Gavin DeGraw Talks Songwriting, Country Music & His Upcoming Co-Headlining Show With Brett Young

Making the transition from pop to country has been a smooth ride for Gavin DeGraw because he never really actually defined himself as a pop act. For him, it has always been about the songwriting, which eventually led him to finding his own identity. The multi-platinum singer/songwriter has been a household name since his breakout album, Chariot, which earned him three hit singles: “I Don’t Want To Be,” “Follow Through,” and the title-track, “Chariot.” DeGraw’s self-titled second album debuted at No. 1 on the digital sales chart and at No. 7 on Billboard’s Top 200 album chart. He also has a Grammy nomination to his credit for “We Both Know,” the song he co-wrote with Colbie Caillat for the film “Safe Haven.”

Since then, he has been touring the world, including sold-out dates with Billy Joel, and hit a milestone with the release of his first greatest hits compilation titled Finest Hour. Today, he is preparing to co-headline a show with Brett Young at The Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Las Vegas on March. 22.We caught up recently with the New York native to discuss how he got into country music, how his songwriting has evolved and when we can expect a new album.

Photo Credit: Pooneh Ghana

You have a first co-headlining show in Las Vegas in a few weeks with Brett Young. Can you tell us a little about that?

Brett and I knew each other and became friends many years ago. I was playing in LA and was walking down the Sunset Strip late at night and I saw this giant guy and it was Brett. He asked me about music and said he had been to my show earlier that night and wanted to play music for a living. Years later, he kind of kept me up to date on his progress. He was beating the streets in LA and doing local things. Years go by and he always kept me abreast of what was going on. He told me he was moving to Nashville. He went there and got a record deal and then his first single and then his first number one and then his second number one and then his third number one and I was like, ‘stop trying to make everyone feel bad!’ (laughs) Very few people get the chance to live their dreams and get to see someone else live their dreams. The chances of meeting somebody else and having the opportunity and the will to chase down their destiny is just great to see, especially from this side. To see someone killing it and slaying it is just so great. It’s incredible to see him in his element. It’s just a great thing to bear witness to.

We ended up in the studio some months ago. Brett said he wanted to write something with me. He didn’t want it to be a love song, so we got together with a mutual friend, Ross Copperman, a Nashville songwriter. There was a natural cohesion there, so he wrote a song about Brett’s life. I sing the last verse and we go out together at the end and do a ‘bro-et,’ the male version of a duet (laughs).

I’m excited about watching someone’s dreams come true. It’s a real trip. If you’re doing something for the first time, Vegas is just a great experimental city to do it in. I feel like we are all in the right place in our lives and seeing each other’s dreams come true. I am just so happy for him. When you have a life goal in front of you and you’re holding it, wow, it’s amazing when it’s actually your life. How fulfilling. What a gift. He wanted this so bad to happen. It’s a beautiful life moment.

Last year, you and your brother opened Nashville Underground. Why did you decide to get involved in the country music scene?

It’s fascinating to me because I was going in and out to Nashville playing shows. Years ago, my brother, who is also a musician found an apartment and said it would be cool to live in this town. He told me to check out this house that I bought about 10 years ago sight unseen. Nashville has become home for me in a lot of ways. Ironically, my dad’s dad was a musician and a World War II vet who knew how to do everything (laughs). He back then said if he were us, he’d be in Nashville. It’s now a full circle moment.

It was an unrealistically good deal to buy Nashville Underground. We just did an expansion and now have 40,000 square feet right on Broadway. The market erupted and we got so lucky. We are going to build a bowling alley as well, so it will be a restaurant, bar and bowling alley. I am very excited. All that while I am writing my next record which should be due out later this year. It’s the first album I have written all alone again in years so I am really excited about it.

You attended Berklee College of Music in Boston before leaving to pursue a full-time career in music. Tell us about your experience in the city.

I love Boston. I remember being 19 years old and feeling so old. I laugh at it now. I felt like I had to get out because I was too old to make it in the business. I was feeling that desire to quit school. It was a legitimate fear (laughs). It’s interesting now because here Brett is in his 30s and he’s another example of just going for it. Part of that success is that he’s not a kid. There’s a real life story there attached to him. You need to have material to write stories. I found a dog – Buddy – on my last road trip at a gas station in Texas. I never would have met him if I hadn’t made the decision to travel and make new experiences.

How would you say your songwriting has evolved since your debut album “Chariot” back in 2003?

It’s hard to say. There are so many changes that have happened. I now know a lot about songwriting, which is great, right? But there’s a discovery process of learning songwriting that makes some magic happen. Now, I am able to, in some ways, find out how the magic happens.

Photo Credit: Alberto Visari

Who have been some of your biggest musical inspirations along the way?

I have always had musical idols like Billy Joel, Tom Petty, Elton John and The Beatles. Over time, you fall in love with Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Hank Williams and Stevie Wonder. The goal is to write a song that you think one of your idols could have written. It’s important to love a song even when you try to emulate that person and that’s when you find your actual identity. That is where discovery happens. That’s what happens with any craft. Those different styles lead you somewhere.

What’s it like now reflecting back on your music career from where you started to the musician you are today?

It’s amazing I have been invited to be in some of these rooms. I believe country is a natural fit as a song-driven artist up and down and fundamentally. I never defined myself as a pop act. I defined who I was musically. It’s funny because when you put out albums for the pop market, some songs are viewed as pop, some rock and some country. That’s how I identified – simply as a songwriter. You can become everyone you want to be with each song. You can be a superhero or a victim in any one song. When an artist writes, there are confines how you are perceived. That’s why I identify with songwriting more than style and why I identify with country music.

Photo Credit: Alberto Visari