Gavin DeGraw finds balance between his roots and commercial success
By Stratton Lawrence Special to The Post and Courier – Wednesday, June 13, 2012
What: Gavin DeGraw
When: Friday, doors open at 8 p.m.
Where: Music Farm, 32 Ann St.
Price: $25 in advance, $28 the day of the show
For more info: www.musicfarm.com
It’s tempting for the casual music fan to write off Gavin DeGraw as another candy-coated hit-maker.
DeGraw’s songs are routinely covered on “American Idol,” and his big break came when the teen drama “One Tree Hill” picked up his “I Don’t Want to Be” as its theme song back in 2003.
He’s continued to roll out heavily produced Top 40 hits ever since, including “Chariot,” “Follow Through” and “Not Over You,” from his most recent album, 2011’s “Sweeter.”
Although DeGraw’s most popular songs justifiably earn him a reputation as a pop idol, he’s got a habit of following up each major release with an acoustic, live band successor, including 2009’s “Free” and 2004’s “Chariot – Stripped,” a bare-bones version of his debut that pulled off all the polish and returned to the simple sound of a piano player and his band playing songs in their original form.
“I think it’s really important to remember that you’re an artist first and keep in mind that you can do both things; that I can do ‘Chariot’ first and then do ‘Chariot – Stripped’ to balance it out,” DeGraw said, speaking from rehearsal in Tampa, Fla., before the band hit the road for their tour. “I did the self-titled album (2008) and then I had to do the reaction record (“Free”). It’s my credibility record.”
“Indian Summer,” the opening track off of “Free,” sounds miles away from the soaring pop of DeGraw’s hit songs.
The songwriter acknowledged the need to write and record commercial hits while still remaining true to his musical roots.
A Berklee College of Music dropout, DeGraw began his career as a teenager playing clubs around New York.
“I grew up 20 minutes from the original Woodstock site,” said DeGraw, a native of South Fallsburg, N.Y. “A lot of my early favorite stuff was hearing that whole hippy generation of music; the baby boomer stuff.
“There was a real music culture around me, and I had a great support system from my family. We all loved music within our home. It was almost magical, like a family tradition, like the Hank Williams Jr. song.”
DeGraw first realized his songwriting talent at 5 years old, when his sister commented on the random lyrics he would sing as he played with toys.
“I guess it was my little kindergarten version of free-styling,” laughs DeGraw. “My sister asked, ‘What’s that song?’ and I didn’t even realize I was singing. She said, ‘That’s the most beautiful song I’ve ever heard.’ I was just making it up, I guess. That’s the first memory I have of making music.”
Throughout childhood, DeGraw focused more on sports than music.
“I was a rough little kid,” he admits, but adds that he’d listen to and play music at home when he was alone. “It wasn’t really something that I did in front of my friends.”
DeGraw’s father, a prison guard, encouraged his 16-year-old son to pursue his singing talent, helping him take publicity photos and pushing him to play in the city.
“My dad was my first idol, you know what I mean? Before I got into recording music, I remember sitting with him around the house and just playing,” recalls DeGraw.
“My dad’s dad played and some of his brothers played. I think a lot of people typically get steered in the college direction, but when I decided I wanted to play music, the people around me were really supportive. My dad said, ‘Go have a great time. You know, life is short.’ It was almost as if there was no way I could be rebellious because everything was just considered OK.”
With his family’s blessing to act on his creative desires instead of following a traditional college path, DeGraw put his full effort into pushing his music career in New York.
“Coming from a small town that didn’t have a lot of opportunities, I think my thought was, ‘You’re already broke, so going for broke isn’t really that big of a deal,’ ” DeGraw said.
N.Y. to L.A.
The aspiring songwriter set up shop in the East Village, “before the people that live there now would have been brave enough to even go to the East Village.”
He and his bandmates slaved over what they anticipated would be their first release, “Chariot.”
With their album almost finished, however, DeGraw was “discovered” at a club show and signed to Clive Davis’ J Records. Before he knew it, the young singer found himself in Los Angeles amid an entirely different music world.
“I was just cutting my teeth in the New York City music scene, and then I had this pressure to make an album that would be somehow commercial viable,” DeGraw said. “We were making the album that was going to be ‘Chariot,’ but then I got the record deal and had to redo the recordings.
“About two years ago, I called up producer Mark Endert and said, ‘I just want to formally apologize to you for however difficult I must have been to work with back then.’ I was so out of my element, going from kicking around playing bar versions of songs and being as indie as possible on everything we were doing, right into making that record.”
DeGraw had to trust his label and producer to shape his songs in ways that he’d never thought of before. The results proved wildly successful for DeGraw, landing him the deal with “One Tree Hill,” a relationship that continued all the way to the show’s last episode in April, on which he performed.
Still, for a musician used to club gigs, comparisons to the polished sound of bands like Maroon 5 and Matchbox Twenty took some getting used to. When he released “Chariot – Stripped,” it was almost like a reminder to himself that he was more Ben Folds and Jeff Buckley than a Top 40 hitmaker.
“I called up the label and said that I would love to record the album in a different light,” recalls DeGraw. “I thought it was important to do my New York thing in the studio.”
For last year’s “Sweeter,” despite the giant Coldplay-esque production behind the hit single “Not Over You,” DeGraw expresses satisfaction with the album’s balance between commercial viability and honest songwriting.
“This record, I think, is exactly what I’ve been wanting to make the whole time, because it hits a lot of different elements. It has the moments that make for great rock shows and really exciting moments, and at the same time you can bring it all down with a track like ‘Spell It Out,’ which is the polar opposite of a song like ‘Sweeter,’” explains DeGraw. “I think that by changing up the style of music within the album — and it starts with your pen, right? — that you can take this really broad spectrum of subject matter and put it all together.”
Song topics on “Sweeter” range from desire to romance to reactions to tabloid culture (on the song “Candy”). DeGraw utilized four different producers on the disc, including Eric Rosse (early Tori Amos) and Ron Aniello (who recently worked with Bruce Springsteen).
“It enabled us to include a lot of different takes and styles on the material,” said DeGraw, who shared songwriting credits on four of the songs for the first time in his career.
“In a way, I really feel like this album is me hitting my stride as far as making a well-balanced record, all the way around. I don’t know if I’ll have to make a quote-unquote ‘reaction’ record this time, although I do have to say that an acoustic version of this album would be really kind of cool.”
DeGraw’s passion for music in its raw essence carries over into his live shows. The first few songs and the finales are carefully orchestrated with lights and transitions to highlight his hit singles, but in the middle of the show, he likes to vary it up and bare his classic bar-singer talent to the audience.
“The show has super highs and lows, with the peaks and valleys you need to keep people engaged,” he explains. “But there’s nothing like removing all the gloss and having it be just an upright piano and an acoustic guitar.”