Two years ago, country singer Ty Herndon came out as gay, and that revelation has changed his life — and now his music — for the better.
Since opening up about his sexuality for the first time in an exclusive PEOPLE interview in November 2014, Herndon has gotten educated by and active in the LGBT community, working with groups including the Human Rights Campaign, GLAAD and the Trevor Project.
In addition, the singer’s relationship with longtime partner Matthew has grown stronger.
“I used to say, ‘I’m in the best place of my life for this 24 hours,'” Herndon, 54, tells PEOPLE. “But I feel like I’m in a great place in my life for all of them now.”
That sense of self-acceptance and optimism have informed Herndon’s new album, House on Fire (out Friday). PEOPLE caught up with the singer — and has an exclusive first look at the title track’s striking music video.
How did coming out influence this album?
The first six songs on the record, I want you to feel as good as I do. From the LGBT and gay fans’ point of view and the die-hard country fans and the new country fans that would be coming onboard, I wanted the music to be heard by everybody; I didn’t want to segregate it at all.
About halfway through, one of my songwriters went: ‘Is it intentional that this record is gender-free?’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘Well, you’re not writing towards one person, man or woman or anything; it’s gender-free.’ We were just automatically doing it. So the album is what I wished for it to be: Anybody can put their life into these stories and these songs.
And my song “Fighter” says everything that I want to say to LGBT youth or America’s youth that are going through anything or a 75-year-old man who’s struggling with losing his longtime partner or wife or husband: If there’s fight in you, this life is worth fighting for, for every moment that we get to breathe. I want people to feel as good as I do in my skin today. And I’m giving all my proceeds of that song to the Trevor Project.
What inspired “House on Fire” and its video?
“House on Fire was one of those songs where all three writers kept having to leave the room: I just had to get my s— together. That song took about four days and some heavy, raw emotions and digging deep. But I made the decision: I’ve come this far; I’m gonna put it out there.
The song goes back many, many years for me — from a time of great damage. And I’ve never sang about it or wrote about it. It was from such a broken place. And I wanted, in this video, for you to feel that. The video represents taking everything down off the walls of the past and all those broken relationships, all those people that damaged me and I damaged them, all in that house — and just burning it to the ground. All those people are going back on the wall: They’ve just been reframed; it’s a new picture. So the house is rebuilt.
What was the hardest part about coming out publicly?
Social media can be pretty hateful, and I was really protected from that for the first little while. But I didn’t erase it. So I’m still going back: I’ve answered every hateful tweet or Facebook post, and I’ve answered it with love and with one simple question: “Do you know anyone that’s gay?” Because nine times out of ten, they don’t, when you’re hating that hard or hating that much. I’ve still got some emails to get through and some, but I want to personally touch on the hate with love.
You said you feel comfortable in your skin today.
I feel like I have a responsibility now to be as successful in my life as I can. If I get to be successful in music, yee-haw, that’s awesome. But I feel successful in my life, and that’s been a huge reward. I still wake up some mornings, and the realization of being able to come out and be authentic in my life, I get real excited about that.
What does being authentic in your life mean to you now that you’re open about your sexuality?
Matthew and I are about to hit eight years together, and we’re doing really great. Hopefully there’s a wedding in the future, which will be another story! I just can’t believe how incredibly busy that I have been. I’ve been really blessed.
How did he support you when you decided to come out?
Matthew is fearless. He’s strong, he’s honest, he’s kind. I consider him a gift in my life. He was so strong for me through this process, and one day I looked at him, and I said, “Oh my gosh, how are you doing with all this?” He goes, “I’m fine.” We come from families that have been so supportive and open and kind. But for him, appearing in the media — he also came out to his job and a lot of friends that did not know he was gay. So it opened the conversation to have with quite a few people. He’s just a good guy, and he’s impressed me over and over again. I think as humorous as he is, he should be speaking at some of these events.
You’re good friends with Chely Wright, who went through a similar journey as you coming out in country. Does seeing her with her wife and kids make you want to have a family of your own?
The great thing about being a musician is I’ve got so many friends who are just becoming fathers, at my age right now, and I think it would be awesome. I would absolutely love to have kids. I’m at a place in my life where that would make a lot of sense for me and for Matthew. So we’ll see how that goes. Sometimes I think you can’t really plan those things; you just kind of go, “Okay, let’s figure this out.” We need to get married first — need to find time to get married!