I had a chance to interview up-and-comer Rachel Griffin today. Her music is a jazzy pop-style leading Gavin DeGraw to call her “so talented” and Portland Phoenix to compare her to Norah Jones and Alicia Keys. On March 4 she performed at The Bitter End as the featured artist at the New York Songwriters Circle Showcase. In her brief career she has over 1.3 million YouTube views and over 8000 subscribers.
How did you know you wanted to be a singer/songwriter? “I actually just sort of fell into it, growing up we always had a piano around which I would bang on and I naturally fell into composing, just to express my feelings. I knew I could sing, but when I was in high school I showed my choir director some of my songs and she let me perform some of them in concert and I really liked sharing my music with people. Then in college I showed them to another professor and they helped me make a CD and another professor really took me under their wing and I realized that it was a skill that I had that other people didn’t necessarily have or could do so it was something unique that I could bring to the table.”
What is your songwriting process? “I usually sit down at the piano and feel whether it’s a good time to write, almost like I’m holding extra energy that needs to be expressed. I kind of just let my hands wander on the keys and play different things, I try to play feelings rather than think intellectually about the chords, the notes, the key. It’s kind of weird, but that’s how I write. And then I start singing, sometimes with dummy lyrics like ‘I like marshmellows’ or something and I just play with the words and play with the music, and usually something more concrete comes out. Sometimes I work on the lyrics away from the piano, but a lot of times I just sit at the piano and do both together. I’ve written a few songs totally away from the piano, on song I wrote ‘Losing Interest’ I actually wrote on the subway [in NYC] which is kind of funny. I wrote the whole song on the subway, I was kind of rocking out just ignoring everybody, but usually it’s together. I’d say like 90 percent of the time.”
What is the best piece of advice you’ve received from people while working in the business? “I think the best piece of advice is that no one is going to come find you and be like ‘oh, you’re a great singer/songwriter, let’s make you famous and give you a record deal and make you lots of money.’ In the new model of the music industry you’re the one with the power, because you have access to YouTube and SoundCrowd and your instrument and local venues, and websites like Kickstarter that I used to fund my album. At first I found it a little daunting that it’s not like you get discovered anymore, but also, now that I’ve been doing it for a few years I find it really empowering because if I’m super driven and work extremely hard, which you have to work so hard, then you have all the resources you need to get your music out there. It’s like you’re your won CEO. I like control so I liked it but… For a while I was waiting, I was like ‘I have the material, I am proud of it, I’m going to wait for somebody to find me’ but that’s just not going to work, so when I realized that I have to get that power like anyone else, and I have to be the one to believe in my music the most because I created it, that was a huge turning point for me.”
Do you think it’s better having it this way, where YouTube and Kickstarter are available, to sort of do it yourself? “Yeah I do, I think it’s a better model because sometimes the industry just want to put out music that is fake but they know is popular and there’s a formula for that, but I think people crave authenticity, so I think it’s better to have people be able to get their music out there because then you have people with raw talent to get their music out there without somebody saying ‘this is great’ or ‘you look the part’ or ‘you’re not the right age’ or the right image. Hopefully it’s more about the music, I think it’s a positive thing. It’s a little bit of a confusing time where people aren’t buying music so I definitely feel nostalgic about the idea that people used to buy records. Like my mom has all these records and I think that’s cool that you bought the whole record and not just the song but, maybe we’ll come back around to support artists and buy the whole thing, but I think it’s a good thing. I choose to be positive because what are you going to do, be really negative about everything?”
You’ve been compared to artists such as Norah Jones and Alicia Keys, what is it like being in the same category with artists like that? “It’s a huge honor, I don’t think there’s anybody like Norah Jones, her voice is like butter on a warm roll I just love her so much, so it’s really nice to be compared to them but I’m always like ‘really?! man are you sure?’ I’m always kind of in shock, and I always get a little scared like ‘are you sure? my songs?’ Sometimes I don’t even feel like I write them, they just come through me. Alicia Keys, she’s a killer piano player and song writer, and I’ve been a big fan of hers for a long time and I’m definitely influenced by her music so it wasn’t surprising but it’s really an honor. Both those women are very serious musicians and pianists, and not just puppets doing music, they’re the real deal. I listen to a lot of pop pianists like Carole King, Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel, Sara Bareilles, so to have reviewers say … it’s incomparable, it’s really cool.”
If you hadn’t chosen a career related to music, what do you think you’d be doing? “I think I’d be a teacher because I love kids, and I’ve taught underprivileged kids and it’s really rewarding. But I love Shark Tank [ABC TV show] and I like inventing things, but all of my friends are like ‘yeah, I wouldn’t use that invention’ so I don’t think it would be a good field for me, I’m glad I’m in music. It’s pretty much the only thing that comes easy to me but I like creating inventions that I’ll never actually make. Actually, I almost went on Shark Tank for my music. I got to the finals and then they cut me, I almost went on the show. I’ve seen every season and every episode, I love it, I’m kind of addicted! It’s a bit ridiculous”
On YouTube, you like to post lots of covers, what are some of your favourites you’ve done? “Home by Phillip Phillips because I like that it’s supposed to be about home and it’s just very pretty and I like the message. I liked cover Super Bass [Nicki Minaj] and Love The Way You Lie [Eminem ft Rihanna], two rap songs, because they’re out of the box for me and it’s always nice to go out of your comfort zone and go ‘I’m gonna rap, yo!’ and then kind of look a bit.. because at least you tried it. I love Adele songs, I really like the piano part for Set Fire to the Rain so I enjoyed covering that. When you cover a song you have to listen to it a thousand times, and I love Adele’s voice so I get to hear her voice over and over so it’s really nice.”
Do you have any rituals to calm your nerves before a performance? “I do! Since I saw Pitch Perfect [2012 movie] and the girl throws up while she sings, I had a performance the other day at The Bitter End, and I was about to go on and I kept picturing that. I got really scared I was going to throw up when I opened my mouth! I do have rituals, like remedies. I breathe deeply, and then I have to remind myself that it’s not about me looking good or my ego, it’s about the music and connecting with the audience, and not about perfection. I am a perfectionist, so if I sing one note off I’ll get hung up about that, so I have to remind myself that music is about joy and fun and not get hung up on that stuff. But, I also think the antidote for nervousness is preparation, and people told me that and I still didn’t prepare and I was like ‘oh well! I’ll wing it’ but now I realize that if I’m over prepared and nervous, I just feel super confident in what I’m doing and my hands and my voice just kind of do this thing, so I over prepare. Like, the songs drive me to insanity before the show because I can’t ever hear my song again, I hate it, but then I get up there I can really let go because I know the music. And no drinking before the show.”
Where would you most like to perform? “On Ellen.”
What can we expect from you this year? “I have an EP that’s going to come out in an a month called Next Week Kind of Girl, and I have a CD coming out this summer, and that’s going to be a full length. It’s a really fun year, I’m in the studio all the time working with amazing producers that are phenomenal musicians and I’m going to be putting out lots of music videos, and I’m going to ask my fans and people who like my music to be in my video called ‘I’m Different’ so that’s going to be a really cool collaboration. The song’s about working through obstacles and breaking the boundaries that people put on you, and working really hard at something somebody may have said ‘you know, that’s never going to happen’ so I’m going to ask the fans to video themselves practicing their classical piano or reading their fashion book because they want to go into fashion, or whatever they’re working towards, and we’ll put them all in the video and it’ll be cool. I just want it to show people doing what they want to do with their lives because people are always going to say you can’t do something and that’s what the song is about. I’ve had really hard times where I’m working tons of jobs to pay the bills, like one time when I moved to New York I had a bowl of sugar for dinner because I didn’t have any food and I was that poor, but there were rough times and I kept pushing through, and now I’m so much further then where I started, and now I never eat sugar for dinner. I’m having an organic green juice right now, it’s so delicious. I’m a vegan this week and I ate a whole tub of Ben and Jerry’s last week. Story of my life.”
What’s your favourite Ben and Jerry’s flavour? “Half Baked. There’s Phish Food too. I’m from Maine, we love Ben and Jerry’s. Not everybody can sit down and eat a whole tub. I’m small, I’m 5’2. I was like, I’m gonna be a vegan now, that felt really bad. It was good for the first half of the tub though.”
Moving from Maine to New York, what was the biggest change you noticed? “Well, when I moved here everybody said you’re not from here. It was almost like I was a foreigner or an alien because I’d get on the subway and be like ‘Hi!!’ because why would people stand that close to each other without talking? Then I realized that now I just do my own thing on the subway, you see people so much in New York that you don’t need to strike up a conversation with everybody. But I think that I’ve become… I’m really friendly, and people still stay ‘you’re not from here’ but I’m less naive and I’m more careful. I’m still very trusting which I like about myself and I still believe about the good in people. But in Maine, we trust everybody and it’s kind of funny, so that’s different. And as far as career-wise, being here has really accelerated my career. It has more energy and drive here, there’s so many people actively working toward a goal, it’s so inspiring. There are so many brilliant musicians, that you realize you need to work harder because they’re so much better than I am, so if you have that drive and that excitement… While in Maine you could just sleep in and eat a donut and write a song, while here you work all day. I like it for where I am right now, it’s been absolutely unbelievable here. There are so many opportunities here that I never dreamed of. If a studio needs a singer than I’m down the street, while if I were in Maine I wouldn’t be able to get here. I think you can have a music career from anywhere, but if you’re in one of these cities that’s just bustling with excitement about music I do think it really accelerates your career because you’re just lucky all the time. You’re at the right place at the right time all the time.”
Do you have anything else you’d like to say to your fans? “Listen to yourself and don’t let the opinions of anybody else around you influence what you can do because you’re unlimited.
I’m really cheesy, I’m like a fortune cookie. I read self help books, that’s who I am. I always want to be better, it’s a good way to live, always improving and I’m really driven to help others because that’s where I come from because it just makes you happy to help others. With music, my attitude, the things I say…”