Thursday, February 2, 2012

Andy Grammer: the Los Angeles musician

IT USED to be that when I saw musicians singing on sidewalks lining busy L.A. streets, I wouldn’t give them much thought. I’d make a sad attempt at polite with a “No, thank you” to the demo CD they offer me, or I’d walk by their penny-filled guitar case without even considering reaching into my wallet for a monetary acknowledgement of their (and their music’s) existence. Now I give these busking musicians a second thought, and for every occasional dollar bill I drop in a fedora or violin case, these musicians have Andy Grammer to thank for it.

Los Angeles – home to movie studios and record labels – is a city full of musicians, actors and filmmakers trying to “make it.” Many don’t find success. Some do. It’s hard to know just which of those lining the streets will make the transition to venues like the House of Blues and big stadiums. It’s hard to know what I would have thought of Andy Grammer’s music had I first heard it on a Santa Monica street instead of at a small show on LMU’s campus. But I do know that he is part of a lucky minority of singer/songwriters who have “made it,” and he’s a musician who strikes me as having a very L.A. story.

Grammer – born in L.A., raised in New York before moving back to L.A. at age 20 – got into the business with a combination of the quintessential ways to “make it”: have a family member in music, and play your heart out busking on the streets and performing small shows. His father is a singer-songwriter of children’s songs. But Grammer also performed for years on Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, selling demo CDs to pay the rent before moving on to performing small shows at colleges around California then around the country.

Now he is headlining his own tour, and those college crowds have turned into a devoted following. And the other artists and performers who lined the Santa Monica street in his busking days? Grammer stays close to them and even invites them out on stage during his shows.

Most of his songs are ones you’d expect to come from spending so much time performing in sunny Santa Monica and to energetic, free-spirited college students: His music is uplifting and optimistic, calling for his listeners to “keep your head up” in his single of the same name.

When I interviewed him for The Hollywood Reporter last summer, I asked him if he sets out to be uplifting with his music. He responded, “My ultimate goal is to try to be real. It just so happens that I’m usually more happy than sad when I’m writing.”

His songs always do seem to succeed in tapping into those real experiences you have but may never admit to – in “Numbers” he puts into lyrics that thing we all have done at some point in our lives: assign numbers rating the hotness level of people we see out and about. He admits to feeling like “a 5 on a good day” and that “just one time I wish I could have a 9” while sending an anti-superficiality message, singing, “The value of personality seems to be dead. / We’re all walking around numbered with halos on our heads.”

But not everything that is real and authentic is all sunshine and rainbows in Grammer’s music. Perhaps no song of his has resonated more with me – truly struck at real emotion, the heart of what I’m feeling and what frame of mind I’m often in these days as a college senior going through ups and downs and freaking out about whether I’m going to have a job come graduation time – no song any more than “The Heavy and the Slow.” He sings, “If there’s anything to learn on Earth, / I’m certain it’s the heavy and the slow” and “Bruise me life. / Confuse me life. / Bring on the rain.” It’s a song about embracing the hardships and the sorrows that actually brought tears to my eyes when I saw him sing it at one of his shows, closing his eyes, swaying with the strumming of his guitar, getting more into the music than I ever had seen him be.

That performance of “The Heavy and the Slow” also was a tear-jerker for me because of how he introduced it, giving a shout-out to his mom, who died a few years back, leaving that Earth Andy sings about before he got his success and found his way in the music industry.

Just as Andy’s life is a mix of the joyful – like getting a record deal and starting his first headlining tour – and the “heavy and the slow” – like losing his mom too soon – L.A. is a blend of the two. It’s not all sunny Arcadia as it’s represented to be, just as New York most certainly isn’t all black clothing and gloomy weather as it’s often depicted. L.A. has the sunny weather and the smog, and even some rain. It’s a city where so much is fake and contrived – reality shows, anyone? – but right next to the phony there’s plenty that’s authentic and real, and that’s where artists like Andy Grammer come in.

Photo: Andy Grammer performing at the Anaheim House of Blues on Jan. 14, 2012. Credit: Emily Rome, courtesy of my oh-so-high-tech camera phone  

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