We had the chance to travel to Schmidt Artist Lofts in downtown St. Paul to meet up with Grayson DeWolfe, an aspiring musician from Stillwater, Minnesota. Formerly a member of the band Time Atlas, DeWolfe is turning over a new leaf and pursuing his passion as a solo artist while writing his own music. Read on to find out how he got his start in the industry, who has inspired him along the way, and the challenges he faces as a young solo artist.
W: When did you start writing music?
GD: I started first writing music probably when I was in 5th grade. My mom forced me to play piano for four years before I could play guitar. I hated piano, but I wanted to play guitar really badly, and so after four years of playing piano, my parents got me a guitar for my birthday and I started writing songs immediately.
W: What inspires you when writing your music? What does your creative process look like?
GD: Oh boy. Depends on different times… I try to listen to a lot of new stuff–primarily pop stuff. I’m trying to write for other people right now. So, I listen to the radio a lot, not really for inspiration, but to kind of see where music is right now. For inspiration I actually kind of go backwards. I listen to 80’s stuff… listen to a lot Coldplay, like their older stuff. I think my biggest inspiration is going outside and being somewhere new. I think that’s the quickest way to being inspired. Environment is really important for being inspired.
W: Who are your biggest musical influences?
GD: It always changes… Overall, Coldplay has affected me more than anything in my entire life. The Jonas Brothers because I grew up listening to them like a Disney fangirl… I learned song structure from them really well. And the 1975. Recently, Jon Bellion, Panic! at the Disco, and Chance the Rapper… They’re my current ones that I go to to listen for ideas.
W: How did you get your name out there and gain popularity?
GD: I kind of arrived late to the social media game. I did it the old-fashioned way. I was fortunate enough that my booking agent was just like, “You should open for this show and this show.” Sometimes I’d open for a band that was like a heavy band, you know, where all the people are like punk-rockers, and they didn’t really care for my pop. We’d maybe get like five fans from that show. And then we’d play another show and have like 40 people buying t-shirts. For like two years it was this monthly grind in Minnesota, just playing show after show.
W: Where was your first public performance? What was that experience like for you?
GD: I was 15 years old. It was me and two high school friends at the Amsterdam Bar and Hall in St. Paul. I had just put out, like, a four-track demo thing online, and at that point, I was just emailing different venues like, “Hey, where can I play a show?” Amsterdam got back to me, so we set up a show there. We performed and family and friends came out… and we played for like a little over a hundred people probably. We were awful. We were so bad! After that we just played show after show every month, and sometimes we sucked and sometimes we were okay. It was definitely, like, trial-and-error as a teenager. By the time I was 17, I gained the members of Time Atlas as my backing band, and they were all seasoned musicians, like in their early 20s. There wasn’t enough money, so we decided to rebrand as a band. So, we all put in money to fund the EP… I have no regrets.
W: You used to be in the band Time Atlas, but it broke up. What happened? What made you want to become a solo artist?
GD: We were like one of the bigger unsigned bands in the Midwest, so it was a shame that it didn’t work out. But over the past winter people started going different directions. Different things kind of started happening in their lives, where I was kind of one of the last people that was really still working to make stuff happen. So, it was mostly people leaving… You know, they were a bit older, so they decided they have different priorities now. So, I was the “last one standing” type of thing, so I decided, “Well, I’m gonna make make my own music as a solo artist now.”
W: Do you prefer working alone or did you like being in a band better?
GD: You almost have more freedom to collaborate [as a solo artist] that way, and the freedom to make your own choices. I really enjoy collaborating with a wide array of people. That’s kind of what I’ve done in the past year. I went down to Nashville and worked with Mark Holman, who works with Florida Georgia Line. So, I worked on a song with him and recorded with him and went and worked with Rian Dawson [the drummer] from All Time Low. It helps me a lot because I feel like I’m at a spot right now where I want to be learning as much as I can. I think you get to a point as an artist where… you get so far writing by yourself and working really hard but you need to be around other people that think differently and that are ahead of you, essentially, and you just kinda learn tricks from them and better ideas.
W: What was it like getting to play your music on tour?
GD: Really weird, but I actually really enjoyed it. When I was on my first tour, we were playing a show in Pittsburg, and it was the first song. There was like 40 to 50 people there that knew every single word, and it was really bizarre. I thought I had made it. I was like, “I did it. This is it.” Looking back, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. But in that moment, it was the weirdest thing ever because these people I had never met, like, knew me somehow. It was very surreal. It was a big milestone moment for me. Touring, in general, is really hard on you mentally and physically. I always got sick on tour because I usually eat very healthy and then when you go on tour it’s really hard to eat healthy. It’s hard on you, but when you play that show and you have people in different cities every night singing along, that’s like the fuel to keep going.
W: How did high school fit into all of this?
GD: High schoolers did not like me. People didn’t take me seriously and for good reason. I gigged monthly sophomore year of high school. I got like a lot of negative feedback from kids, like “He’s a wannabe singer.” I didn’t take it super badly. I was like, “Screw you guys, I don’t wanna listen to you. I’m gonna do my thing.” I left high school after sophomore year and went PSEO full time. I went to community college and got my high school credits that way. So I got my Associate’s Degree before I got my diploma, which is pretty fun.
W: You did a rendition of “Hand of God” by Jon Bellion. What inspired you to recreate the song with yourself singing the various parts?
GD: I was super into Jon Bellion and super into the whole “Human Condition” record. I never knew there was an outro to “Hand of God.” One day, when I was in my car, and “Hand of God” stopped, I was like, “That was really good.” And then it faded out. Then, I heard something creeping up and I was like, “Hey…what song is this?” and then I realized “Hand of God” had two minutes left and I was like “What?” and then all of a sudden it goes [singing] “Tears at a funeral, tears at a funeral.” And I was like “WHAT?!” I cried. I was like, “What is going on? How did I miss this?” It was so cool though because by that point I was already so emotionally attached to all of the songs… I was like, “I need to cover this.” I think that’s one of the coolest things a musician has done is that outro.
W: Do you prefer to sing covers of songs or write your own?
GD: Write my own. I really don’t like doing covers. There are sometimes where I really wanna sing a song. But for the most part, I really want to write my own songs or write songs for other people. I think I strive most in being a creative songwriter more than a performer.
W: What do you do when you have writer’s block?
GD: Oh, that’s a really good question. I like to either listen to music that I’ve never heard of to hear what other people are doing, to get my mind spinning off of something someone else did, or I really like exercising. I like to drive to a place I haven’t been in, that’s safe to run in and I’ll just go on a jog and look around and see different things. Those different images in my head… it just helps with the writing. Sometimes it’s really unavoidable. I think one thing that causes writer’s block is when you’re in like a place for too long, where it’s just kind of like, neutral, you know? When you’re in “neutral” for so long, and like wherever you are in your life or whatever it is, things kind of become normal. You just get into that motion and it’s hard to think of new things. That’s why I think it’s important to kind of be a fish out of water sometimes. Or like, when a life event happens and you’re like “Ahhh, what do I do?” and you just have to find an outlet.
W: When you’re not creating music, what do you do for fun?
GD: Exercising is big for me, studying… that’s not for fun [laughs]. Right before I go to bed I watch two episodes of TV. I limit myself so I don’t binge and waste my time. I enjoy The Office very much. I also like listening to music, and I like going out and doing things. I love going to see theater and concerts.
W: Who would your dream collaboration be with?
GD: Oh, my gosh. Who would I like to work with? The dream would be either Coldplay or Bruno Mars. If I ever get there, I’ve peaked. That is the greatest thing in the world. I would love to write a song with Ed Sheeran someday. I don’t care if it never gets cut, or if no one uses it. I just want to sit in a room and just hear how he thinks when he writes his songs. I study him a lot.
W: What is your favorite part about being an artist in the Twin Cities?
GD: The music scene is very diverse, I think. A lot of people give it crap because they say there’s only like metal bands or punk bands from Minnesota in the global scene. But there’s also some really good indie bands and there’s also some really good rappers, and so there’s a little bit of everything. I think we’re very fortunate to have one of the biggest music scenes in the country, really, after Nashville and New York and LA. We’re pretty much–like, us and Chicago–are pretty much the next stops for having an actual culture of music. We’re very fortunate to have that, and being a part of it and having somewhat of like a leading voice in it is really cool. I find myself very privileged.
W: What are the challenges of being a musician?
GD: A lot of people tell you this, but it’s a really, like, dog-eat-dog world in the music industry. And even when you are so good and you get connected and you’re “there,” it still takes just a shot of luck to get that opportunity that can get you a little bit further. It’s this cycle of, like, “Oh, a good opportunity! Take it, kill it, go a little bit further.” It’s a grind, and it’s really hard on a person’s mental health. I think mental health is a topic that’s talked about in the music industry a lot because it really is hard to keep your sanity sometimes. It’s such a struggle, even when people seem like they’re successful. There’s always another mountain to climb. You just have to be stubborn and be ready to take on whatever comes at you.
W: How do you balance your time between being a musician and a college student?
GD: It’s really hard. You have prioritize really hard. I think it’s manageable… I think it’s easy to struggle. I have a calendar for everything, like literally everything I do is in my calendar, except for when I eat and watch TV. That way, I make sure I have enough time for studying and for music and stuff, too. Definitely not for the faint of heart, but if you want to do both, you can.
W: Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
GD: I think I see myself living in Los Angeles. I plan on either moving to LA after this year, or after I get my marketing degree. I’m going to Hamline right now as a junior. I’ll probably be in LA though, for sure. If I’m not pursuing an artist career for myself, I want to be a songwriter for other artists… probably pop music, specifically. If I have my degree at that point, which I’m leaning towards, and if the songwriting isn’t going well, then I can lean on my marketing degree to get a normal job and then keep writing until it works out.