Gavin DeGraw Talks New Album 'Make a Move,' Co-Writing and Nashville Hospitality (Q&A)
"The Best I Ever Had" singer expands on who pulls him out of his "hermit" songwriting, what he loves best about country musicians and why he can't revert to playing small-venue shows.
Gavin DeGraw's latest single, "Best I Ever Had," may be a toe-tapping track about the one that got away, but the song's title phrase could also describe his entire Make a Move experience. For his fourth studio album, released earlier this month, the musician mostly known for his piano-based pop sound and love-drenched ballads partnered with co-writers and producers for all 11 tracks (including Ryan Tedder, Butch Walker, Busbee, Martin Johnson, Benny Blanco and Kevin Rudolf) -- a creative decision unheard of for the habitual "hermit" songwriter.
"When you're writing alone and you hit a wall, you might go, 'Forget it, let me work on another song,' " DeGraw tells The Hollywood Reporter of the long breaks between previous album releases. "That might happen so many times that you never get around to finishing everything. That's the big ditch that's hard to get out of when you're writing alone."
DeGraw spoke with THR about quickly co-writing an entire album for the first time, being a noncountry singer living in Nashville and joining the community that's finally forming in pop music.
What about this album excites you most?
This album is so diverse. My first albums were all written alone -- I was kind of feeling like a lone ranger or a hermit a little bit, as a songwriter -- but Sweeter was the first time I attempted co-writing. I had four co-writes on that record. Writing with Ryan Tedder and Andrew Frampton helped me get out of my little box. Fortunately, with the success of Sweeter -- particularly "Not Over You" [with Tedder] -- I saw how co-writing can help make the music more interesting, perhaps even better than I could do by myself. Certainly much more efficient, since it would take so long for me to feel I had an album prepared. So I didn't want to lose that momentum.
In my mind, the worst thing someone could say is, 'Oh, if you've heard one Gavin DeGraw album, you've heard them all.' So with this, I want people to go, 'You have to hear it because it's so different.' From song to song to song, it's different; it's a journey. And as a live performer, I like having a mix of songs because I can change my show up. It's a party crowd, I got a party set; it's a charity event, I have another set; it's strictly my fan base, I have a whole different set. It can be lush and musically pretty or just party-oriented. I want to have a catalog of music that allows me to tailor the set, per audience per night.
What did you discover about the co-writing process?
I think the main issue is your own level of self-consciousness, as in not being afraid to get the ideas out. When you're writing with someone, sometimes you feel they're spilling the beans on their personal life -- suddenly, it's like, 'Another comment about the ex-girlfriend, eh? I know what's going on here!' All these funny little details you pay attention to. 'Another comment about someone's bad cooking at the house!'
At the same time, you have to put the bad ideas out there in order to find the good ones. Not every line you write is going to be a good line. In fact you're going to write a lot of bad ones, and the other writer knows that. You both throw out a few horrible lines for every good one. Sometimes they're so bad that you both start laughing. But that's what makes the co-writing process so enjoyable -- there's some comic relief.
Is this album all fresh material, or are there old ideas refreshed with a co-writer?
Sometimes, I'll be in a record and use ideas I've had over the past few years, but this record is all literally fresh ingredients. It was like I just stopped by Whole Foods on the way home from work. Because when you hit a wall, the other person shows you another angle. Whereas when you're writing alone and you hit a wall, you might go, 'Forget it, let me work on another song.' That might happen so many times that you never get around to finishing everything. That's the big ditch that's hard to get out of when you're writing alone.
Ryan Tedder has been the producer behind Top 40 hits by Beyonce, Jennifer Lopez and Adele. What's it like to reunite with him?
He's fantastic. On top of being a great guy, he's incredibly gifted and prolific and understands the craft of songwriting, almost so much so that it's very easy with him. He's good at the problem-solving element. I'll suggest a melody of six notes, and he'll say, 'That's great, but can we get away with four notes?' He just is really good at making it so palatable. Yet at the same time, his production approach makes something that may be otherwise simple sound more interesting, with great little countermelodies. Maybe it's a simple story, but there are things happening in there production-wise that make you not get bored of it.
How has living in Nashville affected your music?
What's happening in the music world right now is quite interesting in that the musicians themselves, we're not really so concerned about the genre; we just like it if it's good. A lot of people have a stereotype about Nashville, that you've gotta sing country songs, but a lot of people come out of here that aren't country. I mean, Taylor Swift isn't really making country anymore but she's here; Ed Sheeran and Kelly Clarkson live here. Kevin Rudolf, he came out of Lil Wayne's camp. We worked together on this record, and he just co-wrote Keith Urban's big hit that's out right now. A lot of great artists from so many different genres have moved to Nashville because honestly, it's a really musical town. There are a lot of greatly talented people, an amazing writing community, studios, and as far as being a traveler, it's a great location. But yes, because I'm in Nashville, I can hear all the honky-tonks from my apartment, so sometimes I'll be sitting around, trying to replicate the songs, doing my own versions. Because that's some of the greatest writing ever, those old country songs.
I've experienced so many cool artists out here. Taylor's cool as can be, man. I kick it with Ed and Rascal Flatts, they're great guys. Kenny Chesney. The country music scene is a great example of having a community. Actually, you see it with hip-hop as well. I'm seeing it more now with pop than I've ever seen it before, which is great -- you've got artists like OneRepublic, Sara Bareilles, Maroon 5, Train, The Script, Colbie Caillat. I think all of us get along very well that perhaps, when we were all starting out, we were all just scared to death about our careers. But I think we all have been around now, making albums and actually enjoying watching each other play. It's developed much more into a community than a nervous kid hoping to be able to put another album out. And we're actually fans of each other. It's a beautiful moment.
You came up playing intimate music shows around New York City, and now that you've opened a Nashville location of your bar, The National Underground, in Nashville, do you test out material in your own bar?
No, no, no, no, no, I don't. You know, what's interesting is I get fearful in playing the new stuff out. It's just not prepared; it's too early on before the album's out. It can circulate so quickly, and you don't want to spoil the surprise too much. At the same time, as much as I like playing small gigs, I became so addicted to playing them that I just wouldn't stop. I would just walk into anywhere and play a show. I had to force myself to stop doing it because I was getting no rest. I would see a spot and say, 'Cool, let me go in there and play! Somebody have a guitar?' We've been doing small shows for the promo run though -- I just got back from Amsterdam and London. I kind of ran myself ragged, and I've been pretty much chewing on a Z-Pak, trying to resuscitate myself because I've been feeling like the cast of The Walking Dead. And the more we play the songs, the more secure I get in the material, the more I'll be doing the little shows.
It's funny though, even though I've released nearly a handful of records, I'm freaking out. Anytime a musician puts an album out, they can be going up a ramp or falling off a cliff, so I always have it in mind -- which direction is this gonna go? How will it be received? How will I be perceived? You're just hoping that people are gonna see what you're doing as growth.
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