Now 15, Billy Gilman returns with Music Through Heartsongs, an album of Mattie J.T. Stepanek’s poetry set to music. The 12-year-old Stepanek, who battles a rare form of muscular dystrophy, has sold more than 1.5 million copies of his inspirational books. Here, Gilman answers 20 questions from CMT.com readers.
1. How did you and Mattie get together?
When we were on Larry King Live, we weren’t really on the show together. He was in Washington, near the hospital or at the hospital, and I was in New York City. They put the two segments together. Well, after the show my vocal coach and core manager, Angela Bacari, called me up because we were amazed with him. And who isn’t? So she goes, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could put these poems to music?” And I was like, “All right. How are these gonna sound putting them to music, poems put to music?” So she goes “Just try it,” so I went along with it. And then a couple of days later she calls my head manager in Nashville, Scott Siman, and he was already out buying the books, and that’s when I started to get excited. Everyone had the same idea. So Angela motivated Scott, and Scott motivated Sony Music, so it was like a chain reaction.
2. What is it like spending time with Mattie?
Uplifting. Inspirational really, because every time I see him, he’s never not had a smile on his face. So it’s really very inspirational.
3. Do you plan on doing any songwriting in the future?
We did for this new album. I did write with Angela [Bacari], my vocal coach and crew manager, and Sandy Linzer. We put the poems to music. We wrote the music to two of the songs. So that’s basically like writing. … I like to write, too. It’s tough though. You’ve gotta get all your thoughts together and getting over that writer’s block — What should I write about? It’s kind of tough, but once you get rolling it just comes out.
4. Is there any particular TV show that you would really like to be on?
I’m a groupie of Fear Factor, and I would like to be on that, no matter if I had to eat a bug or whatever. It doesn’t really faze me. But that show is really wacky, it’s far out and that’s what’s cool about it. When I’m in the right age group, I would love to be a contestant on that. I love all the game shows. I’d like to be on those, too.
5. Do you have any plans to do Broadway? You have a great Broadway voice.
Oh, well, thank you very much. That’s always something I’ve admired, you know. I love to act and I love to sing, and to be able to put those two together, it’s an amazing thing. So I thank you for saying that, it’s a nice compliment. Not any time soon, no. Hopefully in the near future.
6. How do you feel about people who download songs instead of buying the CDs?
It’s not right for the artist, and it’s kind of not fair, but I have done it. I think once I did it, but it is wrong.
7. What’s in your CD player right now?
Well, there’s Bon Jovi. There’s Tim McGraw . I can’t think right now, but a mixture. Just a big mixture of all types of music. I’m a big fan of everything. There’s Avril Lavigne, so I’m just a big fan of everything.
8. Is there anyone you would like to do a duet with?
Well there are so many. I like Avril Lavigne’s voice. I think her voice would go together with mine really well. I haven’t really given that much thought. That was a good question though.
9. Do you have a girlfriend?
I have a lot of girl friends, but nothing serious right yet.
10. Do you feel that because of being famous, that you miss out on some of the things that most people your age get to do?
I don’t think so. I mean, I’m doing what normal kids my age would do, except I’m traveling all over the world. If I was 15 and started a career, that would be different. I would have known another lifestyle. But since I started at such a young age, this is all I know and what I love.
11. If you were able to appear in a movie, who else would you want to star in it?
I like the old time actors, like Kirk Douglas, Michael Douglas. Let’s see … I love Catherine Zeta-Jones. She was great in Chicago. I think that’s it.
12. You seem so confident coming on stage. What is the first thing you focus on when you greet your audience? Any special thing you look for, to keep from getting the jitters?
“Don’t screw up!” That’s the main thing every artist thinks, or “Don’t mess up! Try to do this as best you can.” Once the fans start screaming, all those jitters go away. Or if you do crack or go off pitch or whatever, it doesn’t affect you as much because the audience is screaming for you no matter what.
13. Are you going to stop singing some of your older songs in concert now that your voice has changed?
It’s always that thing: Is the song too young for you? Is it too high for you? But I don’t think so, because my hit “One Voice” is so universal. It’s so timeless. It’s not really “kiddy” or too old for me, it’s just right in there, no matter what age. I don’t think so. Most of the songs are good no matter what age. Who knows?
14. What are some of your favorite country songs right now?
I have to say I love the Dixie Chicks rendition of “Landslide.” That’s a great song. I don’t know if it’s out yet, but I like the song [“You’re Still Here”] that Faith Hill sang at the Flameworthy Awards. I love that song. I love Martina McBride ’s “Concrete Angel, ” you know that just hits home. I have a couple favorites.
15. What is your all-time favorite book?
I just read one that I think has become my favorite. It’s called The Prince of Whales. It’s a big novel and it’s relative to music. That one’s pretty much my favorite right now. I’m not a big fan of reading, but when I do read, I pick out some great stuff. But that’s my favorite right now.
16. What is your favorite subject to study?
I love the literature, the language arts, the spelling and all that stuff. I’m a big fan of that. But math, I don’t care for. I got letters down pat, ABCs and my numbers down pat, but when they start mixing them together, that’s when it all goes crazy.
17. What is one thing about Rhode Island that would surprise somebody who’ s never been there?
It’s not as little as you think. I mean it really isn’t. Once you get in the state, it’s not that little. Beautiful beaches. So, the beaches and the capacity. It’s not as small as you think it would be.
18. Did you get to take any trips or vacations with your family during your break?
I didn’t. That’s awful to say but I really didn’t. We just stayed at home. I was catching up on school because I was kind of behind. But hopefully this year, for a celebration of the new album, and hopefully getting through the voice change because that’s a feat in itself, we’ll go on a trip somewhere.
19. If you could change one thing about how your career is going, what would it be?
Going through the voice change, probably having a speedy thing. I wanted to go faster instead of two years. I wanted to go “Boop, done,” because in 2001 when I did that huge tour with Jessica Andrews, I was still learning my voice. Even after five years had gone by, I was still learning. Finally I was getting it down pat and really starting to know my voice and all of a sudden, “Boom!” Out of left field, the voice started to drop. Then I had to learn a whole new way of singing. I had to learn new tones, a new way to sing the songs, a whole new outlook on things. I would have liked that to go a lot faster.
20. You started very young, and you’re 15 now. What do you think has changed the most from when you first started out?
I’d probably say my personality on stage. I’ve gone from standing still to moving up and down the stage. And the discipline. When I was younger, I thought, “Oh, I can drink this.” Like, I can’t have milk. I can’t have dairy stuff. When I was younger, I thought, “Oh I can have it, what the heck” and I’d bomb on stage. But now I’m more disciplined, so whenever I see that glass of milk, I crave it with an Oreo cookie or something, but I don’t have it. So the discipline is 100 percent more than what it was.