A country singer with a story to tell
Drake Jensen never imagined his latest music video would propel his country-music career into the spotlight, let alone be seen by thousands of people around the world and make him a pioneer in the industry.
In fact, the native of Glace Bay, Nova Scotia was told the release of his video - certainly not without its controversy in the country-music world - might kill his reputation.
"People told me I would wreck my career if I did this, when in fact, it launched my career," Jensen said in a telephone interview from his Ottawa home.
"I do believe my music will find a home and I believe it's already finding its home. I've got tremendous support across Canada, west to east; my mom in Cape Breton hears me four to five times a day on the radio."
Still, Jensen remembers expecting a less-than-favourable reaction - and, to some degree, he was right. It's just that the negative reaction sparked an even-stronger positive reaction, one that launched Jensen's budding career into the spotlight and landed him on the national news in Nashville, Tennessee, the home of country music.
"When it made the national news in Tennessee, I remember knowing at that moment that this was going to be bigger than I ever thought," he told The Review.
The video at the heart of this matter, for Jensen's song, "On My Way to Finding You," was shot on a rural property just outside of Vankleek Hill. A local log home and surrounding farm is featured prominently in the video, as well as the homeowners' dog.
Jensen decided on the location after the home was suggested to him by his graphic designer. The video was shot in one day.
"I loved the way it felt there, and Vankleek Hill suited the song very well," he said. "We probably couldn't have picked a better place than there, because everyone keeps saying to me, 'It's so beautiful there,' and the people that owned the log cabin invited us into their home, they made lunch for us - basically free reign in their house - and the only thing left was their dog. That was their dog in the video."
But the lingering question: what possible risk could a music video have for an artist in the 21st century - a time where almost anything and everything makes it on television?
"This is country music's first-ever time that a gay couple has ever been in a country music video," Jensen stated. "It is the first time, it's history, and that history was made where you live, which is really cool... so Vankleek Hill will always hold a very special place in my heart, for sure."
Now 42 years old, and four years into his marriage with Sean Morin, his manager and husband, Jensen says he is ready and willing to openly talk about being gay. He's also comfortable addressing the abuse he suffered as a child, much like the teenagers of today.
"I said to people, 'I'll probably make a lot of videos over the next 10 years, but that one there will probably be the most special video that I'll ever make,'" he noted. "Number one, my husband is in it with me, and it was so natural. It was the most natural video I've ever done - it kind of all fell into place."
Jensen is the first to admit that it was daunting to come forward with his stories of abuse, being bullied from the age of six and eventually dropping out of high school at 14. But he needed to get the message out there.
"It's been scary, telling people I'm damaged," he said. "It's out there... but that's who I am as a person. If you're not honest with yourself, you have nothing, and it's so true. It's not until I became honest, with the world and myself, that I felt free."
The artist said he wasn't "emotionally ready" to share his story, even a few years ago.
"It takes years to get over the abuse," he noted. "Most people that are abused feel ashamed. Whether you're a housewife getting beaten at home or a gay kid getting beat up at school, it's all the same: bullying is bullying, abuse is abuse. You can't paint it with any other brush."
Jensen recalls that Saturday in October of last year, when he learned of the death of 15-year-old Jamie Hubley, the only openly-gay teenager at his Ottawa high school. Hubley, the son of Ottawa city councillor Alan Hubley, was bullied through elementary and high school.
"It was a very difficult day," said Jensen. "I remember feeling the repercussions of that; when Jamie Hubley committed suicide, I shut down for a while, because I realized it could've been me."
It was at that point, not long after the filming in Vankleek Hill, that Jensen decided to dedicate the video to Jamie. He contacted Alan Hubley and shared his story - what caused him to leave school at age of 14 - and received an almost-immediate reply.
"I stand by that if it was the last thing I ever do musically, it was well worth it," Jensen said about deciding to release the video.
When the controversy erupted in Nashville, it was a mixed reaction: both positive and negative feedback from the straight community as well as the gay community.
"I'm six-foot-two, 240 pounds, cowboy hat, work clothes," Jensen said. "I'm not what society views as the Will and Grace gay guy. It shocked people in Nashville. They're looking at me saying, this could be anybody - the guy next door, the guy I work with. I don't mind the stereotype gay guy, but it's not what we're all about - gay people are just as diverse as the hetero community. I'm so happy to be part of changing how people think about that."
He continues: "It's been the best relationship of my life and I hope other people reading this get to experience the type of love that I have, because I've ever been loved like this in my life, and that's how I know this is not wrong."
And he stands by his fans and critics alike - and humanity as a whole.
"I believe there are a lot of good people out there. I love people that hate (the video), because the people that hate it drew half the gay community in Nashville to join my Facebook page - and all of a sudden, I was getting a thousand hits an hour.
"There's never been a male artist who has come out and said 'I'm gay.' People are very easy to accept a female, but when a man comes out, they don't think about the fact that he's singing - they think about the fact that he's having sex with another guy. It's unfortunate that society views things like that, but they do, so it was a groundbreaking thing ... and in country music, I'm very, very surprised that we got such a great reaction. We got the most radio station ads we've ever had on any single release, we've gotten the most views on any video I've ever done, so we're very happy."
People have since been contacting Jensen with personal stories of their own - "these people have really bled their hearts to me" - and since the Nashville incident about 18 months ago, he's been busy writing with top songwriters and preparing a second album.
Next month, Jensen will be recognized by The Fondation Emergence in Montreal, where he will be presented with the Coup de Chapeau (Hats Off) award for his contribution to the fight against homophobia. Lady Gaga received the same award last year.
"Now, people are going, who's Drake Jensen? One minute, nobody knows who I am, the next minute, everybody in the gay community is talking - and not only in the gay community, but the whole country music community.
"I may get an East Coast Music award, maybe a country music award, a Juno would be great, but getting this Hats Off award for the fight against homophobia - which is what so many people did before me, on Parliament Hill, so me and my husband could marry together - to be part of that is the biggest honour in my life... in my life. And I will never be able to top that - and I know that. This award, it's humanitarian. And I pride myself on being a humanitarian.
"It's funny how a 4.14-minute video can change someone's life. I wish I could let you see some of the emails I've gotten. But I believe that everybody is a star; I believe God puts you on this earth for a reason and that you're born with this star, but as you walk through your life, your responsibility is to allow that star to shine a little brighter every day.
"It's kind of an uphill climb. There's always something to do, but I would not trade this opportunity I have in front of me for anything right now. To be able to touch people like this is a gift," he adds, laughing: "We'll see where it goes from here, but it's interesting that it all started in Vankleek Hill."
To watch the video, visit www.youtube.com/watch?v=yVPNquoQzrY.