Singer-Songwriter Gavin DeGraw Embraces an Improvisational Approach


  • LeAnn Mueller
Growing up outside of Bethel, New York, the site of the original Woodstock concert, had a profound impact on singer-songwriter Gavin DeGraw. As a result of his upbringing, he absorbed a good mix of music from the '60s.

“I’ve always like the same kind of music,” says DeGraw in a recent phone interview. He performs on Wednesday, Aug. 16, at the Ohio Theatre. “I liked old school stuff. I liked all that hippie baby boomer rock ’n’ roll. I grew up around psychedelic rock and old school folk and songwriter stuff. That was big in the house.”

When he heard a Billy Joel album that his brother had brought home, he instantly gravitated to the Piano Man’s music. And he says when he saw Joel perform in concert several years later, he knew what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.

Subsequently, DeGraw has had the chance to open for Joel on a number of occasions.

“I did my first show with him about three and a half years ago,” he says. “That’s been a real trip. I just did a show with him in Minneapolis. The biggest compliment of my career is being recognized by my biggest influence. I’ve played Madison Square Garden with him ten times. We’ve played Fenway Park and Wrigley Field, and that’s been a really wild ride. For a piano player or singer, that’s about the biggest compliment you can get.”

Initially, DeGraw, who started playing piano when he was 9, cut his musical teeth on New York’s open mic scene before breaking through with the 2003 release of his debut album, Chariot. That album would sell over one million copies and yield the hit singles “I Don’t Want To Be,” “Follow Through” and the title track.

DeGraw still fondly recalls those open mic days.

“I used to play everywhere from the Bitter End to the Sidewalk Café and the Living Room and CBGB’s Gallery,” he says, referencing hole-in-the-wall clubs in Manhattan. “I played everywhere — no shit. I played on the streets and everywhere they would have me and places they wouldn’t have me. I played until they kicked me out. I was just trying to make a living.”

In the wake of his successful debut, DeGraw’s subsequent albums established him as a singer-songwriter of significant stature. He constantly tours and records and returned last year with the studio effort Something Worth Saving, an album that paired him up with a slew of different songwriters.

Perhaps his most eclectic album, it begins with the anthemic “She Sets the City on Fire,” a tune sounds like a more soulful Maroon 5, and includes mid-tempo ballads such as “You Make My Heart Sing Louder” and “Say I Am,” a piano-driven dirge that shows off his remarkable voice.

Dubbed the Gavin DeGRAW TOUR (the emphasis is on "raw"), his current tour will include songs spanning his entire career. He’ll perform the tunes as a trio for the very first time in the States.

“It’s not the typical thing,” DeGraw says of the tour. “It’s not the typical five-piece band thing that has become an antiquated in the music industry. This is a trio vibe. I would call this more cred-oriented. It’s about getting out there and playing and really playing. We don’t rely on technology to make up for instruments that aren’t on stage with us. That type of stage trick helps makes things seem bigger and more elaborate, but I find it to be a vibe killer. I prefer the rawer approach.”

He says the shows might feature fewer musicians, but the trio will make “just as much as noise” as a five-piece.

“Rather than relying on someone else to pick up the slack, you just pick up the slack yourself,” he says. “We’re all just going for it. It’s full on and energetic. It’s not a sleeper, this show. The form is much freer. We’re not inclined to make the show as identical as the night before as we have been. It’s been more improvisational. I think the fans are really going for it. Interestingly enough, the more instruments you remove from the songs, the more the songs speak for themselves. That’s one of the more interesting things about the tour.”

He says fans shouldn’t worry that he’ll focus on deep tracks and obscure tunes. He unabashedly plays the hits, albeit rearranged versions of them.

“I don’t want to go to a Billy Joel show and have him not play ‘Piano Man,’” he says. “You have to play the songs that got people there in the first place and then elaborate on that and take them for a ride. This tour is an opportunity to show my audience the songs I fell in love with. It’s not just me playing my songs. I get to reference songs I fell in love with while growing up. We’ll play Ray Charles or Eton John or Billy Joel. We’ll reference things that we love, whether it’s that or Sam Cooke or Marvin Gaye. It’s a kitchen sink kind of approach. I want to show people where my music fits in with all that.”

While DeGraw hasn’t begun writing tunes for his next album yet, he says he doesn’t think he’ll collaborate with other songwriters like he did on Something Worth Saving. Rather, he says he might take the approach that Springsteen took with the sparse, stripped down Nebraska.

“For myself and my satisfaction in my heart right now and what I need to do for my fans and for people who don’t like bullshit is to give them the most real thing,” he says. “Right now, everything feels so fake and plastic. I want to be the guy who wipes off the makeup and reveals the true bone structure. We need more reality. That’s the reason I’m doing this tour. I’m just tired of the bullshit. There will be no phoning it in at Gavin DeGraw show, that I can assure you. There will be no fixing my bad notes.”

Gavin DeGraw, 8 p.m., Wednesday, Aug. 16, Ohio Theatre, 1511 Euclid Ave., 216-771-4444. Tickets: $25-$125,

We welcome readers to submit letters regarding articles and content in Cleveland Scene. Letters should be a minimum of 150 words, refer to content that has appeared on Cleveland Scene, and must include the writer's full name, address, and phone number for verification purposes. No attachments will be considered. Writers of letters selected for publication will be notified via email. Letters may be edited and shortened for space.

Email us at

Support Local Journalism.
Join the Cleveland Scene Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the Cleveland Scene Press Club for as little as $5 a month.