Gavin DeGraw Remembers NYC Struggles, Knows His Place

Singer/songwriter recalls his lean years, isn't trying to replace piano idols.

Being a piano man isn't all it's cracked up to be, especially in a restaurant in New York City. Singer/songwriter Gavin DeGraw reminisced about his lean years in the tough town on a recent tour stop, plucking a cough drop out of his mouth to discuss video plans, the power of performance and becoming Superboy.

Since its release in 2003, DeGraw's debut, Chariot, has gone platinum, and with that fame came opportunity for DeGraw to dabble in some television acting spots. A cameo on "One Tree Hill" was followed by a quick turn as a starving artist-type on Showtime's "Dead Like Me."

"I guess it's a bug," DeGraw said. "I've got interest in films and stuff like that. It's not my goal to be a famous actor. It's not my goal to be a famous musician. I love to play music. I've got things I'd like to do film-wise, just films I'd like to make, whether I'm in them or not."

DeGraw will shoot a video for his album's title track in Los Angeles on Tuesday with Zach Braff ("Scrubs," "Garden State") behind the lens (see "Gavin DeGraw Needs A Curvy Woman For His Regular-Guy 'Chariot' "). He would not reveal his female co-star's identity, but did talk about the director. "Zach's been really into what I do musically and wants to help out," DeGraw said. "So he's going to be directing. We're building a set. It's going to be quite a bit different than what people are used to."

After shooting the video, DeGraw will head up to Maine to continue his college tour and make a pit stop to entertain "Live with Regis & Kelly" viewers on April 6. Fans that missed his crisscross of the country can try to catch him when he joins Avril Lavigne for some tour dates in August.

Many women emotionally connect with DeGraw's music, and while his clandestine chick-flick watching may have something to do with that — DeGraw is particularly fond of Diane Keaton in "Something's Got to Give" — it's more likely his live performances that reel fans in. These energetic and emotionally raw renderings of his songs are his touchstone, but getting to that point was not easy.

"I took a lot of time to open myself up to taking chances musically," DeGraw revealed. "When I first started playing music, I was intimidated by the strain of trying different things — harder things — vocally. I think listening to real classic soul material made me learn how to feel music that's sung. The strain of attempting different things is what makes it interesting and makes it vibe-able."

There were tough gigs along the way for the musician, and he counts his stint playing in a restaurant as the worst. "I used to play piano at this Italian restaurant when I first moved to Manhattan," he said. "And I got paid — maybe it was $20 an hour? So, OK. Money, right? But the problem is that Manhattan's like three times more expensive than anywhere else in the world. And you can't play piano for eight hours a day, you know what I mean? You can play piano for a few hours. So, I'd get like $40 or $60. I worked there like two days a week."

One night, DeGraw came in to work, and the management had changed — and his gig was summarily terminated. "I got very depressed right away," he said. "I went out and got very, very drunk. And I found the owner at his other restaurant, and I was like, 'You did this to me!' all broken down. 'I hope you die.' ... It was a terrible day. It was probably the worst day I had."

The city that once tormented him was at his feet during his packed show at Roseland Ballroom, but success hasn't spoiled the rural New Yorker, who said that he misses the feeling that small accomplishments used to bring him. "The smallest things seemed like huge achievements," he explained. "Like if I had a bar that was just going to hire me for that month, that was a really big deal. ... If you can get a gig in New York, you can get a gig anywhere. A steady gig. I miss that sensation of a small achievement feeling like a really big deal"

When not working on his own music, DeGraw listens to Switchfoot, Audioslave and Ray LaMontage, but still credits older music legends as his main inspiration — and doesn't expect fans of artists such as Billy Joel to automatically fall in love with him.

"I'm so used to my idols," he explained. "I don't want to see Superman replaced with Superboy. I happen to be a guy who also plays the piano and sings, so people automatically associate me with Billy Joel. But a lot of people already have their hero. They love Billy Joel, they love Elton John and they don't want Superboy. And I don't blame them."