South Fallsburg, NY’s favorite son on his grief-fuelled new album Face The River, the hit inspired by Paul McCartney and his ‘One Tree Hill’ breakout “I Don’t Want to Be”
Gavin DeGraw was out for an after-dinner stroll at the age of eight when his older brother, Joey, posed a memorable question.
“He goes, ‘Hey, Uncle Richie. Is there such a thing as a singing disease?’” DeGraw recounted during The Drop: Gavin DeGraw, an album discussion and performance at The GRAMMY Museum in Los Angeles on Thursday. “My uncle started laughing hysterically, going, ‘No, that’s ridiculous. Why?’ and [Joey] goes, ‘I think my brother has a singing disease. He won’t stop singing. It’s annoying. How do we stop it?’”
“That was an expression of me being addicted to singing,” DeGraw, 45, continued. “You couldn’t shut me up!”
Almost four decades later, DeGraw’s “singing disease” has seen him earn a GRAMMY nomination, release six studio albums, top the charts, tour the world, provide the theme song for One Tree Hill and open for Billy Joel. And, in his most personal record yet, Face the River, it’s also helped him process deep grief, which made him tear up on stage during several moving recent performances in Los Angeles.
But as much as music has carried him through the 2017 loss of his mother, Lynne, and 2020 death of father, Wayne, he ultimately hopes the resulting songs will support others through difficult times. After all, it was his desire to help heal people that saw him embrace his musical ambitions from a young age.
“I wanted to be a doctor because I wanted to help people, but I thought music was a selfish career path because my parents were hippies and it was all about sheepdog mentality and helping people,” McGraw told the sold-out GRAMMY Museum crowd. “But when I was a teenager, we went to see Billy Joel play. At the time, I wanted to make the blind see [and] become an ophthalmologist, but when I saw the reactions of strangers around me at this show, it dawned on me: ‘Wow, music is medicine. It really helps people. Maybe it wouldn’t be selfish to play music for a living. Maybe people need music like I need music.’”
In that moment, as he committed to pursuing a music career, little did DeGraw realize that decades later he would open for Joel. It was a dream opportunity for DeGraw, who cut his teeth playing small gigs in a band with Joey, attending Berklee College of Music then performing around New York before landing a record deal with Clive Davis’ J Records. His 2003 debut album Chariot featured “I Don’t Want to Be,” which became a lifechanging hit after featuring as the theme song for One Tree Hill in 2003.
VIDEO: Gavin DeGraw “I Don’t Want To Be”
Almost two decades since writing the popular track, McGraw reflected on the moment he realized he might have a hit. During an intimate gig at Hollywood’s Hotel Cafe, he recalled sitting in Manhattan’s Café Lalo with his notebook and asking a musician buddy if he could play him a track he was working on.
“I sang the chorus and he was like, ‘You wrote that?’” DeGraw shared. “I was like, ‘Yeah! Is it alright?’ He was like, ‘Yeah – you’re not going to be poor anymore!’ We put it on a record and went all the way with it. We got lucky and I want to thank you guys for being part of that.”
The Full Circle Tour concerts, at venues like The Hotel Cafe and The Troubadour, were a nod to DeGraw’s early days playing such small clubs. Accompanied by his musical director and guitarist Billy Norris, DeGraw performed his entire new record, Face the River, out on May 20 and heavily inspired by his late parents.
Opening with gripping title track “Face the River,” he then paid homage to Wayne and Lynne’s Woodstock adventures in “Freedom (Johnny’s Song),” before saluting their “million-to-one” love story in touching ballad, “Destiny.”
But it was “Hero In Our House” that left few dry eyes in The Troubadour as DeGraw himself teared up singing the poignant tribute to Lynne, who died from pancreatic cancer. “The things we saw just hurt too much to mention,” he sang, his voice breaking. As the room heaved with emotion, I felt overwhelmed with gratefulness to still have my mother around and wondered if I’d ever be able to listen to such a raw and heartwrenching tribute if I didn’t.
However, it’s reaching people suffering similar hardships, which was part of why DeGraw channeled some of the most difficult years of his life into his new music.
“When you’re going through something messed up, you feel like you can’t talk to anybody because it’s too deep, heavy, personal, embarrassing,” he said. “But anything you’re going through, [other] people have gone through or are going through. I didn’t want to mask what was around me or make nonsense music acting like everything was dandy for the sake of a pop career. My responsibility as an artist is to reveal and feel, and to ignore those things would’ve been unethical because it would’ve been a lie.”
“And if you have an opportunity to give people something to relate to, it could be a critical time for them to have something to relate to,” DeGraw continued. “[It can] allow them to not feel like a leper. And [it was] self-therapy for me. Some people do pills, some people drink alcohol. I did that too – trying to escape by meeting up with friends, but getting down to that last glass and going, ‘I still don’t feel good. There’s poison in [my body] and I need to replace it with something good.”
Enter Face the River. DeGraw noted that despite the suffering behind the songs, he was intent on steering Face the River away from being a depressing “sob story.” Rather, it’s a celebration of Wayne, a prison guard, and detox specialist Lynne, “the two people I looked up to most, who were the greatest ever.”
The hope and light he set out to convey is evident in upbeat “Chasing When,” new single “Summertime” and “Greatest of All Time,” – a song he performed while radiating joy and grinning from ear-to-ear at both The Hotel Cafe and The Troubadour.
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In-between showcasing new tracks, DeGraw pulled out fan favorites like “Chariot,” “Not Over You,” and “Follow Through,” which he shared was inspired by The Beatles. “I was trying to write a Paul McCartney song and of course it never happened because I’m not Paul McCartney,” he laughed. “I ended up writing this instead.”
As Face the River, which was produced by Dave Cobb in Nashville, nears release, DeGraw is dropping weekly installments of a Facebook docuseries, chronicling his time on the road grappling with grief.
“One of my favorite things to do is road trip,” he said. “And not just for the scenery, but to remove myself from responsibilities and get out of my own head. Road trips have their rewards [beyond] the scenery, different towns and different people. From traveling the road, I found my dog, Buddy. My dog son!”
The road is where DeGraw and his father found solace after Lynne’s passing, which was devastatingly followed by the loss of DeGraw’s grandparents, within months. The father-son road time is all the more special given Wayne passed away in 2020.
Mourning his parents has only accentuated the “medicinal” purpose of music that Billy Joel opened DeGraw’s eyes to more than 35 years ago.
“I see music as a medicinal art,” DeGraw said. “There’s so much music that has helped me, but the people in this room have helped me as much as I helped them because as a musician, I want nothing more than to express myself and have a place to put that art. And to have people hear it, appreciate it and permit me to fulfill my crazy, emotional desire to make noises in front of strangers! It’s symbiotic.”
“And on top of that, it’s my therapy,” he reiterated. “Music is magical in that you cannot see it or touch it, but you can feel it. It touches you. I love that.”
VIDEO: Gavin DeGraw “Face the River”