Don’t count Gavin DeGraw as one of the songwriters who balks at co-writing with other artists.
He dipped his toes into the co-writing water on his previous album “Sweeter,” collaborating on four songs.
For his recently released CD, “Make a Move,” he teamed up with other songwriters on all 11 songs on the album.
“When I put out ‘Sweeter,’ that was my first attempt at really doing some co-writing for my own album,” DeGraw said in a recent phone interview. “I felt like the co-writing thing went so well on ‘Sweeter,’ I enjoyed it. It shed new light on songwriting for me and brought new elements to the songs I get to perform that I wouldn’t have been able to touch if I was doing it on my own. … It also alleviated a lot of that strain of feeling the pressure of doing it all on your own, and it freed me.”
Having artists co-write, of course, has become a favorite strategy, especially for major labels and their artists who are trying to build their success through mainstream radio airplay. The idea is that pairing an artist with a songwriter – ideally one with a track record of writing hits – gives the artists their best chance at coming up with hit songs.
Some artists, though, resist co-writing. It can be seen as a sign the record company doesn’t believe in the artist’s songwriting ability or wants to shift the artist’s sound to be more conducive to radio play.
DeGraw, 37, said commercial success is a consideration, but he has found that co-writing brings far more advantages than drawbacks. On “Make a Move,” he teamed with such leading tunesmiths such as Ryan Tedder (of OneRepublic), Martin Johnson (Taylor Swift, Daughtry), Chris DeStefano (Luke Bryan, Rascal Flatts) and David Hodges (Evanescence, Kelly Clarkson). From what DeGraw’s seen, co-writing has only enhanced his creativity and his writing chops.
“I think it has made me a little bit more bold as far as what I could or should say, as far as what my material was,” he said. “Sometimes it takes you out of that lonesome introspective thing and turns you into a little bit more, you can take on a persona a little bit differently if you’re in a room with somebody else. You think OK, cool, well, let’s experiment here. I like that element of it.”
Always seen more as a singer/songwriter than pop artist, keyboardist/singer DeGraw had more of a rootsy pop sound earlier in his career. The sound connected at first, as his 2004 debut CD, “Chariot,” was a million-selling hit that included the singles “I Don’t Want to Be” (which topped the “Billboard” magazine Pop chart and was used as the theme song for TV’s “One Tree Hill”) and “Chariot” (which was a top five Adult Pop single). He got another top five Adult Pop hit with “In Love With a Girl” from his self-titled second album.
But after his third album, “Free,” failed to click, DeGraw felt an urgency to return to the charts. With “Sweeter,” he tried co-writing and shifted a bit toward more of an uptempo, rhythmic sound. The musical mix worked, and the album produced a No. 1 hit on “Billboard’s” Adult Pop chart in “Not Over You” (a mid-tempo tune with an insistent beat) and a top 20 hit on the same chart with the potent and grooving title song.
“Make a Move” is DeGraw’s most assertive and modern sounding album yet, with programmed rhythms and synths used more prominently than on the previous CDs. He pushes more toward a dance-pop sound on “Best I Ever Had,” a disco-ish first single, which reached number 14 at Adult Pop. “Leading Man” is a sassy rocker with some fuzzed out tones.
Meanwhile, “Every Little Bit” – one of the CD’s best songs – is earthier, as DeGraw sounds a bit like a poppier Ben Harper. Even ballads, such as “Eveything Will Change” and “Finest Hour,” have rhythmic heft and radio-friendly synthetic touches.
The more grooving, uptempo sound is also giving DeGraw’s live show added energy. Several songs allow him to step out from behind the piano, move around the stage and engage the audience.
“To me it just diversifies the show big time,” DeGraw said. “People who really know my music know that I play the piano, and I like to do a lot of writing on the piano and things like that. That’s already kind of, to a degree, sort of an expectation, which I’m happy with. But even if you see Billy Joel perform, he doesn’t just sit at the piano all night. You know, you’ve got bring that rock and roll thing you do as well.”