If ever a star was “born,” it was on the fateful day of April 28, 2010, when a 12-year-old kid from Oklahoma belted out a shiver-inducing cover of Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi” (for a school talent show) and left a room full of onlookers gasping in awe. When the video of the performance was uploaded to YouTube, it became an instant sensation – and soon record biz honchos (including Guy Oseary) were beating a path to the door of a very young Greyson Chance.
The past nine years have brought a lot of highs (lasting friendships with superfans Ellen DeGeneres and Gaga herself), as well as some lows, with two album releases and the requisite touring leaving him with an impressively devoted fanbase. It also made him the artist he is now, the one who has finally made the record he’s always intended to make. Indeed, portraits was released by AWAL on March 15, and it’s the work of a songwriter who has genuinely found his voice, by learning from some of the very best – from Amy Winehouse to Joni Mitchell, Sylvan Esso to Brandi Carlile…and even, lyrically, a little Hermann Hesse.
Of course, growing up in public generally comes with its share of pitfalls – and he admits he’s learned some tough lessons about the music biz along the way. But he’s come out exhibiting a remarkable sense of self-possession, as well as a resolute sense of purpose.
As he preps for a run of live dates, we slowed him down long enough for a chat about where he’s been, and where he is now determined to go.
Were you initially shocked by how quickly your cover of “Paparazzi” went viral?
Absolutely, in every sense. It is funny, many people think I had a pre-conceived intention of posting that video in hopes of becoming famous, but that honestly was just not the case. I remember wanting to put it online so that my friends could see it, and that was my sole objective. It changed the trajectory of my life in every single way.
Were you a big fan of Lady Gaga?
Yes, I was a massive fan, that is why I chose “Paparazzi.” There was something so mesmerizing about the way she performed it, and I have distinct memories of losing my mind at the VMA performance – the one with the blood bag and the wheelchair. I think that was my main inspiration for why I wanted to play it. You watch her and instantly know that she is a rock star.
Gaga actually called you – what was that like?
That was amazing, but I’ve been more blessed for my friendship with her since starting out in music. We were signed to the same management and label, so Gaga made herself very accessible to me during the beginning when it was really chaotic. I think she understood and sympathized with how quickly my life was changing. We’ve shared some really intimate moments together; I’ve learned a lot from her wisdom and her guidance.
What did you learn during that time? What were your big takeaways?
My biggest takeaway from starting out in the industry at a young age was a quick understanding of how cruel it can be. The music industry is not a place for the weak-hearted or the thin-skinned; that was a lesson I learned early. Nevertheless, I believe that I also understood the blessing of it all from the beginning, which is something I owe to my parents. Regardless of how a record was or was not performing, how tickets were selling, etc., I got to travel the world at a very young age and see people from all different cultures and backgrounds singing along to my songs. What an amazing experience. That sort of thing still inspires me and keeps me going. The industry side of music is difficult, sure; but there is so much beauty in the creation and performance of music, it’s worth it.
Your new single “shut up” has a very soulful vibe. What have you been influenced by lately?
For the album, I was incredibly inspired by Sylvan Esso, Bon Iver, and Brandi Carlile. I studied all of their work, both from a production and lyrical standpoint; it really got me into the headspace of wanting to make an album that was captivating and vulnerable. At the moment, I’ve been reading a lot of fiction, mainly Hermann Hesse and Max Frisch. I’ve noticed their writings have influenced a current turn in my lyrics.
The lyrics make a reference to Alex Turner – are you an Arctic Monkeys fan?
A big one. I find Alex so alluring and mystifying.
Your new album portraits is out this month. What can we expect, musically and lyrically?
I think people who have been familiar with my work in the past will be surprised by the album just because it feels much older. I also view this record as my debut, as I think it’s the first time I am presenting myself in a truly honest way, considering I wrote it fully; I didn’t cut any corners this time. portraits can be best defined as a journal [of] my life last year. I wrote it all from experience, which included my decision to pursue music again full time, a difficult breakup, and an evolution within my own life as an individual. I don’t know what to tell people to expect “musically” when they put on the album; I don’t really believe in genres anymore. Long story short, I made an album that I felt happy listening to; I hope people feel the same.
Do you feel like your songwriting has matured?
Absolutely it has. The songwriters that I most admire are the ones who aren’t afraid to be vulnerable in their work: Joni Mitchell and Amy Winehouse come to mind. What people on the outside do not realize, however, is that such expression of vulnerability through art isn’t a choice, but rather, it is the only way creatives know how to move through life. I studied a lot of Joni’s work this past year, and I began to see this and understand it. She portrays her journey in her lyrics in the same way she does in her paintings. It’s not a conscience choice, she just does it; it’s just what she knows. So, to answer your question, has my songwriting matured? Yes, but only because I have matured as a person.
You’ve got several live dates in March and April – will you be doing any of the spring and summer festivals?
I will be performing some festivals this summer. I am booked for a few Pride shows, and I am the most excited about those.
What will the live shows be like?
I do not want to reveal too much, but in the same way that I have been honest in my writing, I will be honest in my performance. Music moves me, and I want to show that. My biggest goal for myself has been to just have more fun with it all.
What do you still hope to achieve with your music?
Since music is so integrated into my life, I think my musical goals perfectly align with my overall goals for myself. I just want to be happy.