The Homeless Through Fresh Eyes: A Conversation With Andy Grammer, Plus Chatting With Mr. Forchhammer Of Lukas Graham

A Conversation with Andy Grammer

Mike Ragogna: Andy, did the hero of your mega-hit "Honey, I'm Good" eventually go home with the girl from the bar?

Andy Grammer: [laughs] No, I hope he went home alone!

MR: [laughs] Hey, the production on "Fresh Eyes" is very minimal. Did you try it a couple of different ways?

AG: Sometimes when you're making the demo, it pretty much is the production. I went and bought an electric guitar for this--I've mostly been an acoustic guy up until now. I just kept pulling back and pulling back and pulling back when I was singing it, to the point where I was almost whispering into the mic. It just felt right and it's been so fun to watch it grow this way.

MR: How does this fit into where you're going with the next project? Will it be more like “Fresh Eyes”?

AG: There will, for sure, be more songs that are stripped down like this. We're still in the writing process, so the spectrum of what I have to choose from is still varied. It's hard to be like, "Yeah, this is what it is," but definitely, the electric guitar is a big piece of the album.

MR: Hit radio has felt a little generic and synthesizer-influenced for the past couple of years. Are you planning to push the envelope a little with the new recordings?

AG: With everybody being able to make such great production--like everybody, any eighth grader who has a computer--I think what you sing about is becoming more important. It's the same with big movies as well. You see these blockbuster movies, but if the story isn't good, I think we're getting a little immune to the shininess of it, because we've seen it so much. Really, for me, it's more like what lyrics are being said that make the hairs on your arms stand up. How are you writing out something that everybody's going through but they haven't quite heard that way before? You've really got to deliver, or else it's not going to cut through. I think I'm leaning more towards organic production on the third album, but I haven't started producing yet. I'm like seventy-five songs in, writing-wise, and we still have to get to the point where we have to choose which ones we're really going to go after and dial in how we're going to come across. But I am sensing a little more organic vibe on this third album.

MR: You've had a lot of success in the past five years. Are you staying in touch with that guy who was on the pier in Santa Monica?

AG: Yeah. When I was out on the pier I was just writing songs and trying to get in front of people. It takes so much writing to get something that you play and whoever's walking by goes, "Oh, man that's great." The act of getting someone to stop when they're going to the beach and give you ten bucks to buy a CD off the street is so hard to do. I attribute success there to, "Something about this song is actually good, and people really like it." I've just been carrying that, and I hope that I will carry that level of intensity to my writing all the way to the end. I think that's what creates a career. That's what all this is about. I think that's why it's happening. That doesn't make it easy. Like I said, I write close to a hundred songs before I release each album to get to the really good stuff. It's just really hard to sing a song and mean the words when they come out of your mouth. I know that sounds stupid and it should be way easier, but I've found it's much harder than that.

MR: Is there any value in creating songs that many songs that don't make a project? If you slowed that process down, would you get the meat that you're looking for in new songs?

AG: I'm down. That sounds great. I'd love to do that. But I know that "Honey, I'm Good" was number 101. I also find that sometimes if you have an idea, you write it until you nail it. You might have to write that concept differently, the title might be different, but sometimes, you have to write that feeling five times to get it to all work. We all leave a movie theater and go, "Man, that was a great chase scene but I don't feel like that was amazing." I think that happens a lot with these songs. You get something about it that's amazing--because you wouldn't continue writing it unless there was something there. But to get that feeling when a song ends, "Whoa, everything was in the right place," I think it takes work. When I see that in art, to me, that means persistence.

MR: Maybe there's additional value because your process makes you who you are.

AG: Oh, a hundred percent. Getting musicians on this album, I've done a lot of writing by myself and then a lot of co-writing. At the new level I'm at, to get to write with this quality of writers has been such a treat to learn and grow and steal tricks from people. There's that element as well.

MR: You've been on Dancing With The Stars and you performed on its season finale. Do you think these successes are affecting your songwriting and being an artist and performer? Can you pinpoint what's going on during that growth?

AG: I'm someone who likes to be autobiographical, so there is a difference in your life when you go through some of these changes, but there are also things that are different about turning thirty-three. Each album is going to be different. Does fame or success play into it? I'm sure it does. I'm not going to say it doesn't at all, but the positives of it--which I try to focus on--are the quality of people. The quality of people that are around me as I'm getting to write is really good. I'll hear a song on the radio and be like, "Aw, that's awesome. Who wrote that? I want to write with them," and then they'll be on my tour bus like two weeks later. That's so awesome. From a writer's perspective, that's so incredible. I definitely feel pressure in a good way. The more fans and friends you meet across the country, the more you really don't want to let them down.

I know what it's like to fall in love with an artist and then really wait and anticipate an album. I know what it's like to have it feel like that album delivered for me, and also like it didn't. We've all listened to some of these albums we were really excited about and then felt like they just didn't take enough time, or that there's not magic in there. That definitely got to me. I want to be someone who delivers for his fans. You have Isaac Newton, who wrote out what gravity was in scientific form, and the whole world goes, "Holy s**t! Gravity! That's happened to me, every day, all the time, every moment. You're amazing. You wrote it. You got it!" I think that's where the magic comes from as a songwriter. If you don't have enough of that in an album that you release, then I don't think it's worth it, for me, personally. That is so hard to get! Listen, if there's a way to do that by just writing ten songs, please, God, show me. I will do that tomorrow and just release an album every month. But to get that actual feeling, I don't know how to do it outside of writing so many songs.

MR: You created the "Fresh Eyes" video with the Union Rescue Mission on Skid Row. How did that come together?

AG: I've had a relationship with homelessness for a while, probably because I was a street performer for four years, to pay my rent. There's something about spending more time in a space with someone who's homeless, as opposed to just walking by them on the way to work. When your place of work is sitting right next to them, that homeless man quickly becomes "Bob." My view of homelessness shifted because I spent so much time out there. I'd have birthday parties eight or ten years ago where I'd have everybody bring clothes and food and stuff and we'd go down to Skid Row and give it out. I started to realize, "Oh man, that's the best birthday party EVER!" You feel unbelievable when it's over, it's the best. Through doing acts of service like that directly for the homeless I became really enamored with this issue. It wasn't even my idea, to be completely honest. After we released "Fresh Eyes" we started doing really well, we were getting ready to do a video and one of the pitches from an outside source was to work with the homeless. My manager was like, "I'm not even reading you any of the other pitches, this is what you'll pick." I was like, "Amazing. They know me, they know my history." It was very clear that that was what was supposed to happen.

It was an incredible day. It was such a sweet, sweet thing to have the song doing so well and then get it grounded in this video. It's a really sweet love song, I already think it's a great song--I love the idea of rediscovering love for someone you've been with for a while--and then how crazy to hear these lyrics of rediscovering love with the homeless population. We went there, we gave makeovers to everybody, it was such a sweet day. We watched them see themselves and then we went up to the roof to throw them a party. It wasn't one of those videos where it's like lip-synching to the song the whole time, so some of them asked, "What's this song that we've been making the video for this whole time?" So I got out my guitar and I started trying to sing it and I just broke down. I couldn't get through the song because in front of me were thirty or forty people who started the day on the street and are now in really nice clothes—the women are in beautiful dresses all made up—and I'm trying to sing, "I've got these fresh eyes, they've never seen you before," and I'm just a hilarious, bumbling mess of tears. Literally, I could not get through the song. It was so incredible, it was like my heart was exploding. It was the best day of my year.

MR: Did this make you want to to get behind more causes in the future?

AG: A hundred percent. Yes. It's almost addicting to have your heart feel that way, so then you start to seek out opportunities for service. When the need is so great and you are able to help even in a little way, the feeling of helping is unbelievable. It's almost like working out. If you're feeling a little chubby or a little crappy, if you go on a run--which seems counterintuitive--then you'll feel better. Right now I find myself traveling to different parts of the country and going, "Oh man, I should've planned to go meet some of the homeless in this area." It's definitely shifting the lifestyle, for sure.

MR: What are your thoughts on homelessness in the United States? Do you feel we’re dealing with it in any productive way, maybe have some thoughts on what could be improved?

AG: It's really good that you're asking this question. I'd love to get more educated on policy. I have heard of other places where they provide housing, and the cost of housing is less than the cost of dealing with these people when they get into drugs or when they need to go to the emergency room. All of the state costs associated with homelessness, if you pay it forward first and house a lot of these people--I don't know how possible that is in the United States but it's an idea that I've heard and I really like it. To me the first step to anything is just seeing them as a part of our human race, which unfortunately we're really good at not doing. I grew up in New York. In any major city you walk by someone and you almost don't see them, which is really intense. I think step one is to remember these are our brothers, our sisters, members of our human family. I'm really glad you put that to me. I will go and see what my stance is on how we fix this. I know that Union Rescue Mission is really great, they talked me through some of the ways they're able to help people who come in and find them housing and jobs and stuff like that.

MR: So to lighten up the mood a little, when my son was fourteen, I was driving him and his friends somewhere when "Honey, I'm Good" came on the radio and all of them loudly broke into the chorus together.

AG: [laughs]

MR: What was it about that song?

AG: I think that it's this wonderful, interesting blend. It's such a quirky, out there song, sonically. I don't know any other songs in that weird pop-country zone. That stomp-clap thing is kind of arresting when you hear it. I think that any other topic would've failed with that sonic. But it's such a grounded little bullet of truth mixed with that, and I think that's why it took off. That's my gut; the lyric really helped a lot with that. People hear it and they smile and go like, "Yep. You got it."

MR: Andy, what advice do you have for new artists?

AG: I just heard a Winston Churchill quote that was so good. I'll butcher it for you. Accept going from failure to failure without the loss of enthusiasm. It's something like that. Can you just keep writing and showing up creatively without feeling like you have no chance? If you're someone who can master that before anybody loves you or gives you any validation at all, you're in for a good ride.

MR: Is that how you got to where you are now?

AG: I don't know, I think I was born with a little bit extra hope--I just kind of feel like it's coming my way. I don't think it is, but by thinking that, then it eventually does. Inherently, I don't know if it is coming my way, but I do know that everybody I run into who thinks that way eventually finds themselves with it working out. I think an unbridled optimism is pretty important if you're going to do art. "Honey, I'm Good" was my hundred and first song in that writing session. Every song I came to was like, "This is it." After twenty, you have two that are like, "These are smashes," and they're definitely not. After forty, after sixty, after eighty, after ninety, it's a year of writing every single day to be able to get to the one that works, and not let it get you down. That's my advice. Do whatever you need to do to make yourself mentally get in that place.

MR: How do you think you've grown as a person from the humble days on the pier all the way to Dancing With The Stars and playing football stadiums?

AG: The training that was occurring when I was on the streets was of two kinds. One was learning that you can really feel it when you have something that's working for people, and being of service. When people come up and pass you on the street, in the beginning, you're not really good, so their ears are doing you a service. If they stop, it's because they say, "He's a sweet guy, let me give him some of my attention," rather than get anything from me. Then you slowly start to get better and you see that one of the songs you wrote is now giving back, and you can feel that. That was probably the biggest lesson, and that still holds up now. If that feeling isn't there for a half-time show performance--there's something to work towards, it's not just amorphous here. You create something that then gives to somebody else. And I don't think I'm working any less hard than I was then. I've grown as a human, I've gotten more patient in certain ways. But as it gets bigger, you have to get better at handling the waves that occur. When you're starting on the street, you might have a day where fifty people like you and then two people walk by and go, "You suck." Multiply that by literally millions now. You just have to get better and better at riding the waves of your mind in the entertainment industry. It's cool for me. I'm almost blessed that it's happened slowly. It's a long uphill rise, which has been sweet.

MR: And do you feel like you're getting better as a dancer?

AG: Oh my God! Well, for sure after Dancing With The Stars, there's no way that my movement hasn't gotten a little bit better. That was like a crazy boot camp. That doesn't mean I'm an amazing dancer next to anybody else, but I'm significantly better than when I started.

MR: What's the future bring beyond the new album?

AG: Really, it's laser focus to get the album done by next year and then move on from there. It's still unfolding and showing itself as to where I'm going. That to me is like the script of the movie. Once you get that, you can really start to figure out what happens next.

Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne

A Conversation with Lukas Forchhammer

Mike Ragogna: Lukas, first of all, congratulations on the huge success of your last two singles, “7 Years” and “Mama Said.” Actually, “7 Years" is now quadruple platinum, a pretty big accomplishment. Why do you think that song resonated with so many listeners and new fans?

Lukas Forchhammer: In hind sight, it’s easy to say that talking about age and family makes the song relatable to a lot of people, but at the end of the day you never know what makes a massive hit like that. The song is written about my life, my dreams, hopes and ambitions, and I recon that makes it easy to tap into. On top of that, it doesn't really sound like any other song out there at the moment.

MR: What’s the story behind “You’re Not There,” and are all or any of your songs based on actual events?

LF: It’s a song I wrote about the death of my father. He passed away in September 2012 and some days, I just wish he could se all the crazy things we’re doing. I mean, landing a major U.S. publishing and record deal, touring the world, becoming a father and receiving three Grammy nominations. But unfortunately, it’s a catch-22. If my father hadn’t died when he did, I wouldn’t have written all these songs that allowed us to tour the world. Don’t get me wrong, I would rather be a small time singer and have my father with me, than tour the world without him. So to answer your question, yes, a lot of my songs are written from personal experience, but not all of them.

MR: In the official theatrical video—as opposed to the lyric video above, you cry a car full of tears and you end up blindfolded, about to walk off a cliff. What is all the imagery about?

LF: She is a representation of the glamorous life offered to people like us that achieve worldwide fame. A representation of the temptations that we’re supposed to withstand and say no to. The car is being filled up with my tears of grief over the loss of my father. The forest and blind fold is a metaphor for trying to find my bearings after the traumatic event that it is, to loose a parent. The cliff is there to show, that even I don’t know yet, how big an effect it will have on me that I lost my father at such a young age.

MR: Beautiful. And the bright red apples in the first half of the video seemed to imply death like it did in the movie The Sixth Sense. Was that it?

LF: We are going to have to ask René Sascha Johannsen who wrote the video about that!

MR: I want to understand the song a bit more, can you go into it?

LF: For me, the song is about a paternal relationship, but it makes me exceedingly happy that other people associate the song with other types of relationships. It just goes to show the power of music and interpretation. It means one thing to me and another thing to you, just like it is supposed to. And now to answer your question, yes, we are a product of the music we listen to, the books that we read, the conversations we have, the people we meet, and the thoughts that follow. The people we hold closest to our hearts affect us the most and meeting a person without being influenced by them is simply impossible.

MR: What are your creative and recording processes like?

LF: I write all the time, so my creative process is very fluid, as is the process of the boys I work with. It all depends on what happens when, music or words first? Rhythm or melody? That’s the beauty of always working with the same people. Recording is all about feeling, because for us, too much polishing doesn’t necessarily make a track better. 

MR: And what is your live show like?

LF: I would like it to be Rage Against the Machine performing pop music. I remember seeing them live when I was a young boy, in a venue called the Grey Hall, in my hometown of Christiania. I loved their raw energy! We got drums, bass, keys and a brass section and we all play as if it’s our last show.

MR: Was U.S. music influential in your development and who are your favorite acts?

LF: Our most common influence as a writing and performing entity is definitely rap music, especially from the late ’90s. Dr. Dre 2001 is what I would call the most influential album for me.

MR: Although the album has been out for a while, with each new single, more people are discovering Lukas Graham. For those who don’t know who are reading this, how did the band come together?

LF: Most of us met in High School and we played together then, but we linked up again a few years after graduation, because Don Stefano and I had written some songs. Mark, the drummer called Magnus the bass player, that was 2010, one year before we released our first record back in Denmark. Since then we’ve worked harder than I ever thought we would, and can you believe it? We got nominated for three Grammys!

MR: I know, congratulations! Lukas, you’ve had amazing success in a relatively short period of time. How do you think that has affected you and your band mates?

LF: We have become more grateful than ever to have the jobs we have. After working our way up, from the bottom to the top in so many markets, performing small showcases, that led to shows and finally festivals, it feels good to be recognized for our hard work. And I think that’s why we are so content. We know it can change in a heartbeat. 

MR: What advice do you have for new artists?

LF: Be you, because no one can ever be you, better than you can be you. If you try to be some one else, you’re going to fail. No one can aspire to be more than a bad impersonation of someone else, so we’re better off being ourselves.

MR: What’s the best advice ever given to you?

LF: “Make sure she has a good time.” Is something my father used to say to me before I went out, and that statement is about respect. It means, that if she only wants to dance, make sure it’s the best damn dance of her life. And if she would like you to walk her home, make sure she feels safe.

MR: Haha, nice! What’s next for Lukas Graham?

LF: Finishing our second American headlining tour, and commencing our first European one. Writing new songs, and seeing more new places. We have so many plans that it’s hard to remember them all. Haha. 

MR: So how does it feel to be nominated for a Grammy?

LF: That is something indescribable. An award you can hope to perform at, let alone be nominated for. And now we are nominated for three of them. That’s simply amazing. Out of all of the things I have dreamed of, this is one of the craziest goals we ever met.