You Sing, I Write: Q&A with Greg Holden

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Q&A with Greg Holden

I sat down with singer-songwriter Greg Holden right before his set at Rockwood Music Hall during CMJ. The UK native recently moved to New York to pursue his dream and has been impressing audiences everywhere with his honest lyrics and onstage banter. Music fans aren't alone in their admiration for Holden, turns out Ingrid Michaelson hand-picked him as her direct tour support this fall after catching him live at Rockwood.

A true inspiration to aspiring musicians, Holden booked a flight to New York on a whim to pursue his dream. His advice: "If you take a risk, it does happen. I’m living proof of that. It’s not like I succeeded to the mass, but I’m happy and doing what I want to do. My advice is go ahead and just try it. What’s the worst that could happen? You end up back at square one. So what?"

Always the innovative performer, when Holden had some downtime in the UK he booked his own tour, titled the “Living Room Series” where he performed in fan’s living rooms for their families and friends. Read below for more on his "Living Room Series," touring with Ingrid Michaelson and the stories behind some of his songs. Lucky for New Yorkers, Holden is back from tour and you can catch him perform at many NYC venues in the upcoming months.

Do you prepare for a showcase like CMJ any different than a typical show?
No, not really. I kind of forget it’s a CMJ show and just play. I think the more pressure you put on yourself with labels and stuff being there, it’s just pointless.

You did a tour in fans living rooms, called “Not My Living Room Tour.” How did you come up with that idea?
I have two series on YouTube. One is called The Living Room series and the other is the Not My Living Room series. When I got home from America in the summer I needed something to do. So, it just came naturally. I was going to tour people’s living rooms and called it “Not My Living Room” tour. I made a video asking people if they wanted me to play their living room. We put a contract together and sent out a bunch of emails and got a great response back. The whole month of July I toured people’s living rooms. It was fun. It was interesting.

Any crazy experiences?
Not crazy, but it was a lot harder than I thought to just knock on someone’s door and walk in and play for them. It wasn’t as easy as I thought it was going to be. It was kind of bizarre, actually. It’s definitely a cool concept, but I wish I had my manager with me. A lot of time I went on my own and it was kind of weird. But it was a good experience and I definitely gained some good fans out of it.

Would you do it again?
Honestly, I would have to be a little more organized. It was pretty well organized, but next time I would have a crew with me, or at least one or two people. I would never do it on my own again, that was kind of scary.

You just got off tour with Ingrid Michaelson, who reached out to you to open for her.
Yeah. She saw me playing here, actually at Rockwood. A couple months later, when I was back in England, she invited me out on tour with her for a month. I had to get a visa, which is not as easy as it sounds. The tour was great. She was amazing. The whole tour was sold out. She took good care of me. She got onstage with me, her band got onstage with me and they just welcomed me. It was the best tour I could have asked for.

I’m sure it was a huge difference going from living rooms to sold out venues. How did you adapt?
It happened completely naturally. I was working myself up about it, thinking, “How am I going to do this? I’ve never played in front of this many people before.” The first night in Toronto it was 800 people and it was fine, I just walked on and it felt like any other gig. If anything, it felt better than a small gig because you can control the crowd better. It seems like you have more control the more people there are, it’s weird. I honestly thrived in it.

You just released your EP, Sing For the City. It sounds like New York had a big influence.
New York had the whole part. I lived in New York in the spring on a non-working visa, a three-month thing, but I had to go home. It was heartbreaking to go home because I had no real idea how to get back without finding five grand. For me, it was like trying to write for New York and hope that it would bring me back. So, I made this EP and then funnily enough as soon as I finished recording the EP, that’s when Ingrid contacted me. It’s kind of like this magical story. So yeah, that EP is basically all about New York.

“You’re Scaring Me” is my favorite song on the EP. What was the inspiration behind the song?
I wrote that song last year, when it was my first visit to New York by myself. I’d been the year before with my ex-girlfriend and I came to New York the second time by myself and it was terrifying. The first time I came it was magical. I’d been looked after by someone, I always had someone with me, I was being driven around by someone; it was easy. The second time I arrived at JFK I had to get the subway on my own. All of a sudden this magical New York wasn’t very magical, it was terrifying. So, the song was saying New York is this amazing place, but when you’re in New York it can scare the crap out of you.

I wanted to ask about another song off your album, A Word In Edgeways — “The Art of Falling.”
That seems to be the song that everyone loves. Every artist has that one song. It’s my oldest song, so I can’t stand playing it. I do play it, but it’s one of those songs that I’ve played for two-and-a-half years now, so I’m completely over it.

I love the lyrics, “It’s better to make your mistakes then live without knowing/It’s better to fall on your face then to stay on your feet.” Was there a certain experience that inspired the song?
Yeah. That was actually written about the first time I went to New York. And also, the first time I went to New York I moved to London as well from where I was living. I took these two huge risks. A lot of people fell out with me for one of my risks because I was in a band and I decided I wanted to be on my own. So, I quit my band and moved to London and a lot of people didn’t see eye to eye with me. I lost a lot of friends it seemed, people just disappeared out of my life and I was really heartbroken by it. I wrote this song and it was more like, I’m going to do what I want, I don’t care what goes wrong. I’m not going to let people hold me back kind of sentiment in the song.

Is there a song you’ve written that holds more meaning now than when first written?
I think my song “Serendipity” is a powerful song for me now. I wrote that almost two years ago. That was about New York again, my first visit there and coming home to England and realizing I had to be there. At that point I had a girlfriend, I had jobs, I had everything — commitments in the UK. The song came out as if I’m ready to go to New York. It was only two years later that I actually moved here. Now that I’m here, when I sing it, it’s got a lot more meaning. All my songs are very honest; I don’t really bullshit any of my lyrics.

I agree. They’re very honest and tend to be about a relationship, whether with a person or a place. Do you ever hold back a bit because you’re afraid your girlfriend is going to hear it?
Not anymore, because I’m single. I write what I want now. But, yeah, I actually used to hold back. When you have a girlfriend it’s very difficult to write a song about how your relationship is failing because they’ll be like, “What?” Now that I’m single, I just write what I want and I’m planning on throwing more out there.

Do you feel a song comes out better when it’s based on your life or fantasy?
Yeah. Well, I don’t make any songs up generally. I find it a lot easier when I’m thinking about the situation. Sometimes I’ll exaggerate it, but generally they’re all based on true events.

I stumbled on your blog on Tumblr and your last post is about writer’s block. What do you do when you have writer’s block?
There’s nothing really you can do. Generally if I have a block, I’ll ride it out and wait. It’ll come back eventually. It’s just one of those things where you can’t write all the time. The worst was where I had writer’s block for a year and it really affected my confidence in everything. Generally I just wait it out.

What’s your typical songwriting process?
It’s always different. I have a notebook with me. I never write on a computer. This morning I was on the train just writing, and that’s the lyrics. Tomorrow maybe I’ll go home and try and work out some music around it. Other times I might be playing guitar and hear a nice riff and throw the lyrics on the top of it. It works different each time. “Alright Sir?” was written in 15 minutes and “Serendipity” took two months. Ask any writer, it’s never a standard process. There are days you’ve got other things to do and other days you feel so inspired that you can just sit all day and write.

I read that you decided in January to move to New York.
Yeah. I split with my girlfriend in October and I started to hate my job and London was really dragging me down. Come January I was completely miserable and I was in my living room one night and literally the light bulb just went off in my head: “I don’t care anymore. I’m going to move to New York for three months.” I knew I could only go for three months and thought, “I’m just going to go and give it my best and see what happens.” Literally, that night I booked a flight and three weeks later I moved. In those three weeks I quit my job and sold everything I owned. It’s kind of a crazy story. At the end of those three months, it was hard to leave but at the same time I knew I definitely made an impact. I had achieved what I had set out to achieve at the end of the summer. I’m so glad I’m back now. I bought a three year visa so I’m here for a while.

A lot of people don’t pursue their dreams. What is your advice?
Do it. Obviously, that’s what I say. I always tell the story before I play “The Art of Falling” because I want people to understand that it works. If you take a risk, it does happen. I’m living proof of that. It’s not like I succeeded to the mass, but I’m happy and doing what I want to do. I’m in the place where I want to be and things are just getting better. My advice is go ahead and just try it. What’s the worst that could happen? You end up back at square one. So what?

You produced your albums on your own.
I didn’t produce them myself, but I had producers doing them. But, yeah, I paid for them myself. My first trip to New York was because a producer had seen me playing in the UK and invited me out and he did the record on spec, which means he did it and basically I pay him back. The EP I did in my friend’s basement this summer. He had a good microphone, but literally we did it in his basement in three days.

Do you feel a musician needs to be on a label? Is that one of your goals?
Well, I would prefer to be than to do it on my own generally. I think even a label would agree. It depends on the terms of the deal and everything. My ideal situation would be pay for the record so I own it and then distribute it through a label, which is kind of what I did with these last few records with Original Signal. But it’s so expensive to make a record. You either figure out a way of making 50 grand and making a record or you go through a record label. There’s good and bad sides to doing both of those things, I think I’ll just wait and see if a good deal comes along.

Your song is going to be featured on “Private Practice.”
I don’t know what that’s going to do. It’s either going to blow up or it’s not going to do anything that I expected. So I have no idea what to expect from that. I’m kind of not expecting anything and am just happy that one of my songs has been recognized and put on a TV show, that’s amazing. And it’s going to help me pay my rent for a little while, so that’s nice. I don’t have any great expectations of it and if it takes off, then great.

Have you learned any tips from being on tour with Ingrid Michaelson?
Yeah. She’s taught me that just because someone’s doing well and selling out crowds, they’re not assholes. She’s a really nice person. It makes me glad because I’m a very humble person, I don’t feel like I’ll ever get to that point where I’m a rock star and I’m pushing people aside. I’m not brought up that way, so it makes me feel good when there’s other people out there like that. I just learned that being yourself onstage is a totally good thing. Ingrid is completely the same person onstage and when she gets on the bus, and I am too. I don’t see the point on going up there with some fake self.

What do you think about when you’re onstage?
I don’t know. It’s really weird. You generally would think that when a singer is singing, he’ll be thinking about the words. What goes through my head is sometimes what I’m going to eat afterwards. Sometimes I’m singing and I’m not thinking about the words, I’m thinking, “My God there are a lot of people here.” I’m just wondering random thoughts. Sometimes you come back and you’re like, “Ah, shit I’m playing a song” and you have to find yourself again and that’s generally when you forget the words.

Do you remember the moment you decided you want to be a musician for the rest of your life?
The first time I started playing guitar.

Do you get that thrill every time you’re onstage?
It gets stronger. It hasn’t faded. The more I do it, the more I enjoy it.

How would you describe your music to someone who has never heard it before?
My music is more like folk, but it’s also got a poppy edge. I have no idea. Folk rock. Folk pop. I’m not going to make up a random word. That’s what it is I guess. Honest folk pop.

What would you be doing if it wasn’t music?
I dread to even think. Music has brought me to all sorts of other places. Probably working in a retail store somewhere, which terrifies me. So far, so good. Let’s just hope this carries on.


Rechelle said...

Very cool. We saw Greg Holden and Ingrid Michaelson in San Juan Capistrano at the Coach House. It was a great night, and a great show. Everyone was so down to earth, and the music was great. I'm glad to hear that their camaraderie was as good off-stage as it was on-stage. We bought Greg's EP. I'm impressed that he finished that in 3 days!

Grace said...

Yea, I saw them as well but in Dallas. They were superb :)


Thanks Rechelle and Grace! Glad you enjoyed Greg's show. I missed his tour with Ingrid, but have seen Ingrid and Greg perform before and they just seem like the perfect tour pairing.

Totally agree on knowing their camaraderie was as good off and onstage :-)

Julia said...

Oooh He's so cute. (L)


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