When the entire world first saw Greyson Chance in that viral YouTube video 9 years ago, no one could exactly foresee what was to come.
It sounded like every young artist’s dream: getting discovered by a popular television host, signing a record deal, trips around the world, and a debut album. What the entire world didn’t see, though, is an 18-year-old Greyson Chance knocking on the doors of other record labels who weren’t interested in giving him a second chance after getting dropped by his first label. He felt depleted, purposeless, and had to make peace with the idea that maybe music actually wasn’t for him. He packed up his stuff, moved back home from LA, and decided to go to university.
When Chance released his sophomore album portraits earlier this year, the media was quick to call his tale a redemption story—talented singer goes viral on the internet, gets a record deal, is dropped by his label, decides to quit music, comes back stronger—and truer—than ever. After feeling the piano keys under his fingers again while in his second year of university, Greyson Chance had the itch to start creating music again. This time, though, everything had to be on his terms, as it should be. Rather than deeming it a redemption story, one could argue it’s a tale of triumph; the triumph of a man who needed a change in order to make the music industry change with him.
His album portraits is an incredible insight into how far the 22-year-old singer has come from that YouTube video; those dark moments as a teen in the music industry that tries to eat you alive, and the growth he experienced as an artist and a songwriter when he was able to make the music he wants to create. His new single ‘Boots’ is a nod to his home of Oklahoma and his feelings regarding the current obsession with Western cowboys in pop culture. It’s quintessentially Greyson, which is to say that it is powerful, confident, and true.
We sat down with the Oklahoma pop singer ahead of his gig at the Mod Club in Toronto where we talked all about the Western imagery craze in pop culture right now, why he decided to partner with The Ally Coalition on this tour, and what made him decide to return to music after he gave it up for good.
I want to hear all about your new single ‘Boots’. What’s the inspiration behind the track and the video?
‘Boots’ is really, at its core, a narrative on a cultural observation. I’m from Oklahoma originally and the song is just really about how I’ve been noticing within this past year pop culture’s over-utilization and oversaturation of Western imagery. It all really started when my friends and I were in LA and we were walking out one day and we were kind of like seeing these kids who were our age, super hipster kids, walking around and wearing vintage Wrangler jeans, cowboy hats, the whole nine yards. We were kind of laughing because we knew because we had been strolling through the same vintage stores as well, we realized they were like probably buying this denim for $200 a pair. That was making us laugh because in Oklahoma we can find that shit for five cents or in a dumpster, you know? We were kind of laughing at that. The video is very much so about not just about wearing the hat and being in the gear. It’s about a true cowboy and the true Johnny Cash sort of image. It’s about the attitude, it’s about an obsessive loyalty, it’s about a particular wildness, and it’s about being able to throw a punch in the bar.
Which all sounds fun.
Yeah, I had a lot of fun writing it! I’ll probably get a lot of crap for it.
Why do you think that?
Because it’s 2019! [laughs]
Somebody will always find something to complain about.
So let them talk!
What I really love about your album portraits is how clear it is that it was all you—you wrote it, they are your stories, and the entire sound and aesthetic of the album just screams Greyson Chance. I know you left the music industry for a bit but came back to create an album on your terms. What was it like coming back on your own terms to create this collection of songs that are created by you?
It was extremely daunting and I was very excited to do it and I was very determined to do it, but I was also extremely nervous. I left LA when I was 18 and when I told you I was done with music, I really, really thought that was it. I was content with that decision in many ways. I had been so beaten down by the industry and at that time my confidence was so low that I really genuinely thought I was just not going to have a career in this like I wanted and maybe that’s okay. When I was in school in my first year, I didn’t even touch a piano. I didn’t want to write, I didn’t want to talk about music, I was just sick of it.
Then in my second year, it just very naturally happened. I think because of that and because I started to get this ecstasy again from writing music and started getting back this feeling that I had missed for so long, I think that’s when I began to realize I need to do this. At that point, it wasn’t necessarily for anybody else. I felt I needed to go back. I was also thinking a lot about the kid who was 15 and got dropped by the record label and I was thinking about through those tears at that age of me going, ‘keep going, keep going, keep going’. My goal was to write a record and see what happens. Honestly, I can’t believe we’re here now, it’s crazy. Last year at this time, we were finishing up the record and now tonight we’re playing Toronto and releasing a new song later tonight.
I know you also signed with Arista Records just this past June.
Yeah, June or July.
I love that record label because they really champion young and unique artists. How has it been like working with them? It must’ve been pretty daunting after being dropped by your previous record label and trying to decide whether you wanted to step back into one again.
I would say two months to make the decision and just have consistent thought really thinking about it. The only reason I signed with Arista is because of David Massey, who is the president of the company. He’s been championing artists for his entire career and he has such a history. When I first met with him, I didn’t even want to go to the meeting—I was kind of forced to go. When I got to the meeting, we were talking and I said, ‘Listen, I don’t really want to do this. I think you’re very kind and I love your story, but I’m extremely skeptical.’ He said, ‘Okay, well let’s talk through it.‘ We talked for two months and we talked about vision and we talked about ideas and I told him that I wanted to see my career grow, but I didn’t want to see the mechanisms of it change from my album portraits. Everything we did for that record I want to keep on doing.
Of course, because that record seems so you. You shouldn’t want to jeopardize that.
Yeah, because it’s authentic storytelling. Also, now anything you see my name on now, you know I’ve checked off on it. Seriously, even you and I sitting down right now, I can show you the email. [laughs]
That’s good though, you’re in control. That’s what you want.
I don’t do anything anymore unless I want to do it, and he’s been very understanding of that. So to answer your question, it’s been really good.
I want to talk about the song ‘plains’. You share a story of you & your mum. Do you find it difficult to share intimate details of your life in your music or do you find it’s a cathartic experience?
I’m sure my friends and family wish that I found it difficult [laughs]. I’m sure my ex-boyfriends feel the same way, too. But no, I don’t find it difficult. It’s just the way I get through like life, I just sort of sit down and write. The song ‘west texas’ is about two things: it’s about my mom giving me strength and it’s also about me witnessing my mom having to really see her mom die before her eyes in the last year. I just feel like when I sit down and I write music, I wouldn’t know how to do it any other way. I don’t think I would know how to be impersonal with it or not connect to something that I’ve gone through because I feel like then I wouldn’t be able to finish a song because I wouldn’t know the emotions behind it. It also goes back to the songwriters I’m inspired by; I’m a Joni Mitchell fanatic, you listen to ‘Blue’ and that’s her life, that’s her. Brandi Carlile is the same.
Very confessional with their art.
Yeah, it’s just really good storytelling and so I think that’s just the writer that I am and that is the writer that I want to be always.
Lyrics of my favorite song ‘white roses’ are ‘Darling, be careful with me because there’s part of me that you don’t know.’ What do those lyrics mean or represent to you?
The guy that song is about, that was the guy who I thought I was going to marry. We were very, very close to an engagement. I really thought he’s going to be the one I was going to marry. I think I started to realize at the end of it and the way he kind of handled it, I realized because I met him when I was in school, and I can talk to you and tell you about what happened and what I went through when I was 12 to 18, but it’s really difficult to fully explain it unless you were there. I do have some friends who I still have now that were there and around during that time and they can understand it a bit better. What I began to realize is anyone who I meet now moving forward I don’t think they’re going to be able to fully grasp what it was like and the trust issues that I had to go through when I was younger. That lyric is purely based on how he ended things. It was basically all me saying I have a past that you’ve heard about that you don’t really know because if you did you wouldn’t have said that shit to me.
You directed the music video for ‘white roses’. What was the experience of being a director like? Are there any other creative projects you’d like to try out, like writing a book?
Hell yeah! I co-directed it with Bobby Hanaford, who did everything for portraits and also did the video for ‘Boots’, too. He’s one of my dearest friends. We had talked about this story for the video for a year. I wrote the song early in the portraits cycle so we’ve been talking about it constantly and our idea for the video changed multiple times. There was always a similar theme, but it kept on changing and we landed on this story that plays out in the actual video. I told him I had run out at the time because we were maxing out our budgets for music videos during the portraits cycle so I was usually always running and organizing styling; on the ‘shut up’ video I would get off a take and then I would run to the steamer and the lint roller and get the other people ready. For ‘white roses’, we had a bit more money and he said, ‘Yeah man, you can finally now just be an artist,’ and I was like ‘Hmm, that doesn’t feel right to me!’ I said ‘Since I’m already styling for those two videos, I’m getting there at 5am when you’re getting there. We’re talking about the sequencing of the shots, I know what it is, let me jump in there!’ So, him and I that day we just really were partners and we were dealing with three actors who had to really like tell a story and I think that’s the biggest thing about directing—it’s being able to talk to these people and really instill to them what we’re trying to portray. We shot it at a trailer park in Lancaster, California, in a real trailer park. It was quite interesting, it brought me back home to Oklahoma.
Your other question about other creative ventures, I will most definitely have a book one day or some sort of memoir. It’s not going to be anytime soon because if I were to write it now, it would get me in a lot of trouble if I told it honestly. [laughs]
Do you have any favorite memoirs yourself?
I love David Lynch’s biography okay because it’s formatted really cool. I read a lot today, but I don’t read a lot of that particular genre. In school, I studied history and archeology, so the most boring fucking stuff!
You’re currently on your biggest tour yet. How has that been?
We did 11 shows in China, then we did a Europe run, and then just last weekend we started North America.
The Ally Coalition is coming on tour with you, too. Why did you decide to do that and why do you feel it’s important?
We just announced that this morning so you’re so good at your job! [Laughs] It’s really amazing and they are truly like the coolest people. I partnered with this organization called LIFEBeat on the last tour and they were giving safe sex research out to kids as they were coming into the show and they were handing out condoms, too, which I thought was hilarious and amazing. It’s like, ‘Come to the Greyson Chance show and have safe sex afterwards!’ I love that. We were talking about ways that we could expand on sort of just education and really kind of have a double punch of people coming here, seeing the show, and then having something that can connect them to their community. The Ally Coalition just brought this idea to us by saying they can provide partners and they can search for local charities in these communities that can come to the show. Certain things that are easy for us to do, like giving away 10 or 15 free tickets to a GSA [Gay-Straight Alliance] or something similar, can sometimes be difficult to organize when you’re on the road because it just gets really busy. That’s when The Ally Coalition came and said let us help you! I’m so blessed to be working with them. As a person in the community and as a person who was born in Oklahoma and raised there, I lived in the suburbs so it was very similar to what I guess anyone else would go through in the suburbs in North America—hard, but still manageable. I would come to shows as a sense of escape and that’s what I wanted to do as a community artist; just let people know that they can come here and these are the people that are going to be on their side if shit goes bad out there.
All about creating a safe space.
Yeah, a safe space and also make friends and learn about these equality centers and all these different things that are happening within the community.
Last question: now that a new chapter is ahead, what do you anticipate or hope for this next era?
Personal happiness. That’s what I hoped for with portraits, that’s what I hope for the next one, and all the other chapters moving forward. I think success is personally defined; money is cool, sure. Radio play, great, cool, whatever. You can be at the top and you can still be very unhappy, so what I want to focus on is just staying authentic and staying happy.
Check out Greyson Chance’s ‘Boots’ video below!