Disorder went along to meet Greg Holden, a fiercely independent singer-songwriter who was born in Aberdeen, raised in Lancashire and who now resides in New York, at the Warner Music office in Kensington.
Disorder went along to meet Greg Holden, a fiercely independent singer-songwriter who was born in Aberdeen, raised in Lancashire and who now resides in New York, at the Warner Music office in Kensington. His largest success to date came in the form of the hit debut single ‘Home’ for American Idol winner Phillip Phillips, which Holden co-wrote with Drew Pearson. This song writing earned Holden an ASCAP Pop Award and it subsequently went on to sell five million tracks in the U.S, but was this the right type of success for his ambitions as an independent artist? “At the time it was the right success because it allowed me to watch what happens when a song blows up,” he explained, “It also allowed me some of the financial freedom to make Chase the Sun on my own and then find a good home for it. A lot of people ask me do you wish it had been you? Do you wish you’d kept the song? No, the answer’s no, it was definitely the right thing at the right time.”
Chase the Sun is Holden’s third album, first on a major label. It was recorded in Los Angeles with producer Greg Wells. It was paid for in full with Holden’s own money and once completed he took it around labels in America “to see who had the right plan for it,” he said. As he understood it, a lot of labels are singles driven and about how many of those singles they can sell. But it was Warner Brothers that Gregg eventually landed a deal with, both on their terms and his own, “[Warner] are a career driven label, so as soon as I sat down with the president of that company, all the things he said were exactly the way I felt. It was an easy choice to go to Warner.”
The catalyst for this album came from a trip that Holden took to India and Nepal after the release of his 2011 album I Don’t Believe You. He decided to travel through one of the poorest states in India, Bihar, which is in the North West of the country. It was the destitution and extreme poverty that gave him a “new realisation”, a message he couldn’t keep to himself, and he “had to share it.” There he saw horrendous conditions and children with disabilities living on the street. So he took it upon himself to write songs about the injustices that were part of his life and how he might be able to change people’s opinions, “It put everything into perspective for me… thank God. It would be weird if you saw those things and it didn’t affect you. I wanted to translate what I’d learned into songs that make people feel good.”
‘Boys in the Street’ is the latest video and single released from that record. It deals with growing up as a homosexual in a heterosexual household, and the prejudice and acceptance that comes with that type of conflict. “I didn't have a great relationship with my stepfather. I was constantly being told that I wasn't going to amount to anything, go anywhere. When I tried to be a musician that was shutdown,” he explained, when prompted about the idea of being outcasted. “I have a lot of friends who are gay and have known the problems that happen when you're young and gay in a part of the country that doesn't accept it, and I wanted to write about it because I think it's important. The song isn't necessarily just about that; it was a song that was supposed to be about acceptance.”
There are strong narratives to Holden’s writing. He switches between first and third person and also through different perspectives, “I watch and read about people, it leaks into my songwriting, I don’t specifically write every fact about that person.” This is also the case with his 2011 hit ‘The Lost Boy’ which was inspired by a Dave Eggers novel about a Sudanese refugee, “I was so affected by that book that I sat down and that song came out,” he explained. It is apparent that empathy and understanding are implicit throughout his songwriting, a fact which both his new single ‘Boys in the Street’ and ‘The Lost Boy’ – which raised over $50,000 for the Red Cross – attest to. “I think we're living in a very self-obsessed world – we live in the selfie nation. It’s very easy to look at something that is not happening to you and just forget about it. I think it’s time to stop doing that. It's time we started realising that there are starving people – people who die every day. You can't just switch that off and pretend that it’s not happening because it fucking is.”
Greg is first and foremost a storyteller. He’s a huge Bob Dylan fan and cites Tom Waits and Tom Petty as influences, but states that Dave Eggers “is the ultimate storyteller.” When asked what his favourite Dylan song was he replied, “‘Who Killed Davey Moore’”, which is a social commentary and protest song about the death of the famous boxer Davey Moore. “It sort of sums up what he’s so good at. He writes those biting lyrics, sometimes not too to the point – just enough that you know it hurt whoever it was about.”
Even though Greg seems to have played his cards right so far and is a credit to himself, he has been through turbulent times where finance is concerned, as making it on your own is a tough gig at the best of times. “Everybody who is trying to live their dream has that moment when you run out of money and you don't know if you can keep doing it. It taught me that you can get to a really low low and it can still work itself out,” he explained. There was even a time when Holden had to borrow money from his drummer just so they could drive to get to a sold out show in Holland.
It is, however, the next couple of years that is going to make or break Greg Holden. His album Chase the Sun only came out in April so it is still in its honeymoon period. “I am very far away from being a household name,” he said, “I’ve just got to keep going, keep touring and get as many people as I can to listen to my music – a lot of artists don't even have their first album on a major – it takes a year and a half to break, so I have a while.”
If you like your music with a message and you want someone you think is genuine then betting on Greg Holden would be a safe one.