This year has been all about spreading positivity for Brendon Urie. Just one month after releasing the uplifting Pray For the Wicked track “High Hopes” in May, the Panic! at the Disco frontman launched Highest Hopes Foundation, a nonprofit organization aiming to support human rights. And now, Urie is taking his philanthropic efforts even further, teaming up with State Farm for a campaign called Neighborhood of Good.
The program, initially launched in 2017, is designed to help people get involved and find volunteer opportunities in their own communities using the official NeighborhoodofGood.com site. Urie took part himself while on tour this year, stopping by Boys & Girls Clubs in Chicago, Indianapolis and his hometown of Las Vegas, eight minutes down the street from where he grew up.
But his connection with kids in other cities was just as deep as it was in Vegas, making him realize how important it is to help kids from all over pursue their passions.
“The first thing I noticed was how willing these kids were to share everything they love,” Urie says. “It blew my mind how welcoming they were, how positive these kids were. Being able to sit down and actually talk one-on-one, see their talents, see them laugh, watch them draw better than I can now — and I’m 31. [Laughs.] I think it’s just something to be said — this younger generation has more of a need to come outside of themselves, bursting to get out.”
Urie saw himself in several of the kids, but particularly ones he worked with in the Boys & Girls Clubs’ new Notes For Notes program, which helps facilitate those with a passion for music like Brendon himself. The singer’s experience was captured on camera for a four-episode miniseries, with the first episode — which was unveiled today (Sept. 18) — previewing his visits in Chicago and Indianapolis, but more prominently focusing on his own story. The three-minute clip features Urie’s childhood band teacher and biggest mentor, Richard Matta, as well as his mom, Nani Urie. “I did cry a couple of times watching it,” Brendon admits with a laugh.
Billboard caught up with the Panic! frontman to hear more about how the Neighborhood of Good program is a culmination of everything he has worked for (and achieved) since dreaming of becoming a performer as a kid — but also, how his “High Hopes” message is coming to life.
What drove you to want to give back and when did philanthropy become a passion for you?
At a really young age I had a community show me that that’s what it’s all about. I grew up in church, I grew up in the Mormon faith, and although I’m not religious anymore, I still am so proud to have that instilled in me at such an early age. My parents, my friends, my church community all showed me examples that it’s much easier to be charitable rather than not give any of yourself to anyone. I had to kinda get reinvigorated over time.
Fans of Panic! at the Disco are so amazing. They mobilized in a way that I never knew you could at that age. When we first started I was a 17-year-old kid, not really knowing what to do with myself, but the fans have shown me all new ways of being charitable, being kind, loving, accepting and understanding. That is the greatest thing I’ve received from them.
Was there anything in particular that kind of sparked your desire to be more serious about giving back?
There’s a point in our show where fans hold hearts during one of our songs, that were colors of the pride flag. The first time it happened was like two and a half years ago, and I had no idea it was coming. I was floored. I looked down, I could barely see the next chord — I just started to cry. I was so overwhelmed with love that I had witnessed from a crowd of strangers, people who didn’t know each other that all came together behind this one idea. I thought, “How powerful is that, to mobilize behind such a passionate idea of love?”
That was really the first time I thought, “I need to do something more. They just did it because they felt the love — that’s how I feel, how can I showcase that?” State Farm kind of took my hand and said, “Hey, here’s a couple options.”
What was your initial reaction to them approaching you about this? I can imagine it was like, “This is it, this is what I’ve been waiting for” kind of thing.
Absolutely it was. I said, “I want to learn how to give back in a way, I want to be more of a mentor.” That’s what changed my life, having somebody like a Richard Matta in my life, or my mom to show me music and caring about people and love. I really wanted to just share that with other people. I knew how impactful it can be, and they let me go to a bunch of places and just hang and listen. I had to learn that that was one of the biggest things about being a mentor, just listening to these kids share their experience.
Were there any particular interactions that stuck with you?
There was a kid that called himself J-Money and he was funny, man. One really cool quote he said to me was, I asked him, “What do you like to rap about,” and he said, “I rap about my future because I already lived through my past,” and that’s really strong. He’s thinking about who he wants to be, and this kid is like nine years old. It’s cool to see it at such a young age. I remember feeling like that, and I didn’t know how to put it into words, and this kid just put it beautifully.
Do you feel like you’ve passed the torch, in a way, with what you’ve done with Panic? Especially now that you’re doing what you’re doing with both your foundation and with State Farm?
It does feel like I’m passing the torch. I had so many great opportunities as a kid with Richard Matta showing me what’s possible. If you’re passionate about music, stick to that passion, because it obviously makes you happy and that’s a blessing. If I can relay any of that to any of my fans or my friends, then I’ve done my job.
You’ve always had really positive songs, especially on ‘Pray For the Wicked.’ Is there a specific song or a couple songs in your catalog that is most fitting to the message that you’re hoping to send?
The song that I’ve been pushing for kids to understand where I’m coming from with this charity and this opportunity is “High Hopes.” That one really does say like, “Hey, as a kid I thought I would never make it. I only had dreams and fantasies of being a rock star, making cardboard cut-outs of a guitar, standing in front of my mirror just dreaming of the day. I’m always working towards it, and always keeping my hopes high. I failed and tried again, but I felt much more happy once I accomplished it — the reward is much greater once you challenge yourself thoroughly.” There’s obstacles and trials, and it’s a beautiful thing to come back to that and say, “Whoa, this is the most rewarded I’ve ever felt.” It’s pretty fitting.
How has it felt performing “High Hopes” on tour, knowing the message that you’re sending through it?
Actually, the first time we did that song, we were in the U.K., and the song had just come out so we had never practiced it. We were like, “What’s more rock ‘n’ roll than playing a song we don’t even know?” [Laughs.] We played it twice on the drive up there and we got on stage, no sound check, and we’re like, “Here we go!”
It was magical. Everybody in the crowd was singing — I’m tearing up while I’m talking. It was just this weird instance where we were all so proud. I think that translated to the crowd as soon as the first note hit. We were looking at each other on stage, and the smiles from one another, we were like, “Whoa dude, we’re actually playing this song right now. This is so bizarre, in the best way.” It felt like the biggest song we’ve ever played up to that point. It was very validating. It was like a moment of clarity, a moment of realization — like, “This is why we were doing this all along.”
That’s amazing! So thinking back to when you were a kid dreaming of being on stage, how does where you’re at now compare to where you envisioned yourself then?
As a kid, I fantasized a lot. I spent a lot of time alone in my room and I would teach myself instruments and stuff, listening to a record and trying to imagine what the chords were before I could afford a guitar [Laughs]. The industry of music and entertainment was all glorified at that age – at 10, 11 years old, it was like, “Wow, life’s gonna be so easy.” Then as you get older, it’s more work.
That’s where “High Hopes” comes in to play — as long as you keep your hopes high and you keep pushing to get better and better, then the reward is so much better. I used to keep my expectations very low, that way I would never be dissatisfied with the outcome. Now that I’m pushing myself to do even more, looking back, I get to romanticize the memory of me as a kid looking forward to the future.
But I will say now, comparing it to the past, absolutely my reality beats my fantasy. Which is so crazy to say. I’m so happy to be here, because it’s another opportunity to share that with somebody else who has a passion — maybe not in music, but in something else. I stuck with [music] because it’s my biggest passion. Stick to yours. Do what makes you happy. It’s much easier than you all think.