself. Don’t talk to me about your pride and going to Pride festivals if you spend the whole week faded and having unprotected sex because Pride begins with honoring your mind and body. How can you show Pride to the rest of the world if you don’t know how to make proud choices for yourself?”

It’s Kreis’ groove-inducing message of self-love that will not only satisfy the 391 Kickstarter backers whose names Kreis scrawled on his body in sharpie for the Imagine Paradise album cover, but also score Kreis a new set of fans as he continues to tour across the US this fall. Only question is: if there is another Kickstarter campaign, from the waist down will there be enough room for all of them?

You can catch Levi Kreis at Knoxville Pride June 22. You can also ‘like’ his Facebook page, follow Kreis on Twitter and visit levikreis.com to purchase the new album when it drops June 20.