Q&A: Gavin DeGraw On Life And Death, Family And The Real Blue-Collar Heroes Of His Stunning ‘Face The River’ Album

More From Forbes

Great art too often comes out of suffering and tragedy. Lost love, war, despair are inspirations and motivations for artists needing to work through their pain. For Gavin DeGraw and his stunning new album, Face The River, he was confronting the loss of both of his parents as well as a grandmother and grandfather in a short period.

So, as one would imagine, the conversation with DeGraw about Face The River was a deeply personal and emotional one. But it was also incredibly inspiring and moving as he celebrated his parents at great length.

I spoke with DeGraw about his dog, his family, musical heroes from Bruce Springsteen to Sam Cooke and the importance of honoring blue-collar workers. This was a hell of a conversation, one steeped in pain and real life, but one that hopefully moves you as much as it moved me.

Steve Baltin: Where are you today?

Gavin DeGraw: I’m in Las Vegas. I split my time with Nashville and Vegas.

Baltin: That’s an interesting combo. What brought you to Vegas? I know a lot of artists do residencies there, but I’m guessing you’re not doing one.

DeGraw: I love nightlife. I got the New York City addiction of living in an urban environment for years and years and things being open really late and having access to great food and great drinks. Once I moved some stuff around in Nashville just ’cause I lost some family and stuff. And I needed to get out of town for a little while so that I could get a little bit of a fresh start for a little while, and Vegas was somewhere I didn’t have too much of a history already. I needed a little bit of a breakup in scenery. You know what I mean?

Baltin: I talk with artists all the time about how environment affects writing, but I don’t hear a single trace of Vegas in this record.

DeGraw: No, absolutely not. And there’s a reason for that, because I wasn’t here at all during that process. This is more of a very recent thing. And I was selling my parents’ old property in Nashville, sold a couple of things. This was really just about a month ago that I got to clear everything out. I’d been avoiding it for quite some time just because it’s a little bit too heavy of a process.

Baltin: Yeah, I’ve been through it, so I do know what you mean.

DeGraw: Again, you get it, and I’m sorry that you have gone through it. Being that you did though, you and I are a part of a fraternity we’d never wanted to be members of. So here we are. And I think the thing that’s f**king me up the most about it is I don’t want to be part of the aldermen group of my lineage. And here I am, one of the oldest men in my family, and I’m in my mid 40s. Now, that’s weird.

Baltin: Oh, I see your dog in the background, by the way. What kind is it?

DeGraw: This is my son’s. They’re great company, aren’t they? He’s the best. And you know what else, Steve? They’ll never tell on you. And he doesn’t know what a bad cook I am when I give him his dry food. He’s like, “This is great. Thanks, you’re the best.” [chuckle]

Baltin: You say you are in your mid-40s and you don’t want to be one of the oldest men in your family, but I never felt like I had to grow up until dealing with my parents illness. I don’t want to get too personal, but taking this into the music, you can feel the heaviness in places. So having to grow up and deal with all this stuff, do you feel it in the record?

DeGraw: Yeah. this record was written from a very therapeutic standpoint. It was assembled from a very therapeutic standpoint. And of course on a global level, we were all going through unprecedented times as a world. And so when I was making the album, I was making the album during that time, at the height of COVID. And at the height of COVID, when everyone else was worried that they were going to catch COVID, my father was diagnosed with brain cancer. He had just had heart surgery. He had a valve replaced, and he came out of that with a mild stroke and was improving. Then he became more symptomatic, stroke-like symptoms soon after he came home and wasn’t getting better. But it was really hard to just set up an appointment and go and have him looked at. It was becoming more and more complex. And it went on for weeks and weeks, getting worse and worse. And then he went and insisted on another scan of some sort and they found this brain cancer. So it was just one more f**king thing, and that was not just a thing, but like another one of the worst things and we had to do it yet again. And just a couple of years earlier, my mom had passed, two weeks later, my grandma passed, six months later, my granddad passes. Then we’re good for a while. And two years later, whatever, my dad gets this bulls**t and we’re told, “Basically you’re f**ked.” So I was going into the studio and he really wanted me to make this record. So I was like, “Okay. Let me go into the studio and make this record.” And I really felt like it was a race against time to complete this record so he could hear this record. Of course, I was hoping we’d have some kind of miracle, but I was hoping we’d have a miracle with my mom too, and that didn’t happen either. And so I was hoping we’d have a miracle with my dad, and it didn’t happen. Now, this record I was hoping to be able to finish in time for him to hear. And the record was completed. I played him the record. At first, I played him three songs from the record a couple of weeks earlier. And then I got to play him the record in full one day. My brother and I took a drive, and a half hour later the phone rang, they said, “Your dad’s having an emergency.” He had to be rushed to the hospital. And that was the last, really the last time that we could have had time with him when he was cognizant, feeling normal, other than everything else he was going through. And so really, I got to play him this album without exaggeration in the nick of time until he had this other emergency and basically had to be medicated for the next like day and a half, taken out, the way that they do. But when I played him the first few songs, he said, “I wish, I wish your mother could have heard this.” And I said, “She wrote the record, Dad, she wrote the record.” And he said, “She did, she did write the record.”.

Baltin: I know what it’s like when everything comes at once, so I want to be sensitive in how we discuss. But I’m curious from a music standpoint, was there one moment early on or one song early on in the writing where you really heard your mom’s presence?

DeGraw: Man, let me tell you, every time I would write a song prior to my mother’s passing, every song I wrote, every song, I would call my mother and get her opinion. I would always call my mother for her opinion, I’d go call ’em on the phone, show up at their house, their apartment, say, “Hey, what do you think of this?” Toting a guitar or sit at a keyboard because I respected their musical opinion and their taste so much because they were both really musicians. That’s who they were. Now, granted, as when they got older, they got “real jobs” but that’s not how I identified them, that’s not how they identified themselves. They were musicians, they were real artistic kind of people. An if I would often just think, “God, I wonder what mom would think of this. I wonder if she’d think about this song.” When I wrote “Hero In Our House,” I wrote it right after she passed. And, man, I was so worried that I wouldn’t do a good enough job writing a song for her ’cause what could be worthy of your own mom? There’s nothing good enough for your mother, when you think about it. Seemingly, when you think about it, there’s nothing you can give your mother that could ever equate to what they gave you, right? So I was just trying to do my best job to pay homage and also to get all this poison out of my body. And I think also being sincere about things that go through your head when you lose somebody and you feel like you don’t deserve it that bad, and you certainly feel like they certainly don’t deserve it, they didn’t deserve to suffer like that. So not just the sadness, but the anger. There’s anger, and some people maybe don’t get angry, but well I do. And that’s okay for me to be honest about that. It’s okay to be angry about things when you feel like it’s not right, and I felt like it wasn’t right. But I also felt like it was the right thing to do to document that and be honest about those kind of feelings. It’s not all rainbows and butterflies out there, and it’s not all happy-go-lucky, and that’s okay, man. That’s okay, when you’re hurting, that’s when you should be making art. You need to document that stuff, and I was hoping that there’d be something there that people who weren’t getting spoken for would have something to hold on to as well, that they can hear something and go, “F**k, man, I feel that. I’ve been there. And I need to hear something like that right now.” Just ’cause I needed to hear something like that and I needed to get it out of me.

Baltin: How did you mix that with the positive of them though?

DeGraw: I also wanted to tell the love story of them ’cause they’ve got a cool love story, their great times, and because of the generation they come from. There’s a romanticism from that generation. They were baby boomers, man, and they were at Woodstock together in 1969. My dad was at Woodstock with my mother with his jack card in his back pocket for Vietnam, he had to go to basic training right after that weekend. He didn’t want to go to war for that purpose, he was a patriot but he didn’t want to go to war for that, like a lot of people, and he was just very honest about that stuff. And we’re from a very interesting place in upstate New York in the Catskills, we’re about 20-25 minutes from the original Woodstock site in Bethel, New York. So we grew up going there and hanging out and camping and playing drum circles and s**t like that when I was a teenager on the anniversary days of it. And there was this really cool influx of people from around the world who would show up and be in that environment and celebrate that music festival that happened. And there’s just one more thing that made that place interesting, and added to the local culture, and also something that my parents liked to talk about, was that element of upstate that we don’t want to forget. And I document that in the song “Freedom (Johnny’s Song).” It’s all about how we came up, how we grew up and about their background. My dad’s favorite song was called “Brothers In Arms.” They played it at his funeral. It’s Mark Knopfler’s song. Now, my mother was in the Reserves, my dad had been in the Army, and I referenced, I say, In the bridge I mention, “Went to Woodstock with the jack papers in his back pocket for Vietnam, working in the slammer.” My dad was a prison guard. [I say], “Working in the slammer, did hard times, did hard time, went through hell together, yet they died for each other, these lovers in arms.” So I make a lot of references to using “Brothers In Arms,” but making it lovers in arms, and I really try to tie together very intimate things within the family. My dad had a Chevy pickup truck, it had one album in it, it never came out, it’s a Willie Nelson tape. And there were five of us. He worked for the New York State Department of Corrections, and in the summer times, he’d mow lawns, try to pick up extra money and stuff like that, build picnic tables, he was welding stoves, building wood stove, did what it took. And we were real church people, so we were at church at least once a week. And so I take you through the first verse of “Freedom.” My dad’s name was Wayne, but it was actually John Wayne DeGraw. So I say, “Johnny’s got a family of five and he works for the state. He got debts that are piling high and an old Chevrolet. Willie on the dash playing tunes, smells like grass ’cause he’s covered in June, picking up extra cash, mowing lawns with the kids, stained sneakers, walked through the church as he kneeled down to pray, saying, ‘Please Lord, have pity on us, take our troubles away. These seeds that we’re planting with you we hope one day, oh Lord, will come true.'” And I thought it was important just to really document the blue-collar American life story that I think is getting ignored a lot. Springsteen did it, Billy Joel did it, and this is a part of working America that is not spoken about in a lot of music right now. But I wanted to pay homage to these people who are grinding it out every day, trying to provide for their family. Doing their version of what they think is best for their family. The hard-working American story. Then my mom signed up for the Army Reserves ’cause she wanted college money. She wanted to get her master’s. She wanted to make more money for the family. So in the second verse, I say, “Ma says she’s gonna enlist and the Corps pays for school, ’cause that more money they could work with, she just had the tools.” John says, “What do you think’s best? I’ll work doubles and make up the rest. Still drowning in college debt, I’ll never forgive or forget.” So I just want to tie that in and remember people’s sacrifices for us. They slaved for us and their story doesn’t belong just to them. That’s a good portion of the public that needs to be treated like the daily heroes that they are ’cause they are.

Baltin: These are your parents and you have put in every detail of your parents, but at the same time, for the song to work, it has to be something that resonates with everyone who sees their parents in it or their life story in it. Was there a moment where you realized that it’s something that people in Turkey, Japan, California or New York has seen their parents do.

DeGraw: Absolutely. And I think you’re 100 percent spot on. I think that a song like “Freedom” is a song that anybody who appreciates hard work will identify with, whether they’re the one doing the work or witnessing the work that’s been done for them. And I remember when I was playing that song, at the time, my folks were still alive. My mom, she was going through her treatments, and I didn’t know how to finish that chorus, I didn’t know what the last lines of that chorus should be. And then finally I finished it, and I went in and I said, “I gotta play you this chorus.” And when I finally got to that line, I said, “Nobody leaving this planet alive.” My dad uncontrollably he went, “F**king right.” And I thought, “Wow, I shook a chord with dad.” It’s a hard thing to do. He was no bulls**tter. My dad was the kind of guy, I’d write a song, I’d say, “Hey, what do you think of this lyric?” And he would say, “I think you could do better.” That’s was just who he was. And when I said, “Nobody leaving this planet alive,” he blurted out, “F**king right.” I hit him there, and I thought, “Wow, I did it. I got dad. Hard to do, man.”

Baltin: Given how personal these songs are is it going to be difficult to play these songs live?

DeGraw: No doubt about it. A lot of these songs were just really written as therapy and coping mechanisms, but also from the standpoint of, “I wanna memorialize these people who were amazing, I want them to live on, I want them to be remembered, I want these people to be celebrated.” They were just the best in every possible way, and so yes, there’s definitely songs here that I’m wondering how I’m going to get through some of it, but that’s also why I waited so long to go out and tour this material, I needed to give it time to breathe, for me, I needed to give it time to breathe. I didn’t want this to be a funeral march of a tour. I knew that I’d have to give this thing some time to breathe for my sake because I also don’t want to feel that heaviness when I’m walking into a room or on stage,

Baltin: What were those songs that you either loved or that you developed a new appreciation for as you were making this record because you realized how much the songs spoke to your feelings?

DeGraw: There’s so much material. Well, firstly, of course, there’s gonna be a great song like “The River,” like [Bruce] Springsteen. This blue-collar poetry that is representing these lifestyles that aren’t treated like the great folk art that they are. They need to be celebrated with this great folk art. One of my favorite songs ever is Sam Cooke, “A Change Is Gonna Come.” And since the first time I heard it, I heard how broken he felt. When I wrote “Face The River,” I wanted to write my own version of “A Change Is Gonna Come.” I wanted to write my own version of Jimmy Cliff, “Many Rivers To Cross.” With Sam Cooke, I feel like he’s such a great American artist the way I feel that Billy Joel is a great American artist. And I don’t categorize music the same way a lot of people do of, “Oh, it’s soul music. It’s country. It’s folk.” When I hear great American artists like a Sam Cooke, like a Springsteen, or James Taylor, I say, “That’s American music. I make American music.” So I don’t fit within the parameters necessarily of any of the classic categories just because I love music, not a category of music. And so I wanted to write music that was a reflection of my passions of music, which are vast.