A pop troubadour mulls a make-or-break release and the power of yodeling
By Melinda Newman
Special to MSN Music
Gavin DeGraw is an upbeat guy. He laughs easily, talks expansively and seemingly has a great story about any topic. But when the singer-songwriter speaks about his new album, "Sweeter," he really shines. It's been seven years since his breakthrough hit, the feel-good anthem, "I Don't Want to Be," and the affable DeGraw is very aware that he's at a critical career juncture.
The good news for him is that his first single, "Not Over You," is rising on Billboard's Adult Pop Songs chart. Plus, he's headed out on a co-headlining tour with former "American Idol" champ David Cook, starting Oct. 9.
MSN Music chatted with DeGraw about the heavy expectations for "Sweeter," why he owes a debt of gratitude to Taylor Swift, and, oddly enough, Gold Bond Powder and yodeling. [Editor's note: This interview took place before DeGraw was attacked in New York. See link at the bottom of the interview for an update from Gavin on this incident].
MSN Music: Where do you feel like you are in your career? "Sweeter" is your fourth album, but it's been a while since you've had a mainstream hit.
Gavin DeGraw: I would say that I'm standing at the edge where I can either use where I am to be a springboard or a cliff. ... But that's the beauty of it. It's an exciting moment because of that. There cannot be excitement without the possibility of loss, right? So the risk is what's making it exciting.
So this is a make-it-or-break-it point?
This is the most important album of my career, yes, and I'm fully aware of that.
The title track, "Sweeter," has a funky, sexy vibe that you hadn't really captured on an album before.
Exactly. Nobody has ever really heard me do that kind of thing. That's what's been so exciting to me, tapping into that thing and getting it on a recording. There have been moments of the live shows where I can mess around with some of that old-school vibe, that funky, almost Sly & the Family Stone kind of thing, but this album allowed me to do that.
You wrote songs with other people, including OneRepublic's Ryan Tedder, for the first time, and you've said this is your most intimate album. How did writing with others help make the album more personal?
Initially I thought I'd be a lot more apprehensive about it, about saying certain things, but instead it allowed me an excuse to say [them]. It gave me permission and, prior to that, it's almost as if I'd been editing myself.
What did you say here that you hadn't allowed yourself to on previous albums?
Partly what I got to do on this record that I hadn't done is I tapped into some ideas where you don't have to be the hero. You don't have to be the leading man with all the great intentions all the time.
I'd say not: On "Sweeter," you want to sleep with someone else's girlfriend.
Potentially, could be that. Or it could be, maybe, you're not feeling yours anymore. It could be anything, but whatever it is, there's a level of reality there. There's so many different parts of a person and oftentimes we get stuck trying to only portray one side of us because we think that's what everyone wants to hear from us.
What was your best day in the studio?
That's tough. There were a couple of really cool days ... I'm working with Butch Walker on [album track "Soldier"]. I'm at his studio in Santa Monica, and it's Bob Dylan's old studio from the records he was making in the '70s. Butch [asks], "Is it cool if a buddy of mine drops in?" and I'm like, "Yeah. Who is it?" He goes, "Jakob's going to swing by; it's his dad's old studio." I'm like, "Of course!" I want to watch this dude come in and get nostalgic in his dad's old studio and hang out. ... He spent a few hours there, we had lunch, just hung out.
But he's not on the album.
No, [but] he was like, "You want to play piano on my next record?" and I'm like, "Dude! Let's work that out!" Before he left, he was like, "Really good song." I'm like, "Thank you, man!" All I need is a Dylan to approve.
Any Dylan will do.
That would be a great song title!
The first single, "Not Over You," is about running into a past love that you haven't been able to move past. Is that written from your experience?
Uh, yeah, I've been there. [Laughs]
Has the person whom you wrote the song about heard it?
I have no idea. [Pauses] Yeah ...
So she's already moved down the road?
Are you kidding me? She's got the handkerchief on the end of the stick walking down the road next to Bugs Bunny.
Each night before her concert, Taylor Swift writes the lyrics from a song on her arm. She recently wrote words from your song "Belief." What was your reaction upon learning about it?
I actually was tempted to call her and ask her if I was the reason for the teardrops on her guitar [laughs]. I sent out a Twitter response just thanking her and letting her know that I was flattered ... I'm proud of ["Belief"]. I was pretty surprised that she selected that tune because it's a pretty severe lyric. ... If her fan base is being introduced to my lyrics starting with a song like "Belief," to me that's a best-case scenario.
In the summertime: water, a pocketknife and Gold Bond.
What is the last thing you do before you walk onstage?
I yodel ... Everybody talks about these weird singing teachers and these weird warm-ups and "You got to do this" and "It takes 20 minutes," and I've discovered for myself if I just yodel a little bit, it allows me [to see] if I'm going to be able to sing at my best or not. If I can't yodel real nice, then it's going to be a tough show.
What do you do when "I Don't Want to Be" comes on the radio?
Turn it up. ... Some artists, they start to resent their initial successes because they're trying to progress, but the fact is this: You have to embrace that because the only reason anyone will pay attention to your progression is if they know where you started. ... You can only celebrate the reasons that people care about you at all. Sometimes, artists start rejecting themselves because they had certain successes. I'm not that self-loathing. I'm happy to not have to work a regular job.
Update: Gavin talks about being attacked
Melinda Newman is the former West Coast bureau chief for Billboard magazine. She has covered music and entertainment for the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Associated Press, MSN, AOL Music, Hitfix.com, Variety, People Country and other outlets. Recent interviews include Taylor Swift, Susan Sarandon, Pink, Jeff Bridges, Brad Paisley, Foo Fighters, Katy Perry and Lenny Kravitz.