Singer/songwriter Gavin DeGraw drops buck-fifty words (“reciprocity,” “trajectory”) with the dexterity of a linguistics grad student, though his own university tenure was cut short.
“I didn’t fulfill my college pursuit of culture,” he told Xpress during a phone call from Brooklyn. “So I’m looking to learn about it out in the world.” DeGraw brings his big vocabulary to the Orange Peel Aug. 26.
The “Chariot” performer got his start playing New York City listening rooms a decade ago, but didn’t catch his break until 2003 when his song, “I Don’t Want to Be,” was chosen as the theme for WB television series One Tree Hill.
While that teen melodrama served as DeGraw’s catapult into the pop-radio collective consciousness, the singer remains steadfastly down to earth. When asked if he considers himself a celebrity, he balks. “No—God no,” he says.
“I don’t really think about that,” DeGraw says. “I must be kind of boring to people, because I don’t regard myself that way. I’ve not had any red-carpet parties for myself yet. It’s not a priority.”
What does seem to top DeGraw’s to-do list is psychoanalyzing his audience. “I think you have to play to the room. You have to take into consideration what audiences are responding to at the beginning of the night,” he says.
Part of preparing for the stage begins in the studio, compiling a group of songs that can stand up to night-after-night play. DeGraw says he’s happy with this year’s album, his self-titled sophomore effort released on RCA. While the musician claims he didn’t go into the studio “with a blueprint,” he was aiming for a sound “closer to my voice than the last album.”
“I want to leave people open-minded for what I might do next,” he says. Gavin DeGraw is notably harder and more heavily-produced than the musician’s 2003 debut, Chariot. Rockers (albeit decidedly pop-flavored) like “In Love with a Girl” with its fuzzy guitar solos and “Cop Stop” with funky keys and up-front vocals promise dancing fodder, while slower numbers like “Young Love” and “We Belong Together” hone in on territory claimed by sappy chart-toppers like Edwin McCain and Train. Not that there’s anything wrong with giving the people what they want.
However, it is a little hard to believe baby-faced nice guy DeGraw when he sings about a girl who “wants to make love when I wanna fight.” Has he really endured heartbreak and lovesickness?
Remember, this is the guy who points out in interviews that he learned music at the knees of his parents and still performs with his brother. Are the DeGraws of South Fallsburg, N.Y., the modern-day von Trapps?
“I’m definitely drawing from personal experience,” he says.
At the same time, “I’m not wallowing in my own personal life,” he says. DeGraw views his responsibility as a songwriter as “telling you the bad news, but also giving hope sometimes.” He trusts that his material is “satisfying the songwriter void.”
There is definitely a commercial demand for heartfelt soft rock—especially coming from the vocal chords of photogenic troubadours. The most recent crop was led by blue-eyed soul performer-turned-Gap-model John Mayer; DeGraw’s classmate at the Berklee College of Music. DeGraw notes their similarities, but still shrugs off the comparision.
“We exist in the same era—it kind of makes sense that people would compare the two, but I don’t think we’re so stylistically married,” he says.
“We’re both kind of Lone Rangers,” DeGraw says of himself and Mayer. Pop maverick, perhaps, but DeGraw is no lone wolf. In fact, what the singer seems most concerned with is making connections, both from the stage and on the street.
“I’m pretty much always looking to bump into somebody who wants to tell me something particularly cool about wherever it is that I’m playing,” he says. “Things to check out, places to go to, like a local pub or sandwich shop or cafe. Places that are distinctively that town or that city.”
When told that Asheville is distinctive in its selection of great beer, and that there are several microbreweries within a few blocks of The Orange Peel, DeGraw sounds happy.
“I know what I’ll be doing at three o’clock,” he says.
who: Gavin DeGraw with Matt Wertz
what: Top-40 singer/songwriter
where: Orange Peel
when: Tuesday, Aug. 26. 8 p.m. ($27.50 in advance, $30 at the door. www.theorangepeel.net or 225-5851)