"Growing Up Helps": An Interview With a More Mature Grieves

"I’ve always stuck to my formula and never showed anything different."
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"I’ve always stuck to my formula and never showed anything different."

“I’ve learned so much as an artist, that I can’t keep denying myself these things.”

More than 10 years into his career, Grieves is still discovering himself. Hailing from Seattle, Washington, the rapper-producer and Rymesayers signee has spent years exploring and cultivating a cult following based on his slow and melodic approach to heartache, addiction, and burying himself in his own mistakes. Inspired by everyone from Wu-Tang to his now-labelmates Atmosphere, Grieves’ greatest selling point is his shamelessness. There isn't a story that Grieves wouldn’t tell you, drunk or sober.

On his latest LP, Running Wild, due out this Friday, August 25, Grieves takes a bold stride out of his broody box to make his freshest record to date. Making the record was a crusade against formulas. Grieves recorded the entire album in Stockholm, Sweden, where he was steeping himself in music and wandering the streets at four in the morning. In some ways, he was off the grid: no international phone plan and no outside influences. Free of the distractions and familiarity of his home city Seattle, Grieves was able to expand his sound and make an album driven by his charisma.

That’s not to say that Running Wild is a breezy summer album. Grieves is still as introspective as ever, confronting his vices and working to overcome his past. Singles “RX” and “Gutz” deal with addiction and toxic relationships respectively. The record hinges on a track like “Night Shift,” where Grieves explains, "That whole song is about pushing forward,” and not allowing his past to weigh him down any longer. At the same time, we get songs like “What It Dew,” where Grieves shakes off mounting expectations to make “emo love songs” and instead brings a bouncy flow and some punchlines.

Grieves contests that this album would not be possible without his friend, the album’s producer and Swedish hitmaker Chords pushing him during every studio session. When Grieves spoke of his relationship with Chords, his gratitude was tangible over the phone. Chords neutralized all of Grieves’ self-doubt during the making of the album, assuring him that it’s time Grieves make the music he wants to make.

After so many years in the game, Grieves’ finally understands that music is his meditative space. Whether it be releasing more albums, getting behind the boards, or pursuing music instruction, he knows that his life will always be rooted in the music industry.

Earlier this month, we spoke on the phone about his relationship with Chords, making music in Sweden, learning how to overcome destructive habits, and the forward leaps Grieves makes on Running Wild.

With this being your fifth full-length, how do you manage to continually dig deep and give fans so much of yourself over and over?

This question is very pertinent to what this record is all about. This record is about changing that process for me. I did the whole thing in Stockholm, Sweden. I was isolated with the music, and it took that experience to learn that I was sick of doing what I was doing. There’s always going to be this looming cloud over any artist, feeling like we need to do what’s expected of us. I don’t feel like that’s what got me where I am. It’s hard, though, to not do what sells. If I keep writing these emo love songs, I’ll keep selling a certain number of records within the emo love song realm. But I’m not happy doing it because it’s not part of my life anymore. So I have to find a way to still cater to those people, but with a different part of myself. That’s what Running Wild is about.

So Running Wild was recorded in Stockholm, Sweden. What’s the difference between making music in the states versus abroad?

In the states, I own my own studio in Seattle, and it’s a great place to work on music! But it’s my place, and I’m distracted. It’s in the same place where my manager and my tour manager work, and they’re always coming in to show me videos. There’s all these distractions, right? When I fly to Stockholm to work on music, I don’t speak the language at all. They speak English if you speak it to them, but I was still mostly alone with the music. I didn’t even have an international phone plan. I would turn off my phone and go to Sweden for two weeks at a time and just sit with the music.

I listened to Swedish reggae and jazz, and I would get up at four in the morning and walk around Stockholm. I was submerged in the music and also myself. I wasn’t distracted from myself, out there I was my best friend. I’ve never had that experience before, and without it, I don’t think I would have been able to step back and realize that I’m unhappy doing my winning formula.

What was the relationship like with Chords while recording this project? How’d you two originally link up?

I met Chords via the Bad Taste Empire and the Looptroop Rockers. Back in 2009, I toured with the CunninLynguists. The Looptroop Rockers happened to be on that national tour, and they were this big group in Sweden. We were on the same bus and became friends, and their manager was there, and we forged this friendship. It ended with them bringing me out to Sweden a few times for festivals. I was living in New York and they called me up and told me I should really meet this guy named Chords who was also living in New York.

I remember going over to Brooklyn, to his apartment, and a couple floors up he had this shared studio. He was playing me beats and I was like, “Damn!” In 2009, I was making music with Budo and I have never met anybody else like Budo. I had never met anybody else that was this phenomenal guitarist, keyboard player, musician, that also understands the sonics of hip-hop. You can sit down in the studio with an amazing musician, but they might really fall flat making a hip-hop track because they miss certain nuances. So that’s how it started with us, but we never had the time to make anything happen. He moved back to Sweden and now fast forward to when this record came around, my management and Rhymesayers asked me if I wanted to do something different. I told them I’d like to work with Chords, and I was expecting everyone to say, “No,” but it was a bunch of yeses!

It really sounds like he was pushing you on this album.

I really owe so much of this to him. This guy makes hits, he’s got plaques on his wall, working with Norwegian radio artists. He’s taking the time to work on this musical piece for me, and this record for me is very much me, more than it ever has been. He didn’t have to do that, and he definitely didn’t have to put all this effort in. We’d be working on a track and I’d tell him, “This beat is tight, but I don’t think that I can get away with it,” and he would tell me, “Nope.” He’d say, “The first thing that came out of your mouth is that this is tight. You’re letting other people dictate what you’re doing and that’s stupid. Make the music you wanna make.” Damn! It’s so simple but so wise.

My favorite line on the album comes on “Night Shift,” where you say, “The past is underneath me.” Talk about that mentality.

The past is the past, and there’s nothing I can do to change it. I do focus a lot on that in my records. That whole song is about pushing forward. None of this has ever or will ever be easy for me, but music has always been my coping mechanism. Especially when it comes down to writing music and how I’m trying to live my life. That stuff has to stay behind me. I can’t keep dragging it with me. I’m a grown ass man. I can’t let myself be slowed down by these things. That doesn’t mean they never happened, but I don’t need to hold onto them anymore.

A lot of this album is about redirecting that self-destructive energy into something beautiful. What did it take for you to learn how to do that?

Growing up helps and having some happiness in your life. As far as my music career is concerned, the world has heard what I’ve allowed the world to hear. I’ve made so much music that doesn’t come out. I’ve always stuck to my formula and never showed anything different. Before we even agreed to go out to Stockholm, that was the purpose of this record. I want people to know me more than just this stereotypical, emotional, brooding dude. The music is just a coping mechanism. That’s why I was making it long before and long after my career. I don’t have to keep doing the same thing. The most important part, when it comes to making music, is honesty and authenticity. No matter what you’re doing, you’re doing it because you believe in it and not for someone else.

The album title, Running Wild, it sounds very freeing, but knowing your work, there’s also a dark side. Are you running toward something, away from something, or both?

We’re running out of something. We’re stepping out of the box with this one. We’re taking that moment where Jens goes, "The first thing you said was that it was tight, you should run with this.” A lot of the music came about that way. It was us sitting around and jamming, and all of a sudden we’re creating these melodies. I wanted to run with those feelings, instead of sitting down and worrying about if the music is emotional and slow enough. I’ve seen comments where people are asking, “Where’s the slow piano beats?" At the same time, I’m not making that music anymore. I’m stepping forward. I’ve learned so much as an artist, that I can’t keep denying myself these things.

Having listened to the album, that evolution is evident.

If I’m going to talk about stepping out of my box, what better way to do it than to show you how far I did? The box still exists, but I am still taking steps.

Dropping full albums for 10 years now, what’s your biggest takeaway as a now veteran of the recording industry?

I discover myself in music. As corny as that sounds, it’s true. I learn more about myself with the more music that I make. The more I try to understand other music, the more I learn about myself. Back when it was like “boom bap or nothing!” That didn’t work. I was very passionate about those things, and that part of my life did teach me about my passion. Within that passion, I’ve found so many different layers that relate to me as a person. I’m so thankful that I’m able to do this for a living.

I want a life in music, it doesn’t mean that I need to always be on the stage, but music feels like the number one thing I should contribute to. So if it’s me teaching kids music, or producing music, or engineering, I don’t know where I would be without music.

Grieves' fifth full-legth studio album, Running Wild, is currently available for pre-order.