If you turn your radio to any Top 40 station today, you'll hear pop divas and ubiquitous dance tracks, hip-hop heavyweights and country stars. Then there's Gavin DeGraw.
DeGraw, whose driving, piano-driven lament Not Over You is currently hovering in the Top 40, is kind of an anomaly in today's landscape of popular music: one of a few "singer- songwriters" whose singles get thrown into the mix and quickly infiltrate your head.
For DeGraw, though, the label "singer-songwriter" is accurate, but it's not exactly exhilarating.
"I think that's one of the most uncool terms in the history of the music business," he said.
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During the course of his career, DeGraw, 35, has worked to make sure his songs have a distinct flavor. The New York native broke onto the scene in 2003 with his debut album, Chariot, a platinum-selling success fueled by the hit opening track, Follow Through, and his first and arguably most well-known single, I Don't Want to Be. It was a heck of a way for DeGraw to introduce listeners to his music, which uses his skills on piano and guitar and his formidable voice on songs that hit the sweet spot among pop, rock, blues and soul.
"I was very conscious not to choose any one particular direction," he said. "I love so many different kinds of music, but at the same time, I can't choose just one."
Since his debut, he has kept his creative juices flowing and his presence in mainstream music felt, whether it's delivering the additional hit single In Love With a Girl, from his self-titled sophomore album in 2008, or recording the album Free, a more laid-back and soulful affair in 2009, featuring early songs and live-show favorites as a bit of a love letter to his fans.
For his new album, Sweeter, DeGraw said, he wanted to deploy a new approach. He enlisted the help of some notable names: OneRepublic frontman Ryan Tedder, Butch Walker, Eric Rosse and Ron Aniello, whose résumés include working with Adele, Avril Lavigne, Beyoncé and Sara Bareilles. He also used the songwriting talents of Tedder and songwriter Andrew Frampton to help co-write four tracks, something DeGraw had never done before but said he was eager to try.
"What it did here is say, I can take another risk here because you're here encouraging me," DeGraw said of working with co- writers. "It gives you confidence to express something else."
DeGraw said the process helped make Sweeter a defining moment in his career — one in which he seems to express more dimensions musically and lyrically. Because it's a DeGraw album, it's loaded with soaring choruses and hooks, showcasing the man's soulful croon. But among some of the earnest and romantic ballads and catchy pop rock, you'll hear a title track with a Black Keys-style blues stomp and DeGraw playing the role of the lustful home-wrecker. That same sexual strut can be found in the Sly and the Family Stone-indebted funk of Radiation, in which DeGraw longs for a no-good lover.
"You can't be the lead man in every scene of the movie," DeGraw explained. "It's the opposite of romantic, but it's still real."
DeGraw is taking on another challenge: Dancing With the Stars. On Tuesday, ABC announced that he would be part of this season's cast of the ballroom-dancing competition.
Dancing will have to be balanced with the demands of a new tour, which DeGraw will kick off in Lexington when he and guest David Nail are to perform Thursday at Buster's Billiards & Backroom. Expect DeGraw to bring the success and variety of his new album along with a catalog showcasing musical and vocal chops and hit singles to spare — doing his part to make the tag "singer-songwriter" anything but a bland description.