Chariot, Gavin DeGraw’s J Records debut, introduces the world to a vital, magnetic young artist whose abundant talent and charisma are already well known to New York club-goers. The 11-song collection is a remarkably accomplished and compelling first effort, offering the same combination of raw emotion and eloquent songcraft that originally drew hometown fans to the 25-year-old singer/songwriter/pianist/guitarist’s live shows.
In a remarkably short time, DeGraw’s effortlessly intimate, emotionally intense live performances have made him the toast of Manhattan’s downtown music scene, building public anticipation for the release of his first studio album.
Did writing come natural to you?
Good question. I had my own stigma. My stigmatism was that I thought that really all the great songs had been written, so I never got into writing at all because I was playing classics and the Beatles, and Elton John/Billy Joel stuff, and the Doors. I was thinking to myself, these are great songs. How could I possibly write a song after these great songs? I don’t need to. My brother had told me, “If you don’t write songs, why would anybody remember you?” So I was like, “I guess I’ve gotta write songs.”
The idea of writing seemed pretty natural. I remember hearing some of the same things in so many songs that I liked, some of the same techniques. I could just hear what they were doing. I could tell it was a popular move as a writer to walk down the bass lines while you were writing a song. There are just some techniques you can hear. I can hear the bass is descending, and the chords aren’t moving too much, but the bass is descending. That’s obviously something that sounds good and leaves a lot of space for melody. And I started writing lyrics about things I hadn’t experienced, but were popular topics. They didn’t seem like necessarily good songs, but they seemed like the right places to begin. Sort of like I have an idea to what the songwriters are doing that I liked. By no means were those good songs. Like one of my mentors told me, you’re born with the art, but you develop the craft. That’s the way it goes, and I believe that.
You’re pretty adept at both piano and guitar. Do you find it easier to write with one, compared to the other?
The piano for me is more natural. I’ve been playing a long time. The guitar was an instrument I was always around. I watched people play, and I didn’t play much. Then I got into it over the last few years. I’ve gelled to it, alright. It’s interesting because their natural rhythms, due to the physical mechanics of what your body’s doing on the instrument. The instruments draw out of you different rhythms. The piano, just because of your own physicality the way your arms are sitting, the way your arms are at this 90-degree angle, and your hands are both facing down. You’re playing different notes with your left and your right hand. They’re very different. And you’re working pedals. It feels like a drum kit. It’s a very percussive instrument. There’s a lot of pumping motion. It’s very different from the guitar where you’ve got one hand extended, one to the side while the other one’s working up and down like a hammer, except they draw out these different rhythms, so you write different types of songs on the instruments. Sometimes you switch up, and make your piano for your songs with more chords in them, and guitar will be for songs that you need to just draw out. It’s really difficult to explain the guitar and piano jump. They draw very, very different experiences out of you, and very different types of rhythms come out of one from the other.
Do you find writing to be a form of therapy?
Yeah, no doubt about that. It’s either that, or run your mouth somewhere in some shopping center. (both laugh)
What was the most challenging obstacle you encountered when you started playing music?
First, it’s just getting the coordination of being able to play what you hear in your head. Then, when you feel you have a handle on that, it’s growing comfortable enough in front of people to do that all over again. Playing in front of people is a lot different from playing in your room. All of a sudden you have to get it correct the first time you play the song. The performance aspect is very different. If you play a guitar, and you’re playing in front of people, that’s one thing. If you’re playing guitar and singing, you’re playing two instruments. The coordination of combining the two is like playing three instruments. You can be a singer, and you can be a guitar player, but putting them together is another animal. That’s another thing you need to develop, another skill that’s tough.
What about now?
The great obstacle every night is making sure you’re developing a repartee with the audience, that is reflective of your song, your personality, and something that they walk away with going, “You know what? I understand that guy. I feel the same way. Or if I don’t feel the same way, I respect that guy.” A repartee is the same that I want to develop. I don’t get up and perform a strip routine on a pole and wear a thong, so I need to do something which is a little bit more personal.
You’ve been compared to many of your contemporaries, as well as past musical masters. What makes you an original?
I’m a frontman. I like to get up. I can do a gig without an instrument. I can do a gig just at the piano, or just at the guitar. I’m just really trying to pay homage to those players, really. I would never, ever want to compete with those players. Those are my influences. I guess the combination of players like that, classic rock, bands that I was into like Cream, and the Beatles, and the Kinks, and stuff like that kind of bleed into me. I like some old classic country stuff. I have some classic R&B influenced stuff not like new R&B music. I’m not crazy about all the vocal runs and riffs, and stuff like that. It sounds like someone went to a singing teacher to show them how to sing soulfully. I’m really into music that that sort of raises the hair on your arms. Not that I want necessarily, if I had a girlfriend, to have hairy arms. (both laugh)
What prompted you originally to be a musician?
That’s a common answer.
(laughs) That was a strong one. I think mostly it was my own idolization of my dad. My parents played around the house. All my dad’s fathers’ brothers were all musicians. I was introduced to country music around a campfire on a farm. All the brothers are sitting around playing music, and then I go over to my grandmother’s house on my mom’s side of the family, and they listen to more like Broadway, gospel music. My dad was born to rock and roll, but not all the rock and roll everybody talks about. I mean, popular rock and roll. He was a Beatles fan, but that wasn’t the stuff he was mostly covering in the stuff that he played around. He liked playing Chicago and Dave Mason, Traffic, Blood, Sweat & Tears that kind of music.
What do you think was the most influential era in popular music?
I would say 1968 to 1973. That would be my guess, for Rock. And there’s some good soul music in there, too.
Where do you see yourself fitting into this equation?
Man, I’m just trying to keep music alive before people start thinking they can write songs on Nintendo.
(laughing) I’ve actually heard some stuff that people have done with a Nintendo or something similar.
Well, you know what, man? They might be able to rap on Nintendo, but they’ll never be able to kill a melody on Nintendo. You know what I mean? That ain’t nothin’ on Nintendo. I love that stuff, but when you can start doing it right away like a video game, if that’s the kind of music you’re listening to, then you’re listening to really crappy music. (both laugh)
– Dave Weinthal
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