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The Record That Changed My Life: Wilson Cruz on Stevie Wonder's 'Songs in the Key of Life'

'I don’t think it's an accident that he chose the name Wonder. There is such awe in what he does and we are in awe and wonder of him.'

Source: MEGA

The 'Star Trek: Discovery' star says he listens to Wonder's album 'weekly.'

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Wilson Cruz isn't just a name on a credit roll; he's a pioneer who stepped into living rooms across America and dared to be different. His groundbreaking role as Rickie Vasquez from 1994's My So-Called Life was one of the first openly gay characters on television (and in real life). A tireless advocate for LGBTQ+ rights, particularly for those who feel unseen or unheard, Cruz is a force for positive change, empowering others to create a world where everyone can have a voice.

Currently, Cruz is entering the fifth and final season of Star Trek: Discovery (streaming starts April 4 on Paramount+) portraying the ship's senior medical doctor, Hugh Culber. As befits the universe of Star Trek, his character, along with Anthony Rapp, who portrays his partner Lt. Cmdr. Paul Stamets, will be exploring more of their extended, surrogate family unit with Adira (Blu del Barrio) and Gray Tal (Ian Alexander). And with regards to his advocacy for LGBTQ+ youth, he was elected in July 2023 as Chair of Board for GLSEN, the multi-racial, intergenerational LGBTQ+ organization working nationally and locally to transform K-12 educational systems in the United States.

As you'll hear in Q's chat with Cruz, his choice of 1976's Songs in the Key of Life by Stevie Wonder has his name written all over it. From heartfelt ballads, to funk and rock beats, this 2LP (and four-song bonus EP) was and is considered the best-selling and most critically acclaimed album of Wonder's career. Winner of four Grammy Awards, the album was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2002 and in 2005 it was inducted into the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress, which deemed it "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

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Source: Tamla/Motown

Stevie Wonder Songs In The Key Of Life (2LP) Vinyl

Everyone loved Songs in the Key of Life when it came out. It was almost a foregone conclusion! What was your introduction to the album?

It was playing – blasting – on radio stations and being played everywhere. It was the hottest album of the year when I was three or four years old. So, I have a feeling that even though I didn't really discover the album then, I knew the songs individually. But I didn't know that so many of them came from one album until I was in my twenties and it was all because of a friend of mine, a poet, Hope Anita Smith. You know there's friends who align with you artistically, and you share each other's books and albums and poetry. She is to this day that person for me. She was the person who was like, "Do you know that all these songs are on this album?"

For me, this album is about beauty. It's an appreciation of natural beauty, of sonic, poetic, lyrical beauty for me, and unapologetically Black. It came to me as an album at a time when I was seeing myself as an artist. I was in the middle of doing My So-Called Life. I was surrounded by a lot of white people, and I don't mean that in any way, except that it was fact. I was the only non-white person on that show and I found myself gravitating towards ways to reconnect to my culture. This music would bring me a touchstone: "Yes, this is who I am. This is where I come from."

But it's also an album that I found myself coming back to throughout my life. I'm 50 now, and I listen to this album weekly. Not a bad thing, right? It comes on and I gravitate to different tracks on the album, in different periods of my life. Songs will mean something differently to me now than when they did when I was young.

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qmy so called life i abc
Source: ABC Television

Cruz (far right) as Enrique "Rickie" Vasquez and the cast of 'My So-Called Life,' 1994

Have you ever met Stevie Wonder?

I've never met Stevie, but I hold him in such high esteem. His was one of the voices that I used to sing along to that made me believe I could sing. When I was a kid, I didn't have any formal training until I was in high school. But in junior high, when I was in a band, I would sing along with a lot of Stevie Wonder, and with Prince and Michael Jackson. But I would gravitate to Stevie to the point when I auditioned for Rent, I actually used one of the songs from this album! So, I thank "Sir Duke" along with [Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers] "Why Do Fools Fall in Love." But, yeah, I've never met Stevie. I would need a sedative! [Laughs].

Have you seen him perform live?

Yes, I did see him perform live. It was at the Hollywood Bowl. There were a number of performers that evening, and he was part of them. Actually, I saw him twice, because I’m just remembering now that I saw him again when he appeared with President Obama at a rally! That was the day that I almost met him, but it didn't happen because he left early.

I don't know if you remember this, but when 9/11 happened, they had the telethon [America: A Tribute to Heroes], and Stevie was singing, "Love's in Need of Love Today." That song changed in my mind. It was probably the most perfect song for me. It was such a balm to my spirit, because he was begging us to not give into our rage. He was begging us to tap into something else, tap into the lack of love that allowed this to happen. And that resonated with me and still resonates with me.

And then he sang it again, kind of in a similar spirit, at the Obama rally. He was again, saying, "You know, yes, this is a political competition, right? An election. But let's tap into the love here." So, he performs it like a closing. To keep you in, to leave you in a high spirit.

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Source: ℗ © BMG Rights Management, Capitol CMG Publishing, Integrity Music, Royalty Network, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC/Stevie Wonder/YouTube

Stevie Wonder with Take 6 - Love's in Need of Love Today (from "America: A Tribute to Heroes")

There's such a timelessness to the album, and so many entry points. You can listen to "Pastime Paradise" and go, oh right, that was Coolio’s "Gangsta's Paradise."

Totally! A lot of people, like my younger brother, discovered this album because of that! And I think it had another explosion after "Gangsta’s Paradise" came out. I think it's because so much of it is poetry. And so, he leaves you to do some of the work. You get to interpret it. It gets to resonate with you in the way that a modern painting does.

I feel that way about "Summer Soft." It's about nature. It's about the seasons. But also he named summer as a she, and named winter as a he. You get to be part of the song. You get to bring in your interpretation and it’s also evocative of the time. This is one of the first albums that really used synthesizers in the way it’s so prevalent. Now in music, we're so used to it. But at the time it was revolutionary and that’s how it still feels relevant. So, yeah, I think it does feel timeless. And the poetry helps make it feel not stuck in one specific era. It’s just one of the ones where I feel like it washes over you and carries you off.

But I also want to say that there are songs on here – [Stops a moment] If you just met someone and you’re just falling in love. That initial burst of obsession of love that you have over this new person in your life. But then, you know, if it falls apart and you got the covers over your head and you’re in bed, and you're depressed because it's over. You could play "Ordinary Pain."

And he's like: "You know, it's not that bad. You're making it more than it actually is. Get over yourself. Let's move on. Let's be real here." He did call it Songs in the Key of Life because there’s going to be a song on here that's going to resonate in whatever period or moment is in my life.

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Source: ℗ © Wb Music Corp., Large Variety Music, Boo Daddy Publishing, Black Bull Music, Madcastle Muzic, Songs Of Polygram Int., Inc., Jobete Music Co Inc/Coolio ft. L.V./YouTube

Coolio ft. L.V. & Stevie Wonder! "Gangsta's Paradise" Live! [Billboard Awards 1995]

This is an album that doesn't have to be played chronologically. But this was an event. This was big news. To have a double album that you wanted to invest in, needed to hear what he was saying from front to back. And nowadays, fortunately or unfortunately, you don't always have to do that.

I think it's unfortunately, to be honest with you. I miss that. I miss liner notes. You have to search for them now. I loved getting the album, the vinyl, and the sleeve, that it came in with all the lyrics on it. And then something written on the back from the artist. I love an album that tells a story that they've crafted and curated in a way that's specific to what they're trying to say. But I think that's coming from the artist in me. I can be a little bit of a control freak in that way. I'm working on it. But you're right. You don't have to play this in chronological order. But it's still incredibly powerful, and I'll sometimes just put it on shuffle and I will lose my mind! One of the most beautiful melodies and lyrics I think ever written ever is "If It's Magic." It’s one of the songs that I want to sing, but I can't get through it without crying, ‘cause it's so pure and it feels fragile. And I feel fragile when I'm singing it. I'm really vulnerable because it's about the purest kind of love.

I mean, I literally could go on and on. I'm a double Capricorn, I'm told. And "Saturn" on this album, is about climate. It's about caring for the planet. Capricorns are supposedly ruled by Saturn. And so I've always been drawn to that song. And now that I've been on Star Trek: Discovery for five seasons, the thought of imagining an alien coming to this planet from Saturn, seeing how we live, and letting ourselves see ourselves through their eyes, really resonates with me. Because I’ve spent five years imagining what meeting other species and other life forms would be like, and how they would see us, and how we would see them. So, that song has a different resonance for me now, because of that experience.

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Then you have "Isn't She Lovely," which was celebrating the birth of his daughter. Listening to the coda, you hear her splashing in the bath, and in the background, Stevie’s talking to her, and then he's laughing because she made an off-color remark.

And it's something that's a part of life, right? People have kids. I don't. But you know, I think about my nephew. He's five. He was just here. But yeah, that didn't mean as much to me. I always liked the melody or whatever. But now I get it. I've seen my brother experience that. I get to witness it, and it resonates with me in a way now that just before, it was just a really lovely melody.

As is “Another Star.” I don't know if you saw the 2014 Grammys, but he sang a little portion of it at the end of the Daft Punk performance. Everyone in the audience just went berserk. But that’s a long song; you only get a taste of it.

So is "As." It's another one that's really long. But I’m like, "Hey, we're paying good money for this album. Give me it! Give me some content, man!"

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Source: ℗ © Emi April Music Inc., More Water From Nazareth, Xlc Music, Imagem Cv/Daft Punk/YouTube

Stevie Wonder & Daft Punk & Pharrell Williams - Get Lucky ( Medley ) Live Grammy Performance

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Well, the man could sing the dictionary and we're all going to say he's a god. But it's still impressive that he can go on for eight minutes, and you're not bored.

Yeah, because we feel his joy in doing it. I keep going back to "Summer Soft." At the end he's saying the same thing over and over, but he's riffing on it and literally just doing it differently every single time and building on it, and it gets bigger and then he brings it down, and he comes back up again. He’s a kid in the playground. He just wants one more time down the slide. Well, I take my nephew to the park a lot. So, I mean, wow!

When you and I think... like my mother's obsessed with Stevie Wonder! We’ve all literally grown up with him. And when you watch him perform, maybe because he's blind, he's using every part of his body, all of his senses to communicate the song. I don’t think it's an accident that he chose the name Wonder. There is such awe in what he does and we are in awe and wonder of him when we watch him and hear him. I can't explain it. I think it's magic.

Then there's "Ordinary Pain," which involves a second voice doing almost a call-and-response.

I think it's about how we tend to make our heartbreaks bigger than they actually are. Some of us, I should say. In order to process the loss, we blow it up in order to get all of the pain and emotion over. Maybe it was interesting to him that we're so locked into our own pain that we forget that there's another side to the story.

Let's say I'm the one who was broken up with. Someone broke up with me and we make them out to be this terrible person in order to process and get over it. But in reality, if we stopped, there's another person on the other side of that story who had to do something really hard, who knew that it was going to cause me pain. And maybe listening to her sing, it helps me understand that there's another 'ordinary pain' on the other side that I have to consider.

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Source: ℗ © BMG Rights Management, Capitol CMG Publishing, Integrity Music, Royalty Network, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC/Stevie Wonder/YouTube

Stevie Wonder - I Wish (Songs In The Key Of Life)

With respect to Stevie and his messages, if you look at what he was singing before Songs In The Key of Life, from the previous album [Fullfillingness’ First Finale], there's "You Haven’t Done Nothin'." That's a powerful song that rings even more true now... or maybe it never went away. It can be so angry if you want it to be. The same thing with "I Wish." He had nothing! It still resonates even though I never lived his life.

Right! I didn't grow up rich. We lived in the projects. We made a way out of no way, as we say. When I listen to those two songs especially, it takes me back to having to make a way out of no way. And the innocence of childhood, of not knowing. That's what we were doing. I didn't know. I just thought that was the way life was. Then you grow up and hear a song like that and there is some nostalgia in a weird way. I don't want to go back and live in the projects. I do have a complicated, warm place for the family unit that made it through that. The rawness of that... I'm glad we're not there again. I don't want anybody to have to deal with that. Feces in the playground and syringes. But we also had each other to make it through that.

My parents were really young when they had me, so we were a really young family, and I have such respect for them, and so "I Wish" takes me back to that. The fact that love was bigger than all of that other stuff. It was hard and far from perfect and difficult. I listen to those songs and I'm reminded of the love that got us through it.

You know, one of the songs that I have performed widely is not on this album. Which is "All In Love Is Fair." I sing that all the time if I'm asked to sing at a benefit concert or such. And I did a cabaret show that I toured around with for a little while in the 2000s. I should say that song really means a lot to me, probably to have it played at a wedding that may or may not ever happen. But there's no danger of that anytime soon! [Laughs]

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Source: Brendan Meadows/Paramount+

Cruz as Dr. Hugh Culber and Anthony Rapp as Lt. Cmdr. Paul Stamets on 'Star Trek: Discovery'

I know you're going to be busy with GLSEN, and if not anything else, I want you to know that the work that you and Anthony are doing on the show was just... was beautiful. I know it’s because you're acting. But you're not. Y’know?

That means a lot to me. Thank you. It's the number one issue for me. I love what I do, and I love being an actor. But when I can join my activism to my artistry, that's when I'm at most peace. That's when I feel the most connected and aligned. I know that's what I'm supposed to be doing. It's why I'm here.


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