Evan Thomas (W ’20) has been soloing for decades. As a kindergartener, he was already stealing school stages singing “God Bless America." Throughout high school, unsatisfied by the absence of an a cappella group, he created his own and started doing arrangements. It’s no surprise that he has been Dischord A Cappella’s co-music director for years, even soloing Sam Smith’s “Fire On Fire” in quarantine isolation for the group’s Zoom concert last May.
But the end of college didn’t spell the end of Thomas’ solos; in fact, it might be just the beginning of a solo music career.
Now, Thomas has expanded to the digital stage of Spotify, where he’s already released three singles for his upcoming debut album, Foundations: “Like I Do,” “Cool Kid Rules,” and, most recently, the titular “Foundations.” The album is set to release on August 21st, Thomas’s 24th birthday.
Hailing from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the “Bible Belt of the North,” Thomas described his songs as “anthemic” and greatly inspired by both gospel and Christian contemporary music (what he referred to as the “white version” of gospel music). Thomas’ faith has not only been a quintessential aspect of his compositions but the rock of his personal life. On Foundations, Thomas explores the intersection between his faith and sexuality: what he described as the “journey” of his life.
Thomas first came out when he was 16. He explained that “it was very clear from culture, church and my family that homosexuality is contrary to Christian beliefs,” he said. When most kids begin to worry about college rejections, Thomas was worried of rejection from his community. So, he found a new one, taking two gap years to be a missionary in Mazatlán, Sinaloa, Mexico.
“Fear of hell and of being rejected by God and everyone who cared about me was more important and scarier than figuring out if I want to be an investment banker or consultant,” Thomas explained. “‘I can’t live the life I don’t want to live, but I can’t live the lie I’m supposed to live—so what the hell am I supposed to do?'" he questions on "Foundations."
Thomas wrote the track in late summer 2019 after reflecting on the “life he was supposed to live.” “‘Foundations’ originally had nothing to do with Christianity,” he said. “It was about how everything I was working toward was falling apart—closeness with parents, friends and the church community.”
These foundations began “crumbling” in the summer of 2019 after Thomas returned from a real estate internship in LA, one of the only times in his life he said he was “free to exist.” “It didn't matter if I was gay or straight… nobody knew who I was,” he said.
“Foundations” also references Thomas’ experience with conversion therapy. “You’re told not to associate with people who encourage you to come out or with gay men, or even have close friendships with women,” he explained. “You’re told to surround yourself with straight men so you can learn what it means to be a ‘real man.’ The fundamentalist Christian church gives gay people two options: enter into a mixed orientation marriage—know that you’re gay but marry a woman anyway—or be celibate for the rest of your life.”
In the beginning of his self-acceptance, Thomas spent days discovering all he could about this practice he’d always perceived but never named. He uncovered that he was not alone—700,000 people have already been exposed to conversion therapy in the U.S. Furthermore, this practice is legal in many states, and 80,000 are likely to face this fate in the coming year.
Conversion therapy is incredibly demoralizing, and highly rejected LGBTQ people are more than six times more likely to report high levels of depression than accepted folks. The practice is also deadly—not only do attempts to change a person's sexuality or gender orientation more than double one’s risk of suicide, but also highly rejected LGBTQ people are more than eight times more likely to attempt suicide than their less rejected peers.
Statistics, however, pale in comparison to lived experiences. But there lies Foundations’ impetus, a discovery that Thomas had not searched for: the suicide note of a gay loved one.
Thus, he decided to create the album as a second coming–out, a celebration of both himself and his gay and Black identities in general.
Thomas describes the album as a “story”: there’s the mise-en-scène of his religious roots via “beautiful, anthemic” Christian songs that “encapsulate” his relationship with God at the time; there’s “bluesy” and gospel pieces that juxtapose the joy of his faith with the depression of conversion therapy; and there’s the “falling action” of his current self-love that pulls in modern R&B and rap.
Although the deeply personal album explores his identity throughout his entire life, going solo has been a journey only six months in the making. After Thomas finished finals in December 2019, he went straight to YouTube to learn as much as possible on recording and music production during winter break.
Before his final semester began, he also met his current producer, rising Wharton junior and Penn Jazz drummer Alex Graf, who serendipitously was living in the same apartment building. Graf, whom Thomas calls the “other half” of Foundations, produced the album, providing synths, guitars, piano, other instrumentals, sound design, and mixing. This past January, Graf connected him to two people who offered Thomas the opportunity to temporarily use their home studios in Easton and Philadelphia to begin crafting demos.
Since Thomas’ music career is just barely longer than coronavirus-induced quarantines, he and Graf primarily completed the album remotely, an adjustment Thomas called “difficult” at first.
“It’s so much easier to talk about music when you can listen to it on the same sound system and point to a screen and say change this or change that, but it’s working super well now and basically the whole album is happening over FaceTime and text messages,” he said.
Foundations isn’t the only artistic project Thomas is working on. While performing at the SPEC-trum Open Mic Night in early 2020, he met rising College junior Harold E. Milton Gorvie, who recommended that they form a team to apply to the Sachs’ Student Arts Innovation Prize. Although the prize is only awarded to non-seniors, Thomas’ role as a member of a larger team still allows him to work on the project.
Milton Gorvie also reached out to rising College senior Shalom Obiago, and now the three are creating a three–song visual EP set to premiere in spring 2021. According to Thomas, it will tell the story of coming out and coming to terms with one’s sexuality in a more symbolic manner than his album, but it will include a recording of “Foundations” as well.
“We want to use that song to explore more than just my sexuality but also my identity as a Black man,” he said. “It’s all part of me, and a lot of the discrimination and problems that I faced are still encapsulated in in that song.”
For now, Thomas still has a “passion for real estate” and is actively on the job search, but whatever free time he has is spent creating music.
“Hopefully, this is also the beginning—the foundation—of a long career in music,” Thomas said. “You can post things on Spotify, YouTube, and SoundCloud, but you don't monetize it. People make money in music with tours and merch, and I can't wait to have a live show with lights and bright colors—it’s going to be amazing. Live shows online aren’t going to keep trending post-[covid].”
Although Thomas has not attended Zoom church, he says he is still a “deeply spiritual” person. “Something changes in the atmosphere when people worship God—people aren’t making this up,” he said. “I started to feel the same feelings when I was singing with Dischord... You feel goosebumps and tears, like God comes and touches your soul, and I felt the same singing even secular music.”
“My theory is that God, the Creator of the universe, just loves good music and likes to be in the room when it happens.”
Listen to Thomas’ three songs on Spotify now, and stay tuned for his debut album, Foundations, out August 21.