Don't count Gavin DeGraw as one of the singer-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 album, "Make a Move," he teamed up with other songwriters on all 11 songs.
"When I put out 'Sweeter,' that was my first attempt at really doing some co-writing for my own album," DeGraw says in a 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. And not just the songwriting, but also the production and working with different producers really brings new sounds and new rhythmic structures. It really adds a lot more interesting elements to the album that wouldn't be there if it was me just diving into my own brain and trying get creative. 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 that 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 for other artists — gives the artist his or her best chance at coming up with hits.
Some artists, though, resist co-writing, interpreting it as a suggestion that the artist needs to change to come up with something more conducive to radio play.
DeGraw, 37, says commercial success is a consideration, but he has made sure his collaborations have produced songs that are true to the type of music he wants to make and what he wants to say.
"You know what, you always want to have a hit, first of all," he says. "All artists want a hit. It doesn't matter how avant garde the artist is or as far out as they may possibly think or say they think, everybody wants to have something that people recognize. So obviously, of course, you're always hoping that something's going to catch on.
"But at the same time, you always want to make sure the quality is there. So you really want to make sure your subject matter is there and that you're really bringing it when you release it, that it's something you can still get behind."
DeGraw says he found that co-writing brings far more advantages than drawbacks. On "Make a Move," he teamed up with leading tunesmiths Ryan Tedder (of OneDirection), Martin Johnson (Taylor Swift, Daughtry), Chris DeStefano (Luke Bryan, Rascal Flatts) and David Hodges (Evanescence, Kelly Clarkson). He says the collaborations have enhanced creativity. He pointed to Tedder as an example.
"He's a wonderful writer. He's a great guy. When he writes alone, I'm sure that as a writer, it [co-writing] still helps his mind, helps his brain, his creative process. He does so much writing and so much co-writing as well, that there's always something new to draw from. So even when you're not co-writing a song, if you come out of a session and you were co-writing with somebody, and the next day you start writing something on your own, you feel inspired because you've been taking in all of this new information. It's a special process, and staying inspired is so important in pursuing those new options, those new ideas."
DeGraw is seeing a difference in his music because of the collaborations.
"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 says. "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."
With "Make a Move," DeGraw has gotten a bit more uptempo, with deeper grooves and beats that are more danceable — qualities that are in step with much of the music played on top 40 and pop radio.
Earlier in his career, DeGraw fell firmly in the singer-songwriter camp, gaining comparisons to the likes of John Mayer and Elton John, with a rootsy pop sound that rocked on occasion, but was mostly easy-going. But his biggest successes were with some of his friskier tunes.
DeGraw's 2004 debut CD, "Chariot," was a million-selling hit that included the singles "I Don't Want to Be" (an edgy, hooky rocker that topped the Billboard magazine Pop chart) and "Chariot" (a pop-rocker that was a top 5 Adult Pop single). "In Love with a Girl," a punchy track from his 2008 self-titled second CD, also reached No. 5 on the Adult Pop chart. But his 2009 third album, "Free," failed to click.
Going into "Sweeter," DeGraw felt an urgency to be on the charts again. 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. A stint in 2012 on the hit television show "Dancing with the Stars" helped his visibility, as well.
"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," the first single (a disco-ish tune 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 best songs) is earthier, as DeGraw sounds a bit like a poppier Ben Harper. Even the ballads, including "Eveything Will Change" and "Finest Hour," have rhythmic heft and radio-friendly synthetic touches.
One benefit of the more grooving, uptempo sound is it's given 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 says. "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 to bring that rock and roll thing you do as well."
Alan Sculley is a freelance writer.
Jodi Duckett, editor
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