Flipping the script on a song’s message is well-worn method many artists use in their work. But far fewer make such an indelible impact on curbing social issues quite like Andy Grammer. On the surface, his new radio hit “Fresh Eyes” is a syrupy-sweet soft-pop ode to his wife. In the music video, however, which was filmed down on Los Angeles’ derelict Skid Row, Grammer turns attention to homelessness. He has a long history of giving back, and the singer, 33, decided the best way to make change happen was to step into the front lines. “For my birthday, a couple years in a row, I’ve done things where people brought over shirts or pants or jackets and food and we all go down to Skid Row and give it out. It’s not like it’s a brand new idea to me,” he shares exclusively with Popdust over a recent phone call, “but there was something about cleaning everybody up” for the “Fresh Eyes” clip, featuring a couple dozen homeless men and women plucked from the streets and given makeovers.
The heartfelt gesture resulted in one particularly moving conversation. “There’s one story that really, really changed me. I went down and into where they were living while they started to do the makeovers. They took people off the street and started giving them clothes,” Grammer recollects. “While they were doing that, I went in to see where they get to actually stay overnight. I talked to people about their story. I came back out and sat next to this guy who was clearly part of the video crew. I was talking to him for a while.”
He continues, “Then, I was like ‘what are you doing here to help? Are you part of the film crew or catering?’ He was like ‘no, I’m one of the guys you cleaned up.’ That totally shook me to my core. I felt like I was talking to him differently. There is an Us and Them thing around this. When you get down close enough, you realize it’s just…us…and [you try] to figure out what that is. Why was I speaking to him differently before I knew he was homeless? Even if someone thinks I’m enlightened around this issue, I have a long ways to go…”
On the heels of such successes as “Honey, I’m Good” and “Good to Be Alive (Hallelujah),” Grammer reflects on his new-found fame. “It was just super fun to get to go on a ride that was that massive. Everybody couldn’t get away from it. It was really crazy for me, personally, to be living my life in the world and not be able to get away from this song,” he says. “Then, to have it be around something that I was so proud of. It’s kind of a wacky song, sonically, but I’m proud of the story and the lyrics. It hits a chord with a lot of people, this idea that being faithful doesn’t mean you haven’t seen someone else. ‘Fresh Eyes’ is similar in that it’s about being in a relationship with someone for awhile but it’s about re-falling in love with them over and over again.”
Grammer, expected to issue his long-awaited third album in 2017, opens up about the pressure of having a mega-hit, songwriting evolution and if he turns to his wife Aijia Lise (also a songwriter) for advice. Check out our exclusive Q&A below:
Why did you give “Fresh Eyes” such an important visual?
I’m always a huge fan of when you have a relationship with a song and the video is able to completely switch it up. It gives it a whole new take. Anytime I see that done by other artists, I’m like “oh, man, that’s awesome.” What a sweet thing to have this song take on a whole new life. You can actually hear the lyrics in a completely different way–looking at a homeless population that’s just been given makeovers. At the end of the day, after making this video, they all came to the roof and we gave them a party. I couldn’t even sing this song to them because it was just too sweet. Every single word took on a new meaning. When 30 people have just been given makeovers and then the next morning they are on the street…I cried the whole time. I tried to get through it and I couldn’t.
Did you know from the get-go you’d take this direction?
After the song was doing its thing, we went to make the video. It wasn’t even my idea. It was a pitch that came in from the director. I love that issue–being around it and trying to do as much as I can for it. I started my career as a street performer and spent a bunch of time around homeless people in Los Angeles. [The concept] worked really well. My team didn’t even have to ask; they knew how much I care about that issue. They were just like “yeah, this is the video.”
What is it about the song that made sense as the lead single to your new album?
It’s just a great song, really. There is a lot of planning that goes into it. It’s hard to get great songs. I like to write as many as I possibly can, and then listen back and hopefully have one that makes you feel something. When people hear this one, it gets something across to them.
You’ve talked about how an early-morning rap session from your wife inspired the song.
Yeah! She woke up rapping Big Sean. There’s something funny about when you wake up and start doing something that is even more intimate. I was like “I don’t even know who you are, the person that does that, I don’t know.” It was a sweet thing to be surprised by someone you think you know so well. As you get deeper into a relationship, those moments get more and more important.
Sonically, is “Fresh Eyes” indicative of the overall direction of your third album?
I think so. I’m still writing at the moment. I like to write around 100 songs for each album. Right now, I’m about 75 in. There is a lot of stuff with my electric guitar, so that’s indicative, for sure.
Do you have any songs you know 100 percent will be on the record?
When you write that many, rather than asking “which ones do you like?,” you start asking “which ones would really suck if they didn’t make it on?” That’s where we are in the new approach. I like that much better. We are reaching that point. You know you are starting toward the end when that happens.
Do you look to your wife for advice on songs?
Of course. I play her stuff. She’s got a really good ear. You have to choose when you do that. She’s a songwriter, as well. It’s not very lighthearted. When it’s your life’s work and your partner does the same thing, it can start arguments. You have to be really clear about it, like “hey, as my wife right now, I just want you to tell me if you think this is good, I need some encouragement.” She’ll be like “totally.” Then, it’s like “I want radio, asshole ears right now.”
Who are some of the songwriters you’ve been working with?
I got to write a lot. I brought out an extra bus for my tour I did Gavin Degraw because I was out for like three months. I didn’t want to just stop writing. I had tons of people flying out pretty much every week for writing sessions. I met with a guy named Ross Golan who I love. He co-wrote “Fresh Eyes” and “Good to Be Alive.” He just had a crazy year. He did “Dangerous Woman” [by Ariana Grade] and a bunch of stuff with Selena Gomez and other cool stuff. There have been a ton of great writers. That’s the best part of having some success–getting better at your craft through writing with better people. I see it as just trying to get out my truth. The only way that I’ve found you get to write with people that cool is you have to write it yourself first. I’ve written a bunch on my own, and I’ll continue to. There is something really sweet about upping the level of people that are around you. It’s exciting.
Any standout songwriting sessions?
There is one song I wrote with these songwriters named Alex & Alex. It’s a song called “Good Parts” that I really love. I got to play that song on tour. It was one of the first new songs I played. It got incredible reception. Now, I’m getting hounded to finish the album for people. I feel confident this album will be the best-written one I’ve ever had.
“I don’t think I’m a perfectionist in many areas of my life. My wife calls me the happy, bumbling labrador making my way through. When it comes to music, I get really intense. There’s still more writing to get out. Once that comes out and we know what we have, then we’ll start figuring out where touring comes in,” Grammer teases of road plans in the new year.
“Fresh Eyes” is out now on iTunes.