Stargazer: Andy Grammer

A shorter version of this interview originally ran in Brilliant Stars January/February 2010 issue. Since then, Andy has sold over 100,000 albums, played sold-out venues nationwide, won two BMI pop music awards, and appeared on many TV shows, including Dancing with the Stars, Today, Good Morning America, and Ellen.  

 

“Ladies and gentlemen, give it up for ANDY GRAMMER!” A round of applause from the audience greets Andy and his guitar. At age 26, he’s a rising star doing what he loves most: writing and performing his own music. After growing up with the example of his parents, songwriters Red and Kathy Grammer, Andy studied music in college.

In 2007, he released his first collection of songs called The World Is Yours. Now he’s a popular performer on college campuses and at music festivals, and has toured around the U.S. and abroad. When he’s home in California, Andy can spend eight hours a day writing music. He wants to reach as many people as possible with encouraging lyrics such as these from the song “Couple More Sleeves”: “Take the sparks from your heart, let them burn like a star in the sky, for everyone to see. Don’t be scared of who your are, let it out of the jar.”* Brilliant Star talked to Andy about his adventures as he charts his career path.

 

Q: What’s your favorite childhood memory?

Oh man, that’s pretty tough. Favorite childhood memory.  I just loved playing basketball at the pick up court. That was my stuff. That’s what I did.

 

Q: What was the most challenging experience you for you as a kid, and how did you handle it?

When I was getting teased by certain friends, not understanding what the heck that was. Like, why are you guys doing that? I don’t understand why we’re doing this right now. Once I learned that you just stop hanging around people like that, that they’ll stop. [The teasing] only works if you engage they way they engage. It’s so funny, but I remember that was tough.

 

Q: And that’s because you grew up in a positive environment?

I guess so . . . I didn’t really think I made fun of people that much, so when it happened to me, it was confusing.

 

Q: A good way to start out. What was it like to grow up with a father who was a performer?

Really cool. He would be gone for long stretches, but then he’d be home for long stretches. So, it’s kind of cool, because when he was home, he was really home. We got to make treehouses and do stuff, so it was good. It was great. I learned from him, I just saw how, when you’re doing art for a living, it’s just a lot of work. So when you grow up seeing that, you can start doing the work early rather than kind of thinking it’s some random thing that’s going to happen that’s going to make you famous. And using art as a career as an escape from your life, but actually going, Oh, this takes a lot of work. It’s a business.

 

Andy, age 8, with the family dog, Millie, at home in New York. 

 

Q: Did you hang out at concerts, or did you live a life separate from what he was doing?

For the most part, we didn’t go too much. I mean, there were times when I was little that I would go up on stage and perform with him sometimes . . . And then when he would get gigs in really cool parts of the world. I think rather than get paid, he would just have them fly the rest of the family out. So we went to like Hawaii and different places, like we were on a cruise and stuff where he would do shows and we would just get to go and hang. It was cool.

 

Q: You just mentioned basketball. Why do you think sports are beneficial for kids?

Well for me, you can learn teamwork, number one. And you can also learn, I mean, for me it was very clear like, all right, I want to make the basketball team, so how do I do this? . . . I can’t dribble very well with my left hand, so the process of going out on my court and dribbling every day, and then seeing the payoff . . . It’s something you can see progressing at a young age. You can see the benefit of hard work. In sports, you also get the feeling of a team, what it feels like to have five guys who all practice something together, to call a play and have it work is a really cool feeling.

 

Q: When did you know you wanted to be a performer? How did you find out?

It’s funny, because I just always thought that that would be what would happen. I always knew that I would do something that was very creative. And that’s not like an entitlement thing, It’s not like, Oh well, I’m supposed to be a star. It was just like, I kind of knew, like, I’m going to do whatever I need to do to get that.

 

Q: That’s wonderful. So many people don’t have that feeling. So it’s such a struggle to find what they want to do.

I knew it was a struggle. I just knew I wanted to do something creative. I mean, in high school, I took screenwriting classes and joined the theater. Then when I went to college, I studied theater in upstate New York, in Binghamton. And that was cool. It was pretty cool there, and just started still figuring out that that wasn’t quite right, and that I wanted to write the things I was going to say. So I learned music instead. Then I transferred to music business in Northridge, California.

 

Q: How did your parents encourage your career choice?

They were both pretty encouraging. My mom was like, a little wary, just because she did it with my dad. And she was like, you know, are you sure? They were both pretty encouraging.

 

Andy in middle school, when he started playing guitar.

 

Q: How do you get ideas for songs? Do you start with the lyrics or the melody or the rhythm, or is it different all the time?

It’s different all the time. Most of the time I start with the chords that I think are really cool, and then try to write a melody on top of those chords. And then finding what the colors of those chords make me think of and what emotions they bring out of me, and then try to fit words to the chords. I just started doing things where I’ll write lyrics and then try to go backwards, and it was a completely different process for me. But I like both ways.

 

Q: How would you sum up the message that you want to convey to people with your music?

My message that I want to convey is one of truth. Being true to yourself. That sounds really cheesy, so I need to like explain that. But I’m definitely not someone who’s trying to say, like, Be a Bahá’í. That’s not my goal. No one wants to hear that. What I want to say is you’re a very special person, so connect with that. I think you can be broad enough for that. My main goal is to be as honest about myself to help other people see themselves. That’s the goal.

 

Q: A lot of your music is about relationships.

Yeah. And I think it’s really hard, especially being a Bahá’í, being honest and being open is a thin line of like, Oh man, I struggle, so can I talk about this or not? Like art, if you don’t talk about that, you are cutting out the reality of art. That’s not good . . . It would be like having a bunch of paint, the paint you were going to use. And then just going like, all the dark colors, don’t use those. You look at your painting, and say, yeah this is cool, a couple times. But like I struggle and I have difficulty. This standard is high and it’s hard. And that line, I deal with it every day.

 

Q: Did it take some time for you to find your own sound? What was that process like?

I think you’re always finding it. I don’t know if you ever find it. I don’t think there is yours. Maybe in hindsight, people say, Wow, that guy really figured that out. But he took it from somewhere else and added on to it . . . That’s another piece that you start to realize that a lot of what you’re doing is what someone else did, and just becoming very humbled. And a lot of what’s great is simple . . . It’s a delicate balance there as well . . . So like, when you ask people, What music do you like? They don’t usually just answer. They go like, Well I don’t know. I mean, I like a lot of things. So it’s the same thing. What style of music do you play? Umm, I don’t know. I mean, it’s like, music. In the industry, you have to come up with a one-line answer, what it is that you do, just to nutshell it. But my sound is just me trying to figure out what I love. And that will change, like most art.

 

Q: Did you develop the beat box because you sang by yourself?

I’m very into rhythm. That was kind of a natural thought. It was like, whoa, how do I do that? That’s nice. How can I add rhythm in this whole thing?

 

Q: I love it. It’s hard! I don’t know how you go back and forth like that between the melody and the rhythm. It’s amazing. Do you prefer touring or recording?

It’s really weird, because I’m home writing right now, just off of about two months touring. It’s really intense, because one of them is exposure to tons of people all day long. You get done with a show, and then you talk to a hundred people, each for 30 seconds. And then home writing is like I’m putting in eight-hour days writing right now. So I get up at 8:00, I go for a run, and at 9:00, I’ll just write music. And that’s very solitary. So it’s this weird, weird stream of time, being with tons of people, and then being extremely alone. I see it as a constant back and forth, because you have to go back into yourself to find out what music to bring to people. It’s all like taking a journey alone back to the well, and then bringing it back to the village.

 

Q: Exactly. Are you getting ready to go into the studio?

The goal right now is, hopefully, sometime in January. I’ve had a really, really hard year actually, with my mom passing and business stuff that’s been really hard to do. I’m kind of excited this year with what I’ve been working on.

 

Q: How do you prepare for a performance? Do you get stage fright?

I don’t get stage fright anymore, pretty much. The only time I’m nervous is when I’m not prepared. I’m getting pretty good at having that not be the case. 

 

Q: How does the Internet influence your work with MySpace and Facebook and iTunes?

It’s really great. The promotional capabilities online . . . I don’t know how anybody did it. I can’t imagine how, I guess maybe because there was less going on. But how do you be a touring musician that hasn’t broken on the radio yet? How would you do that? Because right now, I can send out messages, like if I’m going to go to Nashville, I’ll send out a Facebook invite and I can ask 50 people, 200 people, and I’ve already got the word spreading around. I didn’t call, I just pushed a button and they all know. And I can just show up in Nashville and have a crowd. I don’t know how you could do that [before the internet].

 

Q: How does being a Bahá’í affect all your work?

I think it affects your life, like it’s your whole outlook on why we’re here. It affects your work. Anything you do you’re attempting to do in the best possible way. If you’re dealing with the money you receive for the night, you want to deal with very justly. If you’re writing music, you want to be writing from a place that’s real. It’s an interesting take on things. I think it’s the biggest effect of anything on my career . . .

 

Q: It’s definitely not the status quo.

Yeah . . . Sometimes it’s hard not being the status quo, but that’s the kind of forces that need figuring out. For me, it’s hard to write a simple love song, because there’s so much more going on. It’s frustrating, because you just write simple lyrics because it’s easier. It’s created a real interesting challenge of how do I, with who I am, connect to everybody else? Music is supposed to relate, in my opinion, so it makes for a beautiful challenge.

 

Q: I really notice that in your songs. It’s personal, but it connects with universal emotions. I really enjoy that.

Yeah. Because it’s not different. I mean, when a song says, I’m a Bahá’í, that’s important, but it doesn’t . . . when you say those words, you don’t like turn into a Power Ranger Bahá’í. Know what I mean? So like your costume comes off. So in reality, you can go through a day, I go through days where I’m, who knows in the eyes of God, better or worse than someone else who hasn’t done his work. So in Bahá’í music, or just for me to try and put too much emphasis on that is like, no. We’re human. The whole idea is that we are all really similar. So I try to not make any barriers in my music, because I don’t think there are any.

 

Q: I was so interested that you were on a tour to speak out against injustice in North Korea. How do musicians make the world a better place?

How do musicians make the world a better place? I think what you have in music is an opportunity to get through. Because what music does, it intensifies any emotion that you’re feeling. . . . I mean, like how do you get across an important point? There are many different ways to do it. You can watch a video. You could have someone speak to you. But I think . . . art has a way of actually pulling down your guard and letting something get through. It’s like . . . it’s got the thumbprint that you push in, and then the door opens. It’s a universal thumbprint into everybody’s heart if it’s done well. With the music carrying along the message, the music presses its thumb and the door opens, and goes, Oh, you guys can come in. Then you go in. That’s how art and music in general can help.

 

Q: What advice do you have for kids who want to be professional musicians?

My advice is do. Do the work. I would just say that: do. I think, in anything, if you’re talking more than you’re doing, you’re in trouble . . . In the entertainment world, I don’t know if it’s the same in other professions, I just know the entertainment profession, the norm is to talk more than you do. So to, you know, if you really, genuinely want to be a musician, shut your mouth about how big you’re going to be and about what kind of music you play, about like the band and your rock star style stuff, and write some music. And then figure out a way to perform it for people.
     The problem with entertainment is it gets caught up in this star mentality, and then what people really want to be is a star, or they want be famous. And of course, everybody has these little hidden desires that they want to be that. Even if you’re a doctor, you want to have your page as one of the top doctors in New York. Everybody’s got that in them, that desire. I think it’s actually heightened in the entertainment world, because the lines are a little bit more blurry. So I would say, if you want to be a musician, take the simple steps. Really, really work on your music and then find a way to do it. Like, I don’t know, go play open mike. Or figure out a way to get all your friends together and play a lot . . . 
     I also think it’s important to kind of be a self starter . . . If you’re in a place where people aren’t asking you to play music for money, which is a lot of the case, then figure out how to do it . . . What I did when I first got out to L.A. was, I really didn’t have a fan base, but I wanted to go on tour. So I made a CD . . . I had a bunch of friends across the country, and I said, Listen, everybody put a song on this compilation CD, and then throw a show in your city, and bring all your fans to it, and I’ll hand out this compilation CD in each city that I go to. You just kind of have to think out of the box a little bit. So then I went on an eight-city tour, like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco. And in each city that I went to, there [were] people to play for, because it made sense for everybody . . . 
     What goes along with this kind of dream that you’re going to get famous if you’re a musician, is the dream that someone else is going to do it for you. So like the biggest advice that I would say is that if someone else does it for you, they’re not going to give you what you want. I feel right now that the intensity that I work, the long hours, the days, the touring and stuff that I put in, I have no doubt in my mind that what I’m doing is as hard as law school. It just is, I work it that hard . . . You want to do music? Then do it. But don’t say you want to do music because it’s kind of an undefined idea in your brain.

 

Q: In this issue of Brilliant Star, we’re talking about planning for the future. What advice would you have to give to our readers?

I would say that everything around you changes, so . . . Like my dad told me when I was in school that all the people that are popular one year, or mean to you at one point, everything changes, so always make moves just based on love.
That’s the safest way to go. You can’t even imagine it when you’re in seventh grade that, you know, you go out for the football team, you’re going to be the coolest guy the next year. Or whatever. So you can’t be basing your friendships or your interactions and the way you treat people on any sort of social status. It’s just gotta be like, I love everybody and I’m going to be the best guy that I can be to everybody, but it’s all about change. All that stuff changes.

 

Q: Yeah, but to see that as a child, that’s cool. When did you decide to learn to play guitar?

I played for eight years in like middle school, high school. And then I started playing the guitar because I want chords. I wanted to be a songwriter, and that seems hard to do without an instrument to play chords. For some reason, that came a little bit quicker at first than the piano, so I played the guitar.

 

Q: What’s your favorite song that you’ve written, and why?

Seinfeld talks about . . . he got asked that question: What’s your favorite joke? And his answer was that it’s impossible to say . . . It would be like asking, What’s your favorite breath of air? It’s just what you do. And so his answer was, Whatever the next one is.

 

Q: What do you do for fun?

I very rarely get to, but I love to snowboard. I love to play basketball. And I love Balderdash. Ever play that game? It’s a board game, and it’s awesome. And I love to just be around creativity of any sort. L.A. is a pretty good spot for that . . . Actually, what I do the most for fun is just be around art, because there are so many parallels in all different types of art . . . When I first got here, where all my friends were at, in all  different perspectives of art, I was writing music, and you could tell it was a good song, but something was a little bit off. Just because I hadn’t defined my craft yet. And then you go see, like, someone who does stand up comedy, you’d be like, that’s funny, but it wasn’t quite right. And you could see it through all things. I love that. I love to be around the development of art.

 

Q: If you had one wish for Brilliant Star readers, what would it be?

Wow. My one wish would be that, at your age, you are a safe place for every friend that you meet in your school. You’re the safe person. And you really have to fight to be that person. But everyone respects you and loves you for that. And it’s the most fulfilling place to be. That would be my wish, is that everybody reading this article, you’re the safe one with your friends.

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