Let’s set the scene: it’s 5:00 P.M. on a Friday in the middle of May, and after a full day of class you are ready to drive home with the radio blaring out the open windows of your Honda Accord. After some channel switching you settle on an infectious summer anthem—hey wait, this sounds a lot like that guy from music class!
Well, Graham Elliot is that guy. A fourth-year majoring in Jazz and the Music of the African Diaspora, he shares his sun-drenched alt-pop with the UCSD community, performing at The Loft and campus events like Muirstock, Rockin’ Roosevelt, and Warren Live. Elliot is a proponent of the pop formula: he deconstructs songs from a variety of genres to understand their functionality and then pieces together his own material through a collage of these musical nuggets.
On Friday, January 15, Elliot headlined a performance at the Loft, with Austin North as opener. There, his acoustic guitar playing was joined by electric bassist Aviv Silverman and beatboxer Shane Calloway. The peculiar ménage à trois of instruments allowed Elliot’s crisp vocal melodies to cut through the music, driven by the persistent booming of Calloway’s beatboxing and Silverman’s expertly-timed bass lines. Elliot was keen on jokes, maintaining a playful spirit throughout the performance and whimsically fluttering between original songs and covers, with both Justin Bieber and Maroon 5 appearing on the set list. The night began and ended with the song “Summertime,” a high-energy mix of staccato rap verses and reggae-infused guitar jams that incited a chanting call-and-response of “West Coast!” throughout.
I interviewed Elliot prior to his performance at The Loft to discuss the making of his music.
OLIVER: You mentioned earlier that you’ve been writing a new EP as a follow-up to your previous work. Can you discuss what type of music you’re making and what has inspired you to make it?
GRAHAM: What I’m trying to do with this new project is look at other artists, no matter what genre they’re from, and figure out where the core of the inspiration is coming from. I’ve loved reggae for a long time, and I didn’t know what it was about reggae that I was attracted to. But if I analyze the music, I realize that I enjoy the passionate delivery of a real message, laden with emotion and meaning. Yet I also love pop music, and ask myself what it is that makes it great—maybe the catchy vocal hook or guitar line—and try to incorporate pieces of it into my work.
OLIVER: What kind of message are you trying to send with your own work—do you think you emulate the themes found in reggae?
GRAHAM: I want to write music that matters. There’s something to be said for fun music that’s the fuel of the party, stuff that people can sing along to, but I think that people underestimate how well that can be paired with lyrics that really mean something. I’m very interested in politics—I don’t think our generation has a musician or group of musicians who are doing something like what Rage Against the Machine, Bob Marley, or Bob Dylan did, for example. My end goal is to be able to affect change positively through my music. My previous EP was written strictly for the entertainment value, though: testing my recording skills and trying to make something that could hold up on the radio. Now that I have a good grasp on how to write music that’s catchy and danceable, I think it’s time to really start adding the meaning to it.
OLIVER: You weren’t always a music major, though. Has formal training at UCSD changed the way that you approach songwriting?
GRAHAM: Definitely. It’s interesting to be able to pull from my classical training courses, where you realize that a lot of classical music uses many of the same notes and chords that pop musicians are using today. My music theory teacher just talked about how some of the greatest composers worked by learning certain musical strategies and sequences. People say that pop music is so formulaic—but classical music is so formulaic! All music is a remix of something else, and now that I see example after example of that, it makes me comfortable with my own music and not worrying about sounding like someone else.
OLIVER: Since you’re writing all of this material yourself, what’s the recording process like?
GRAHAM: When I record, I do a lot of it ‘in the box,’ like playing my piano parts through a MIDI keyboard and using software to get the sound of a grand piano that I wouldn’t be able to access otherwise. For my vocals, I’ll go into the studios here at UCSD and use professional equipment to get a much better sound than I would be able to in my bedroom. For guitar, I use a direct input into my computer with Logic Pro—the software and technology out there for bedroom producing is really amazing.
OLIVER: So you’re performing and recording all the instruments by yourself?
GRAHAM: Usually what I’ll do is start by writing all of the parts in MIDI, and if I think it’s necessary, I’ll bring in a friend to help record the parts I’m not satisfied with. It really depends on what I think the song needs—there’s songs on the EP that are all me, and others that use a full band setting.
OLIVER: Besides recording music, you’ve also played a ton of live events on campus—what’s your performing experience been like and how do you get into these shows?
GRAHAM: I think the key for anyone looking to get shows is tenacity! If you know that a show exists, you just need to figure out who’s booking it. I know a lot of people who book shows on campus, and so I’ll send them my EP and maybe a live performance video so they know about what I do. For me, it’s all about being on stage and making someone’s day better through music. If you’re playing in a studio, you don’t have the chance to connect with whoever’s listening. I love audience interaction—I used to go to a gospel church with my parents, and the pastor and congregation would have a sort of call-and-response during the hymns. It was so powerful, and I felt like I could use that in my own music.
RECRUITING: Arts and Entertainment is Looking for Writers!
OLIVER: What about your future as a career musician? Any plans for a full-length album?
GRAHAM: I see myself going into the industry first as a songwriter. A lot of people are very successful by learning how to write hit songs and then using that as a springboard for their own career as a musician and performer. Bruno Mars comes to mind, he was a writer before he was a performer. I think that since there’s so much music available on the Internet, releasing one song at a time is the new way to go: just keep writing the best song you’ve ever written and put it out there, then go back and do it again. I don’t have plans to do an album, but I am planning on doing live in-studio recordings of songs that I’m writing, to pique the interest of people looking for someone to write songs with them.
OLIVER: So you’d like to start writing songs for other people?
GRAHAM: Absolutely, I would love to write music for people. I think that it may even be more fun to collaborate with someone, because if I know that they’re going for a certain feel, I can nail it. If they say ‘I want you to write a funk song,’ I’ll sit down and research funk songs from the last twenty years and figure out the key elements and write something really good. I’d love to know an artist better than they know themselves and write something that they would be really inspired to sing.