The term “singer-songwriter” makes Gavin DeGraw cringe.
“It makes you feel like a weakling the way all the singer songwriters are marketed, you know what I mean? … It’s not masculine enough for me. I don’t feel like I fall into that category in a lot of ways,” he said about his “typecasted genre.”
Maybe it’s because he was seen as the sensitive songwriter dude that the gregarious 31-year-old is anxious to break out of that mold. DeGraw – who sings, writes his own songs and plays multiple instruments – debuted his skills as a pop artist on his 2003 album “Chariot.” The CD went platinum two years after its release and spawned the “American Idol” staple “I Don’t Want To Be,” as well as the love song “Follow Through.”
DeGraw sought a harder edge for his self-titled second album, which dropped Tuesday, and enlisted the expertise of producer Howard Benson, who helped shape discs by Daughtry and My Chemical Romance.
“I thought it was important to get someone who could grab the vocal and really push it out in the forefront, and put enough body in the rest of the recording to make it sound powerful,” DeGraw told Benson’s handiwork can be heard on the new single “In Love With a Girl,” ranked No. 47 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, which begins with a hard-rock guitar intro. The focus of the music, though, is DeGraw’s bread-and-butter: his catchy hooks, soulful voice and emotive lyrics.
“I wasn’t trying to distinguish the album as a rock album or a soul album or a singer-songwriter album,” he said, lounging at The National Underground, the dive bar he co-owns in New York’s trendy Lower East Side with his brother. “I was intentionally trying to avoid the idea of being one genre, and just be someone who writes songs and will do whatever production suits the song.”
Tom Corson, executive vice president of J Records, said DeGraw is “growing up a bit,” and his new album reflects that.
“The record retains incredible pop hooks and incredible singing and a large pop sensibility,” Corson said. “But it has a very edgy and crunchy feel to it that gives a little more gravitas, if you will, to the songs.”
DeGraw grew up the son of a prison guard and detoxification specialist in the small town of South Fallsburg, N.Y., and cultivated a fan base playing gigs in Manhattan restaurants, bars and clubs. He eventually signed with J Records and released “Chariot.”
The label heavily promoted the record, and DeGraw was cast as an heir to Billy Joel – another pop piano man. The album’s success was slow-burning, but “I Don’t Want To Be,” the angsty theme to TV’s “One Tree Hill,” eventually became a Top 10 Billboard hit in January 2005.
Bolstered by that accomplishment, DeGraw toured another year in support of “Chariot.” He began working on his follow-up in 2006, and continued performing for live audiences.
The stage seems like a second home for DeGraw. At a recent concert in downtown Manhattan, he energetically worked a venue dominated by female fans who sang along to his songs about love returned, spurned and unrequited.
In recent weeks, though, DeGraw said he’s noticed more guys at his shows. He considers the extra dose of testosterone a positive sign that the music is catching on.
“They’re going, `Oh, you know what? This dude’s different. It’s not just nice boy. It’s not just nice boy playing music,'” he mused. “I wanna make nice music, I wanna make beautiful music. But I also think it’s important that in my songs and in my delivery I reveal many of the elements of being who I am.”