GAVIN DEGRAW IS CLIMBING THE CHARTS with thoughtful lyrics, solid piano work, and lots of elbow grease. For a guy whose rising star is coming up strong, Gavin DeGraw has none of the affectations of stardom. He’s quick-witted and ready with well-considered thoughts to counter any question, on nearly any topic. He’s quirky, preferring to cut his own hair — with pocketknife scissors — than to recline in a salon. He’s as low-tech as one can be and still function in the modern world, having a cell phone, but no computer. Seeming rather home-grown, he doesn’t fit the first-impression stereotype of a well-supported artist on a major label. And the most important thing in the world to him? Songs. His songs, and any other songs that he considers to be great.
We first caught Gavin playing around New York City a couple of years ago, before he began recording his debut CD, Chariot (J Records). His band was airtight. His piano playing was rock solid and impressive, but not flashy. His piano parts supported his melodies perfectly, forming an organic whole. And his voice was simply stunning.
At the time, he’d just been signed to J Records, but was in the formative stages of planning Chariot. “I’m still adjusting to the fact that things are possible for me to do now,” he told us then, in an interview that appeared in our July ’03 issue. “I’m so used to being this homemade piano player, singer, songwriter guy that I’m not used to the options that are available to me now. Everything still seems like a perk to me. I guess when things stop seeming like a perk, that’s when you really start to suck. Hopefully they won’t judge me on what I’m wearing, or on whether my teeth are white enough. Hopefully they’ll judge me for my songs.”
Gavin’s wish seems to have come true. Nearly two years later, he’s on the road incessantly, promoting Chariot. Last summer, he released an unplugged version of Chariot, entitled Chariot Stripped. His path hasn’t followed the quintessential rocket trajectory, but then, rockets are made to go up but not necessarily to come down, and the landing leaves them the worse for wear. Gavin’s slow and steady approach is much more sane. The more we talked to him when we caught up with him on a pass through Los Angeles recently, the more grounded he seemed.
With the experience of recording two CDs and hundreds of live shows under his belt, we were curious about how the songs on Chariot evolved from the days of those early New York club sets, and whether he could offer advice to other singer/songwriters. “After all the preproduction,” he says, “and after you work things out with the band you’re going to be laying the record down with, you need to try to maintain the energy you had when you were first learning the songs. And that’s a trick. Because all of a sudden, once you start recording, you start to get overly conscious of the tempos, and of all the parts. You begin to over-analyze everything. You need to think a lot more basically than your mind wants to. It’s very difficult. I had to work through my own obsessive-compulsiveness.
“It was a strain, but I think we accomplished it. We did so many takes, we worked until it just felt natural, and we weren’t thinking about the song. We played until we forgot we were being recorded. Then we started to get our most natural performances.
“I knew we were going to be touring with this record for a long time, and when I’d look out in the audience, I’d see a lot of people who were traveling with us, not on the bus, but they were following us to a lot of shows. So I wanted to give those people something new, but you can’t go out and make a new album entirely, what with the contracts and all. But I wanted to keep these fans interested by giving them something fresh, but without necessarily making a totally new album while in the middle of supporting the first one.
“That’s how the idea for Stripped came up. I wanted to lay down the songs I’d already recorded, but in a different fashion, to bring a different light to those songs. I wanted to capture the feeling of having just written a song with no one else around, no other players, no production. Some of the songs on Stripped are performed really as I wrote them: A guy in his apartment writing a song. ‘Chariot’ in particular is very different, it’s way laid back. When I wrote it initially, it was very slow, moody, and dark. That’s what we went for.
“Then there are other things I did intentionally to be different from the way I perform the songs live. I leaned away from the performance element of the music as you’d do in a live show — sometimes you do things that are more entertaining, but they aren’t necessarily more musical. I wanted to do something much different than that in the studio. I want to create this late ’60s feeling of getting all the musicians in one room, using all acoustic instruments, with no overdubs, none of that modern stuff that we do.”
And indeed he did. Some of the recordings on Chariot Stripped sound so different from their originally recorded versions that they seem to convey different emotions entirely. Gavin’s piano accompaniments seem to indicate a new response on his part to the music as well.
Part of this is due to personnel changes in the band. “I switched players for my own artistic interest,” he says. “I thought, ‘Okay, let’s go with this type of bass player, and this type of guitar player, and see how it works.’ Are they a busy player, or a minimalist? What works where? All players are different, and it’s interesting to see how each of them interprets the songs. It’s fun for me to grab a new player now and again, to see what they do to the song — or what they don’t do.
“I give them free reign. If they bring their own interpretation, then you can interpret it differently too, to adapt to their style. It keeps it fresh for me. And it definitely affects the way I play. If you have a minimalist rhythm section, you can be busier on the piano. If they’re busy, then you keep it simple. There’s give and take. If you have a player who’s different every night, that’s part of the fun, too. You don’t know what they’re going to do on each section of the song, so you’re switching it up as you play through the night. It keeps it alive, especially for those fans who show up every night.”
GIVING IT UP
Over the course of the creation of Chariot, Gavin’s connection with his audience has deepened. Whereas in the beginning he hid behind his songs, he now realizes that by opening up on stage, he’s able to connect more with people through the songs. And that connection has increased his conviction that music with depth and feeling has an important place in the world. “I think a lot of people who come to my shows,” he says, “are looking for something beyond what’s obvious. I’m lucky that those people are still out there, looking for music that’s not just skin-deep, something more than, ‘I wanna eff you, you wanna eff me, there’s the bed.’
“We’ve become so neo-tribal, musically. The more sophisticated and technology-driven we become, the more tribal we become. I understand that. In some ways, ‘Chariot’ represents our development as a society, as far as our technology goes and how we view our advancement. It talks about wanting to withdraw from that to get back to basics.
“From being around live audiences in a lot of cities, I’ve more developed a desire to see them react, more than I used to. When I first started playing in New York City, I was really sort of timid. I didn’t care if people were going to have fun or not. I had this attitude of, ‘Well, if you like this, then you like good music, and if you don’t, then you’re an idiot.’ I didn’t care about having a good time playing.
“As I’ve played for a wider variety of audiences, I’ve become more concerned with showing them a good time. I hope that when they leave, they feel like they got something different, and that it was worth it to come out on their time off, when they have to work the whole rest of the week. Now that I’m on the road all the time, time off is more valuable to me. So I figure I’d better make it worth their time.
“What I do differently is that I don’t just get up there and withdraw into the songs. As a performer, I should be reaching deeply into my soul, but then I should deliver it, too. You have to reach in before you pour it out. When you’re up there, you do have to make sure you don’t overdo it, you have to choose your moments. But you have to make sure at some point you pull the trigger, so people feel like they’re getting exactly what they were expecting, and more.”
Interestingly, that doesn’t translate into keyboard pyrotechnics. “I never got into that.” He says. “I think from watching Elton John and Billy Joel, I feel like they’ve already done that, as far as singer/songwriters go. I don’t know what I’d do that would be so different, and if I did it, it would kind of sound like I was ripping them off. There’s only so many soloistic approaches that would suit the songs. Even though all my songs are piano driven, for extra juice, I’ll turn it over to the guitar player. Because I can’t bend notes!” [Laughs.]
STATE OF THE HEART
Gavin’s opinions about what constitutes good music are no secret. “If more people were playing music,” he says, “we’d be getting better stuff. I understand that not everyone is going to pursue music professionally. But if the public was playing music, they’d understand what’s good. And then they could help us, the musicians, to filter out what’s good from what is merely being sold. I feel like society has been getting dumbed down based on visual marketing. This lie that we call ‘prodigy’ is really damaging. Everyone has to be or has to have been a prodigy now; they have to be ten years old, and a great lyricist. It’s like child labor. I feel sorry for the kids. It’s kind of like a novelty, but the kid’s being worked to death. But the music is suffering. I’m in my mid-20s, a grown man. Maybe I’m not teeny-bopper enough for some, but people should at least be selective of the musicality. If society was more music-conscious, if we were educating people more, if they all had the opportunity to play an instrument — then they could help us weed out the bubble gum. It’s a shame that the rest of us have to fall victim to what little kids want to listen to. Why does the entire society have to be subjected to the music that the little kids want to buy? At drive time?
“I never set out to appeal to young people. I’m not trying to appeal to any particular group of people. I’m not trying to draw any particular line on my demographics. I didn’t run out and get a bunch of tattoos or piercings because I wanted to appeal to punk rock kids. And I didn’t avoid doing it because I wanted to appeal only to people who wouldn’t ever do that.
“All I want to do is develop my craft, and stay focused on my real job, which is to challenge myself and to speak my mind, and to hopefully represent what other people think. There’s a more intelligent audience for the radio, the working audience. Let’s honor them and give them more intelligent sounds, with more intelligent lyrics that represent their lives. I understand that it’s entertaining to watch music on TV; we’re in the entertainment industry. But the music should still be really good. And that should be the main goal.
“For me, it is. There are a bunch of us who feel the same way. Some of us aren’t still out doing it. Some have withdrawn because they see it as a fight they can’t win. Television could help, if the people in TV were interested, and if they could be shown that it’s good for business.
“Basically, there are a lot of music lovers out there who have been ignored for a long time. But we’re making headway.”