Wrabel On Telling Stories, “11 Blocks” & His Debut LP

Mike Wass | November 9, 2016 6:58 pm
Wrabel's "11 Blocks" Video Causes Feels
Wrabel's "11 Blocks" video is every bit as emotional as you would expect.

“11 Blocks” stood out like a sore thumb on radio for all the right reasons. Instead of being diluted by the latest production trends, Wrabel simply told a story with as much honesty as he could muster. The emotional piano ballad is about coming to terms with the end of a relationship, which is undoubtedly harder when your ex lives around the corner. He documents the flip side of that scenario on Marshmello’s joyous “Ritual,” which finds the curly-haired crooner reveling in the euphoria of new love.

I recently spoke with Wrabel during a day off from his fall tour with Andy Grammer and Gavin DeGraw. “I think it’s the most honest song I’ve ever written,” he said of his breakthrough hit from Boise, Idaho. “Seeing the reaction to that song made me want to be that much more honest in the rest of the writing.” The 27-year-old also opens up about his next single (possibly “Honest Man” or “Poetry”), debut album and the phenomenal support he gets from friend/mentor Kesha. Get to know the rising singer/songwriter a little better in our Q&A below.

How do you find being on tour?
To be honest, it’s been really hard. At the beginning, it was a lot of adjusting. It was a lot of ups and downs. Even getting used to being a tour bus and being in a bunk and hitting your head. The first night I spent in the bunk I cried myself to sleep. Then woke up and cried myself to sleep again. It’s just weird and it’s new. But it’s amazing getting to explore little towns. We were in Jacksonville, Oregon two days ago. I got this little piece of art from this cool art shop and got a new teddy bear.

I’ve had an hour-long meet & greet after every set. That to me is the best part of the tour, to get to meet people. Whether they come up and they’re like, “I’ve listened to you since [debut EP] Sideways” or it’s people that are like, “I don’t even know your name, but I just heard you play and I cried.” It’s so cool to be able to meet people and hang out with them. I hung out with these two people for like an hour after my set the other day in the lobby of the venue. It was so cool for me.

Have you interacted much with Gavin and Andy?
For sure. At the first venue, Gavin was waiting out there for us. He was very welcoming. They’ve been very, very genuine and really sweet. Gavin actually invited me to get onstage with him for the last song last night. He sang “Hey Jude.” I saw Andy backstage and he was like, “Come on man, you coming out?” I was like, “No! I’m so nervous.” He’s like, “You can come out with me and share my mic.” That was a pinch yourself moment because I just sang on the stage with Gavin DeGraw and Andy Grammar. It’s weird to have dreams coming true in a very literal sense.

Were you surprised by the overwhelmingly positive reaction to “11 Blocks”?
I’m surprised by everything. I think it’s the most honest song I’ve ever written. I’ve always written true songs, and true stories, and true feelings but that song to me… we took it down to ground floor, basement level. Let’s just tell this story. Having this be mine feels so good and cathartic. Seeing the reaction to that song made me want to be that much more honest in the rest of the writing. That’s where you really connect.

Is the song based on a particular person?
Unfortunately, it’s a very literal story. It’s always such a cliche to write about your first love but for me my first love was a big one and it defined the beginning of my adulthood. I feel like we all have that person that we compare everything else to or go back to it. Mine moved 11 blocks away after we broke up knowing where I lived. We started hanging out and talking. When you live that close, we literally bumped into each other. I remember we ran into each other twice in one day once. It was like, no this is not good. The cover is a literal map from Google Maps.

I was like, I think that we need to just take it down a few notches and rethink this because it felt like a lot just to share and it’s scary to release something that is about real people. Knowing they’re going to hear it and we’re not necessarily speaking.

Do you know if he’s heard it?
I have no idea if he’s heard it. I assume that he has heard it only because I stalk people that I’ve dated, so I assume that everyone stalks me back. It’s on the radio.

The new songs are amazing. “Poetry” and “Honest Man” really stand out for me.
Thank you very much. That means a lot to me. My mom started telling me write a happy song. My snarky response to her is usually I only write the truth. With “Poetry” I had that word floating around in my head and I had a really sad song planned for that about this feeling of poetry. What I’m craving is the feeling of poetry, that beauty, and longing, and pain all mixed into one. Now I have happy/sad tattooed on my arm. That kind of happy/sad feeling. As we started writing it, it turned into this weird love song.

It’s about the same relationship as “11 Blocks.” I even talk about the jacket again. That fucking red jacket, it has a live of its own! It started coming out that way and I tried to let it be whatever it was going to be. It ended up being sweet. Like in the bridge. “Love makes the loudest sound the first time it comes around.” I wanted it to be “love makes the loudest sound the first time it hits the ground.” But my producer was like, “No. The rest of the song is happy.” I just had to pull myself back to the head space. I was like, “Remember when it was great!” That was a fun little practice.

“Honest Man” is a little darker.
Yeah. I think “Honest Man” is going to be the title track for the album actually. I feel like it encompasses what the record is. The chorus line is “I’m an honest man, I’m working hard. I’m an honest man with a broken heart.” I feel like so many of us are running around with broken hearts showing up to our job and going and hanging out with friends, or doing whatever you’re doing in your life and having the broken heart right under the surface. Trying to get by. I wrote the song with Jim Eliot, he’s a good friend. I told him I could write a song about the past month, how I’d been running around town getting wasted. Trying to feel better, but not succeeding.

Is that the next single?
I think it’ll be one of those two songs actually, either “Poetry” or “Honest Man.” We’re still sorting out production because I’m on tour until the end of October and then I start radio dates. I’m going to go to Europe to start some promo there in November. It’s mad dash to get production sorted but I think it’ll be one of those two songs.

Will you release an EP or an album?
I think straight into the album. I have an album. I feel really confident that I have a full body of work that I really want to present together. I’ve done the EP thing before and I think for the stories that I want to tell an album is the best way to go. I know people aren’t necessarily buying full albums that much anymore but people still do. Like on this tour I’m just opening. I’m the first in three slots. I wanted to come out and play “Honest Man” just with the piano and then go into the other songs. There’s a nice flow and there’s a build. We were talking about that before we went out and they were like, “Isn’t that a little much? You’re opening. Calm down.” I was like, “No. I want to play for the people that are there.”

Also, no shade to the people that aren’t there. I show up to a concert an hour and a half late too. I get it. With the album… I’m not trying to crank out singles. I’m not trying to think of the catchiest things we can put together. Production-wise too I’m not trying to have the coolest laser beam sound that you’ve ever heard so you can’t stop listening. I’m telling these stories. I want to make an album that has an arc and that tells a story. For the people that are going to buy the album that’s who it’s geared towards. However few or however many it turns out to be. That’s what’s important to me, that it’s presented in that way versus, “Check out this single! Check out this single! Check out this single! Check out this single!”

Does this time around feel different than when you were promoting Sideways?
Quite honestly, they didn’t really push Sideways. I didn’t feel. How do I say this without sounding shady? When the Afrojack thing came out it really started taking off. It became the focus and the be all and end all. I think we peaked at either… I don’t know. We were in the top 20 on top 40 radio. For me, going from never having had anything on the radio to top 20 on top 40 radio was insane. I was also playing shows all over the world. I think we got caught up in that. We weren’t really going to do an EP there either. I had a full record written and was in a similar position as I am now.

Some part of that never felt real. I think because I was in this EDM world. I’m used to sitting at a piano and everyone’s crying. I love that. Going from that to playing in front of 100,000 people at Ultra. It was such a different world for me. Even sonically on the Sideways EP, I ended up doing things that I really love and I don’t regret, but I think I let myself get stuck in that thing of this sounded like that so we better do this, or we better do this, or we better do this. With this album and this single I’ve tried to really drown out those voices that are like, “You now what you should do.”

It’s so simple for me now sitting down to write a song. What’s the story? That’s what the song is. It doesn’t have to be anything else. There’s no gimmick. The gimmicks come from that. Even the “11 Blocks” map. I’ll wear the hat around. I was at a cafe and the barista was like, “I love your hat. What is that, a little bus route?” I was like, “It’s a map to my ex’s place.” He’s like, “Oh fuck.” It feels a bit gimmicky now because it’s on a hat, and a t-shirt, and a tote bag but when I did it, it was very sincere. I was crying at the studio with Alex Pope recording the vocals. One block away from his apartment is where we recorded this fucking vocal. I was like, “I know what the artwork is.” She was like, “What is it?” I pulled out this little crumpled up envelope and showed it to her. She was like, “Oh my God.”

This feels like mine and it feels like me. I’m so happy that I get to do this. I’m with Epic now and with L.A. Reid. The support that I’m getting is just incredible and they trust me which helps me to trust myself more. I think with a lot of artists, maybe all artists, that it’s hard to really let yourself just do what you want to do. The support that I’m getting from Epic and my management it’s so cool. It’s really so cool.

You landed on your feet but did you struggle when you lost your first deal?
Absolutely. I was on Island for three years and they were really good to me. I signed to one crew and then people started leaving. It’s like musical chairs a bit in the industry sometimes where the head of this label is now the head of that label and this A&R is now doing this. I had a lot of cheerleaders there. I had a lot of champions. Karen Kwak was my champion. Even now she’s consulting on the record which is incredible to have her back in the family.

I remember when we left there it was a mutual. It was weird. It was a bittersweet kind of thing. I remember talking to some friends who are artists and them being like, “You’re so lucky you’re out, you’re free.” Even my manager was like, “Trust me. This is a good thing.” But I remember shutting my bedroom door and crying and thinking, “What the fuck is going on?” It broke my heart because I didn’t understand. It’s hard to understand what’s going on. Was that my chance and now it’s gone? What does an independent artist mean?

Then we put out a song called “I Want You” and I started playing some shows and it started to feel okay but I still knew that I wanted to be signed. There are different kinds of artists that are out there and doing different kinds of things. I always wanted the support of a major label. Not in a diva way but I know what that can do and I know that that’s where I wanted to be. I went through maybe a year of being like, “I’m just going to write songs. I’m going to get back to songwriting.” The artist thing… well, I’ll play my shows at Hotel Cafe and get that fix from that. I’m not going to try to be an artist right now. I felt very defeated by it. “11 Blocks” was really the thing that lit the fire to be an artist back up. From the day we wrote it to the first time I heard it on the radio was four months and two days.

Kesha has been such a passionate champion of your music. How does that make you feel?
She’s like my sister. I met her through writing. We wrote some stuff together and we became fast friends. Her very outspoken support for me and my music is incredible but even more than that it’s just her. It feels weird to call her a mentor because she’s my friend but she just has so much wisdom and such a gigantic heart. I ran around and played some shows with her. She’s my first call in a lot of situations. After my first radio showcase I called her. “I’m wearing a really fancy red Paul Smith suit. I’m on the side of the street smoking a cigarette. I’m supposed to feel like a million bucks right now because I just did this crazy showcase and I’m so sad. Why? Help me.” She’s like, “I know exactly that feeling. You went from 1,000 to 0. Everyone’s gone, everyone’s asleep. Now you’re just stranded in a limousine.”

Even with going on tour I was texting her the other day right before I went onstage. I’m like, “I just feel like this, and this, and this.” She’s like you’ve got this. She’s amazing. I’m so thankful that I have someone like that that’s willing to just talk to me like a friend and as somebody who’s been through it all before. I find we really balance each other out. Our crazies are different and the same. I have no idea what is going on and have no comment on that, but the one thing I know is that I’m so, so, so excited for the world to see her for all that she is, because she’s one of the most beautiful people inside and out that I’ve ever, ever, ever, ever, ever met. She’s amazing and she cares so much. She cares about all of her fans.

Doing meet & greets she’s anxious because she’s like, “Wait I have to meet every fucking one of them and hug them and hang out with them.” That’s been such a cool thing to see because I’ve seen her schedule and I’ve seen the stress of the behind the scenes. The bigger it gets the more stress and the crazier the schedule but she truly, truly cares about what she’s doing. She’s so intentional and that’s inspiring. That’s definitely rubbed off on me and inspired me to be the same.

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