CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
Tituss Burgess first gained national fame as a scene-stealing sidekick D'Fwan on NBC comedy "30 Rock." He's also though a singer, who's performed in many Broadway hits like "The Little Mermaid," and "Guys and Dolls." Now he's trying something else. He's making a name for himself in the world of R&B, and his latest album is called "Comfortable." Let's listen to a little of the title track.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COMFORTABLE")
HEADLEE: That's the song "Comfortable," with singer Tituss Burgess, he joins us now. Welcome to the program.
TITUSS BURGESS: Thank you, thank you for having me.
HEADLEE: It's great to have you with us. You not only are the singer on that piece, but you also wrote that song, and you wrote it 10 years ago.
BURGESS: I did.
HEADLEE: First of all, explain to me, what was your state of mind that inspired that song, and why you felt it was still relevant a decade later.
BURGESS: I was always an overweight teen, young child, and it seemed to follow me into my adult life. And I found that when I was setting out to do certain things with my career, it seems like the powers that be had different ideas about what I was supposed to do. That song became sort of my quiet protest. I didn't want people to hear it at first.
It was too much of an insight on who I really was and what I was really feeling. But then, you know, your truth is your power. It's your sword and your shield. It occurred to me that sharing it was not just for me but for other people, too.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COMFORTABLE")
HEADLEE: Have you gotten any responses from people that sort of remind you of yourself, things that, say, you know what, that's where I was when I wrote this song?
BURGESS: Yeah, that happens more in the - after the live performances. I'll get people that come up to me and they'll go, you know, I only know you as a musical theater performer or as an actor on television shows or whatever. I had no idea that you wrote about such personal issues. And, you know, they say, you know, how topical and how poignant and how much it hits home. And it just sort of makes me realize that all of this information, all of our information, it's cyclical. It is not to be hoarded.
HEADLEE: Not everything on this album you wrote. You do a cover of the song "For All We Know." It was first performed by Nat King Cole. Another famous performance is Donny Hathaway, of course, in the 1970s. Let's take a listen to your version.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOR ALL WE KNOW")
HEADLEE: You know, there's a couple of reasons why the vast majority of pop singers would not choose that song. Besides...
BURGESS: ...Tell me why...
HEADLEE: ...Well, number one, it is just too hard to sing. Let's be honest here. I mean, I am a trained singer myself. The vast majority of pop singers, they can't do a real piano. How do you balance the difference between a singer, a true singer, and a stylist, which is kind of what you have to be to succeed in pop and R&B?
BURGESS: A large part of my professional career has been performing on stage, saying someone else's words, being directed by someone else. But at the core of it, it has always been, and as far as I'm concerned, always will be and always should be about storytelling - about a sentence, about a noun and a verb, a subject and a predicate and ordering those in such a way that the listener hears something and now thinks or feels differently than they would have before you began to speak or before you began to sing. And that informs how I choose to sing something. So I worry less about the instructions on the page, if it's a piano or a forte, and I worry more about, how do I best plead my case? What is the desired outcome?
HEADLEE: It does, to a certain extent, in part of the storytelling, at least in this one, you're very open about your own story. Not just as we heard before in "Comfortable," but you're open about your own sexuality. You're open about your personal life. How - what kind of difficulties does that bring you as a singer?
BURGESS: I'm the type of person that, you know, I don't hide. In fact, I find hiding very much like incarceration. For the longest time, I allowed my sexuality, my religion, the type of voice I had, the music that I wanted to write to be, you know, pushed away and put on the back burner to complete someone else's agenda.
HEADLEE: Well, then let me take you back to the other version of yourself, which is you performing words someone else wrote for you. We mentioned earlier, you play the role of D'Fwan on the show "30 Rock." I want to play a clip first of the scene with you and actress Tina Fey. Take a listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "30 ROCK")
BURGESS: (as D'Fwan) Elizabeth, this is very, very easy for me to say to you, but you can't come in here right now.
TINA FEY: (as Liz) Well, I just want to drop off this little crinkly book that I got from Virginia.
BURGESS: (as D'Fwan) I can't let you in. After what happened betwixt you this morning. No, Virginia is not having you.
HEADLEE: Tituss, there we have words someone else wrote for you...
HEADLEE: ...And a character someone else designed for you. And...
BURGESS: ...No one designed the character. I designed the character.
HEADLEE: And yet, the show did take criticism for using racial stereotypes. Most people were talking about Tracy Morgan's character. But what did you think when you look back at your work on "30 Rock"? What do you think of that character D'Fwan?
BURGESS: There is a difference between cooning - there's a difference between chewing the scenery and being funny. There is a difference between informed comedy, being in on the joke, and then being the joke. D'Fwan is enough of what you think, perhaps, most gay men are like, grouped with some extra isms that would give him his own identity, his own individuality and his own eccentricities. And I think that allows us to see beyond the art type, to see beyond the stereotype, and to see it for the absolute ridiculousness that it is.
And that's what makes it - that's what made the show so funny. That's what made the show so successful. And I think, you know, barring any criticism, if it really were tacky and tasteless, I don't think it would've been on the air for as long as it was.
HEADLEE: There's certainly some reality TV shows there, Tituss, that might argue against that. But that's the role that many people are going to think of when they come to your album. And with that in mind, maybe you can give us a song that - let's say, that I was going to present your album to somebody else. What song would you say people should listen to first?
BURGESS: "All I Need."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL I NEED")
HEADLEE: Tituss Burgess, singer and songwriter and actor. His latest album is called "Comfortable" and he joined us from our bureau in New York. Tituss, thank you so much and good luck.
BURGESS: Thank you so much. I appreciate this.