Ten years ago, Wrabel wrote a song that he knew would be the closing track for his debut album and it’s safe to say that he has had a busy decade.
He has been collaborating with artists such as P!nk, Kesha and the Backstreet Boys whilst releasing his music in the form of EPs. Autumn 2021 saw the much-anticipated release of his first album ‘these words are all for you’ (Big Gay Records/Nettwerk) with so many writing credits to his name, and a sound that is so distinctly him, it came as no surprise that the record felt less like a ‘first’ album and more of a showcase of captivating storytelling punctuated with a beautiful soundscape of production and breathtaking vocals.
Anyone familiar with Wrabel’s music will know all too well how he has developed a shorthand when it comes to capturing the essence of complex emotions. His ability to not just take you into a feeling but to paint an entire universe in several lines of a song propels his songwriting into a different realm from so many of his peers. His love for his craft shines through in all aspects of his art, whether it’s writing lyrics, performing on a piano in a tiny room of people, or having 90,000 people in an arena silent and hanging on every word as he sings, he is a musician for people who love music.
Now his first album is out in the world, he is already working on more music and collaborating with other artists, he has just been featured on Wild Rivers’ track ‘Thinking ’bout Love’ 1883’s Amelia Walker caught up with him to chat about his songwriting process, how he feels after the release of his first album and what’s next for him.
Firstly, congratulations on the fantastic album, I’m curious how different the process was for you writing an album in comparison to EPs?
I’ve been working on this album for about 10 years. So, you know, the EPs came out while I was still sitting on an album. Not that I took it (the album) more seriously but I was much more protective over it. I was like “it has to be exactly what it is ” whatever that means! How the album manifested itself was very particular; with every sound, every lyric, every little thing really, whereas with some of the EPS it was more like ‘we have a song that’s working like let’s put out’ and ‘here’s a batch of songs that I really, I love’. Not to discredit those songs in any way, I try not to put anything out that I’m not like 1,000,000,000% happy with, but with the album everything needed to fit together in some certain way to me.
That’s interesting because my next question was about what made you put some of the songs on the album and not on the EPS. I feel like some artists use EPs to experiment with sounds and styles but yours have felt sonically cohesive and the full body of work has a story to tell. So how do you differentiate a song being ‘an album song’ or one that you’ll put onto an EP?
I think the first thing that comes to mind is the closing song ‘love is not a simple thing to lose’ from the day I wrote that., I knew that was the closer for my first album. I didn’t know when that album was coming, but I knew that that was the closer. That song had been the anchor since the day I wrote it, and that’s also maybe the only song that was from the first-ever version of this record.
I wrote it years and years ago in London with two friends and it was such a… Well, I was just broken up with on Skype, and it was my first relationship where I thought we were like Romeo and Romeo and we’re gonna run away on a unicorn away from a burning church. So that to me was always kind of the foundation that everything else was to build upon. It was one of, and this is a big statement, but I think it’s true. It’s one of the hardest things (well like top 30) that I’ve ever done in my life because I’m actually like ‘life can be hard!’ Let’s just say it was a very difficult task to pick the final tracklist. I’m so thankful that I had Stint who executive produced it and my managers who helped A&R it and even sat and played songs for friends, but just continuously wondering, how does it all fit?
Love is not a simple thing to lose is such a beautiful closer. I think some of the other songs almost feel like a precursor to that song. Like ‘let love in’ I feel like it bookends it quite nicely and that’s something that I’ve liked about previous EPS that you’ve released, the songs all tell a story together. Something that I always go back to this when I’m thinking about your music is how well you tell a story through a whole record and not just a song. In We Could Be Beautiful, there are two songs; 11 Blocks and Poetry where you refer to a jacket and a coat and it might not be the same person or the same jacket that you’re referring to, but I think what’s nice is that they link together nicely and remind you that you’re part of a story. This whole record is a story and the individual songs can kind of link back in some way. That storytelling is so well done on the album is that having it end with this big emotional song, it finishes and you have to take a second to be like “wow” and process it. It almost feels like you’ve watched a film.
Wow thank you so much for that, I have goosebumps! Wow thank you, and yes, it is the same jacket!
Your writing feels incredibly intimate, I think the way that you examine emotions lyrically, for me, is something that I haven’t seen from an artist in a long time and I think that’s what attracts me to your music. What is your process of writing a song?
It is different every time. I will say when I’m writing for myself, I tend to be slower. I tend to be at least slower to an idea when I’m writing for others, you know, it’s my job to write their story. I always joke like I’m in the third-row backseat. You know, you’re driving the car and I’m sitting back here to just kind of be like “what if we maybe turn left?”
When I’m writing for myself it can be an overwhelming thing to be like “okay, this has to be real and it has to be true. So what’s real and what’s true?” and I can get caught up in these tiny little details like a red jacket, or like date or time or season or street name, and so sometimes I do have to check myself and be like “Can you just write the bigger idea of that? Or do you have to zoom in that much?” and that’s been fun! I’ve recently been sitting with what’s next for me and the first song that we just wrote last week, I intended to start writing for the next album and it is a zoom out and I quite enjoyed that to be like “okay, well here’s a bunch of small stories. What’s the theme of those stories? How do we tie that into a song?” Where it’s still so personal but maybe we can leave the jacket in the past? But I would say it’s different every time I think for myself. I do rely heavily on what I call ‘the mystical magical Muse’ that sometimes just does not want to show up. But sometimes it just whispers something in your ear and you’re like “wow, okay, that let’s go” and there it is.
it’s all feelings first. So however that shows itself and however, that manifests in a room. It’s a feeling first and then it’s “okay, how do we talk about this feeling?”
So that’s the song, what then happens in terms of production? You’ve always seemed to know how you want your music to sound. The early stuff is very definitive, like this who I am and this is my sound.
Production has always been a really difficult thing for me. Because I don’t produce myself, I dabble! Especially in the past two years, I’ve been kind of forced, well, kind of inspired and kind of forced. With ‘nothing but the love’ I produced seven versions of a demo of that song. Before bringing it to produce, I just map it out or map out how I’m hearing it. With this song, just me playing it on a guitar wasn’t getting the point across that I wanted it to, I’ll try something, even if it’s a bad version of it. Getting to work with Stint on the record was amazing, to have one person that could be the column holding it up. He is good at playing devil’s advocate. We’re close and we have such a great openness, there are no egos, so he can say “no, that’s not right” production was my biggest thing because I never want that to distract from the song. I’ve said this before, but I kind of view it like art quite a bit. I just got a piece framed in my room, it’s a piece by David Shrigley called ‘Pretty Thoughts Inside Your Head’ and It’s kind of grayscale and then there’s a white circle with coloured dots in it, and there’s this amazing contrast in this thick white frame. So it’s this dark piece with these bright colours. I kind of view a song like that as if the song is a piece of art and then the production is the frame.
So it can be anything but it’s just shining on to the song, your intention with production is to push the song forward and make people notice. It can be almost nothing but sometimes the production is going to be wild, but it still makes that piece important. I think maybe production has been hard for me because I don’t feel fluent in it.
I like the fact that you have the stripped-down version of wish you well that you put out. You included the stripped version and the piano version, it was a nice way to showcase the song, to say ‘production is great but also take a look at it on its own’.
Everything starts with an instrument for me. My favourite way to tour is just me and a piano. I try to make sure that however much production is added on top of something that still has the feeling of the original. For it to sound like when you said it felt like you watched a film, that to me is the best thing ever because as we were looking at the album, I was like, ‘it kind of feels like a movie or like a painting or like a painting that moves a little bit’ we were creating this world and I had one of my best friends do all the visuals for it. I love the cover so much. It’s almost a homage to my favourite album of all time, ‘Strange and Beautiful’ by Aqualung. That inspired me to make songs and it was this accidental thing for it to look like it. A fan friend asked me if this was intentional, the colouring and stuff is similar and I was like “oh my gosh!”
That’s so nice though! An accidental homage for you to have your first album link back to what started it all for you.
Yeah, it was cool. And I think you know, whilst I’m not an artist that knows everything about what I want to do, some of my close friends who are artists are very much like “the video is gonna be like this and the visuals are gonna be like this!” And for me, all I know is what I’m gonna wear. I rely on some talented people around me to collaborate in that way and production is one of those things where I’m like “I don’t know, sometimes I have an idea. But if anything, I feel things moving more and more to the warmth. I try to make everything feel warm. I don’t love a cold anything. The kick should feel like a heartbeat. I like to feel production rather than hear if that makes sense?
I get that completely and I think it comes across. Talking about ‘feeling production’ your song 90 days is one of my favourite songs of all time. You can feel the heart behind the song. I’ve heard it in many different iterations; acoustic, as a solo, as a duet with P!nk… I selfishly would like to know a bit about how that song came to be
Thank you so much. I appreciate that. It’s quite a story. It was around the transition of a deal that I was in with a major label and I was sitting in that kind of frustration of wanting to release this album that I had been working on for so long and not feeling like that desire was being heard, which is a cliche, you know? I wrote it with someone who’s become a good friend and close collaborator called Steve Robson. We wrote it on the first day we met. He was renting and he was playing the melody of the chorus, and I was like “what is that?” sometimes people play around with stuff and you can hear they are playing a song. I was like “What’s that? What are you playing?” and it was just an idea of a tune he had. Usually, he and I talk for hours before writing but with this, we just jumped in and I was ready, ready to rumble! A lot was going on in my personal life and we just kind of started flowing that out and we were able to sit and hone in on it. Harmonies are one of my favourite things about recording and layering vocals and vocoder, I was like “let’s have nature sounds” and it was almost like we were making a mood board. I knew that it was really special but I felt like it was special in a cathartic way of “wow! I needed to get that out!”
Once he sent it to me and I heard it back I thought ‘his is the best thing I’ve ever been a part of in my whole life’ Once we had that idea started we put it in the folder of ‘maybe’ it was the only song in that folder. So then we have this meeting with Keith Naftaly from RCA and was playing him some songs, so I played him the idea that we had had on that song and he was like “play that again” I think he had me play the song like seven times that day. The next day I get a call from him and he says, “so I sent the idea to someone and they love it. They want to work on it with you” I was thinking ‘who?!’ And then he said it was Alicia (P!nk) and there were just immediate tears. I wanted to call my mom, my grandma. It was one of those few and far-between moments where you think don’t even pinch me because if it’s a dream I don’t ever want to wake up. Even right now I’m looking out at the street because like they sent a car to pick me up and take me to her. It was one of the most beautiful days, actually, maybe the most beautiful day of work that I’ve ever had. She was so kind and caring and loving and supportive and encouraging. I think it hit at this amazing time where I was transitioning out of a deal for the second time and feeling disheartened in that and feeling like I was flailing around out here with no ground… and then I’m being picked up and driven to P!nk’s studio and she’s saying the nicest things to me and we’re recording this song together.
It was this moment of ‘how on earth is this real? She was so nice, so sweet and so warm with no ego at all. I was timid and then I had an idea for an ad-lib. But how are you going to tell P!nk that? I told her and I hummed it and then go back to where I was sitting in the back of the studio against the wall, and then the part comes in and she sings this ad-lib, I just sunk. I started sobbing! I had been holding it in for hours and then with that interaction, she was so sweet and came running over and asked what was going on. I was just saying “what is even happening?” It’s not even a moment you dream of because it feels like too big of a dream. I tend to dream in really realistic terms. I dream of making music forever hopefully, I want some Balenciaga, and to have beautiful interactions with people that listen to my music. That moment was just crazy! So that’s the long version of how that song came to be. I remember leaving that night and just thinking ‘wow’ and then when I got the demo back with her voice and just hearing the intro.. wow! ‘m not sure what show you you caught but like, did I cry? I would say 90% of the nights I cried because of that same feeling. Especially when I come in on the part of the verse when she’s singing and I come in with the harmony. I’m just like, what is my life? It never got old, I tried to stay present and just be right there on stage every night.
That’s so amazing, it’s so great to know how much that song means to you too. What do you think is next for Wrabel? You said you have been recording some more and you’ve just featured on the new Wild Rivers track ‘Thinking Bout Love’ which is so good!
I’m excited about the Wild River song. I rarely come onto something that I wasn’t part of from day one. I heard the song and they’re so kind and so talented. I told them that I wish I wrote the song because it’s just a beautiful song, love what it says. Talk about like storytelling!
I listen to what they have and my questions are usually like “tell me everything! Are you back together? What happened?” and they are just so sweet and they’re so real and because of that, the song feels so true. I’m honoured to be on that. There are a few things as a writer that are coming out that I’m excited about with some artists, I never know if I can say! I’ve been working with a lot of new artists which has been so inspiring. Then for myself… I just got with a couple of friends the other day and took a crack at writing something and it’s starting to feel like very, very early stages of something taking shape. I think I have the heart of the album. There’s another song that I’ve produced like a bunch of versions for where all the levels are different and I played it for a producer that I’ve worked with quite a bit and he was like, “this is really special” I shared it with a tiny circle, and it’s feeling good so I’m excited to see what it turns into. I also have every intention of not working on the next album for 10 years. I’m trying to let go of the first album jitters you know, going back to what we were talking about earlier, I get very overprotective and I am hyper-aware of everything, I’m trying to not let go of the bar that I have set for myself. For myself, I always say goosebumps is the bar and I know that’s a high bar but that has to be my bar for myself because I have to go and play the songs, hopefully forever.
I’ve also been working on an art book, which has been fun. I just got the first pitch deck for that and it’s been really exciting to play around with something that’s not music.
That’s so exciting to hear because I love all of the art that you post on instagram, your doodles are so good, sometimes if I share something, people will reply to me and ask “is he an artist too?”
I love that question because I do love art. I mean, I guess you can call it that. The title as of now is is ‘you call this art?’ Art is just such a weird thing, it’s so personal. Two people can look at the same thing and one person’s like, crying and the other person is laughing and then there’s a third person who doesn’t care! I adore David Shrigley. There’s a piece in my bedroom that I wanted since its release and that was something I got for myself after releasing the album, I wanted to look at it every day.
I go to bed and I see it and I just love how much life is in it. I just love how whimsical it is. I describe my stuff as ‘small, big’ there are these little things that sometimes say something really big. David Shrigley’s stuff is like ‘loud, quiet’ maybe. I call this year ‘the year of the book’ because this is something I’ve always wanted to do and have never really taken the time to do it. Sometimes you just have to sit down, shut up and do the thing.
Interview by Amelia Walker
Photography by Yazz Alali