Keith Cullen Talks Surviving Cancer, Life as a CEO, & His New Video for 'Fire and Fever'

Keith Cullen
JR Foto

Keith Cullen

Keith Cullen has endured a difficult path, one filled with setbacks, disease, and heartbreak, but he’s finally ready to become the queer pop sensation he’s always known himself to be.

The Dublin-born Cullen, 36, started out in a less-than-musical fashion; at just 18, Cullen founded an Ireland-based marketing firm, and for nearly a decade, he built the company up from nothing and became a verified success story. “But,” Cullen tells Billboard, “I wasn’t being true to who I was. I knew from a very young age that music was what I wanted to do, but I just happened to be good at business. I was very successful and it gave me a lifestyle that I thought was going to make me really happy. And... it didn't.”

Finding himself at a loss for proper inspiration or a creative outlet as a CEO, Cullen left the company he founded as a teen to become a singer full time in America. He moved to the States and ended up in Los Angeles, where he found a new lease on life. He proceeded to come out of the closet entirely, and began his music career in earnest, with subsequent singles, “Say Something” and “Turn On The Light,” climbing to No. 27 and No. 31, respectively, on Billboard's Dance Club Songs charts. He was officially on his way.

Then, while on a promotional tour in Australia, Cullen was diagnosed with stage 3 bladder cancer. “I got on the plane and when we landed in Sydney, I was peeing blood,” Cullen recalls. “It was incredibly scary.” He was flown back to Ireland for additional testing and received multiple emergency surgeries and rounds of chemotherapy. After more than a year of battling the disease and undergoing extensive treatments, Cullen went into remission. But the experience changed him irrevocably, blessing him with a renewed sense of purpose: to bring music to the people, now more than ever.

Today, Cullen is back with the music video for a remix of his latest single, “Fire and Fever" (premiering below). A contemplative track about introspection, personal history and continued bravery in the face of overwhelming odds, “Fire and Fever” explores the complicated relationships between lovers, friends, personal health and wellness. In the clip, directed by Santiago Valencia, Cullen points his energy directly at the viewer as he stares intensely at the camera, while psychedelic red lights swirl around him, changing the features of his face. The video’s fiery visual palette perfectly matches the heated lyrics, and makes for a perfect dark-pop viewing experience.

Cullen spoke with Billboard about “Fire and Fever,” how his time as a CEO informed his artistic voyage, and life post-cancer.

How did "Fire and Fever" come about?

It's essentially a love story that’s masked musically. It doesn't sound like a sappy love story or a ballad. I've been known to write ballads all day, every day, that's my go to. So, this song definitely feels different. It was a song I needed to write because it came from an experience of feeling overwhelmed with all of the feelings that come with a relationship. We're never in control of these encounters as we go along in life. Our relationships, or friendships, or work, or health. So it was liberating to be really honest lyrically with where I was in the song.

Tell us about the music video — this is your first time as a creative director on your own video?

Yes, this is my first time being a creative director, and for me that is really about taking back control. In my past, when I was the CEO of my company, I would look outside of myself for creative direction, artwork, things like that. But I need to do it myself, and I wanted something more edgy, almost psychedelic with all the lights. I wanted to create an intimate moment on camera, where each viewer can connect to that vulnerability in times of struggle. The beauty for me is the empowerment, the truth in it. There's nowhere to hide. I didn't use actors, there’s no storyline. It’s just me telling my actual story, without most of the bells and whistles.

Let’s talk a little bit about your former life as a CEO. How do you think it has affected what you're doing now?

So I was 18 when I started my sales and marketing company. It was very successful. But I wasn’t being true to who I was. I knew from a very young age that music was what I wanted to do, but I just happened to be good at business. I was very successful and it gave me a lifestyle that I thought was going to make me really happy. And, it didn't. What I think it does for other people, where business is their passion, it just didn’t do for me.

The truth is, music is my passion. Self-expression is my passion. And I think being brave and taking that leap and saying, "I don't want to do this anymore," comes from being a CEO. I had to get real with myself in every aspect of my life. People told me I was crazy, too, giving it up. But it felt right in the moment, as scary as it was... Because I didn't really know who I was without a suit, without a desk, without a team of people around me. And the music industry is a tough business, so I’m glad I had that experience.

Do you think more people should treat their creative careers like they’re CEOs? 

I think mixing art and business is really difficult, and that's why as an independent artist, or even a signed artist, you have to learn how to become the CEO of your own career. Because if someone else is making all the decisions for you, you may end up in a very unhappy place. You may get the accolades, or have the successes, or get the streams… but how many artists do we know that arrived to that place of success exhausted, broken, unhappy, addicted.

So it's about taking it one step at a time and being happy with the choices that you make, whether they prove successful or not. My mantra: face reality with self-kindness and no judgment. It’s my magic sauce. 

You’re certainly in a much happier place today. Part of that must be that you’re now an out and proud queer man.

Absolutely. I came out about four years ago. You know, in music, people often say that winning a Grammy is their goal. Well, I think I should win an Oscar for the role I played in Ireland, pretending to be straight for years and years.

But moving to the U.S. gave me the freedom to explore and be myself, and experience real queer culture. Growing up in Ireland, I didn’t see gay couples or anyone outside of what's considered normal there. So I felt very at home in Los Angeles and really got to express myself, experience way more of who I am. So for me, there was less a coming out of the closet, and more of waking up to the reality of who I am at the core of my being. It was empowering. 

You must have called on that same strength to fight your cancer. But now you’re in remission!

Yes! They say that disease is connected to emotions and your subconscious. That it’s not just a physical thing but a mental thing. And I think suppressing who I was for such a long time had to have had an effect on my body. Nobody could make sense of my disease. The average age for bladder cancer is 68 in America. I was in my early 30s. 

How do you feel about it now, post-cancer?

I look at it now as a blessing, because I came out of that and faced my mortality. I really didn't know whether I'd make it. It was harrowing. There were moments I was like, I just don't know if I can do this. The chemo was so horrible. But coming out the other end and walking back into the world, you find new gratitude. You’re changed forever. Remission felt like a rebirth. You know, in L.A., the “spiritual gangsters” here all talk about gratitude, and health, and acceptance, and love. And I think they're all just great words until something moves you like this. Like after chemo when my legs didn't work or I was too weak to sing. Having those things back… you find a new gratitude for everything. 

When I was at my sickest, I read a quote by Marianne Williamson where she wrote, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.” That sticks with me. Being brave is more important today than ever, and I’m happy I’m still here to be that.