Imagine Dragons
Imagine Dragons
Eliot Lee Hazel

Imagine Dragons' Dan Reynolds Talks New Album 'Evolve' & Bigotry in Mormonism: 'To Be Gay Is Beautiful and Right and Perfect'

by Brian Anthony Hernandez
June 23, 2017, 3:46pm EDT

After Glee featured Imagine Dragons’ “It’s Time” in 2012 during an episode in which gay character Blaine sings it to his boyfriend Kurt, the band’s frontman Dan Reynolds started receiving letters from gay fans. They wrote him to praise the song but also to say his Mormon upbringing probably meant he doesn’t accept their sexual orientation.

“That was devastating and it broke my heart to get letters like that,” said Reynolds, now an outspoken ally to the LGBTQ community and recent recipient of the Trevor Project’s Hero Award for his advocacy efforts.

“Dan Reynolds is showing people that regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity they are worthy,” Trevor Project CEO Amit Paley told Billboard at TrevorLIVE on June 19. “It’s incredible we have allies like him who are speaking up because we need our allies, especially as rights of LGBTQ people come under attack, to say we stand with you, we support you and we will fight for you regardless of who you are or who you love.”

In this Q&A with Billboard, Reynolds discussed working with BMI’s 2017 Pop Songwriter of the Year Justin Tranter on Imagine Dragons’ Hot 100 hit “Believer,” writing about love on the band’s third studio album Evolve (out now) and launching the Love Loud festival to combat bigotry and teach acceptance to religious families because “to be gay is beautiful and right and perfect.”

How did you sync up with songwriter Justin Tranter for your song “Believer” and how was it working with the go-to hitmaker who has also co-written popular tunes with Justin Bieber (“Sorry”) and Selena Gomez (“Hand to Myself”)?

Justin Tranter is amazing. My wife Aja Volkman sings for a band called Nico Vega who used to tour back in the day with Justin’s band Semi Precious Weapons, so we were friends with him to begin with. I had never really co-written before, so I had some anxiety about it. Justin was respectful. We got in the room and I told him it was important to me to write all my lyrics, and he was super rad about that. He’s a melodic genius. So he helped me melodically to be a sounding board. He’s just a great person. I love Justin and I count him as one of my most dear friends.

In its 19th week on the Billboard Hot 100, “Believer” holds steady at No. 15, and it’s been No. 1 on the Hot Rock Songs chart for weeks. What does that song mean to you and why do you think it’s connecting with listeners?

“Believer” means a lot to me because it really signifies a big step for me as a human being as well as a step forward sonically from [2015 album] Smoke + Mirrors. I was in a low state dealing with depression for a year straight and then I came home, reconnected with family and friends, did self-help and reached out to a therapist. We worked through a lot of shit I had been dealing with, and I think it gave me new perspective to reflect on the band and see it with more clear eyes. I just had a lot of gratitude for the low points and highs of my life. That’s what “Believer” is about, and the fact that it’s resonating with people is really rad.

For your TrevorLIVE performance on June 19, you opened with “It’s Time,” which was a song the TV show Glee featured when Blaine sang it to his boyfriend Kurt. Do you remember that? And what impact do you think that moment has had on your career?

I do remember that. I just saw [Glee alum] Darren Criss a few days ago, and we reminisced about that because he sang it. Glee had a huge impact on the band because it helped our first song take off and it had a huge impact on a lot of people, especially within the gay community. One of the reasons I’ve felt such a need to speak out on this is I’ve gotten countless emails and letters from fans around the world who said, “I’m gay, but I know you’re Mormon so that probably means you don’t accept my lifestyle, but I love ‘It’s Time’ and your music.” That was devastating and it broke my heart to get letters like that. I’ve written back to these people to tell them, “No, I do support you and I’m here for you.” It’s been a driving force for me to raise awareness and make a difference and not just sit back to let people feel that hurt. “It’s Time” reached a lot in a lot of different ways.

During your TrevorLIVE speech, which you gave while accepting the event’s Hero Award, you announced an upcoming benefit show in Utah called Love Loud. What is that and why are you doing it?

It’s been a long time coming for me. These last couple years, I’ve felt a burning inside of me, especially after talking to a therapist about things I felt guilt about. One thing that has been on my heart heavily for quite a while has been this: Even though my faith isn’t always the strongest and my beliefs are more of my own, the world typically thinks of me as a Mormon, so I feel like I’m an activist for bigotry in some way. One of those ways is that Mormons believe the doctrine is if you are gay and acting upon it, that is sinful. That is a very dangerous and hurtful and hateful thing to preach and to teach our children. To be gay is beautiful and right and perfect; to tell someone they need to change their inner-most being is setting up someone for an unhealthy life and unhealthy foundation. I know a lot of Mormon youth who are gay and hide it because they feel as though God hates them or God is judging them. In Utah, the No. 1 reason for death among teenagers is suicide. On top of that, the Family Acceptance Project just put out research showing a child not accepted at home or in the community is eight times more likely to attempt suicide, three times more likely for risky drug behavior and risky sexual behavior than their peers. These statistics are speaking loudly. There’s a problem with this being taught to our youth.

As a spotlight Mormon, I felt the heavy weight to speak out now and do something about it; otherwise I’d just be sitting back being an activist for bigotry. So I got together with progressive activists Steve and Barb Young in the Mormon community to put on Love Loud on Aug. 26 for all orthodox religions that teach children it’s sinful to be LGBTQ and that It’s hurting our youth. This Love Loud festival is going to get out people of all types -- the LGBTQ community as well as the orthodox religion community and people with no faiths -- and have them all come together to listen to music and to speakers who will talk about how important it is for families to not just accept it, but let their children know they’re beautiful the way they are, and if there is a God, then God is all for it. I believe in Mormons and I believe in people in orthodox religion and I believe they have good hearts. But I believe we all can be educated on the matter to create positive change. This is about awareness more than anything.

We’re partnering with GLAAD, the Trevor Project, Encircle and Stand4kind. Tickets for Love Loud will be $11 and go to those four charities. We wanted to make it cheap because it’s more about awareness. Imagine Dragons, Neon Trees, Tyler Glenn and a bunch of artists we’ll announce later will perform. And Steve and Barb Young are going to speak. It’s a family-friendly event in Provo, home of [Brigham Young University]. Nobody should feel attacked. It should be no taking sides, just love and talking about ways to create an environment of love and acceptance for our LGBTQ youth. I think it’s going to be the biggest festival to ever happen in Utah. On top of that, it’s going to be for an incredible cause that most people wouldn’t expect to happen in Utah.

You closed your TrevorLIVE set with “Radioactive,” which won the best rock performance Grammy in 2014. What are your thoughts on the Grammy voting process finally being moved to online voting instead of paper ballots this year? One major benefit for voting members is they can now listen to nominees’ music while voting online.

Thank goodness. That probably needed to happen for quite a while. This improves the voting process because artists will now be judged upon their merit and not just name recognition. That’s important. Countless artists throughout the year haven’t won a Grammy because they don’t have the name value to them and they deserve to. I’m glad the Grammys made the change.

Speaking of the Grammys: At the 2015 Grammys, Imagine Dragons was part of the first-ever live Grammy commercial, an elaborate Target stunt aired in real time where you and the band performed for four minutes straight instead of Target doing eight 30-second ads. Are you doing anything cool with brands for the release of Evolve?

No. Not anything particular, but I thought it was rad that “Believer” was used in the Nintendo Switch (Super Bowl) commercial. I grew up as a huge Nintendo and Nintendo 64 geek with GoldenEye 007 in my youth.

Earlier, you talked about self-help, and that’s an ongoing process to maintain your happiness. What type of things are you doing to keep yourself in that healthy state?

That’s really important that you brought that up because anybody who deals with depression knows it’s something you’ll deal with your entire life. Just because I’m happy now doesn’t mean I won’t have a slump next month. It’s an active process for me. The most important thing has been talking with someone and actually admitting I needed help. People should know that it doesn’t matter where you are or whether you’ve accomplished your goals, this is still an ongoing thing for me since I was young. My approach has been to speak with someone and open up about things that have been hard for me. I’ve also made lifestyle changes. Holistically, I’ve changed my diet, how I interact and how I spend my time. It can be such a faux pas because people are afraid to talk about depression because they think it’s weakness. It’s a dangerous society we live in sometimes that projects on Instagram and Facebook the great moments of people’s lives and doesn’t spend enough time focusing on finding unity in hardship.

What does the artwork on the Evolve album cover mean?

It means coming out of a place of darkness and arriving at a place of color, almost being healed and rejuvenated. People who have never dealt with depression think it’s just being sad or being in a bad mood. That’s not what depression is for me; it’s falling into a state of grayness and numbness. I have hard time focusing and have the feeling everything is gray. Sometimes when I come out of that and I enter a state of health again, it feels as though I’ve been underwater suffocating and I come out and gasp for air and suddenly I can breathe again. That’s what this record felt like for me. I came home, did a lot of work on myself and got to a place where the world was bright and colorful and beautiful and every day was exciting. I tried to represent that in the album art, and the artist Beeple did an amazing job depicting that.

Part of a colorful life is love, and you sing about the dynamics of love on this album, particularly on “Walking the Wire.” What inspired this song?

This is really the first time I explored writing about love. It’s a difficult subject because it can sound corny or sound like it’s been done a million times. Just because I was in such a good headspace, I felt inspired to write about love. All my relationships when I was young have been very explosive, for better or for worse. I love hard. I fight hard. I’m just a passionate person. “Walking the Wire” is about the feeling of a relationship that feels a little dangerous. It can feel exhilarating at times or it can all fall apart at any moment. It’s like walking a tightrope, because when you’re up high it’s beautiful, but it also is scary. That’s how all my relationships have been. That song explores that.

Let’s talk about the guitar solo on “I’ll Make It Up to You.” It’s beautiful and powerful.

Thanks. That’s Wayne Sermon, our guitarist. That’s probably the most ’80s-inspired song on the record. That song dives into our ’80s roots and inspirations. Wayne sat down for a couple hours in the studio by himself and turned the lights down low and this is what he created. It’s beautiful and one of my favorite moments on the record. It breathes and takes time. He’s a tasteful guitarist, and subtle at times, and that’s really one of his greatest strengths.