If you've turned on Top 40 radio in the past couple months, or tuned in to pretty much any competition-based TV show like Dancing With the Stars or American Idol, chances are good you've heard the catchy hook of “Nah, nah, honey I'm good” wriggling its way out of the speakers and into your brain.
The song is a highly concentrated shot of the kind of earnestness that inspires good feelings and dance parties. And West Hollywood-based Andy Grammer, the man behind the earworm, is plenty earnest, though that's not entirely unexpected from an artist who has a song called “Keep Your Head Up.” That relentlessly optimistic song, which appeared in the first Pitch Perfect movie, and got some airplay a few years ago, came into being after a long, unsuccessful day busking on Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade, a gig Grammer worked for four years.
Grammer had been valeting cars before taking his music to the streets, where he and his friend Devon Gundry would play for hours, selling CDs they'd painstakingly burned themselves. After a year, Gundry left to be a software developer, which meant Grammer had to fend for himself and find his own voice, both stylistically and literally. He started off playing covers, like Maroon 5's “Sunday Morning,” then transitioned into playing his own songs.
Though the long days were grueling, Grammer found the experience invaluable. “You slowly start auditioning songs in front of people, until by the end of four years, you have this unbelievable place to develop [songs].” He adds, “If you play for your mom, for your friends, for your family, it’s hard to get a real read of what the hell’s going on. [They'll say] ‘Oh my god, you’re so good!’ Everybody loves you! When you’re out on the street, it’s real data that you’re getting.”
While he calls the experience “an amazing bootcamp,” it could be both inspiring and dispiriting. “There’s a whole Japanese volleyball team that’s here, and now they’re psyched,” he says, remembering one particularly triumphant moment. “Twenty-five of them, they all want a CD, they all want it signed, and literally, you’re a rock star for the next five minutes. And then they leave, and you’re like, ‘Well, I’m still just a guy on the street.’ And I think that’s a good metaphor for what this music business is.”
He adds, “The street is very much like that; you’re playing for eight hours, and there’s probably about 20 minutes where there’s a huge crowd, and then everybody buys a CD. And that is where you make all of your money for the day. But you’ve got to be out there for eight hours to be in that zone when that happens, and everybody’s like ‘This guy is amazing, that’s incredible!’ And then they leave, and you might not get a tip for the next four hours.”
Those four years he spent accruing material on the Promenade served as good training for writing his second album, Magazines or Novels. Grammer wrote and recorded over 100 songs, culling most of them before settling on the ones he liked enough to put on the LP.
“[A song] has to do something for the person when they hear it,” he says. “I don’t want to write music that doesn’t do stuff for people, and if it’s that hard, well, it is what it is … If the hook's not good, start again. If that takes nine times, then just keep going, until it's good.”
His writing process can be exhausting, especially given that his subject matter tends towards the whole-hearted, rather than being detached and “cool.” But Grammer is happy to put forth the energy.
“The things I’m singing about are very delicate. You want to write a song about being faithful to your wife? Good luck! You might have to write that song six times to find out where it sits, how it doesn’t fall into cheesy-land, how it doesn’t lean too hard into some direction that’s not really what you’re trying to say.
“A lot of people say, ‘You write positive music,’” he adds. “I find that that is a very hard place to write, because it just gets super lame, real fast. But when you nail it, everybody is so happy that you spent the time to get through it.”
Andy Grammer headlines the El Rey — the actual theatre, not the sidewalk out front — on Wednesday, June 3.