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New Music To Know: Gem Club Finds Inspiration in Love, Death & Porn on Latest Album ‘In Roses’

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Gem Club (Tonje Thilesen)

Gem Club (Tonje Thilesen)

By Shannon Carlin

Before listening to Gem Club’s “Soft Season”—a song on the chamber-pop band’s lush new album, In Rosesyou should familiarize yourself with the tragic tale of Joey Stefano.

Born Nicholas Iacona Jr. in Chester, Pennsylvania, Stefano was one of the biggest stars of gay porn in the early ’90s. He appeared in 36 films in just five years and even earned himself a spot in Madonna’s 1992 Sex book. But in 1994, at the age of 26, Stefano—who had been diagnosed HIV positive four years before—was found dead from a drug overdose believed to be caused by a speedball, a lethal mix of cocaine, morphine, heroin and ketamine.

Christopher Barnes, Gem Club’s pianist, vocalist and primary songwriter, told Radio.com that, growing up gay in the dawn of the Internet, he was aware of Stefano and his work. “There’s a few images that you come across when you decide to enter the world of Internet pornography,” Barnes said matter-of-factly over the phone.

But what struck him most about Stefano’s story was how both charming and tragic it was.

“I think that I have this romanticized idea of the male figure and this romanticized idea of pornography, and it speaks so much to fantasy and reality,” he explained. “It seems like such a sad story, to pass that young and to pass under those horrible conditions. That was really the jumping off point of that song [‘Soft Season’], trying to contextualize that positivity of it and also the negativity of it.”

With layers of piano and strings, “Soft Season” itself is funereal, with Barnes mourning the loss of a man who died too soon (preview the song on NPR). But the singer also pays tribute to a misunderstood man, managing to do so without passing judgment on the young man’s choices. It’s similar to the way Sufjan Stevens humanizes the serial killer John Wayne Gacy Jr. in his song of the same name, giving context for the man we now know as “Killer Clown.” On “Soft Season,” Barnes never once mentions Stefano by name, choosing to instead pay his respects by evoking the actor’s spirit in lines like, “For as long as it lasts, I’m a boy on my back.” It’s almost as if Stefano could have been any young man if the circumstances were different–including Barnes himself.

Read more at Radio.com

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