From March through August, Gavin DeGraw has been living out a personal dream of opening for Billy Joel, and of all places at New York’s legendary Madison Square Garden. More than ten years and five albums into his career, the South Fallsburg, N.Y. native has been on a North American tour all summer and touches down in New York twice this month, August 7 as the warm-up for Billy Joel and August 13 co-headlining Central Park SummerStage with fellow singer-songwriter Matt Nathanson.
A couple days following his show at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles, New York City Monthly got some time with DeGraw, who shared about life in New York, what it’s like to open for his hero Billy Joel and how he keeps his show fresh while on tour.
NYCM: So you’re a New Yorker, playing the same stage multiple nights with Billy Joel, what’s this experience been like for you?
GD: Madison Square Garden for a New Yorker is the absolute ultimate. For a New Yorker, Billy Joel is the ultimate.
NYCM: In 2003 you released your first single “I Don’t Want To Be.” Did you ever think when you were starting out that you’d be playing MSG?
GD: It’s funny, when I started out I dreamed of The Garden but I didn’t necessarily think I’d ever get there. The context in which we’re there is the ultimate for me, because it’s Billy [Joel]. It’s Billy at The Garden. It’s me going and opening for my idol in that context, there’s nothing like that. So I get to watch the guy who inspired me the most, I get to watch him play every time we do a show. I’m learning constantly from that. One of the most powerful things about his music is not what he does during a song but what he does in between talking to the audience, how he interacts with the fans. Bono does that. He really establishes a relationship with his audience. He feels there is an important bond between the artist and the crowd. Just being around that really adds to my own performances because I feel like I’m picking up great tips. It’s very personal how you hear how they go from one song to the next. When you see the master do that you can’t help but see how to make it work for your own show, it’s so special and so impactful.
NYCM: How will your shows at The Garden differ from the other date at Central Park Summer Stage?
GD: I’m opening for Billy and it’s a co-headline with Matt. I take what I learn from people like Billy and apply it to my own show. How can I develop things with my fans? When you do a co-headline you want both audiences to be interested, so Matt and I take the opportunity up there on the microphone to let fans know that we’re friends. We’re buddies and we like each other’s stuff, that’s the cool thing and the tricky thing about co-headlining. “If you can’t fix it, you feature it,” my uncle says.
NYCM: You and your brother Joey opened the music venue The National Underground several years back on the Lower East Side in NYC, which has now moved to Nashville. Has this business venture inspired you in your music at all? Do you feel part curator in the creative process of the venue since there are young bands and artists playing there on a daily basis?
GD: It’s so true, man. That’s exactly what we opened it for, to keep that art scene alive in New York City. We did our little bit, and there are still some places that do that. We have sustained it there, and we took it down to Nashville and it seems to be blooming easier there because a lot of people there are doing stuff that we really love. Which is really a shame because we were so invested in the idea of keeping the East Village alive, but now I still see guys and hang out and play. I saw one the other night after we played The Greek in LA. We all have that fraternity, that comradery. I think we need to open more places like that, but you really want to be the type of spot that the locals go so they feel like they’re part of something special in terms of having a venue and part of a scene. A place where artists feel really comfortable. That’s really the goal when we started The National Underground. There’s a really high density of artists there.
Gavin DeGraw plays Madison Square Garden on August 7 opening for Billy Joel and on August 13 co-headlining with Matt Nathanson at Central Park SummerStage