“I had this desperate need and inspiration to write,” says Urie, though it’s difficult to imagine him ever taking it easy. We speak in late May at a small Hollywood bar, and two rounds of strong IPA aren't enough to slow this charming, occasionally Diana Ross-imitating, openly ADHD-addled man. Broadway energized him. “I felt like an improved me. Like, ‘I want you to know everything, and I’m going to make it so theatrical.’ It’s just more fun that way.”
After amicably losing members to creative differences and, in one case, addiction recovery, over the course of four albums and 11 years, Panic! became a band of one before 2016’s Death of a Bachelor. With help from Urie’s tight circle of songwriter-producer friends, that album became Panic!’s first No. 1 on the Billboard 200 -- an impressive feat for a survivor of the mid-2000s emo-pop wave, and proof of concept for Urie’s vision of a genre-mashing version of the project. On Pray, he doubles down, piling on blaring horns, trap beats, James Brown samples and soaring melodies. Gone are the guitars (mostly), chased off by aggressively loud -- and proud -- pop with titles like “Hey Look Ma, I Made It” and “High Hopes.”
“He’s fearless,” says songwriter Morgan Kibby, who, as White Sea, worked on Urie’s last two albums. “It takes guts to challenge yourself, but Brendon has been making music for so long and is so mind-blowingly talented I think he’s at a point where he has the freedom to explore.”
Urie sees Pray as a reflection of his own growth. “I’m actually a new man, because they say every seven years you shed your skin,” he jokes. In 2004 he joined the band that would become Panic! as a guitarist, but when his bandmates found out he made beats, they added production to his duties. Then, when they heard him sing one day when the vocalist was sick, they made him frontman. As members peeled off, he took on lyrics, songwriting and the rest. As for why he didn't change the band name, he simply says, “It never changed for me -- I never wanted to leave the band. I would’ve played tambourine.”
Urie was similarly eager to be a part of Kinky Boots from the first time he saw it: “I will sell your merch. I will be an usher. Whatever I can do to be part of this,” he remembers thinking. It makes sense that a guy who had to break from his Mormon faith and family to follow his dreams would happily seek new tribes to take him in. (For the record, he’s an atheist; of his new album’s title, he says, “Prayer, to me, is meditation, not talking to some omnipotent piece of shit frying ants with a magnifying glass.”)
To wit, Urie tears up talking about the letters he receives from fans who feel like outcasts, and gets goose bumps recalling the Death of a Bachelor Tour in 2017, when audiences cut out and illuminated paper hearts to depict the LGBTQ pride flag during a song inspired by Urie’s own experiences with bisexuality, “Girls/Girls/Boys.” Also last year, Urie launched a museum-like meet-and-greet tour experience called House of Memories, displaying Panic! memorabilia while unreleased songs played over the speakers. “They don’t know this, but I’d poke my head in to see what they did once I was gone. Sometimes kids were slow-dancing,” he says, beaming while choking up. “I’m like, ‘Man, it goes deep. This is way bigger than me.’”
But the new album finds him anything but nostalgic: trail-blazing Panic!’s future, fully transformed from joiner to swaggering, occasionally stiletto-sporting leader. He appears in his own lyrics as a patron saint of “oddities,” a “stranger crusader” who has earned a victory lap. “I used to tuck that side of me deep down inside, but now it’s showing its face, and I love it,” says Urie. “I used to keep expectations low so I wouldn't be disappointed. Now, nothing’s ever good enough.”
This article originally appeared in the June 15 issue of Billboard.