Keys to sparking creativity for the wide-open music landscape.
Though Gavin Degraw was raised in a prison town two hours north of New York city, and had seen harsh reality from an early age, the hippie-vibe of nearby Woodstock lingered in the air, offering a feeling of limitless possibility and freedom.
In addition to working blue-collar jobs in the heart of New York state, his grandfather, father and older brother were also musicians, and music brought the family together. “Music was definitely part of our family culture. My granddad played music. My granddad’s brothers played music. They were basically like a bunch of farm kids who played music,” DeGraw says. “My dad plays guitar and he’s a great singer. He wasn’t a piano player, but he could fi gure it out and say, ‘Here, check this out.’” DeGraw says his exposure to live music at an early age helped him build a passion for learning to play. His brother already had a three-year jump on playing guitar, so DeGraw gravitated toward the piano. “My dad played me a lot of Baby Boomer rock, like the ’60s stuff . Because we grew up like 20 minutes from the original Woodstock site, we naturally were exposed to a lot of hippie rock. We were always playing music at the house or around campfi res, or in drum circle kind of environments.” As his love for music blossomed, DeGraw says his parents’ support was unwavering. When the thought of making a living playing music came up, DeGraw says his former-hippie parents offered nothing but their best wishes. “My family was unusually supportive about playing music because they just loved music. So when I told them I wanted to play rock and roll, they were like, ‘Cool, yeah, go do that. Good idea.’ It was weird how there was no way to be rebellious about it.” DeGraw’s songwriting reflects that freedom, incorporating aspects of several different popular music genres into one album, from stripped-down Americana and analog synthesizer sounds to hitech electronic dance sounds.
“We mix it up a lot. With my last record, Sweeter, we had a lot more modern stuff, but it didn’t necessarily sound like brand-new modern. It’s funny how popular music is going down this funny path, getting more and more and more primal as far as rhythm is concerned and at the same time getting more modern as far as sounds are concerned,” DeGraw says.
“My first album, Chariot, was the furthest thing from having anything that resembled dance or synth music. But when we made Sweeter and I was in the studio with Ryan Tedder or Butch Walker and they start throwing in these other types of sounds, you’re like, ‘Wow, I never would have found that sound.’” DeGraw says, “When you get in the studio with someone like Butch Walker, you know that he’s going to have his approach to bringing a song to life. When you get in the studio with Ryan Tedder, he’s going to have a completely different approach to bringing a song to life. So working with those different personalities helps you find those different sounds.” As he evolves, DeGraw says he looks at artists who have enjoyed long careers and uses them as a template. “A lot of what those artists did that stuck around beyond their one or two albums is they continued to try to do things to reinvent their sounds or reinvent themselves. It went beyond their haircuts.”
A big part of career longevity is finding inspiration to create, and DeGraw says workstation/ keyboards, often featuring thousands of sounds (like the Yamaha MOTIF XF8), have played a big part in that process.
“One of the beautiful things about having those techy, tech-head kind of keyboards is all those nutty sounds that you think you would never use. They literally lead you down the road to writing songs that you would never write. The MOTIF has tons of these little sounds. You start tweaking the filters and things like that and it starts leading you down different writing paths and it’s a way of finding inspiration, just based on sounds,” DeGraw says.
“You might say, ‘What the hell do you need 1,500 sounds in your keyboard for?’ A lot of it’s for just sifting through all the sounds until one grabs your attention. And then it stirs or sparks a concept. It’s about coming up with concepts and coming up with ideas. Even if you don’t end up making a whole record using those keyboards or even the sound that you started with, it gives you those options to start looking down that road as far as production is concerned.”
“One of the desirable things about the Yamaha brand in general, they’re very precise in their manufacturing. As a piano player and as someone who appreciates consistency, I like knowing that when I’m playing a Yamaha C7, whether it’s been there for five years or just shipped last month, it’s going to sound like a C7. That’s one of the things I find really desirable about the brand in general and why a lot of people trust Yamaha in their studios.”
As far as whether he’d rather be in the studio or on tour, as he is now in support of his newest single, “Best I Ever Had,” DeGraw says they’re completely diff erent types of satisfaction, with recording offering the excitement of discovery, and performing off ering the chance to see how your song conveys the emotion it had at inception. “Writing and recording can feel like you just found land. It’s very exciting when you stumble onto something that you think is very special, whether that be a melody idea or a lyric idea. At the same time, you’re afraid that you’re going to lose the magic of how it made you feel when you were coming up with it.”
DeGraw says a song may lose its initial feeling as it’s being produced, because an artist gets a little too tricky, over-thinks it, or chooses the wrong players. In the studio, the wrong drummer or the wrong guitar sound—what seems like one little thing—is actually very significant. “On the other hand, I love performing the songs because I want to see if what I wrote is connecting in that special way, like the way you envisioned it and playing it live allows you to see the effect of the song. We’ve been touring the U.S. and Canada this summer promoting the newest single, ‘Best I Ever Had,’ which embraces a bit of that Americana
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DeGraw says “Best I Ever Had” takes almost a stream-of-consciousness approach, combining several stories, lots of little ideas, moments and emotional bits—Ultimately, with each chorus getting back to that object of affection.
“I’m really excited about ‘Best I Ever Had,’” DeGraw says. It’s a nutty track and the crowds are really just going nuts for the song, which is amazing.”
DeGraw says the upcoming record, Make a Move, embraces the current landscape of pop music, and features a variety styles, sounds and lyrical approaches.
“We’re not putting ourselves in a little box with this record. It’s really wide open. I mean the fact is the music world right now is wide open. Any genre can be at the top of the charts, from DJs and bands to Americana, acoustic-driven songs. We’re just reflecting how open-minded the public has been, how open-minded everyone’s become about music. So we’re just doing a bit of everything.”