Music - Feature Piano man-child

Gavin DeGraw is lurking in the waiting room of superstardom, but not for lack of talent

There's a certain prescience to the opening lyrics of Gavin DeGraw's debut album: "Oh, this is the start of something good/Don't you agree?"

Two years after Chariot's release, he hasn't earned the Grammy nods or outlandish record sales some imagined he'd have by now, but his beer-chugging tunes, soulful voice, and boyish smile keep his concerts sold-out and his catchy-without-being-trite choruses replaying in the collective minds of teenagers and twentysomethings across the country. There's a reason for this too. See, DeGraw is that rare thing these days - a pop star with integrity. Call him the thinking person's Justin Timberlake. In fact, the guy might just be able to save pop music. That is, if he can keep his mind off the ladies long enough.

Gavin DeGraw: an accomplished troubadour and budding ladies man.

Whether he's sweet talking Charlize Theron into introducing him on-stage or co-starring in his own videos with the likes of Jaime King or Mischa Barton (whom he calls "a cutie"), DeGraw has a habit of surrounding himself with some of Hollywood's most beautiful women. "I hope so," he declares, letting rip a goofy laugh. "If you get lucky enough, here and there are great experiences."

But luck has had little to do with his success, which can largely be attributed to unflagging determination and an artistic single-mindedness. Born in the Catskills region of upstate New York, DeGraw grew up behind a piano, drawing from the likes of Sam Cooke and Ray Charles. The skills he developed landed him at two prestigious music schools - Ithaca College and Berklee College of Music - but he dropped out of both, lasting one and two semesters respectively.

The ivory tickler knew where he wanted to be and he landed there in 1998 when he relocated to Manhattan. It only took him a few months to score his first big break, faking his way into an open-mic night at the Upper West Side ballroom, Wilson's. His career gambles paid off when owner Debbie Wilson, so wowed by his performance, immediately signed on to manage him.

A recording contract soon followed, or at least the offer of one. DeGraw turned it down, not happy with the deal and determined to wait for one that better suited him and his music. After five years of playing bars and collecting a loyal Manhattan following, the long wait ended when mega-producer Clive Davis signed him to J Records and anointed him his "next big thing." While DeGraw is still working on getting past the "next," he isn't lurking in the waiting room of superstardom for lack of talent.

Gavin DeGraw with the Rocket Man

With lyrics that own the poetic and raucous grace of a true piano man, more at home in a dusky bar with a dollar-filled fish bowl, he is a young Billy Joel. His songs dwell on the banality of the everyday and the superficialities of love, but his earnest voice sells every lyric because you know he's been there like you. You might even call him the next Elton John sans jumpsuits, except he's more heterosexual than Elton could ever hope to be gay. To speak with DeGraw for even a few minutes, you begin as a male to question the intensity of your libido in comparison. You almost feel un-man next to this guy who, despite his girlish and lanky body, damn near rips his shirt off and beats his chest with every note he belts out. Thirty years ago, he would've been fronting the biggest country-rock band the world has ever seen.

Thirty years ago, DeGraw also wouldn't have had his best-known hit "I Don't Want to Be" land on the WB as the theme song of One Tree Hill. Of course, the catchy number only achieved such success due to it's presence on the show. It's a paradox that frustrates musical artists every day.

Call him the next Elton John sans jumpsuits, except he's more heterosexual than Elton could ever hope to be gay.
"Well, funny enough, I don't really watch television," he admits. "So I don't really watch the program, which is strange, isn't it? And I guess I must be okay with it, as far as being involved with it. I volunteered the music for the project, 'cause I see it as good exposure for my career. I think at this point in the music world, it's important for artists to try to get as many forms of media as they can. Cause you need that to get your name out there and make as big a splash as you can in the water."

After all, these days success has little to do with anything musical. "Just listen to the radio," he points out. Whereas a few years ago, artists were often mocked for "selling out" by placing songs on shows, especially the WB's, television has quickly become a lucrative market for up 'n' comers in desperate need of recognition in a market unfairly skewed to favor homogenized bands and bubblegum pop.

"Sometimes I think radio's fallen victim to what's on television," explains DeGraw. "But it shouldn't necessarily be that what people are watching at 3:30 when they get home from school is the same as what people are listening to on the drive home at 5:30. They're two totally different groups of people with two totally different mentalities."

Gavin Degraw
Michael Tolcher

Tue, June 21

Sunset Station
1174 E. Commerce
In the end, all that matters is the integrity of the music, which he doesn't see as being compromised. Not because he's counting the zeroes in his royalty checks, but because he wants to get his music out there, rightly so. "I'm trying, man," he says. "It means something to me to have my own identity. Not everyone is going to like what I do, but I want to be able to walk away from this and feel I did a really good job and did it for the right reasons. I don't want that regret. I don't want to have the embarrassment of illegitimacy."

In fact, it's pretty easy to see that, despite only having one full-length release to his name, he's already got his eye on record number five. Musical artists are built like either sprinters or long-distance runners. Some are only metabolized for quick bursts, sudden fame, and then an even faster burnout. Others, like DeGraw, seem determined to pace themselves and maintain the endurance needed to write their names into history.

The start of something good? It's hard to disagree with that.

By Cole Haddon


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