By Andy Argyrakis
Before Andy Grammer made his national debut in 2011, the singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist was at turns getting a crash course on entertaining a crowd from his father, Red Grammer (a Grammy-nominated children’s recording artist), or busking on the streets of Santa Monica, hoping to be discovered. And once he was, the floodgates of fame flew wide open, from the platinum-selling smash “Keep Your Head Up” and its equally contagious follow-up “Fine by Me,” to tour dates alongside Train, Gavin DeGraw, Colbie Caillat, Plain White T’s, Natasha Bedingfield, Mat Kearney, and Parachute, among others.
That rocket-like ascension kept right on going with the 2014 release of Magazines or Novels, the gold-selling collection that spawned the radio romp “Honey, I’m Good” (now a triple-platinum seller) and fellow airwave dominator “Good to be Alive (Hallelujah).” Add in a turn on 2015’s Dancing with the Stars, a surprise appearance at Soldier Field during Taylor Swift’s enormous 1989 tour, plus mounds of solo appearances, and Grammer is unquestionably the breakout star of the decade thus far. The shooting star took a moment to come down to Earth for a lively phone conversation about returning to Ravinia on August 26 and 27 with Train, building on his unique status as the only nonclassical artist to have made two different tour appearances in a single season—in 2012, first with DeGraw and Caillat, then with Train and Kearney—at the festival in its more than 100 year history.
How would you describe the growth of your audience from those first shows through today?
The growth has been unbelievable, man. I started as a street performer, so the difference between begging someone to stop and take a listen to having Ravinia-sized crowds has really been probably one of the coolest parts of my life.
So Ravinia feels like a home away from home at this point?
Of course. Yeah. There’s something cool about pulling up in the bus and knowing where everything is. You know where catering is and [already have] a sense of how this goes.
You famously took a lap around Ravinia’s lawn at your first show here. Is there something about the vibe that’s bringing you back?
I think everybody just really enjoys coming out for a great day. The music is hopefully what brings everybody, but there’s a sense of community once you’re there, [especially on the lawn]. I’ve played a lot of places around the country and Ravinia has its own vibe. I think that people show up knowing what that is and they usually get it. My job is to deliver it and make sure that everybody freaks out.
What’s going to be similar or different this round for you?
[There’s of course] different music, and I’ve got a couple different band members and we move around a lot more than we did last time. I don’t know if it was from the Dancing with the Stars stuff or just kind of how it’s morphed. The shows are even more interactive than it was last time.
How would you describe your sound and show for the first-timers this summer?
I would say to first timers that at my heart I’m a singer-songwriter. I write all my music, but it’s definitely not a show where you come and see a guy stand with a guitar and just sing you his songs. We have a loop pedal, I play trumpet, I play piano, I beatbox a ton, I have a vocoder; we do a ton of, like, old Motown dance moves and we really try to keep the energy up. It starts at the core of a song and then we kind of try to blow it up from there.
You’ve never seemed shy about dancing and working choreography into your shows and videos. How do you feel you did on Dancing with the Stars?
I think it did okay. It was definitely a very difficult experience. It was super fun, but I think the only reason I made it so far was because I’m pretty intense and competitive, so I stayed very late and put everything I had into it. I got a perfect score one night, but it was [still] really tough. Whenever anybody ever asks me about it, I can’t just say “fun” [laughs] without being like “and the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” It was both of those things.
What was it like jumping in to the TV world?
It’s really intense pressure. I’ve dealt with pressure [like] doing a TV performance or singing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” but that’s something I understand and know. When it comes down to something a little outside my wheelhouse, like ballroom dancing, the pressure is even more intense. So I think I learned and gained some pressure steps, which is pretty cool.
Back five or ten years ago, music seemed so much more segmented, where you were pop, country, rock, soul, or whatever the case may be. How has the trend towards a more shuffle-like mentality or genre cross-pollination contributed to your diversity?
I think that the listener base is very diverse. We’re all listening to a lot of different music. It’s so much easier to listen to anything you want at any moment, and I think the listener’s ear has gotten more sophisticated and open to these kinds of mixtures that make [the music] really sweet. As a creator, it’s really an exciting time.
What’s your method to songwriting?
There’s no method that I go to every single time. I usually start with something on the piano or the guitar … something beautiful or exciting or just in the music. And then that can kind of lend itself to what needs to be said, or I can have a whole list of ideas I’m going through. I’ll think Those words are really cool or This emotion would make for a cool song, then, when I sit down at the piano or guitar, find out which ones fit the best together.
Magazines or Novels is still a red-hot record, but have you been able to carve out any time to write since it’s been released?
I’ve been writing probably the last six months, and we just might have a new little something to play when we come through. I can’t tell you what the name of it is, but we’ll definitely have a new single by the time [I’m onstage] and we’ll be on the verge of putting out a bunch of new stuff. It’s a really exciting time.
Did you expect Magazine to have this long of a shelf life?
It’s been really wonderful, man. You never plan for success like this. It’s so sweet ’cause you put in so much energy and time. I wrote over a hundred songs for that album and I picked my favorites. The fact that those are actually having their due time in the spotlight makes me really happy.
“Honey, I’m Good” has been all over pop radio and really all of pop culture over the past couple of years. Has it been a blessing or a curse or a little bit of both?
I think just a blessing. It’s been amazing. What’s cool is that I’ve been able to put out such different types of music and a lot of it’s working, so I don’t feel too constrained. If you listen to the album, that’s probably one of the weirder ones in almost a little bit of a country/pop mold. There’s not a whole lot else on the album that’s like that. But then what’s been so cool is to have the success of “Good to Be Alive” follow, which is a little more like the James Brown element. It really opened me up on my third album to just be kind of like “anything goes” and play whatever I want.
Is there anything you can tell us about “Honey, I’m Good” that we don’t already know?
For me it was the first one that I couldn’t get away from, which is a pretty crazy feeling. You’d be on the highway driving to get a coffee and someone drives by and they’re playing it and then you’d go into the supermarket and it’s playing there, too. It was a pretty surreal experience, and I’m super grateful for it.
You also sang the song as a surprise guest at Taylor Swift’s Chicago show last summer. How did that connection come about?
She’s so cool. She tweeted one time when “Keep Your Head Up” came out that she really dug the song. It was so cool, got all this press, and really helped me out. Then she brought me on stage in Nashville to sing “Keep Your Head Up,” which is when I first met her. She’s just been super generous and incredible. So then when she did her next tour and was bringing all these different artists, “Honey, I’m Good” was doing well and she brought me up to sing that one. It was super special. She had those wristbands and turned them all yellow for the song. It was awesome.
Man, what was that like seeing more than 50,000 people lose their minds at Soldier Field?
It was pretty awesome, man! It’s an amazing experience and it’s like being in an incredible hotel. It’s like every once in a while someone will put you up in a suite at the Westin, like Dude, this is really nice!
If I’m not mistaken, you once told Eric and Kathy from 101.9 FM “The Mix” about getting out of a traffic ticket thanks to your fame. What other opportunities or perks has your celebrity given you that weren’t the case before?
Yeah, that was early on with “Keep Your Head Up.” I was pulled over by a female cop, and then once I started singing the song, she let me off. It was pretty sweet. Just today the guy that was checking us in at baggage recognized me—my bag was overweight, but he let it go. The little perks of a good song!
Does this all beat busking on the streets? Or did that world have its own set of colorful characters and stories that you might miss now?
You know, it’s really funny. I have a song about it on my first album, called the “Biggest Man in Los Angeles,” and at that moment, it was the best thing ever. I’d never really had crowds of 40 people stop and cheer when I was done with one of my original songs. Now the crowds are bigger and the stage is bigger and there’s more going on, but there’s a through line that’s super similar. So it’s hard to say which one is better or worse. They both just seem like part of the same story.
Does anybody ever come up and say, “I saw you on the corner of such-and-such”?
Yeah, all the time! And they pull out the CD [from those days]. What’s cool about Santa Monica is it’s a travel destination, so a lot of people from across the country go on vacation there. So I’ll be driving through Kansas, I’ll play a show and someone will come up with a CD they bought on the street and say, “We saw you on Harrison Street.” I will say that it’s been really sweet to have started like that, because it’s a very grounding thing to have started playing for five to ten people. When things happen that might seem annoying in your current situation, you always have it to [remind you to] chill out. Having put in a lot of time in that environment makes where I am now even better.
Even before all that, how did singing alongside your dad when you were a kid prepare you for what you’re doing now?
I learned a lot from having him around all the time, like the hustle of songwriting. That’s kind of the center of everything. What makes a show great is when everyone connects to these songs. I think sometimes [when listening to music] we get lost in the artist and production, but to me it all comes back to What are the songs? If you have enough songs that everybody can sing along to, you’re going to have a great show, and I kind of learned that from my dad.
What’s next for Andy Grammer?
This tour is going to be great, there will be a new single released, and it’s like chapter three, man. We’re figuring out merch over here, we’ve got a new set list, and we’ve got a big television appearance coming up. You’re catching me right as I’m walking out to the diving board, and it’s really exciting!
Andy Argyrakis is a Chicago-based writer/photographer whose credits include the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Daily Herald, Daily Journal, Illinois Entertainer, Hear/Say Now, Concert Livewire, Chicago Now, Redeye, Metromix, Paste, Downbeat, Spin.com, MTV.com, Fuse TV, UP TV, Pollstar, and Celebrity Access, among many others. He also is the founder and content curator for ChicagoConcertReviews.com.