Anthony Ramos uses his songs to open up about things he’s pushed way down. But that means every performance begins with a dare to share those truths with everyone else.
“In the booth, it’s just me and the mic, and I can let it out,” he tells MTV News on a recent afternoon. “Whatever comes out of that is what the world gets. And once it’s out, I have to sing these songs that were challenging for me to even write.”
It’s the middle of a whirlwind press tour, the kind of schedule that would run anyone down, but Ramos is ready to go deep. Maybe he’s used to it: He played dual roles in Broadway smash Hamilton from 2015 to 2016, and couldn’t have planned being part of a show so popular, people waited months and paid thousands of dollars to see it. That kind of popularity comes with some level of privacy invasion, but it also comes with future opportunities, in both movies and TV, as well as a record deal of his own.
On October 25, he released The Good & The Bad, a followup to his 2018 project, The Freedom EP. The new album starts with a track called “Dear Diary,” which serves as an open letter to Ramos’s parents, while the closing song highlights his mom’s voice in that tried and true format: the voicemail clip. In between, he reflects on everything, from the mistakes he’s made, to his mental health, to why no Michelin-starred restaurant will beat a dollar-slice pizza. So it’s only fitting that right from the moment he sits down on the couch that serves as the backdrop for our conversation, he gets real, really quickly.
That skill doesn’t necessarily come naturally. “These moments are hard for me to relive sometimes. Some of this stuff is stuff I never wanted to share with people, let alone the world,” he explains. “But this is a part of the fabric of who I am.” If faced with the choice between closing off and opening up, he’ll pick the latter now. He’s learned how keeping other people out ends up wearing you down.
“You make decision after decision to say yes, to lean in and dig deeper and go even further with yourself,” he adds.
Sitting with the reality of his own feelings was such a theme for Ramos’s creative process that he wrote a song dedicated to the struggle: “Figure It Out,” which he dropped a week ahead of the album’s release. It’s a candid look at the ways in which we distract ourselves rather than explore our own feelings, as if ignoring that nagging feeling is an appropriate substitute for working through the knots of a problem.
“I have issues with that, as an adult now,” Ramos admits. “That song is a reminder for me to check in with myself every now and then. I try to find a quiet place and have a conversation with myself like, ‘are you good?’”
The song has already struck a chord with listeners, who have been reaching out on social media to say the song resonated with them. “Grown men between the ages of 25 and 40 are like, '‘Figure It Out’ is the one!'” Ramos says with a laugh. “I feel like it’s hitting the way that I hoped, because it’s so true to me. I didn’t open up. I distracted myself all the time. It’s encouraging to see other men especially are feeling that song. And hopefully it’s opening people up to be more communicative, to being more open about how they feel, to have that check-in with themselves because it’s so important.”
“How many men you know will come up to you and be like, ‘Yeah, that hurt a little bit. It’ll be OK, but I’m not going to lie, that hurt’? It’s tough, right?” he points out. He wants to interrogate the false and damaging notion that men either can’t, or shouldn’t be open about their feelings with other people, and that doing so is weak.
“What is manly?” he adds. “I wish it was vulnerable, communicative, gracious. All the things opposite from what we’re thinking about right now.” He points to one of his songs, “Woman,” as the contrast: “It’s about the power of a woman’s love, which is so open and so strong. I think about the way my mom has loved me, and the women in my life… my fiancée, her mom, my friends. These women were just relentless in their love.”
But if we all need to do better by creating space for connection, that means we need to do better by voicing our feelings and emotions. For Ramos, that communication happens through music — he first chanced into musicals in high school, and everything suddenly clicked. The New Yorker then attended the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, and things snowballed after Hamilton, from A Star Is Born to Netflix’s She’s Gotta Have It to next year’s big-screen adaptation of In the Heights, where he’ll star as Usnavi. All of that served as both a learning experience and as a writing intensive.
That theater and film background helped him craft The Good & The Bad, whose songs feature everything from a trumpet-heavy boogie (“Auntie’s Basement”) to a heart-wrenching ballad infused with lyrics in Spanish (“Woman”). He talks about intimacy in a long-term relationship on “Mind Over Matter,” because that’s what he knows — he and Hamilton cast mate Jasmine Cephas Jones got engaged last year — but he also interrogates situationships one track later: “Tell me how this ain’t a relationship,” he asks of a paramour who keeps stringing him along.
Being able to visualize the stories he was recording helped bring emotion to the project, but performing his own words feels markedly different from his acting roles. “Somebody else’s story can definitely be deep, but it ain’t my deep,” he says. “This is my deep. And they don’t get deeper than that.” He adds that whenever he performs his songs now, “I get really nervous because I’m about to share something that only I can share with people — until they get it, and then they can share it, too. But in the beginning, it’s just mine. It’s like continuing to tell people a secret.”
Ramos hopes people enjoy the album in the same way he loved John Legend’s Get Lifted, Ben Rector’s Brand New, and 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’ as a kid. “I love storytellers, and people who take me on a journey,” he says. His musical influences range from Kirk Franklin to Julia Michaels to Khalid to John Mayer to Jay Z, and he still remembers the rituals he had with his favorite albums: “I used to shut off the lights in my aunt’s house and put Here I Stand by Usher on her stereo, play it top to bottom after school,” he says.
Ultimately, though, he wants people listening to feel safe enough to open up, too. “Sometimes we listen to music to escape, and I do want people to escape. But I also would love for them to be open to their feelings when they listen to this,” he says. “If you want to cry, then cry. If something made you laugh on the record, laugh. If you want to dance, get up and dance.”
“And it all starts internally, I feel,” he adds. “When we’re open and we create an environment where people feel like they can be vulnerable around us, and there’s open communication… I feel like that sets us up to win.”