Las Vegas Sun

September 24, 2018

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Gavin DeGraw on simplifying songwriting and leaning toward country

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Amy Harris/Invision/AP

Gavin DeGraw performing at the BottleRock festival in Napa, California in May.

It might seem as if 41-year-old singer and songwriter Gavin DeGraw has made a considerable sonic transition from his breakthrough pop-rock hits “I Don’t Want to Be,” “Chariot” and “In Love with a Girl.” But if you compare his more recent output — like “She Sets the City on Fire” or “Making Love with the Radio On” from 2016 album “Something Worth Saving” — it’s clear that DeGraw has only delved deeper into his soulful, sometimes raw sound.

DeGraw’s current co-headlining tour with “American Idol” winner Phillip Phillips stops at the Pearl theater Friday night, and I spoke with him via phone recently to discuss where he’s taking that sound next and what’s influencing his music.

How is this co-headlining tour different from your recent Raw tour?

It’s a more acoustic-style setup, not unplugged, still a fun, party set, but it’s just me and my guitar player and drummer. It’s kind of like what early Elton [John] would do, me banging on my piano and singing and doing my thing. I’m going to go back into the catalog and do some early stuff with some new stuff, mix it up a bit.

Have you always preferred a more stripped-down approach in your live show?

There was a time in my career when I think I was trying to prove something. I’d get onstage and try to do the pop thing and use tracks with the band, and one day I saw that laptop on the stage and thought to myself, I never want to see that onstage again. Live music should be a real spur-of-the-moment thing. For me, that keeps me inside a box I don’t want to be in. It’s one thing to make an album and use some cool tricks and technology. But we’re players and we want that room to play. Me and my band have been learning our skills our whole lives and this gives us the opportunity to show off.

As a songwriter, do you wait to be inspired by something or is something you turn and off?

It’s both. I do wait for lightning to strike but I spend just as much time walking around outside waving a golf club over my head in the pouring rain to get it to strike, if you know what I mean. I do my best to get some writing done every day. I had a loss in my family recently and I’ve been doing quite a bit of writing about it because it’s important to get that stuff out. Music has been helpful in my life that way. And I find the best stuff is the most personal stuff, the stuff people can relate to and that’s how as an artist you can connect with any audience.

You’ve been living in Nashville near your Nashville Underground bar and music hall. I’m sure there’s quite a bit of inspiration to be had in that environment.

My brother and I moved to Nashville to get into that business but really because we love music. You can walk down the street and hear music coming out of every bar, everybody’s playing live up and down and it’s exciting to be part of the music culture there. It keeps me focused as a songwriter … and keeps me feeling free as an artist.

What will your next album sound like?

I think the next record will lean closer to the country market, only because we’re using real, live instruments. We’re writing a record more in the vein of a Bob Seger or Tom Petty or John Mellencamp or Bruce Springsteen. We’re trying to play that authentic bar-room, live-band type that inspired me to become a musician. I still feel like that’s popular music, it just doesn’t have to sound like pop to be pop. You just got to write great songs, songs people can relate to. Everybody is downloading singles right now but I don’t care about singles. I care about albums. If all you got is one song, I’m not a fan. I want to hear an album. I’m a Billy Joel fan, he has albums. He takes you for a ride. Springsteen has albums, and Seger and Petty. That’s what I love.

Gavin DeGraw performs at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 24 at the Pearl at the Palms (4321 W. Flamingo Road, 702-944-3200) and more information can be found at palms.com.