When Josh Kiszka publicly came out in June, he admits he was apprehensive about the reaction he might get to his heartfelt Instagram post about the “loving, same-sex relationship” he’s been in for eight years. “I was really concerned. I felt like, ‘Well, I’m going to have a target on my back,’” the singer of hard-rock revivalists Greta Van Fleet tells Rolling Stone. “You really feel that way, which is unfortunate, but it’s true.”
But the 27-year-old frontman with an operatic voice straight from the Misty Mountains had nothing to worry about. Kiszka learned as much one month after coming out, when he set foot onstage in Nashville to begin Greta Van Fleet’s world tour for their new album, Starcatcher. The response — according to Kiszka, Starcatcher producer Dave Cobb, and others in attendance — was a show of love and support manifested in very visible ways.
“Everything had been met with love and acceptance and humility and respect, and that was a huge wave of reassurance that things are moving in the right direction,” Kiszka says during a Zoom call before the band’s recent tour stop in Oakland, California. “As a performer and as an entertainer, a huge weight was lifted. Because ultimately as an artist or just as a person, we all want to be understood to some degree.”
At Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, fans on the floor waved rainbow flags in front of the band. Before the show, some fans had distributed swatches of multi-colored paper throughout the crowd; during the encore of “Light My Love,” they held them up against their cellphone flashlights on cue to bathe the venue in a rainbow of light. It was nearly too much for Kiszka, who broke down in tears at the end of the ballad.
“The fact that that many people could communicate and coordinate to make that happen was extraordinary,” he says. “It was really difficult for me to keep it together, and this sounds very deep, but the song took on new meaning in that moment. I explained to the audience that I hope that maybe one day it’ll be irrelevant when [I’m singing] ‘Hate bound by fear will unwind.’ When you say words like that, you realize that you’re in the middle of a movement.”
For the Michigan-born singer, that movement has a lot to do with the band’s new home state of Tennessee. He and his guitarist brother Jake relocated to the Nashville area in 2020, followed shortly after by their other brother, Greta Van Fleet bassist Sam, and drummer Danny Wagner. When the Tennessee legislature began targeting the LGBTQ community this year with bills that, among other draconian efforts, tried to outlaw drag and restrict access to transgender healthcare, Kiszka spoke up. He made his Instagram post talking about his own relationship, and directed fans toward advocacy groups that supported LGBTQ rights.
“Ultimately, when enough injustice [happens], you can’t just stand by and watch it happen any longer,” Kiszka says. “But also I didn’t want kids that are part of the LGBTQIA+ communities to feel like they’re victims or that they should be frightened. There’s so much stigma still that is surrounding all of this. When you’re talking about lawmakers making decisions that basically dictate who or who not someone can love or how or how not someone can dress, it’s concerning on not just the level that it threatens the LGBTQIA+ communities, but on a level that it threatens humanity, and that it jeopardizes individualism and identity. It’s a fucking dystopian kind of reality.”
That idea of self-expression, and how it should be encouraged, not stifled, was on Kiszka’s mind when he and Greta Van Fleet convened in Nashville’s RCA Studio A with Cobb to begin work on Starcatcher, the follow-up to 2021’s The Battle at Garden’s Gate. He came up with songs like “Sacred the Thread,” Starcatcher’s dazzling, five-minute-plus opus, which finds him singing metaphor-heavy lines like “I’ve caught the wind in a kite of dreams/In a flight of seams/Like freedom sewn.” The lyrics at first left Cobb, known for his work with Chris Stapleton and Rival Sons, befuddled.
“Josh is equal parts rock & roller and folkie,” Cobb says. “He came in with this song ‘Sacred the Thread’ and as he’s singing the lyrics, I asked him, ‘What the hell is this song about?’ He goes, ‘Oh, it’s about my jumpsuits.’ That wins all sorts of awards in my book, that he wrote a song about his wardrobe.”
The cape that Kiszka wears onstage, along with his myriad jumpsuits (he told Vogue in July that he’s lost count of how many he owns), underscore his confidence. He cites Elton John’s fashion, and the self-assured qualities of Queen’s Freddie Mercury and Judas Priest’s Rob Halford, as guideposts in his own journey, and he happily recalls what a 60-something Greta Van Fleet fan commented online after Kiszka came out.
“He said, ‘You know, as a gay man, when I was younger, it would have made my life a lot easier if a lot of my heroes like Freddie Mercury or Elton John had come out earlier. It would have saved me a lot of strife,’” says Kiszka.
When Greta Van Fleet were first touring the country in 2017, they played a pair of shows at the now defunct Mercy Lounge in Nashville, then another pair of shows a year later at the larger Marathon Music Works across town, exponentially building an audience in between. (It’s no surprise that they’re now headlining arenas, including their first-ever Madison Square Garden gig coming up this September.) At those early shows, the crowd was noticeably older and, from the looks of the T-shirts in the audience, included a lot of devoted Led Zeppelin fans pinning their love for Seventies rock bombast on this group of kids from Frankenmuth, Michigan.
But now, something curious is happening: The crowds at Greta Van Fleet concerts have gotten younger, and they’re showing up not just in vintage rock tees, but in sequins and makeup. Some wear their own jumpsuits, too. It doesn’t go unnoticed by Kiszka.
“It’s that whole world of permission you can give yourself to become the peacock of the natural world, and become something bigger than yourself and bigger than life. I mean, who the hell doesn’t want to play dress up some?” he says. “It’s interesting to see that evolution. Now you get these waves of generations.”
At Greta Van Fleet’s most recent Nashville concert, Cobb says he witnessed a “raw and direct communication” between artist and fan that he hadn’t experienced since he was a kid. “I’m 49, and I remember when rock & roll ruled the world. There was nothing like walking into a show and seeing Robert Plant and his guitar player hitting one chord in an arena, and you’re like, ‘That’s the coolest thing in the world.’ I feel sad that people miss out on that experience, and I think Greta is the band that’s giving that feeling again.”
The chart performance of Starcatcher so far seems to bear that out. Upon release, it topped Billboard’s Rock Albums chart and went to Number Eight on the overall Billboard 200. But Greta Van Fleet are now about more than just big rock guitars and golden-god poses. They’ve evolved into a rock band preaching a message of acceptance, and welcoming everyone into the rock-show tent.
“I heard something from this girl that made me feel really great,” Kiszka says, recalling the day he made his coming-out post. “She said, ‘I always felt very comfortable as a member of the LGBTQIA+ communities at Greta Van Fleet shows, and this makes it even more obvious that it’s a very safe place for all people to come together and celebrate.’ That’s such a beautiful thing to hear.”