From touring with a “who’s who” of pop-rock stars, to syncs and appearances on hit TV shows, and now exploring new musical directions on his latest release Lonely Ones, Graham Colton has traveled great distances. Through it all Colton has also spent a lot of time literally traveling from one city to the next, winning over fans one person at a time. “I made and broke relationships while living out of suitcases in hotels,” Graham admits. “Looking back on that time for me is bitter sweet. It was the time of my life and prepared me for this moment but being 21 and in a new city each night takes it’s toll.” More recently he returned to hometown Oklahoma City, met his wife, settled down, connected to a music scene that’s only developed in the past decade while he was circling the country gigging and crafted an adventurous new album that captures all the changes from the past few years of his life.
“The cool thing for me now having moved back to Oklahoma is I am getting to experience the local scene for the first time,” Graham Colton tells The Future Heart. “When I first started performing music in high school I was nearly out the door to college in Texas so this record [Lonely Ones] for me felt like the first time I was able to be a part of this community.”
Graham is celebrating his new album and his new life back in Oklahoma with a concert at Tulsa’s The Vanguard on March 28th and a hometown release show at OKC’s Bricktown Music Hall on March 29th (get your tickets here for Tulsa or here for Oklahoma City). Additionally he’ll play Southwestern Oklahoma State University’s free SWOSUPalooza festival on April 5th.
Though Lonely Ones gives no hint of it, Colton’s career first took off after his early acoustic guitar singer-songwriter recordings were discovered by Counting Crows frontman Adam Duritz. “It all happened so fast for us. We were thrown on the road with our musical heroes and other acts we felt a bit stylistically different from, but somehow the music worked,” Graham says. “Adam found my music like a lot of folks in the early days…online. I really benefited a ton from Napster. I had a few songs I recorded in my bedroom in Oklahoma and a demo CD I was passing around and somehow he got a hold of it. By my sophomore year I was asked to join the Crows on tour and I was soon e-mailing my professors saying I had to finish my final exams from the road. The Crows still remain a huge supporter of mine among other bands like the Wallflowers and Better Than Ezra to which I am eternally grateful. We cut our teeth on the road and I learned more about music and life than I could in any classroom.”
Tours with more household names followed – Dave Matthews Band, John Mayer, Maroon Five, Train, Gavin DeGraw, Kelly Clarkson – as did a contract with Universal Republic. In 2007 Graham released his major label debut Here Right Now, also his first album credited solely to him (as opposed to the Graham Colton Band). After acclaim from iTunes and Billboard, and a TRL debut on MTV, lead single “Best Days” became an in demand sync used by numerous TV shows and commercials, most notably as recurring “exit music” for 2008 episodes of American Idol.
“The moment you hear one of your songs on the screen is a wild one,” Graham says. “When something you created goes off and connects with these larger than life scenes, it’s truly incredible. I think it’s even cooler than hearing your song on the radio because your music is brought to life on another level.”
At the same time Colton also made the talk-show rounds: The Today Show, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Regis and Kelly, Ellen, The Late Show with David Letterman, The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. “It certainly was surreal to play all the late night shows and was definitely a career millstone to stand on the same stage as The Beatles,” Colton says. “The funny thing about that time is that I was so caught up in trying to get the label to keep paying attention, I wish I would’ve enjoyed the ride a little more.”
That was then.
Things have changed.
“The challenge [of mainstream recognition] is not being effected by it when you’re writing new songs. A big part of my new album was letting go of the ‘sound’ that worked for me for so long. I knew I may never see another TV synch but I had to go another direction.” As a result Lonely Ones doesn’t just sound different, it’s also an album created by different means than his previous releases. Graham knew this would not be a cheap album to make, yet he didn’t have a label to finance it so he turned to his fans to fund a Kickstarter campaign that ended up raising $30,000, twice that amount he sought.
Although Colton was freed from label demands, he still struggled with the weight of fan expectations. Afterall, he was using their money to make an album that sounded very different from the records their fandom was based on. Would they accept Colton’s new musical directions?
“I wrestled a lot with the responsibility I felt to my fans and long time supporters while also needing to move on creatively,” Graham admits. “There was definitely a fear that I was making an album that a large group of fans and friends wouldn’t like. However, I just knew I couldn’t make the same type of album again. I may wanna make another singer/ songwriter album next time but I had to follow my inspiration.”
Along the path of following his inspiration Colton befriended Wayne Coyne and Steven Drozd. “I didn’t fully realize at first the impact bumming around with Wayne and Steven would have on the record because we just hung out a lot,” Colton admits. “I came over to the house a lot and Wayne and Steven seemed to always be working on something so I got to experience the beginnings of a bunch of songs. There wasn’t the pressure in the room that I often feel when I am working. Don’t get me wrong, they challenge themselves and the music they were making was important, but it felt like they weren’t afraid to write a bad song or record a bad idea. I am terrified of that. I’ve always felt that once a song is injected with something weird or foreign it can be fatal. It was pretty cool the way they found new songs out of one part that was injected at the midpoint.”
Realizations like these from being around Wayne and Steven provided Graham with a new mindset for creating. Wayne loaned Colton a few of the Flaming Lips keyboards and told him if he played around the sounds would lead to songs that were different from those Graham had written in the past. As these sounds inspired Graham to write music differently, they also liberated the words he was writing. Freed from the confines of autobiographical storytelling, the sounds Colton toyed with inspired him to write lyrics that were more abstract, darker and less direct than his earlier work. “It’s strange how it was nearly impossible to even finish a ‘traditional’ acoustic guitar and vocal song,” Graham says, “but when I started writing to sounds and newer instruments the floodgates opened.” The song structures became more adventurous as well. “Born to Raise Hell” for example explores a range of moods all within three minutes.
Being back in Oklahoma was also important as it afforded him studio time to explore new sounds with his band and longtime collaborators Chad Copelin and Jarod Evans as he recorded at local Black Watch Studios. “I truly believe that ‘scenes’ and music ‘communities’ can be beneficial but also harmful in some instances. There’s nothing more inspiring than seeing your friends make great music and put on great shows because you feel you’re all in it together. However I’ve seen too many bands get stuck in their small circle and never leave because it’s comfortable or the money is too good. I have actually experienced a little of both because I felt early on that I needed to leave my hometown in order to be the most creative. It had nothing to do with OKC but more leaving my comfort zone and meeting new people. Now, it has come full circle.”
Coyne and Drozd also directly helped Colton make Lonely Ones. “Wayne and Steven were both involved in the recording and a bit of writing,” Graham says. “Steven played on almost every track and we wrote a handful of other songs that I hope to release soon. Wayne was everywhere and was more of a sounding board. Whenever I knew I need to shake things up with a song, I played it for Wayne. He also re-wrote some lyrics and sang on one of my favorite songs on Lonely Ones called “Another Night.” That track is available for free at Noisetrade.com.”
Before work on Lonely Ones even began Coyne teamed with Colton to record a cover of Sparklehorse’s “Don’t Take My Sunshine Away” (now available as a free download on Noisetrade), and co-write a tragic song about a kid who loved peanut butter. “That song about the boy who committed suicide is still unfinished,” Colton tells us, “but I hope we can get back to it soon. I love that initial idea we had for it and I think the track is called ‘The End of the World.'”
“I of course grew up a fan of the Lips and went to a bunch of their shows but can’t say I was a true fan until recently. I guess the most honest way to say it is I was let into their little world and totally absorbed all I could creatively. I got to witness first hand the joy and struggle they go through to keep pushing forward creatively. It reminded me (of a much much larger scale) of what I go through on a daily basis.”