When Dylan Russell started dating a guy in his sophomore year of college, the two had to hide their relationship. Both were still in the closet, living in a rural community in northwest Missouri. “The only time that we would feel comfortable hanging out would be somewhere that wasn’t in public, and for us that meant going to get a hotel room,” he said.
Years later, after coming out to his friends and family, the fledgling pop singer has decided to share his story with the world in a new video for his song “Say You Don’t,” premiering below. The video marks the first time that Russell has acknowledged his sexuality directly in his music.
Russell talked to Billboard about his coming-out process, meeting the video’s co-star on Tinder and more.
I understand that the video is based on something that happened in your real life. Can you talk a little bit about where the video comes from?
Yeah, so when I was a sophomore in college, I had kinda started seeing this guy, and I’m from a very small community in northwest Missouri. So, you know, everybody kind of knows everybody else and everything about you. So really, the only time that we would feel comfortable hanging out would be somewhere that wasn’t in public, and for us that meant going to get a hotel room and hang out for the evening. That was kind of our safe place, and our hideaway from everything else. And then … you know, it just didn’t work out between us … and that’s largely due to the fact that we were both in the closet at the time. And we were both not really comfortable with what we were feeling at the time. So that’s where the song came from, and when I wrote the song, the idea for the video kind of came hand-in-hand with the song.
Where in Missouri are you from?
So I’m from a town about an hour north of Kansas City. I grew up on a farm in the middle of nowhere. [Laughs]
As far as being gay in Missouri goes, that’s not necessarily the best place to come out.
What was the coming-out process like for you being from Missouri?
So I was living here in the Nashville area when I started to come out, so that was a little easier for me. Through the whole process, I kind of was able to do it at my own pace, and to tell my close friends, you know, one by one, and then my family. But the response has been … I mean, nothing negative has come out of me coming out. All of my family has been super supportive, and all of my friends. You know, you grow up in high school and you have all of your close friends and you’re nervous about what they’ll say once you tell them, especially growing up in rural Missouri. But all of them have been so nice, and I couldn’t have asked for a better or more positive response from my friends and family.
I’ve heard a lot of stories like yours, of people having to go get a hotel room because they wanted to keep their relationship a secret. Is that something you were aware of when it was happening?
So when it first started happening and I was going through that, I was not aware of that, because I did not talk about sexuality to anyone. I never realized that this was something that a lot of people do go through, until I started dating and then, you know, talking to other people. Like, “Wow, this is something that a lot of us have in common.” And that was why I wanted to go through with making this video, because I think it’s something that I know, if I would’ve heard a song that talked about this, or seen a music video that showed this side of things, then that probably would have been helpful during the time that I was going through it myself.
Is it true that the actor who plays your love interest in the video was someone you met on Tinder?
[Laughs] Yes, he is. Oh, man. So, his name is Brett, and he had actually just graduated with a performing arts degree, so it really worked out. I was just sitting at home one night with my boyfriend, and I was like, “OK, we need to find a guy for this music video; let’s check Tinder.” And so, we just started swiping through, like, you know, “Oh yeah, he would work!” So we sent him the treatment and we met up before filming the video, just so I could kind of get to know him a little more. But he was so great. And the director, Jeanna Ross, she’s gay herself, so I think that’s really cool that we could work together on this. And we’ve been working together since I was, like, 17 years old. She’s from Missouri as well.
I also understand that this video is the first time that you’ve publicly acknowledged your sexuality. What was that decision like for you?
Yeah, well … I had the idea for the video since I wrote the song, and I knew it was something that I wanted to do, and I was thinking about pitching the idea to Jeanna. I remember I watched the movie Moonlight one night. It’s a great movie, and I was thinking to myself, like, here’s a movie that’s very forward about a man struggling with his sexuality, and it won awards and it was praised. That was the moment that I really realized, like, “OK, we are at a place where I need to make this video.” And I’m still nervous about it a little bit. Not knowing what people’s reaction will be, but I’m at a place now in my life where the people who I love and who want to be in my life are in my life, and they support me for who I am. And, you know, at the end of the day, that’s all someone needs.