Reflecting on his own career that has been packed with highs and lows, Grubbs wanted to start at the beginning again. On Homeless Poets, he pushes out all thoughts about A&R and radio. Driven by piano, stunning string arrangements and inspirational lyrical themes, there's a rawness and clarity to the EP that's reminiscent of his earlier works.
In this conversation, Grubbs explains his wish to start fresh, why he enjoys writing motivating anthems, and how having a recurring role on One Tree Hill completely changed his approach to songwriting.
Wakey Wakey (Michael Grubbs): It depends. I've been writing for a long time now so I've written in all kinds of different ways. The best outcome is the song flash, which is when you get a bright spark and suddenly you just sit down and write it all out. It's the same as pizza: If it gets there in 30 minutes or less, it's probably the freshest.
There are also songs that I have that are more crafted that take months to write, and those oftentimes can be great as well. It just really depends.
Songfacts: Let's talk about the new EP, Homeless Poets. You reunited for it with producer, Chris Cubeta, and you seem to return to themes and sounds that are present in your earlier material like the War Sweater EP and your first full-length album, Almost Everything I Wish I'd Said the Last Time I Saw You. Was this a conscious decision and how did working with Chris again influence the project?
Michael: I've had such a wild career. There have been some awesome things. I worked for so long to build who I was and then suddenly got scooped up into more of the public eye. It was all kinds of new pressures and different things as far as writing. I had all these different managers and people talking to me saying, "Now you have to write a hit song because there's enough eyes on us right now that if you write a good hit song, we'll then be able to have the freedom to do whatever we want for the rest of our careers."
So I went into the process of trying to learn how to write that way. Over the course of those four years for the Salvation album [released in 2014], I probably wrote 80 songs that were considered for the album, and that's in addition to doing co-writes for a million other artists and a million other projects.
It was cool and fun, but I think in a certain way, I lost myself in the process. So in the act of working with Chris, when we made that first album, we made it in a cave. No one came. No one cared what we were doing because no one knew who we were then. There was no input from anyone else. There were no A&R people or anything like that. It was basically me, Chris, and my manager at the time, Wes, who was more my buddy than anything else. He didn't have any say into the creative process. The album came out so pure. It was almost like that 30-minute song.
So my goal with this album was to get back to the way that I started writing: Take all the lessons that I've learned from doing all those co-writes and all of those different experiences, but lock myself into a cave and do that again, which we did and I think it worked. It feels good to me. It feels honest and pure.
Songfacts: You named the EP after the first song, "Homeless Poets," and said the tune is about being frustrated with the music business. Can you expand on that thought and explain why you chose that as the title of the EP?
It's hard to survive. We're in a society where music has been monetarily devalued to a place where people don't expect to pay for it anymore. I totally get why and I'm not trying to fight the way that the world is now [laughs]. I understand that's the new climate that I have to live in, but it's hard and it doesn't breed good music. If you're not a Clear Channel artist, you'll never be heard by the majority of society. It doesn't breed good music and that doesn't give people an opportunity to find good music. Not to say that the songs that are hits now aren't great. I love me some Katy Perry. I'm super into that stuff, but it's tough as artists.
So the idea of "Homeless Poets" is that I see this culture where police forces are becoming militarized everywhere. The richer are getting richer and the poorer are getting poorer and where do the artists live in all of it? Where do we exist? I guess that's probably where the "Homeless Poets" idea came from.
Songfacts: "Adam & Eve" is reminiscent of songs such as "Brooklyn," "Car Crash," and "Anhedonia" with the piano and string arrangements. What was the writing process for that one?
Michael: "Adam & Eve" is actually something that I've been kicking around for a little while. I remember the first thing that came to me with that song was the first line, "I'll be Adam if you'll be Eve."
The initial way that I thought of it was:
I'll be Adam if you'll be Eve
You can get me into trouble
Because if you follow the biblical version of the story, Eve got Adam kicked out of the Garden of Eden. So I was like, Hey, let's start this over. Let's get in trouble. Let's do this whole thing together. But mainly let's start over. Let's start fresh.
I had the music for it, which was simple - the idea for the chorus was really simple. As I flushed out the piano part more and more, it just grew. Once we started the recording process, it started becoming an epic fast, especially by the time we got to the Highbridge Voices. They are an amazing children's choir from the Bronx that came in and sang at the high point of the song. Every time I hear it, I feel like I got punched in the stomach [laughs]. It's so cool to have been a part of this thing that gets so big and so dramatic. I'm kind of a dramatic person and I think it probably sounds like me on a plate.
Songfacts: And was there a particular experience that inspired that idea for it?
The only way to solve that is to go back to the beginning because it's hard to identify that point where it all fractured. I felt some pressure for myself at the end of the last album. It was almost saying to my fans, Hey, let's start this again. This is me here so let's start it all over. So that's probably where it came from.
With respect to the last album, I want to be clear that I'm proud of Salvation. I love that album. It was just a completely different process in the way that I had traditionally made music.
Songfacts: You come from a religious family and sometimes religious imagery appears in your lyrics such as "Adam & Eve." How has your spirituality influenced your songwriting?
Michael: I was raised in an extremely religious family. We were at church 24/7 and church was an integral part of our lives. So religious imagery comes into the songs because that's something that's so ingrained in who I am. Those stories were taught to me as a child so intensely that it's almost a way that I just communicate in day-to-day life.
It's funny because I'm not a very religious person. My own spirituality is private, but my family is religious. My sister is an ordained minister. I'm super proud of her. But for me that stuff is just a core base language, so whenever I write it's going to come into what I do because it's such a part of my being.
Songfacts: "Golden" is an old song that you recorded because the fans love it. The lyrics are comforting and uplifting. What's the story happening in that one?
Michael: That was one of the first songs I wrote after Almost Everything. After that process was done and I came back and first said, "Hey, I want to start writing." I reached out to my publisher and was like, "Hey, I want to start doing co-writes." One of the first ones I did was with this guy, Jens Gad, and this woman, Christy Thompson. I went in with them and it was one of those things where we started the co-write, but sometimes co-writes don't flow, especially when you're first learning how to do it.
It's hard to find your rhythm. The weird thing about co-writing is you to have to access this part of your brain that's extremely personal and extremely private, but you have to access it in a room with other people. Usually when people write alone, they go into a cave and do it.
So I remember going into the session and it wasn't really flowing. I had this idea in my head. I had written a chorus for "Golden." The experience that I had with "Almost Everything," the experience I had with that song, there's a lot of uplifting stuff in those lyrics. "It feels bad now but it's gonna get better," kind of stuff. The way I'd seen the audiences react to that - kids running up to me with that stuff tattooed on them. The whole audience screams along every single time. I realized I touched a nerve, so I wanted to continue with themes that are uplifting because I think it's awesome to see what happens when you do that in a room full of people.
I had this idea for "Golden." I originally pictured the chorus being a hook for a hip-hop song. I wanted to give it to Eminem [laughs] or someone like him. Just the chorus, "It's going to be all right. You're going to be golden."
It's funny because all the A&R people always shot that song down because they were like, "Oh, golden is an antiquated word," which is so ridiculous to me. It's a word. It's a word that people might use. It may be cool to say it one day and not be cool another. I really don't care. I didn't write it because I thought the word was cool. I wrote it because it was something that I felt. It's funny now because it seems a lot of A&R people react to it strongly. I'm like, Oh, probably because it was something that I meant when I wrote it, and so it's nice to finally get it out.
Songfacts: Yeah, A&R sometimes don't agree with the popular opinion.
Michael: Yeah, it's pretty amazing. It's tough, though. I can't imagine how hard that job must be. Music is written in so many different ways. There are songs that are these pure moments. When you think about "Smells like Teen Spirit." The early Nirvana stuff was just this amazing art piece that just explodes out and it's beautiful. It's wonderful. But then you look at even within the same band, Dave Grohl. The stuff that he writes to me feels like it's a well-made product - it doesn't feel like something that's necessarily inspiration born. It's not music written from passion, it's music written from intellect. Not to say that his music isn't passionate, wonderful, and great. I'm sure a million Foo Fighters fans just stopped reading this interview and threw their computers against the wall [laughs]. I think he's great. I'm not dogging him. He's rad.
But there are so many different ways to make music and so many different ways to picture music. How is someone supposed to step into my brain and understand all the intricacies of what I'm doing? No one could ever A&R my album as well as I can. No one could ever help pick the tracks. It's like if I'm writing a love letter to my wife and someone comes in and they are like, Oh, yeah, you should really not use the word "golden." It's like, Fuck you, man. I know what language I use when I talk to my wife [laughs]. Don't tell me I wouldn't say that because I just said it. So it's kind of funny.
Songfacts: Why do you think people still connect with "War Sweater" so much?
Michael: It's one of those things where it's an ambiguous song. It doesn't compare whatsoever to the bible, but one of the things about the bible that I think makes it so interesting is that it's easy to take it and use it for whatever you want. You can take a verse and interpret it a million different ways. You can take one verse and it can be anti-something and pro-something at the same time depending on who is holding it in their hands.
With the song "War Sweater," it's like, "Well, what is a war sweater?" I don't know. Let me tell you, it was annoying when we released it because everyone was like, "What's a war sweater?" and I was like, "None of your business! What is it to you?" [Laughs] People can take it and make it whatever it needs to be at the time, which is cool.
I also think the piano melody is one of the better, smaller melodies that I've come up with – that haunting piano line at the beginning, I really like it.
The two had become friends and when Grubbs finished Wakey Wakey's debut album, Almost Everything I Wish I'd Said the Last Time I Saw You, he played it for Schwahn just to get his opinion. Schwahn loved it so much that he offered to help Grubbs promote it by writing a role for him into Season 7 of the show as bartender/musician, Grubbs. Kinda like the Vonda Sheppard role in Ally McBeal.
Michael: Wow, that's a really good question. No one has ever asked me that, and especially that way. Hmm. [Pause]
When we think about the One Tree Hill period, the one thing to keep in mind is that's huge, right? For me as a person, that experience was so all-encompassing and so big. It was literally one of those things where it was this moment in my life: there's before it and there's after it, and it's always going to be there as a place marker in my existence as a human being. It exposed me to so many new fans. It let me quit my day job. It completely changed life for me.
I think that probably getting to quit my day job was good for me emotionally. I don't know if it was great for me as a writer and musician [laughs]. I think sometimes it's good to have to go to work and be at a job that you don't like, because once you get caught up in the machine where it's all you, you, you – it's hard.
When suddenly you are actually making a living as a musician, you become a whole company. Everyone looks at you. You are the thing that's being marketed. You are the thing that's being talked about. People are constantly asking questions about you. It's hard to keep your head balanced there.
So as far as what I learned from it probably was just not to take it all too seriously. Just keep writing and be me. The less I try to be what other people want me to be and the more I be just who I am, the better off it's going to go. The more I'm confident in who I am, the better things are going to go.
Songfacts: Did you feel at the time they were trying to mold you into something that you weren't?
Michael: I don't think that they were, but I think maybe I was. It's a weird thing because sometimes someone doesn't have to ask you to try and be something. The situation that you're in just makes you want to make everyone else happy, so you try.
Everyone on that show, Mark [Schwahn], the creator of it that cast me on it, and the writers I worked with, and Joe Davola, and the people that were involved with it, they were all sweet, kind, and respectful of me. They treated me as an artist and let me do my thing. It was totally cool.
I think for me being in that situation, I wanted to make everyone happy. They didn't even have to ask me. I was like, "Okay, I'll write a pop song now because I want to honor this opportunity. I want to honor this situation by knocking it out of the park."
Songfacts: So instead of it inspiring your songwriting, it changed it in a way.
Michael: I think so. Another thing, before I did One Tree Hill, I was this dirty little Brooklyn artist. I lived in a shitty little basement apartment with tile floors and one little window that was maybe one-foot by one-foot. I lived and breathed Brooklyn bands. I was so entrenched in the world here that everything was Dirty Projectors and Grizzly Bear - it was the only music I listened to and it was the only thing that I knew. I was in this world and I think that comes through in Almost Everything that those were the things that influenced me at the time.
Once I was on One Tree Hill, the next thing I knew, I was touring opening for James Blunt. I was being exposed to all these different types of music - people that I love as artists that are just different from what I was doing when I first started. I think that influence was interesting.
With respect to the ones that did, I'm not one of those artists that came with a trust fund. There's some great music that comes from people that have unlimited financing. Good for them. That's awesome. But for me, I had to work really hard. I was a bartender for 10 years. Every night, I was either tending bar until four in the morning or I was out somewhere playing music in a bar meeting people and trying to figure out a way to make things happen.
So for me it was coming from a situation where life is real, like having bills I need to pay. I remember when I was on One Tree Hill, they cut off the power in my apartment for a week because I hadn't paid my bill. Once I did an AT&T commercial - it was one of the first things I got to do. While I was on set holding the fake AT&T prop phone in my hand talking, my phone buzzed in my pocket and it was AT&T calling to tell me that they were going to cut off my phone because I didn't pay my bill [laughs].
I came from that background of working my ass off and suddenly saw what it's like when you're on a tour bus. When James Blunt goes on tour, his life is a lot better than mine is because he has three tour buses. He's able to get anyone that wants to come out with him on the road. If I want to have that kind of situation, I have to write hit songs. I have to get a hit on the radio if I want to have a bus. It's the way that it works. When I go out on tour, I leave my wife and dog at home. It's sad. It's a bummer. I want to take them out with me.
When you're exposed to those things, it's human to want them. It's human to want to be able to achieve those things, and to want to be able to write a hit song. What would happen if I did? It would be so rad. And then everyone is like, "Well, this is how you make a hit song." And you're like, "Well, I don't know. I don't know how to make a hit song because I've never done it."
Everyone has an opinion, and usually the more chefs there are in the kitchen, the worse the dish tastes.
Songfacts: Do you think that idea of making a "hit song" influenced your second album, Salvation, because it does feature a lot of EDM elements on tunes?
Michael: Definitely. There was a lot of pressure at that point where people were like, "Okay, we need five hit songs."
But I love singles. The way that I was interacting with music at that point, I was listening to a lot of pop music and I wanted to write pop singles. So the EDM stuff, it's in there because I like it. I thought it was important for me to make what I thought was cool and that's what I was listening to at that time.
I wanted to live that experience. When you tour as a piano playing songwriter, there's a lot of sadness. When you play sad songs every single night, you relive that sad thing. I just wanted for once in my life to get to run around the stage with a microphone. It was fun. Now I'm back at the point where I just want to sit there with a string quartet and cry, but before that I wanted to rock.
Songfacts: "All It Takes is a Little Love" combines those EDM components well with a choir and string arrangement. How did that song come to be?
So for that tune, I went in with him. He writes the same way I do a lot of times where he loves uplifting, happy, bright, sunshiny music. We were both in the same vibe, and we wrote that song probably in 30 minutes. We started by making the beat for it, which we really liked. We wanted to make something that you could just stomp and clap, so we did that and recorded it.
I had the line, "If love's going to make me waste my youth, I'm going to waste it all on you." It was a strong opening line, so I had that going into it. I sat down at the piano and we were like, "How can we make it soulful?" I started playing soul chords and started singing the first verse, and it was done. He wrote it down. I was like, "Second verse, let's see." We had the beat playing in the room. I literally turned around and just spoke the words of the second verse, and he was like, "Yes!" and wrote them down. He was like, "Don't change it. It's wonderful!" It was almost comical the way we were like, "Yes! Yes! It's good! Yes, it's done!"
I wanted the chorus to be simple. He was like, "Well, what are you trying to say?" And I was like, "All it takes is a little love," and he was like, "That's it. That's the whole chorus! We'll just say that and have a choir be like, 'Oh, oh, oh.'"
I tried to make it more complicated and he was like, "No! No! No! Just keep it simple, stupid." I was like, "Okay," and then I tried to make it complicated again, and he was like, "No! Just keep it simple" [laughs]. The next thing we knew, he had his wife with their newborn child. She has this amazing voice. We needed to get this choir stuff down for the demo, so it was me, him, and his wife while she was holding this beautiful baby with the biggest, bluest eyes you've ever seen. I was standing there and his wife was to my left so the baby's head was bouncing on my arm while we did the big, "whoa, whoa, whoa," part for the chorus. We sang it 10 times, stacked it on top of each other, and it sounded like a big soul choir. We were like, "Alright, that's great." We booked the studio for probably a six-hour session and we were done within an hour. We left and were like, "That was easy. Let's do it again soon."
Songfacts: You also have a background in theatre and "Take it like a Man" from Almost Everything I Wish I'd Said the Last Time I Saw You is quite a dramatic song.
Michael: Yeah, totally.
Songfacts: What inspired that one?
Michael: There were a number of things that came together to make that song happen the way that it did. One was Mars Volta. Around the time I was writing the song, The Mars Volta came out with this album that had all of these cool beats on it that were not traditional. I was like, "I want to use this kind of stuff," so I think that's where the groove for the verse came from.
Any time I played, there was a room full of people and none of them knew who I was at that point. I would play on the Lower East Side. I would play anywhere. It was even pre-Brooklyn for me. I was just playing anywhere I could and I would get up and play the music and people would just talk the whole time and that was it. My sound is built upon the quiet loud: one quiet moment that builds to a big moment. If the quiet wasn't there, the big moment couldn't be there, so the whole song didn't work when I played it because people just talked so it didn't matter [laughs]. So I was like, "Okay, if I write some kind of big crazy piano part, the whole audience will just hear that and they'll shut up, and then I can get real quiet right after it." So I intentionally wrote that piano part. It's played by a violin when I recorded it, but I wrote it as this big piano part to get everyone's attention so then I could play the song.
I actually did the same thing for "Brooklyn." It has this big piano part at the beginning where it's like, "Okay, this will make everyone shut up so I can play the song." And it usually works.
Songfacts: What is the most misunderstood song out of your whole discography?
Michael: There's this one song called "Dance So Good." It's funny because I didn't think I would ever tell this story, but I ended up telling it on the last tour. The song is called "Dance So Good." The chorus says:
Tell me why we're talking when we dance so good
Tell me why we're talking when we dance so good
I know you can't stay
But I wish you would
I wish you would
It was totally clear and evident to me from the minute I wrote it that "dance" was a code word for something else that we did good [laughs]. It was always going to be this little in-joke for me.
You obviously make a song and then it goes and becomes whatever it's going to be. It's like sending a kid off on their first day of school: You never know what it's going to end up being. So it became this romantic song for a lot of people and that's awesome. I love it. I love the interaction people have with it. I hope people dance to it at their weddings. I love that it has this cheeky undertone to it, though.
Songfacts: Is there a tune that you're particularly proud of that we haven't spoken about yet?
Michael: Hmm. Let me think as far as something that I feel really works. [Pause] One song that I constantly come back to is "Light Outside." It's the closest thing to a hit that I've ever had and I close the majority of my concerts with it. If I'm on stage and ask, "Is there anything you guys want to hear?" Without fail, a large number of the audience will yell, "Light Outside!"
When we did Almost Everything, we went in without having an album's worth of songs. We just flushed things out as we went into the studio and put things together. Some things we decided didn't fit. Some things came up in the studio and we were like, "That's really good. We have to make that part of this album." When we finished it, I gave it to my manager who was also the head of my label, which were basically just me and him at the time. He was like, "Yeah, this is great! We need an album extra for iTunes." By that time, Mark Schwahn and One Tree Hill were on board, so suddenly we got a big distribution deal for the album. They were like, "It's going to be on iTunes and physically in all these stores, so we need to write a couple of extra songs." We basically needed two more songs.
I had little snippets for "Light Outside," but I forcibly put it all together and was like, "I'm finishing this," so I wrote it that night. I had also finished "Dance So Good" that night. We went in and recorded them both. "Light Outside" was going to be the album extra. It wasn't going to be on the album because we thought it was just okay. When we took it to get mastered, they were like, "Yeah, that's your single" [laughs]. Everyone was like, "That's the song!" It's funny how you never know what's going to work. I love the song so I'm happy that if there's one in my discography that I have to play every night, it's that one.
Songfacts: What inspired it?
I went and talked to her and was like, "How do you do this? Where does this come from for you?" She said, "Well, I tend to be down. I have a hard time keeping myself happy and up and going. So I think of things that I want to say to myself and then I write them in the songs. It becomes a mantra for me where I hear it throughout the day in my head. So it's pretty much an entirely selfish endeavor, but it works. And then people like the songs, so it's cool."
I remember thinking about that. I think it's where "Light Outside" got its initial spark. It obviously turned into something else because I would never say, "You saved my life once," about myself. So it became about something else, but the initial spark of, "I know you want to stay in bed, but it's light outside," I probably wrote to myself to be like, "Get out of bed, dumbass. Get up and start the day."
My band's named Wakey Wakey for a reason: You can't bartend for 10 years and be up until four in the morning and be a morning person [laughs].
Songfacts: You have a new full-length album, Overreactivist, due out sometime in 2016. Can you reveal anything about that yet and what to expect from it?
Michael: I can say that Chris [Cubeta] and my's initial thought was that we were going to make an EP. I don't know if you know the whole story, but basically Galuminum Foil was a studio in Brooklyn where we recorded "Almost Everything" and "War Sweater." My biggest songs were all recorded at that studio. After going out and touring Salvation, the center of the idea was getting back to myself and getting back to that studio.
So I called him and was like, "Yo, man! Let's meet for coffee." We sat down and I was like, "Hey, I have this idea. I have choruses for songs that I feel are strong. I want to make an EP and I want you to be the producer. I want it to be just like we did before."
He was like, "That's great except that they're knocking down Galuminum Foil at the end of the month. It's done. The lease is expired. We knew it was coming so it's not some classic Brooklyn story of someone getting fucked. It's just time for the studio to close. It's also booked solid until the last day, so, unfortunately, we can't make it happen."
I was like, "Okay. I guess that's that." I went home and I was depressed for a couple of days and then he called me. He said, "You know what? This is ridiculous. We need to make this happen. Let's just go in on nights and weekends and work late and work early and make this EP happen." So we were like, "Yes, let's do it!"
So we went in and started it. The first track on the album is called "Heartbroke" and it's really personal. I feel like the fans are going to react to that one strongly. It doesn't feel like a single because it wasn't meant to be a single. It's meant to be almost more like "Take It like a Man" where it's back and forth and all over the place, and that's what I love about it.
We started making that and other songs and realized that it was too big to be just an EP, so we pushed it even further and made it into an album. It became what it is right now, which I love and I'm so proud of it.
I will say that when we first set out to make it, the idea was that we would throw away any ideas of a hit song, any ideas of radio, any ideas of PR, and all that stuff. They are all things that I don't care for so we decided to forget about all that and just make an art rock EP of beautiful music that we thought was cool. Those were the only rules: we had to think it was cool and not try to make a hit song. And in doing so, we made something that got me signed to a great record deal and a lot of people are excited about it. So maybe the recipe for how to make something that works is to try to make something that doesn't work. I can say the album that they are going to get is definitely me. It's as me as it gets because I didn't try and be anyone else. I'm proud of it so I think they are going to like it, too.
September 29, 2015.
Get Wakey Wakey's new EP, Homeless Poets, on iTunes and find out more by visiting wakeywakeymusic.com.
Photo: Eddie Soto
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