Headed to town for an all ages show Wednesday night at House of Blues, I spoke with singer songwriter, Andy Grammer about his forthcoming album Magazines or Novels and the importance of crafting great songs...
Following the nearly ubiquitous success of his massive debut single "Keep Your Head Up," Andy Grammer has been hard at work crafting his followup album Magazines or Novels which will see release this summer on August 5th.
Well aware of just how difficult it can be to escape the shadow of such a massively successful song, Grammer wrote nearly one hundred tracks while preparing the new album - an arduous task but a necessary one in order to capture what Grammer correctly assumes is a sense of relatability that helps his fans connect so personally with his songs and their message.
An astute songwriter, Grammer's mission for any song he writes is a simple one: make it great (If only it were that easy). That mission statement came up frequently during our chat and it's clear Grammer is incredibly passionate about the importance of a song's quality and how he feels it relates directly to an artist's relevance.
Often associated unfairly with a pop music landscape where authenticity in song and touring a strong live set are an afterthought, Grammer has been a road warrior over the past several years, embarking now on a headlining tour that brings him to House of Blues for an early, all ages set Wednesday night. Our conversation follows below...
Q. You were surrounded by musical instruments at a very young age, eventually playing piano, guitar and trumpet. How old were you when you wrote your first song?
Andy Grammer: I’m pretty sure it was around fifteen or sixteen. I started getting into the guitar. It was right about then that I was going through my awkward phase – tons of acne. (Laughs) I think it was the switchover from being a super small, skinny kid to – right at that age around tenth grade. So I just went into my room and just played the guitar a lot. And that’s when I wrote my first song.
Q. People have this idea now due to things like American Idol that fame as a musician comes naturally overnight. But you worked for years busking on street corners, singing in coffee houses, etc. Would you like to dispel that myth?
AG: Yeah, I think the only way that it comes easy overnight is if you already are ready. If you’ve already put in a lot of time, a show like that can shine a light on it. But that’s rare. The hardest part is getting something amazing, not getting everybody to see it. So you could be seen on one of those shows but if you don’t already have yourself together… That’s the hardest part is the development. I think as an artist, you’re going to have to develop what your sound is, what your songs are like, what you do and what you have to offer.
"I just want to make sure my album has great songs and that’s why I became a songwriter."
Q. When it comes to songwriting, which part of that process is the most important for you: is it the singing and the playing or actually sitting down and putting pen to paper?
AG: They’re all super important. And I think I’d get really bored if I only did one piece. That’s what I’m finding. I do about as much of it as I can take before I move on to the next one.
I was on the road promoting this last album so hard that I was like, “I can’t even be out on the road anymore. There’s no way. I’ve gotta go home.” So I went home and then I wrote for a year which is pretty intense too... It’s a lot of pressure. By the time I was done with the writing, I couldn’t write another song. Not possibly. It’s impossible!
So now I’m back on the road and I’m excited… But I’m sure there will come a point here where I gotta go back. It’s like a cycle… But ya gotta do it. They feed each other!
Q. I’ve heard you say that when it comes to writing you’re open to working with other songwriters but you prefer to write on your own. When a song starts to come to you, how does the writing process typically go?
AG: Yeah. Sometimes it just comes to you and it’s like inspiration and you’re just trying to get it out.
For the second album, we were kind of under the gun and had to pump stuff out. That’s where I think collaborators come in handy, when you’re kind of under the gun and you can’t just work on inspiration – you’ve got to get something going.
So I do prefer to write alone but on this one, I did have a bunch of really cool collaborators that helped me flush out the kernels. I would usually bring in something that I just started thinking about or a line that was getting me going or a riff. And specifically for people that had written a certain type of song, there was a lot of really cool collaborations on this one.
Q. It’s clear you fashion yourself a songwriter. Does it get frustrating being lumped into a pop music world where I think people just incorrectly assume there’s always a writing team behind you?
AG: I don’t care. Think whatever you want. Listen, as long as the songs are great… That’s really what it is! More than anything else, I’m just a lover of great songs. To me, it’s like, I think that I can do the best job. Maybe that sounds weird. But I just care if my album has great songs and I think it’s actually probably harder to go find someone who can write good songs than [it is] to just buckle down and do it yourself. Because it’s really hard to find a good song! Even if you’re trying to find it, they’re like impossible to find. They’re super hard to write but I think they’re just as hard to find.
To me, I just want to make sure my album has great songs and that’s why I became a songwriter. And I love it. It’s really fun. The process is like excruciating but it’s really fun. When you create something that wasn’t there that is quality, it’s a rush, you know?
Q. I’ve read in the past where you said that you hope your music defines you as “authentic.” Is that difficult to achieve sometimes in the pop music world?
AG: Yeah. But that’s what it is – you take a bunch of stabs. That’s why you have to write hundreds [of songs].
I wrote about one hundred [songs] to get the twelve that are on the album. You try a lot of different things and you never really know how it’s going to end. So you just have to be open to trying and feeling uncomfortable and awkward and being like, “I’m pretty sure this is gonna come across as authentic.” You give a full week to it and give it everything you’ve got. And then [sometimes] you step back at the end and go, “It’s not coming across as authentic. We need to write another one.”
So I had written probably fifty songs and we were hoping we’d be kind of ready to go by fifty. And I realized that I didn’t have what we were talking about: that authenticity. So I had to write another fifty. And I feel very confident that we have it now. It’s kind of an intangible feeling [where] it makes you feel the way I want you to feel.
Q. When do you know it?
AG: Again, that’s what’s funny. You don’t know it right when you’re writing it. I usually know it once I’ve had a couple of weeks to listen to it: the stuff that still holds up. Usually when you write, you’re excited about it. “Ok cool. This is amazing. This is clearly my next hit.” [I think that] while I’m writing it. Every single time. Then you take about two weeks of stepping back from it and keep listening to it and the ones that still feel good after being away from it… Those are usually the ones that make it.
"I think the key to longevity is great songs."
Q. Obviously in today’s single and internet dominated world, there’s more artists gaining visibility than ever before. That said, it can be difficult to sustain any sort of longevity. With the second album coming out, is that something you're starting to think more about and is it hard to plan for the long haul when record companies want immediacy and artists kind of seem to come and go?
AG: You know, it’s funny. I don’t even know how’d you plan for that. My headspace is just… It’s kind of simple to me: don’t ever put anything out that’s not a great song! That’s it! And your barometer for great songs should be, “Is it f---ing great?” That’s it!
It’s kind of simple. And it’s frustrating. I have a manager who’s incredible and he’s really hard on me as far as like, “That’s not a good song.” And I have pretty high standards too. I’ve used this analogy too much but, to me, it’s like, "Does it reflect something about what we all are going through and is there some sort of relatability to it?"
When Newton had an apple hit him on the head, he wrote out what gravity was and everybody was like, “Totally! That’s happened to me all day long. I’ve one hundred percent experienced gravity.” I think there’s something about that type of thing in a great song. So I am just nonstop trying to find little nuggets or little things in songs that will make everybody agree that we’re all going through the same kind of experience.
And it doesn’t have to be positive. It can be anything! Like if you write a breakup song that then reflects something about life that we’re going through - to me, that’s what a great song is. And then if you can bounce and dance and freak out to that feeling, now you’ve really gotten something awesome. So until I have that feeling about a song - and until it sounds great - then you just don’t have what you need.
And believe me, I wanted to stop after fifty. Fifty is a hell of a lot of songs! Because each time – every single time – you’re not like, “Oh, I just shot out fifty bad ones.” I gave my whole… I thought that was it! I gave everything! You dig deep into yourself and you try to get it out.
I think the key to longevity is great songs. I didn’t get to see him but I played across the street from Billy Joel the other night in Boston and someone brought his setlist over. Someone took a picture of it and brought it over. And that’s how you get to be playing at Fenway Park. The guy had twenty-two smash songs on that setlist. They’re all incredible.
When you ask [me], “Do you care about being put in with the pop guys?” All that perception stuff will just come and go and you’ll shift and everything will move. Kind of like the cool kids in high school – everything shifts around. But if you have good songs, then you’re always relevant in my opinion.
Q. Unlike the rock world where those guys just tour, tour, tour, tour, tour till they drop, taking a show out on the road doesn't seem to be as critical a component of the pop world. But you're out again on a headlining tour now so is that connection with the audience an important thing for you?
AG: The word “pop” is so funny. I don’t even really know what that means. I know what it means... but I don’t know.
The bottom line is, when I play a show, it’s live music. And there’s something about “pop” that feels like it’s not that. Like putting on a track and then going out and singing to it? To me, we have a killer band. We’ll just riff on sh-t or we’ll switch up the setlist. That’s really where it comes alive. All this work that you put in to write some great songs. It’s supposed to be heard [by someone] in a car freaking out but then it’s supposed to be experienced with a big crowd.
So I do think the rock guys have that right. If you want longevity, you’ve got to get out and feel the love from everybody and enjoy it and reinfuse them with what it’s about. Tell the story before the song that inspired it. It’s the whole experience of it. If you’re just writing a catchy song that doesn’t have enough meat to it and you never go tour it... well then maybe that’s why the music industry isn’t doing so good. We need to get out there and make it exciting.
Q. Where's everything at with the new album?
AG: The album is awesome. It’s done. It’s coming out on August 5th. The show right now – the show that’s coming to Chicago – is gonna be about half new and half old stuff and everybody has been really into it. The title is Magazines or Novels.
I’m really excited about it. I feel like the first album was kind of an introductory, get to know somebody. If you had to say the album was a conversation, it’d be like the first time you’re meeting someone. And I’d say the second album is more like best friends talking: a little more honest, a little more intimate.
- Jim Ryan
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(Details on Wednesday's Andy Grammer show below)
Wednesday, July 2, 2014
House of Blues
329 N. Dearborn St.
Chicago, IL 60654
Doors open at 5:30PM
Show starts at 6PM
Also performing: Andrew Ripp, Brendan James
Click HERE to purchase tickets