Songwriter Interviews

Andy Grammer

by Greg Prato

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There used to be a time when up-and-coming musical artists had to pay their dues early on by hitting the road and touring hard. Nowadays, with an increasing number of artists scoring a big hit right off the bat, the days of the "tour first/success follows" template seems to be dwindling. But singer/songwriter Andy Grammer is a rare exception - in support of his 2011 self-titled debut, Grammer opted to build his following by "taking it to the stage." And his hard work has paid off, as his 2014 sophomore effort, Magazines or Novels, peaked at #27 in the US.

Grammer spoke with Songfacts shortly before the album's release, discussing such topics as the pros and cons of writing on your own vs. with someone, the stories behind several compositions, touring behind his first album (see his response below to the backstory of the tune "Red Eye"), and helpful advice to singer/songwriters who may just be starting out nowadays.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): Let's discuss your new album, Magazines or Novels.

Andy Grammer: Sure. The first album I wrote a lot of the songs on the street. I street performed for three-and-a-half years, and I wrote "Keep Your Head Up" on the street. I would write songs in between my sets, so that was a different process. On this one, I had been all across the country, playing across the world and coming up with ideas on planes and stuff. It was a little bit of a different situation.

I wrote over 100 songs for this album. I wrote about 50 trying really hard to write a hit. You could hear that once I got to the end of those 50. So I for the most part cached all those and wrote another 50. That got to the real meat of what I'm loving and excited about.

Songfacts: As far as those songs that did not make the cut, are there any plans to issue them or maybe record them for a third album?

Grammer: Maybe certain pieces of it. Things live on forever, if I go back to it. But a lot of it I had to let go, because the intention isn't quite right. That's the hardest part: When the intention isn't right. I think you can write out of fear, and when you're writing from a place of fear, it blows. That's what I find. It was a long, hard, 50 song lesson. [Laughing]

Songfacts: Sometimes songwriters say that their best songs are the ones that come to them quickly and easily. Would you say you agree with that?

Grammer: Sure. The only thing is, I don't know how to do that on a consistent basis. It's kind of like saying, "You should just write the hit." Sure. I'd write 100 to get the one that came out easy. So I don't know exactly how that works.

I have to write 100 to get the 101st one that just came right out. So I don't know how that works. All I know is I've got to write 100 to get it.

Songfacts: I know that from some past interviews I've read with you and also album reviews, people tend to describe your music as "blue-eyed soul." What do you think of that description?

Grammer: Blue-eyed soul, sure. I think that on the first album, you could pretty confidently say that. On this album, I don't know if that fits quite as well. But I don't mind that title. I'm cool with that.

This one is a little more all over the place sonically. I mean, just going down the tracks, the first song sounds like a pretty happenin' hoedown, and then "Back Home" is a little bit more folk-y. "Pushing" sounds like Imagine Dragons meets Kanye. "Holding Out" is kind of like a reggae vibe. "Remind You" is like Frank Ocean meets Imogen Heap. So I don't know if blue-eyed soul encompasses all of the sound on this one. I think "white guy with a guitar that isn't just doing straight ahead stuff" usually gets the blue-eyed soul vibe.

One of the first times the phrase "blue-eyed soul" was ever used to describe an artist was when David Bowie issued his 1975 classic album, Young Americans. Up until this point, Bowie was best known as a theatrical glam rocker (after first hitting the scene as a folkie). But in 1974, Bowie set up shop at Philadelphia's Sigma Sound Studios, and recorded tracks that were much more soulful and funky than say, "Changes" and "Moonage Daydream" were. Case in point, the title track (which features backing vocals from Luther Vandross), the mega-hit "Fame" (co-penned by John Lennon, who also supplies backing vocals and guitar), and such underrated tracks as "Win," "Fascination" (co-penned by Vandross), "Right," and "Somebody Up There Likes Me." The record-buying public approved of this stylistic detour, as Young Americans cracked the US top ten and nearly topped the UK chart.
Songfacts: Who would you say are some of your favorite songwriters?

Grammer: I grew up listening to The Beatles with my dad in the car. They are unbelievable. "Yesterday," that song is one of the best in my opinion. When you find something simple, that's great. Billy Joel, my God, I love Paul Simon. I came up listening to those types of songwriters. And then where I found my own love affair, just on my own, was Lauryn Hill. Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was huge for me. And then also John Mayer and Coldplay.

And now today, I love the way Macklemore is able to get all the way around a whole topic somehow. He gets fully through a topic before the song's done. And Ryan Tedder, clearly. Tedder's almost like an asshole! I don't know how you continually do that many good ones in a row. That's a little bit baffling. So yeah, Tedder probably would be the #1 right now.

Songfacts: And how would you say you write your best songs?

Grammer: I write my best songs when I need to write the lyric. When you're doing a second album, you have to figure out how to kick-start that. On your first album, you have your whole life and you have things that come into your life, and it's more of an inspiration type thing. It's like, "Oh, man, that happened in my life, I need to write that." This was more, "I need to write it, because, shit, I need one by Friday." Not necessarily, "My heart needs to say it."

And dealing with those two forces was one of the reasons why the first 50 had to get cached, because I had to really get back in touch with, What do I need to write here? What needs to come out of my heart right now? And when I got back to that, everything started going better.

Songfacts: On the new album, which lyrics are the most deep and personal?

Grammer: "Holding Out" is super personal about my relationship with sex, which is pretty personal. [Laughs] I feel like "Pushing" is fairly personal, because it's not super flattering. On this album, it was really cool to write some songs that didn't necessarily make me look good, they were just honest.

That was a whole other lyric writing that I'd never really done before. When I was a young songwriter, I'd think, "Oh, that would make me look shitty, I probably shouldn't write that." And then when you start to realize, "No, that's exactly the lyric you should write, because that's what makes it honest," that's what makes someone's ear lean in, when you really get to the good stuff and you're honest and it's a little bit raw, and there's edges.

So that kind of goes throughout the whole album, and it's why I would say I'm most proud of this work of art.

Songfacts: Let's discuss specific songs, starting with "Honey, I'm Good."

Grammer: "Honey, I'm Good" is like when you're out at a show and a smokin' hot girl comes up to you, and you can clearly tell that she wants to hang out after hours. And you have to let it go. Being proud of it, but also realizing that it's a hard thing to let go. It's a fun hoedown. I love that song.

Songfacts: Before, you mentioned "Pushing."

Grammer: "Pushing" is like a cool take on how sometimes you need somebody to fight for you when you're trying to stay together. Sometimes you need someone to hold you in. Especially for guys, when things get weird, they tend to run, and sometimes you need a girl that'll hold you through some of the tension.

That felt like a fresh take to me, because I feel like I'm not portraying the other person that I'm singing about as a psycho or clingy. It's actually a place of strength to be able to hold someone through the pain to get to the other side.

Songfacts: What about "Sinner."

Grammer: I lost my mom when I was 25, about 5 years ago. And "Sinner" is one of my favorite lyrics, especially the verse lyrics are really cool to me. Just about trying to have some sort of relationship with someone who has passed away. It's weird. Like mystic and cosmic and who the hell knows how to do it. Nobody.

Songfacts: What about "Blame It On The Stars"?

Grammer: "Blame It On The Stars" is like a sexy, let-your-hair-down song. It was really fun to write and to do live. I wrote that with somebody else, and there was a beat on it. We're like, "Man, this feels like this." And we wrote this sexy song of feeling kind of free and trying to get somebody else to loosen up a little bit.

Songfacts: What about the song "Red Eye"?

Grammer: "Red Eye" is about getting over the hump when nobody knows who you are, nobody cares, and you really just have to hit each major city in this country so many times. And the only way to really do that, to go from city to city to city every single day, is to play a show in the city that you're in, and then get on the plane and sleep, and sleep on the plane while it flies through the night to the next city. And that gets pretty intense.

So much of the first album for me was, I would be walking down the terminal at 11:30 p.m. and be, like, "Man, I'm pretty sure other people are sleeping right now. This is crazy. The only sleep I'm going to get is with my head against this window." But it's worth it. And if I had to do it again - and I will probably have to do it again - I'll do it again. But just that pain... but the pain is worth it.

Songfacts: Before you mentioned the song "Blame It On The Stars," which is a co-write [with Jon Levine and Boots Ottestad]. Would you say you prefer writing on your own or writing with someone?

Grammer: Both are super necessary, and it's very important to be aware of what you need at the moment. If you've co-written too much, you can feel like you're losing your sense of self and your point of view. Sometimes that can happen, and you need to get away from everybody and write by yourself.

But if you go for too long by yourself and you don't get something, you can get discouraged and bummed out, so then you need new energy to bring it back in. I think it's like riding your personal wave and understanding what you need at the moment. They're both very, very valuable.

And I think the more centered you are in what it is you want to sound like and what it is you want to bring, the better co-writing gets. Because I think you can really utilize someone who's written way more songs than you to help you make better music.

Songfacts: Who are some of your favorite songwriters that you've written with so far?

Grammer: I got to run around LA and meet a lot of incredible people. Some of them didn't get on the album with me, but it was such a good learning experience to write with so many different people. "Sinner," I got to write with Espionage, which is Amund [Bjørklund] and Espen [Lind]. They're known for writing. They co-wrote a lot of the Train stuff, they did "Hey, Soul Sister," "Drive By," a lot of the big ones like that. Those two guys were some of my favorites to write with.

Songfacts: Can you give an example of a song that you wrote but then you went to a co-writer and the song became even better?

Grammer: Let's see. Yeah. I had this idea for "Forever," and I kind of started a little bit and then I got with this guy, Jamie Hartman, who's an incredible writer in LA, and the two of us really nailed that song.

I love that song. To me, that's my version of "Wonderful Tonight" by Eric Clapton, where it's a whole song just about a girl getting ready. Because that's such a genuine moment in everybody's life.

Whoever's in a relationship, you know that moment when you're ready to go and the girl's in the bathroom continually putting on stuff. It's borderline cheesy, but it's so real and sweet that I love it.

Songfacts: You mentioned that prior to your first album coming out, you would do some busking. Would you would recommend that for other upcoming artists, getting out there with just a guitar and playing your songs to get some feedback from a live audience?

Grammer: Yeah. I think however you want to do it. What you're really trying to do is serve people's ears, right? And it's hard to get a good gauge of whether you're actually doing that when you're playing for your friends or people that are coming to see you, because they're going to tell you you're great and they're going to scream and clap.

When you go to an open mic or you get out on the street and you're performing and people don't have anything invested in you, if they just walk by because they don't give a shit, that's when you start to realize, "Okay. I have to be so good at this that if you don't know who I am, you still stop and give me $10." That's unbelievable.

I don't know if you've ever done that on the street, but if you're walking by someone and you go, "Whoa, this guy blew me away and I had no idea I was going to see music today, I actually want to give $10 to buy his CD," for that moment to occur, you've got to be damn good. And it took me three years to really figure that out out there. By the time my manager came and found me and things started to move, I'd been trained pretty intensely on the level of excellence that you need to actually serve someone's ears.

December 17, 2014. For more Andy, visit his official site.
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