A version of this story appears in Friday’s Weekend Life section of The Oklahoman.
Graham Colton explores new territory on new album
The Oklahoma City singer-songwriter is playing three home-state shows in support of his new independent album “The Lonely Ones.”
It may be titled “Lonely Ones,” but Graham Colton calls his latest album the most collaborative musical experience of his life.
“The whole record was really made just kind of me getting together with my friends in Oklahoma and asking for help and needing those people that have known where I come from,” the singer-songwriter said by phone Monday. “I mean, in so many ways, I just turned it over to them and said ‘Tell me where to go ‘cause I know I want to go into a new place, but I can’t do it by myself.’ So it’s been a fun journey thus far.”
After a three-week tour that criss-crossed the country, Colton is bring the journey back around to Oklahoma, with shows Friday night at The Vanguard in Tulsa and Saturday night at the new Bricktown Music Hall in his hometown and home base of Oklahoma City. He also will headline April 5 at Southwestern Oklahoma State University’s SWOSUPalooza in Weatherford.
“The exciting thing for me, especially now that we’ve been on tour for a while, is that it’s just such a new show. It’s such a different show. I think people that are used to seeing me up there strumming acoustic guitar will be pleasantly surprised,” Colton said.
“I’m still up there playing guitar but … it’s a different kind of guitar playing. It’s different kinds of sounds coming off the stage,” he added. “There’s a lot of moments that happen during the show that literally are happening for the first time because I’m not up there just strumming along. I’m not up there just playing my acoustic guitar along with the band. I’m contributing musically in a way that I’ve never done before. And that’s exciting and very scary.”
For Colton, 32, the January release of “Lonely Ones” marked such a new stage of his career it’s almost like starting over.
“Fortunately, it’s not starting over from the traditional standpoint ‘cause I’m very lucky to have a nice group of fans across the country that have supported me. You know, I did a Kickstarter for this album and really couldn’t have done it without a Kickstarter and without the support of my longtime fans and friends and family,” he said, admitting some of his longtime fans don’t understand his new sound.
“I needed the studio to be an instrument unlike anything I’d ever done. I needed to push buttons and twist knobs and sit around and work on one part for eight hours straight. I’ve never had to do that, ever, but this album required so much sound exploration.”
Although he’s still specializing in ridiculously infectious pop-rock, Colton turned away from the guitar-driven sound of his major-label albums, 2004′s “Drive” and its 2007 follow-up, “Here Right Now.” Now firmly entrenched as an independent recording artist, he embraced writing on keyboards, multilayered sounds and his Oklahoma roots on “Lonely Ones.”
“The cool thing for me is like I’ve never really until recently felt a part of the Oklahoma music scene, just because when I first started playing I went to college … and I’ve traveled so much, I’ve really never been able to creatively or musically establish really deep roots here,” he said.
“But now I have my wife and a new baby and I have a studio now on 16th Street in the Plaza District, and in the last three or four years, I’ve really made an effort because I do feel just really inspired here,” he added.
“I always kind of felt like, especially starting out, that I needed to go away that I needed to go to Nashville or L.A. to make an album. You know, there’s just that feeling of ‘Oh, well, I can’t do it in my own back yard,’ which is so silly. That thinking is really foolish, and I’ve learned that. You go where you’re most inspired and you go where you’re most comfortable and challenged – and that is here now.”
Made on his own Graham Colton Recordings, the album was produced and engineered by Chad Copelin and Jarod Evans at Blackwatch Studios in Norman. and included an all-star lineup of Oklahoma musicians, including Brine Webb, Chelsey Cope and Daniel Foulks.
“I guess I pride myself on being a songwriter, and I think I’ve gotten better at my craft in the 14 years I’ve been doing this. I’ve written with countless songwriters in Nashville and L.A. and made those trips and written all kinds of songs, and I’ve really loved doing that. But I think in a weird kind of way for this album, doing it that way just kind of felt forced and it almost made the songs feel mathematical and dishonest. So it was most collaborative in a sense that I really turned over a lot of the initial kind of experimentation and exploration to my friends, to people that I trust musically. I really relinquished a lot of that control, which was just terrifying,” said the self-described “total control freak.”
“Normally, as a singer-songwriter, I have my 12 songs, I’ve got my pencil and paper, I take my lyrics into the studio, I talk to the band, and the band plays on top of the song I play on the acoustic guitar. That’s how I’ve done it all the time. Well, this was totally backwards. This was like, let’s get the band in the room, let’s get a bunch of creative people together, I don’t have any songs, let’s make a bunch of noise, and that noise turns into melodies, those melodies turn into lyrics, and all that stuff turns into songs.”
He said burgeoning friendships with Wayne Coyne and Steven Drozd of Oklahoma City-based experimental rockers The Flaming Lips influenced him to change up his signature sound. Collaborating with the Lips on a cover of Sparklehorse’s “Don’t Take My Sunshine Away” led to Colton observing some of the Grammy-winning band’s recording sessions and late nights of listening to Coyne break down classic albums by The Beatles, Beach Boys and Fleetwood Mac.
“It was kind of like every idea I ever showed him, he took it, turned it upside down, shook it all out. And then I’d kind of go back to the drawing board and say ‘Well what about this?’” Colton said of working with Coyne. “He was a really good sounding board, and Steven is such a gentle spirit. He was really great. He played drums, he played guitars, he played keyboards. So a lot of the lushness of the album I really have Steven to thank for it … ‘cause he played on every song.”
Colton knew the lessons were taking effect when he wrote the album’s creepy first single, “Born to Raise Hell,” about serial killer Richard Speck.
“That was a big, big step for me. It was really the first song from start to finish – from the way it was written to how it turned out to the lyrical content – where it was like, ‘OK, I’m diving off the deep end here. This is gonna challenge people. It challenges me.’ It’s a topic that I felt a lot of responsibility. ‘Can I even right about this? Can I even write about a serial killer? Is that, like, allowed?’” he said.
“I had a hard time writing about something that was not autobiographical. I think as a songwriter I just was like, ‘well, if it’s not going on in my life currently or in my past, I’m not around to write about it.’ And that was just something that I had to get over, and Wayne helped me out a lot with that. He was just kind of like ‘Dude, they’re just songs. Just write. Just write about anything.’”
When: 8 p.m. Friday. Doors open at 7 p.m.
Where: The Vanguard, 222 N Main, Tulsa.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Bricktown Music Hall, 104 E Flaming Lips Alley.
With: Full band (Brine Webb, Dustin Paige, Cale Chronister and Chase Kerby) and Sherree Chamberlain.
When: 6 p.m. April 5.
Where: SWOSUPalooza, Southwestern Oklahoma State University, Weatherford.
With: Falls, At Long Last, Denver Duncan and Tallows.