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Graham Colton - Interview

  by Lisa Torem

published: 24 / 2 / 2014

Graham Colton - Interview


Lisa Torem chats to Olkahama city-based singer-songwriter Graham Colton about his latest studio album 'Lonely Ones', which was co-produced by Flaming Lips' front man Wayne Coyne

Graham Colton’s songs have appeared on American TV shows: ‘American Idol’, ‘Pretty Little Liars’ and on HBO and Sundance productions. Always setting high goals, he scored awards for his high school as an accomplished quarterback. His musical career began when he pounded Dallas pubs, and then with his self-titled band supported Better Than Ezra, which led to the Graham Colton Band performing two touring engagements with the Counting Crows. Colton has also enjoyed working with singers Kelly Clarkson and Vanessa Carlton on tour. After leaving a major label, he established a solid solo career and this year released ‘Lonely Ones’. In an interview with Pennyblackmusic, he described in passionate detail why his new album might be seen as a risk-taking venture, and how the making of it influenced his live performance and helped him develop an appreciation for his native city of Oklahoma City. Graham talked by phone as his band travelled through the Missouri plains. GC: We’ve just loaded up, and we’re making our way towards Michigan. It’s been a while since I’ve had a band on the road. PB: Let’s look at some history. The Graham Colton band broke up in 2006, and then you started a solo career. Was it difficult to go independent after working with a major label? GC: Yeah, I think that was one of the biggest challenges for me. When I got dropped by Universal in 2007, it was really only a couple of weeks after I played Letterman. It went from what I considered a huge career moment for me, almost the biggest career moment for me, to getting a letter from the label saying, “You’re not on the label anymore.” It’s definitely an ego blast, a period where I was shell shocked and not sure what to do. And to be honest, it took me a while to figure out how I was going to continue to do it. I did release a few independent things in between, and I think you can hear that I was trying to resurrect; what had worked for me in the past, sometimes. I think this album represents – I kind of shed all of that weight from the label and all of the stuff I’d done before, if that makes sense. PB: Fans still comment on the ‘Pacific Coast Eyes’ video, and they’re curious about the woman who plays the romantic interest. GC: I had just met my wife and I had written this last song for that album - it was kind of a silly song, and if I was going to do a video I was used to the major label mentality of music videos and making albums. and I just wanted to have fun with it. So, my wife is the female lead in that video. If I was going to have a big, sarcastic make out scene in a video, it better be my wife. So, it was fun to shoot that. We did it all ourselves. PB: You have collaborated with Wayne Coyne and lindsey Ray of the Flaming Lips. What did you take from those experiences? GC: The main thing – I don’t know if it’s that I’m turning thirty or that I have a daughter or it’s being married and moving back to Oklahoma. There was definitely a point where I said it’s not necessarily rebranding, but I’m just a different person than I was three or five years ago. And I think working with people like Lindsey and Wayne, moving back home and re-establishing roots back in Oklahoma – I think there was a lot of me, I don’t know what the right word is, a realisation that I wanted to try new things and I wanted to try not to resurrect anything that happened on the label. I just wanted to take another step, and I think all of those little things, collaborating with Lindsey and Wayne, were all attempts to try new things. PB: I just listened to ‘Don’t Take My Sunshine Away,” which you recorded with Wayne. GC: That was the first song we did together. PB: It stood out because it had all these ambient sounds working against more traditional harmonies, which was an interesting marriage. GC: Wayne and I had been friends for a while. We really didn’t collaborate musically together the first couple of years. We were socialising. His ex-wife and my wife were close. We were running around Oklahoma City before he called me one night. He was working on a tribute album and still is. It was for a tribute to Mark Linkous, who was the singer in the band, Sparklehorse, who, unfortunately, passed away. Wayne wanted to do an album for Mark as a tribute. He called me and said, “Your voice reminds me of Mark’s. Would you want to try this song and collaborate on it?’ And I jumped at the chance. Wayne was driving the boat. It was not going to be a normal sounding track. It was definitely the beginning of me looking at songs differently and learning how to record differently (Laughs). The first time Wayne and I worked together was by far the weirdest song I’d ever done. It was really rewarding creatively to kind of stretch out like that. After it’s all said and done, you go, “Oh, this kind of works,” and it’s cool that it’s a cover song. It’s a Sparklehorse song, and I was honoured to be asked to be a part of it. PB: Tell me about the Oklahoma music scene. We so often hear about the artists who hail from L.A., Nashville, Seattle and Brooklyn. Is there a thriving music scene there? GC: Absolutely. Before I moved back, I never really got to be in it because I was on tour so much, and when I was on the label we lived in Atlanta for a while, I lived in Dallas for a while and, of course, making my second record for Universal, I was in and out of hotel rooms for about eighteen months when I was away. So, when I got to move back to Oklahoma, it took me a minute to realise how much talent there was there. It scared me, at first, because I thought there’s no way I could be creative where I’m from. It just won’t work (Laughs). It was kind of that stupid mentality. You have to go to L.A. – you’ve got to leave to be creative and that’s just got to go. It couldn’t be further from the truth. This record was made from a place – I’m going to do everything backwards than I’ve done before. I’m going to work with all Oklahomans and the people that I trust, people that know where I come from. Also, they do things differently than I’ve done in the past. It was a really terrifying but rewarding way to do this. PB: Terrifying? GC: I just knew I needed to shake things up and do things differently. I just could not sit there with my acoustic guitar and write another song, strumming the same chords. PB: Yet you were quite acclaimed and successful as a singer-songwriter, and you didn’t have to shake thing up. GC: I’ve had a nice run and I’ve definitely made a lot of mistakes on the road and had some success, but I just wanted more creatively. I knew I was capable of so much more than what I had been doing, and I don’t think the same things, I don’t listen to the same kind of music. Hopefully that means I’m growing. So with Wayne and with my musician friends and with Chad Copelin and Jarod Evans, who produced the album, the first thing they said was, “Do it backwards. Don’t think about the songs first. Let’s find the sound. Let’s get in the room and make noise and try to approach songs that way.” The first thing they said was, “Drop the guitar. Don’t even pick up the guitar. Don’t bring it to the studio.” It was very scary. There were all these things in the past, things that had worked for me. This chord with that chord, this melody which will be catchy and people will like that. I had to really unlearn all of that. In a way. It’s like the twelve or so years that I’ve been doing this. Hopefully I’ve gotten “better”, but with that you learn what works and what feels wrong and it did. So, I really tried to unlearn everything, work with people who do it differently and that were inspiring to me and I put a lot of faith and trust into people like Wayne and Chad and Jarod and even Steven Drozd, who was a huge part of this album. PB: You explain in a press release: “This time, I wrote visually.” GC: We made the record as a band. If it was storytelling, it wasn’t autobiographical. I didn’t feel like every line and lyric had to make perfect sense. The majority of the songs always started with – when this noise was coming at me, I had to write to this music that was in the room and visually I just saw the songs in my head. I saw characters. It wasn’t like me trying to make some grandiose statement. I saw these two kids running around Oklahoma in my head, and that’s where songs came from. It wasn’t so much how I was feeling that day (Laughs). PB: I got chills when I heard about the story line to ‘Born to Raise Hell’. GC: Yeah, it’s crazy. And, of course, I had never heard of it before I’d written the song. It was interesting to uncover that as I was writing it. PB: “He had thoughts in his head/Monsters in his bed.” How did those strong lines evolve into an actual story? GC: It was the first song I had actually written. Wayne and Steven loaned me a bunch of keyboards. I don’t play keyboards – I don’t play piano, rather. They said, “Take these keyboards, push this button, twist this knob. I promise you’ll write a couple of songs that way. It will reach a different part of your brain.” I spread all of the keyboards up in the spare bedroom of my house. These sounds came out. I had half of that song written, the part that says, “La La” – it was this melancholy kind of song and I knew it wasn’t going to be again an autobiographical song – I knew that it was going to be a different kind of song than I had ever written. I brought it into the studio, and Chad, my co-producer, randomly, as we were listening to what to do with the song, where do we go next with the track, he said, “Have I ever told you guys about the time my dad hitchhiked with a famous serial killer?” I said, “No, that’s crazy,” and he ends up telling us a story about his dad picking up Richard Speck, not knowing that he was a horrible monster of a guy. And he had this big tattoo on his arm that said, ‘Born to Raise Hell’. So, when Speck was later caught, his dad was watching the news and he saw that tattoo. He said, “Oh my God, I rode with that guy.” It was the craziest story I ever heard. I did all of this research, and I really thought to myself it almost sounded like the song we were writing. So, I literally went online and found a bunch of facts about when Speck was a boy. I thought, what happened in his life? That was a big jolt for me. I thought, this is going to be a left turn for sure. PB: You wrote, “His heart was a cavern.” GC: There were a lot of lines that were interwoven with me adding my own thoughts as to what was going on. There were a lot of lines that I think were some of my strongest lines as a songwriter, but I wasn’t really meaning to…they just came out on the microphone. I just went with it. PB: ‘Funeral’ was another really interesting song. GC: (Laughs). Speaking of dark… PB: “I get the aerial view now.” “It’s going to be the start of your confession after a long goodbye.” GC: I’m not really sure. Again, I allowed myself on this album to really let things happen and I didn’t feel the pressure of feeling that every song had to have a bow tied around it. And I have done that in the past. As a songwriter, I also felt the pressure, Okay, this is finished. It has to make perfect sense. The listener has to understand what I’m saying. Whatever lyrics make me feel something, even if I don’t exactly know what I mean by it, if I feel it, then I’m going to let it be. But that one, and ‘Another Night’ deal with some heavy topics and it’s about other characters, but I’m in there somehow. I’m definitely, lyrically, placing myself in those stories. I’m a believer that songs mean different things when you grow with them. And that song ‘Funeral’ in particular is one that I’m going to understand more and more, and it’s going to mean different things as the years pass. PB: ‘Another Night’ seemed to be a love song. GC: Yeah, a love song about two kids that don’t make it. I don’t know what happens to those kids. It definitely is a love song, but it’s definitely them getting lost at sea and I’m not sure if they make it back. It’s just letting things lay. I’m glad you picked up on that. A lot of the lyrics were written just visually. I was just trying to paint a picture. PB: “We made a promise to jump off at the same time.” That’s very visual. GC: ‘Before the Fall’ – in the past, I would have felt that I needed a couple of extra verses for it to feel like a complete song and, thankfully, my producers just said, “Leave it alone. Let it be those two verses.” It’s a perfect way to end the album. For me, there’s definitely a side A and a side B to the album: lyrically and musically, and that side definitely represents side B. It’s a bit more lush and a bit more open. It’s not so much about just the guitar or the synth. We did a lot of vocals. There’s a Beach Boys influence in there. PB: It had a very dreamy outro. GC: Those moments became the most challenging because I thought “I have to have another verse. What happens?” (Laughs). It just kind of feels like it stops. And it was such a great moment to finally settle in. That’s what this album is. Don’t try too hard. PB: That sounds like the philosophy of a very experienced writer. GC: There was a lot of trial and error, for me. There was a lot of exploration. In the past, especially in the singer-songwriter context, it always started with you writing your twelve songs. You have your lyrics written on a piece of paper. You bring them into the studio. You play them for the band and the band plays on top of those songs. This was totally backwards. I have no songs. I get the band in the room first. Try to find a sound. Push a bunch of knobs, push a bunch of buttons. Spend a lot of time trying to play with sounds, and write the song on top of that. That was a real fun thing for me as a songwriter and I feel like I’ve grown a lot from it. PB: You wrote nine tracks with Jarod and Chad. How did you divvy up the tasks? GC: For half the album, I brought in a few fragments of things. The majority of the record was written altogether, just in a room. There was never a “You did this and I did that” - make it as a band, write it as a band. I wrote all the lyrics, of course, but I really wanted it to be a band. PB: In 2011, you chronicled your touring carbon footprint. Are you still involved in that? GC: I’m really not. It was definitely a product of me being a struggling musician and trying to pay for it, and realising that there is a movement that a lot of people are talking about, good and bad, about natural gas and clean energy. I stumbled on to it by trying to figure out how to pay for everything. I learned a lot in the process, and have continued to educate myself about what’s happening with cleaner energy, but not at the moment, no. It was an amazing experience. It really was. It definitely opens your eyes to what’s happening with clean energy and natural energy . PB: What are you looking forward to the most in this current tour? GC: I think just the unknown; similar to how the record was made. I have no idea what to expect. It’s not a live show where I can sit there with my acoustic guitar and strum along. It requires a lot more of me musically. I’ve been overwhelmed with the result thus far from my current fan base of just the album in general. And I really thought there was a good chance that a lot of people wouldn’t like it – truly, and I was ready to make that step. I was really ready to be okay if a large group of people didn’t care for it. I think the live show is the same. People are used to me playing the catchiest songs I have and having certain kinds of moments between the band and the audience. They’ll be different moments that,hopefully people will react to, but it probably won’t resemble a tour that I’ve done in the past. PB: Online fans are commenting, “Graham Colton writes things that we wish we could say.” GC: That’s really nice. PB: If you could perform in any other era, which would it be? GC: As much as I would love to say the 60’s or ‘70’s, I’m not going to say that. I’m going to say the mid 90’s because that’s when I first started playing guitar in middle school and had my modern day rock stars and bands that I found, and I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for mid 90’s alternative rock. And I think it was certainly a simpler time and there’s a lot of things that I still think about – learning those songs in my bedroom when I was trying to play the guitar, learning songs by the Smashing Pumpkins and Oasis. I could play those songs and sing along to those songs and that’s where I really learned to play music. I’ve always wanted to be in that era and be one of those bands (Laughs). PB: Thank you.

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Graham Colton - Interview

Graham Colton - Interview

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