Gavin DeGraw has an artistic credo that continues to guide his songwriting, especially on the starkly candid dirge "Harder to Believe." One of the standout tracks on his fifth album, Something Worth Saving, released this month on RCA, it's basically about waking up alive on one particularly scary morning.
"The worst thing you could ever have is a boring life," says the multi-platinum pop/R&B stylist. "So obviously, I write about my life, because if you're just a songwriter making things rhyme, then no one's ever going to know anything about you. So then who are you, really?"
The evening in question — Aug. 8, 2011 — doesn't translate easily into a four-minute song. Taking a night off from touring with Train and Maroon 5 in New York City, the singer thought he'd drop by the National Underground, the lower East Side bar he owned with his brother. The two had opened it with the best of intentions, hoping to create a hip hangout for local musicians. Walking home early that morning, he wound up fighting three assailants, and — with his fingers too bloody to dial his cellphone for help — was apparently hit by the lone cab he tried to hail.
The only thing he remembers for sure was waking up in the hospital with a concussion and facial fractures, a breathing tube down his throat.
DeGraw understands that many composers use metaphors and allegories to camouflage real, sometimes controversial events in their lives. That's just not his style.
"I think it's important that people — even if they don't necessarily identify with you — will at least be able to identify you as an artist," he says. "And sure, certain things you don't want them to have to identify with you on, like something bad that happened to you. But if you can warn somebody, why not? You want to let them know who you are, what you've done, and what you went through. And some of it is great stuff. Some of it is the best shit."
Elsewhere on Something Worth Saving, finger-popping numbers like "New Girl," "Kite Like Girl," and the kickoff single "She Sets the City On Fire" all seem to trumpet a brand-new relationship, a possibility that DeGraw will neither confirm nor deny. After all, you have to draw the confessional line somewhere.
"I always leave the private life out of business, but you can always write about love," he says, evasively.
Prior to finding fame with his hit-spawning 2003 debut album Chariot, DeGraw grew up in upstate New York's Catskill Mountains. He still recalls how, upon his arrival in the big city, people told him not to not make eye contact with strangers, to stay focused on the pavement ahead when walking around its bustling streets. At the time, he shrugged off the advice. "I thought, 'Oh, this city's not dangerous!'" he says.
DeGraw has since closed down the National Underground, choosing to instead open one in Nashville, where he also maintains a residence.
"But I wouldn't change a thing about New York," he says. "You play the odds, and every once in a while, you stumble onto a bad dude — that's all there is to it. And I fought a gang, so you win some, you lose some. And if you live through it? Hey, you've got a story to tell."