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DeGraw channels his endless energy into live music

Gavin DeGraw is hungry. He's walking around downtown New Orleans in the afternoon, looking for a decent spot where he can grab something. In a few hours, the singer-songwriter will be back on the road, en route to a gig in Arkansas. Right now, though, DeGraw chats on his cell phone about his life, his music and how the two come together on his impressive debut, Chariot.

"I love to be on stage," says the native New Yorker, 26. "Just the opportunity to play live has been great. People need to know that what they're hearing on record is real."

DeGraw, who plays the 9:30 Club tomorrow night with Maroon 5, is a throwback of sorts, reminiscent of a young Billy Joel. In an era of over-choreographed routines, over-processed beats and over-the-top antics, the man sits at a piano or picks up a guitar and sings full throttle. No fluff. No forced theatrics. He is a showman, though: gregarious, real and accessible. He's like the smart, somewhat eccentric friend you've known all your life - upbeat most of the time, his energy boundless.

He says, "I don't want my music to be safe, man. I can't do the same thing night after night. The same thing? Get a rope and find a rafter, man. Come on."

DeGraw was born and raised two hours northwest of Manhattan in South Fallsburg, a Catskills town, "Dirty Dancing country," the artist says, referring to the 1987 Patrick Swayze movie. "It was once a jumping place. It's a prison town now."

The singer's parents were restless musicians.

"We didn't have a stereo till I was, like, 10," DeGraw says. "We played the guitar, piano and sang Carole King, Cream, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder. We didn't have a real music collection."

When the artist was 15, he played bars with his pops and big brother.

"My brother Joey was a big influence on me, pushing me to do more with my voice," DeGraw remembers. "He said, 'Write your own music. Nobody will remember you if you don't write your own music.' He was like, 'Don't play safe. Scream more.' I was afraid I would hurt my voice or something."

Then, a friend hipped the dude to soul.

"Sam Cooke, Ray Charles - man, they're my biggest influences," DeGraw says. "Sam Cooke's singing was completely different from what I had been hearing. He had, like, this raspy yodel. He opened his voice up so much. And I listened to Etta James' At Last album to learn how to expand my voice. It was more risky as a singer. I loved it."

Before landing a deal with J Records last year, DeGraw had generated a buzz around Manhattan, playing clubs in the East Village. After a performance one night three years ago, he met Nile Rogers, producer and co-founder of the disco group Chic, who introduced the artist to James Diener, an A&R guy at Columbia Records.

"At the time, James didn't know if I would be marketable," DeGraw says. "But I didn't stop working on my music 'cause I was afraid it wouldn't sell. I wasn't going to law school or nothing."

When he wasn't on stage at night, DeGraw worked odd jobs during the day. He was a bellhop, a bartender, a waiter. The struggling artist also walked dogs for rich folks. But in 2001, DeGraw secured a songwriting contract with Warner Chappell Music, which allowed him to concentrate on his music full time. After a sold-out showcase at Manhattan's Joe's Pub in spring 2002, Diener, who had moved to J Records, signed DeGraw immediately.

Chariot isn't exactly the most adventurous rock album out now. At times, the production and arrangements are forgettable. But DeGraw's passion-soaked vocals are always on full display. He's certainly an artist to keep an eye on.

Finally, the performer has found a place to eat, "a cafeteria-like joint," he says. "But, hey, it smells good in here." Before he orders, he talks about his artistic vision.

"I don't want to limit myself," DeGraw says. "I want to do concept albums, experiment with music. Like, Marvin Gaye did a Nat 'King' Cole record. Elvis did a gospel record. Artists should make albums for the sake of music. It's about introducing people to other ideas. I want to do that. It's the artist's responsibility."

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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