Catch up with singer-songwriter Graham Elliot and listen to his latest single "Psycho", out now.
What got you interested in music and in songwriting?
Graham: This starts way back. I used to sing with my mom when I was a little kid and I guess that's where the very original part started. I formed my first band in high school with a couple kids from my P.E. class and we played cover songs - like Red Hot Chili Peppers covers - out in the quad [laughs] after high school rallies. Over the years of high school, we started getting more serious and by the end of high school we were playing local venues and sold a couple out actually. Then I had to go off to college so I was like, "well, I'm not going to stop doing music," so I started another band, did that for a couple years. Then I was like, wait, hold on [laughs] I want to do music for the rest of my life as a professional musician and I was talking to the guys in my band and they were like, "we're going to be engineers and defense contractors," and that kind of thing. I was like, "oh, okay, well, I want to be a musician," so I went solo and that's how the Graham Elliot thing started.
Do you remember the first song you wrote?
Ooh, let's see. Yeah, actually I do [laughs]. It would have been 2008/2009 and I wrote a song called "Beach Ball". It was called "Beach Ball" because [laughs] when we were writing it, we were on a Mac and we were recording it and it turns into a beach ball thing when it gets stuck loading, so we called it "Beach Ball" [laughs]. There was no 'beach ball' in the lyrics, that was the only reason. That was the first song that I think I wrote.
Which musicians were you influenced by?
Back in the day, the first band that I called my own - that wasn't just my parents' music - was the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I listened to a lot of '90s alt-rock stuff to start with but since then my tastes have really shifted. I still love the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but nowadays I listen to a lot of '80s-influenced pop/funk stuff. I love Bruno Mars, of course. Mayer Hawthorne is one of my favorites - sometimes I say Mayer Hawthorne and people are like "who?" and I'm like, "you have to listen to Mayer Hawthorne!" 'cause he's awesome. I like Kendrick Lamar and the way he tells really intricate stories through his music. I like a lot of different genres. I'm actually really into Snakehips right now, too. They're a little more on the electronic side but they still have that funky vibe going for them. There's this new guy called Midas Hutch and I want to give him a shout out; he just came out - at least I heard about him - only this past summer and this guy is killing it. He's making '80s-influenced stuff and it sounds really, really cool, so that's one of my more contemporary influences. I could go on all day about this [laughs].
If you had to pick a favorite artist, who would that be?
Oh, that's tough. I'm going to say Mayer Hawthorne actually. I just keep coming back to Mayer Hawthorne. I discovered Mayer Hawthorne in 2012; I used to work at Hollister and he had this song called "A Long Time" and it would play every hour and 20 minutes when the playlist would loop in Hollister [laughs] and I would hear his song and I was like, "what is this?" and I wasn't allowed to pull my phone out while I was working, so I just had to memorize the lyrics so that I could go home and Google it [laughs]. So that's how I discovered him and I've been listening to him ever since; I think I've seen him 3/4 times now in different places. He's a big influence on me, for sure.
Which words would you use to describe your own sound?
I call it '80s-influenced pop. It's '80s pop mixed with modern pop sounds because I get a lot of influence too from older bands like the Commodores or Kool & The Gang. I don't know who isn't influenced by Michael Jackson, but Michael Jackson, of course. So I love those '80s sounds and vintage synths that they used and the way they write. I'm also trying to bring a fresh flavor to it with all of the new technology that we have now and listening to pop music and weaving that into the sound, as well. I'm trying to strike a balance between nostalgia and a new hit, I guess [laughs].
What were your inspirations behind your new single "Psycho"?
"Psycho" is an interesting song because I'm actually very political: I'm a very political person and my Facebook is filled with political things [laughs] and I like to go out and campaign for things when I see a cause that I think deserves attention and whatnot. Way back in the day when I was listening to Red Hot Chili Peppers, another band that I was listening to at the same time was Rage Against The Machine and I really loved how they were able to bring politics into their music and still make really good music. I've wanted to do that with my music for a long time, but I always felt that it would be corny if I did it because the political things that I was in interested in or that were catching my mind weren't really things that immediately spark a strong emotion, they were more intellectually centered; I think the best songs come from emotion, not from, "oh, this one tariff is going to do such and such," like how are you going to write a song about that? Then, of course, Donald Trump gets elected and I was in the middle of writing this song and I already had the hook and everything - [singing] "psycho, psycho" - and I was reading the lyrics that I already had and I was like, "holy cow, this is Donald Trump, this song is Donald Trump". I'm just reading through the lyrics and as I went to finish the song I just wove more and more of that in. I wanted to write from a new perspective because YG & Nipsey Hussle did the Fuck Donald Trump song, "FDT", so they already did that and I was like, "okay, I'm not just going to do that," and I wanted to do it from a different perspective. I was thinking, there have to be people who believed everything that Trump said and they voted for him and now they see what the actual effects of that are and that he flops on things that they totally thought he was going to hold his promises on and back-stabs them and his voters and I was thinking, that's an angle a lot of people aren't looking at; they're looking at the voters that thought he'd bring back their jobs and they're saying, "you're stupid, screw you, you screwed up," and I'm like, no, we shouldn't be saying that. We should be empathizing with the idea that - if they voted for him because they're racist, that's one thing - but if they voted for him because they genuinely thought that he was going to save their family and their jobs, I'm not going to laugh at them! The song is from this perspective of someone like that who voted for him and then is finding out as time goes on that it was probably not the best decision [laughs].
What do you think the role of music is going to be under this administration for the next few years?
I think that's a really good question and it's something I've been thinking about a lot. As a musician, I struggle with music as a career and how it intersects with my desire to really do something in the world to make the world a better place; because a lot of people see music as just entertainment and you're not really doing much and I'm like, there has to be a way to use music in conjunction with activism and direct action to actually make things happen. I'm slowly learning myself how exactly to make that work. I think that the main way that this will happen is to give voice to things that people are feeling, but don't necessarily know how to articulate. I think it's artists' jobs to sit and think a lot about these issues in and out and really find something that they feel strongly about and that other people are feeling strongly about and really articulate it in a way that brings it to the forefront and makes it very understandable and emotionally impactful.
Are you planning to release an album or EP with "Midwest Muse" and "Psycho"?
I don't think so. The way that I write is very encapsulated from song to song. A lot of people will write and do a story that spans an entire album; I find that, unless I have something really complex and really deep that I'm writing about and that's very difficult to explain, generally I'm able to condense what I'm saying and the message I want to get out in a song. And I take that as a challenge, to take a complex issue and boil it down while still keeping as much of the nuances as possible in the song. For the way I write, I think I'm just going to be releasing singles for the foreseeable future, but who knows? There might be a point where I'm like, "you know what, I should release a politically motivated EP," [laughs] and just do that. I'm producing tons of music right now and half of it, I don't even know what I'm going to do with it, so who knows? There's plenty of material, it might end up in an EP or it might not, but what I'm trying to do right now is release about a song a month just to keep things coming out there and keep myself active and creative. There's definitely going to be continuous content coming out.
"Midwest Muse" and "Psycho" are so different, is that eclectic style indicative of what we can expect to hear from you coming up?
Yeah [laughs] it's funny you say that, because I think "Midwest Muse" and "Psycho" are 2 of the most similar songs that I've written and yet they're still very different [laughs]. Basically the thread that I'm trying to keep through all of my music that I release as a solo artist is this '80s-influenced pop feel. Most of the stuff is going to be danceable, upbeat, life-of-the-party type music. There'll be a couple low-key, R&B type things too that will be coming out. Yeah, I think it's going to be eclectic [laughs]. I always try to put myself in a lane and I always end up swerving out of it; that may not be the best from a marketing stand point, but as an artist, sometimes you've just gotta do what you gotta do [laughs].
What do you hope listeners are able to take away from your music?
I think that the answer to that question is going to be different for every single song, and I think that's really where the eclectic-ness comes in, is that the message is different for every song. To speak on the songs that I have out right now, with "Midwest Muse", I took this trip to Chicago and met these people and for that song I really just wanted to paint the picture and convey the image and the feeling and the entire experience of being there at the music festival and then meeting people from Chicago who really wanted to come to California and just thinking about that. I want to draw people into that experience with that song. Now with "Psycho" there's a little bit of a different thing going on; I know that a lot of people are just going to listen to the song and they're going to think, "oh this is a cool beat and it's danceable so I'll listen to it," and then there's a smaller percentage that are going to listen to the lyrics and actually dig into it. I like to write in layers like that where there's one layer that just hits your ear nicely and then there's another layer if you want to dig a little deeper and hopefully, for the people that dig a little deeper into "Psycho", they'll understand the lyrics and think about the issues that we're facing in a slightly different light than maybe they've heard before.