Gavin DeGraw

The prison guard's son

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By Gary Graff  

Gavin DeGraw is the musical equivalent of the Little Train That Could. Chariot, the debut album by the native of South Fallsburg in New York state's Catskill Mountains region, came out in 2003 but stalled after reaching No. 103 on the Billboard 200 chart.

Then fate stepped in, and the track "I Don't Want to Be" was picked up as the theme song for the WB TV drama, One Tree Hill. Thus began DeGraws slow climb to No. 1, eighteen months after the album was initially released.

DeGraw has no problem being patient, however. His father, a prison guard and part-time musician, introduced the singer and his two siblings to classic rock and country music, and DeGraw wound up playing in bands with his older brother. After graduating from high school, DeGraw tried studying at Ithaca College and at the Berklee College of music in Boston, but eventually dropped out of both. He moved to Manhattan in 1998 and started playing a circuit of clubs around the city. One of those club owners, Debbie Wilson, lured then Columbia Records executive James Diener to see DeGraw. Diener was impressed, but waited to sign DeGraw until he went to work for Clive Davis' J Records label.

Davis anointed DeGraw one of his proteges, showcasing him at his annual pre-Grammy Awards party, and setting him up in a Los Angeles studio with producer Mark Endert, whose credits included hits for Fiona Apple and Tonic, finally putting DeGraw on a path to what he truly wanted to be.

Q: How are you feeling about all the success you've had?

DeGraw: I would like to take a minute to celebrate, but that's not how I am. I'm the kind of guy who's always in fear of making sure I get to the next stage of my career, and that we continue doing decently and continue the success. My perspective is one of "OK, OK, we're doing OK right now. Let's keep moving ahead so it doesn't all fall apart."

Q: You can drive yourself crazy that way.

DeGraw: Yeah, I know (laughs). Honestly, I'd just like to get to a point where I'm not worried about "Is the career doing well?" I don't know if any artist ever experiences that. It would be nice to have that load off my shoulders instead of wondering "Do people think this is legitimate enough to continue coming out, or do they think this is just some dumb pop act?"

Q: How long do you think it will take you to reach that point?

DeGraw: Probably a couple more albums.

Q: What did you grow up listening to?

DeGraw: Mostly baby boomer music. My dad's a musician, and my mom would sit around the house and also play guitar, piano, stuff like that. They were heavily into Bob Dylan, James Taylor, people along the songwriting vein of music, Carly Simon, Carole King. My father was more into rock, harder stuff.

Q: What did he play in his band?

DeGraw: It was rock music, mostly covers. He made some records when he was a kid, but mostly he played stuff like Traffic and Blood, Sweat & Tears, the Doors, the Allman Brothers. Dad's dad was really into country music. I always heard him and his brothers playing country. I spent quite a bit of time going to my uncle's farm, hanging out, and my grandad and his brothers would sit around and play. I loved it.

Q: Did you take lessons?

DeGraw: I wanted piano lessons mostly because my brother and my sister were taking them. We didn't have any money. I just figured my sister would quit, and she did, so I took her spot.

Q: How did you decide music was it for you?

DeGraw: I hadn't decided I would pursue it until I was about fifteen. I saw Billy Joel in concert and said "Wow, you know what, that looks like a lot of fun!" I was looking around the place and the audience was getting so much out of it, and it seemed to just make everyone feel so good. I was like, "This is amazing. I'm sure he feels great. Look at the results of it.  How can anybody not want to do this?"

Q: When did you start writing your own songs?

DeGraw: In my mid-teens. My brother sort of challenged me to write. We were playing covers, playing bars, when I was a kid. We were working on some covers, and he came into the room and said "What are you doing?" I said "Working on this song," which was a cover, and he said "Why? Write your own, man. Why's anyone gonna remember you? You're not important if you're not writing." I thought that was a good challenge.

Q: So what was your first song like?

DeGraw: God, I don't know...singing about some girl who was just like a single mother, thinking to myself "I don't know anything about this. What the hell am I writing? It's a touching story, but I don't know anything about this. I have to stop."

Q: But you continued. What is your approach to writing now?

DeGraw: I try to write songs that have more to do with the elements of your life, other than just girl-boy stuff, songs that say "Let's get over this bullshit," the other-life stuff. Obviously, there's nothing more important than love, but there are other elements of your life that occupy a very significant portion of what makes a person up that has to do with your happiness, too.

Q: Do you consider yourself a songwriter first?

DeGraw: Yeah, I'm a songwriter, for sure. I'm not a rock act, not an R&B act, not a blues act, not a folk act. I like a lot of different types of music, and my niche is that semi-eclectic thing where I include a lot of different styles in my writing. I'm celebrating what I do by taking part in all of the styles that I love and kind of mixing and matching little pieces of this and that into something palatable. I haven't necessarily chosen a single style.

Q: Was it a struggle getting a record deal?

DeGraw: I wasn't that interested in a deal, to be honest with you. I had all these people offering me, like, a couple of peanuts and a can of tuna fish -- real skimpy, you know? It seemed almost insulting at the time. It was an indication of their belief in me, and I figured if that's how they felt, I wasn't ready, really. I figured I'd do my learning out in the world and see what people responded to.

Q: How did the One Tree Hill connection come about?

DeGraw: Well, the album (Chariot) had been released. I got a call from the executive producer of the show. He said he was interested in ("I Don't Want to Be"). He said he loved the album, and he wanted to use the song. I was like, "Yeah. OK. Why not?" You figure "What the hell" and hope it's the right move. And obviously it was.

Q: It took a long time for Chariot to take off. Are you a pretty patient person?

DeGraw: Yeah. I like my work. I want to continue this line of work, and I want this to be my life. So my concern is mostly "Is this making it?", so I can continue to make it my work.

Gary Graff writes extensively about music. His work has appeared widely in such publications as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Detroit Free Press, and Billboard.