There is nothing more exciting as a journalist or as a person to talk to someone who absolutely loves what they’re doing in life. When someone really loves what they’re doing there’s an amazing, infectious and beautiful energy about that person. Everything they say is filled with joy and you, the listener, get caught up in that same energy and emotion and suddenly you’re entire mood is changed, you just feel good, like all is right in the world because there is someone out there that loves what they do that much.
Gavin DeGraw is that type of person.
Having interviewed a plethora of artists, usually excitement and enthusiasm are the last two words used to describe the spirit of an interview, particularly if they artist just played a show the night before. Yet, here was Gavin DeGraw, the multi-platinum artist, who had just melted the faces of a capacity crowd at The Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, New Jersey, speaking as though he had just come back from a month long sabbatical in Hawaii. Everything he said was honest, sincere and passionate. As humble as they come, Gavin DeGraw’s love for music and performance makes you become a fan of him as a person as well as a musician. How can you not like a man who will freely admit fanboy-ing over being asked to open for Billy Joel or a guy who believes that music is the best kind of medicine? This is a guy you get behind and support because of who he is and what he believes in. Oh, and the fact he’s a fantastic singer doesn’t hurt either.
Gavin DeGraw and I got on the phone a few weeks ago to talk about working a job you love, performing with your idol and the power of music. If you’re lucky enough to catch him on his epic marathon of a 2014 tour, he’s currently performing at intimate venues around the country before he hits the road opening for Billy Joel and headlining a tour with Matt Nathanson and Andrew McMahon.
Pop-Break: How you doing after your Starland Ballroom gig, man? I saw all the Instagram photos and videos and it looked like an absolute packed house.
Gavin DeGraw: It went great! Great crowd. And you know what was exciting about the crowd? There was a good variety of age range, 13-year-olds singing [with] 30-year-old and 50-year-olds. As an artist that’s something that’s exciting — when you see that people are finding different things to latch onto in the music…or maybe they’re latching on to the same thing. Somehow that’s translating for each group. It was really, really, really fun.
PB: Well, I live about five minutes from the venue so I’m glad my hometown crowd did you proud.
GD: Oh man, you should’ve come out.
PB: It was sold out weeks in advance, there was no room at the inn for me.
GD: Well, next time for sure.
PB: Well, you are playing the Central Park in the summer which isn’t that far … and that kinda leads into my first real question for you. This tour you’re playing a number of intimate venues and then you’re going right into this tour of huge amphitheaters and arenas. I know a crowd is a crowd and a show is a show, but do you have a preference to what kind of venue you perform? Also, do you have to prepare yourself in a different way vocally to perform in a much larger venue than you would a smaller venue?
GD: Obviously, they’re going to bring all different elements to the show. There is no supplement for a mob mentality when you have a place that packed, depending on the energy level of the place. But then again, there’s always that draw of playing some place that’s incredibly intimate where you can hear a pin drop and it is nothing but you strumming on the guitar or sitting at the piano. There’s so many different types of shows you can put on depending on the venue. But, at the same time you look at an artist like Springsteen, there are so many people who can say, “I saw Springsteen play at this little, tiny club” and everyone has a story about him because he hit the pavement really hard and he continues to do it. I’m happy to play the bigger places, the smaller places, any place where I can continue to do this thing that I call music. This is a phenomenon that allows me to never have a real a job, you know what I mean? (laughs). I’ve had real jobs and this isn’t one of them. It’s a lucky thing for someone to be able to do for a living.
PB: So, what was the last real job you actually had?
GD: The last real job I held? Lemme go back here. Woof…there were a bunch…waiting tables, magazine shop at a hotel, dog walker. Trying to think about what the last one was. I think it was working at the magazine stand.
BB: Was there a time when you were at one of these jobs and thought to yourself, “I hate this job so much that I’m going to do everything in my power to make my music work?”
GD: I did that at every job, yes. You know, when you start counting down to clocking out…on your way to work. (laughs). Everybody has that feeling. Everbody who is not doing what they want to be doing with their life at this very second has that exact same feeling. You are your own priority. Your happiness is your main priority and who can blame you if you’re looking out the window and thinking it’s a nice day out and wishing it was raining so you wouldn’t feel bad about being stuck inside? I was bell hopping at the Hotel St. Mortiz in Central Park and finally quitting my job and saying “I can’t have people talking down to me anymore, I just don’t make enough money for that.” I said I’m going to go beat the pavement and find a gig and I’m never going to do anything but play music for a living again. I got hooked up playing clubs. I was playing Italian restaurants because they always paid. I get a gig as a keyboard player for a wedding band and I’d go in and meet the players that day and we’d improve for the next hours. I didn’t know any of the songs (laughs) and I’d make a couple hundred bucks. Then I got a deal writing, a publishing deal, and I wrote a song called “More Than Anyone” which ended up on my first record. Getting that deal allowed me to continue to exist without having a normal job, but just playing gigs. I was playing Bleeker Street for a while down in the city and I started doing well enough so I’d only have to work a couple days a week playing music. That opened me up to having more time to write music. I was constantly writing, writing, writing songs until that fan base really developed and I got really lucky.
It’s funny. I was 15 when I first saw Billy Joel perform in Knickerbocker Arena in Albany, N.Y. I got in a car [after the show] and said I’m going to do that for a living. Then about six or seven weeks ago Billy Joel’s people called me up and said, ‘Hey Gavin you wanna come out and do a gig?’ And I was like ‘What?’ (Laughs). We opened for him at the Garden a couple of weeks ago. For me, as a New Yorker, it was unbelievable. I knew every word to every Billy Joel song ever written. That invitation to me was the biggest honor for me, ever.
PB: So, how was that experience? Do you even remember any of that night? To me, a moment like that seems like the type that just flies by and it’s almost this surreal out of body experience, a very “this isn’t really happening to me” kind of moment. The kind of moment that goes by so fast you don’t even get to savor it.
GD: I’m just still kind of absorbing the concept of being there. For me it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me. In my life, I truly made a life decision based on music. When I was that age when I saw that show [the Billy Joel concert in Albany] my goal, my dream was to be a doctor, to be an opthamologist. I said ‘I’m going to make blind people see like Jesus did, that’s my goal.’ I thought to myself, I want to make the blind see, the impossible. But I watched the concert and saw people being so effected around me. That’s the first time I ever thought to myself that music is medicine. Prior to that I thought playing music for a living would be selfish. But, when I saw how it effect people around me, I said music is medicine and I can chose do this and it’s not selfish. It changed my life.
PB: There must been a lot of blind people out there who are pissed you didn’t cure blindness.
GD: (laughs out loud)
PB: Sorry man, I couldn’t resist.
GD: (laughs) [Like I was saying] when I saw what music could to do to somebody, that people enjoyed it as much I did, because I didn’t know if anyone could enjoy it as much as me, but they really do, they feel it. The beauty of it and the most fascinating thing with music is that you can’t even see it, it’s invisible, but it can change everything about your environment…it’s fascinating.
PB: So, I have one last question. You own a bar in New York City (The National Underground), do you ever just grab the microphone because you own the place and just jam and try out new music?
GD: (laughs). That’s funny. Let me straighten the story out, I no longer own the bar. Yes, I did own the bar. My brother and I did. I would go in everyone once in a while to play some new stuff with some players I knew. You know we built that bar to help salvage a dying music scene in New York City. It was hard to see the community of artists and musicians essentially be priced out of Manhattan. So many great players had to leave town. We were trying to have a place where that community to continue to exist, but it proved to be too difficult for us.
Gavin DeGraw will be performing dates with Billy Joel, Matt Nathanson and Andrew McMahon all over the country. Click here for tickets and dates.