By ERIC SCHELKOPF
After releasing two albums on Universal Records and getting his song "Best Days" played on everything from "American Idol" to Oprah Winfrey, singer-songwriter Graham Colton is back to being an independent artist.
His new found direction is in full display on his latest album, "Pacific Coast Eyes." Colton, www.grahamcolton.com, will perform June 27 at S.P.A.C.E., 1245 Chicago Ave., Evanston.
Also on the bill is the group Jill and Kate. The show starts at 8 p.m., and tickets are $14 in advance, $18 at the door, available at www.ticketweb.com.
I had the chance to talk to Colton about his latest activities.
Q - Of course, you are coming to Evanston on June 27 to play at S.P.A.C.E.
Yeah, which I've played before in an acoustic setting, and I'm playing with a full band this time, so it will be pretty fun.
Q - So people can look forward to that if they have only heard you in an acoustic setting before. Which do you prefer, playing solo or with a band? Or do you need both?
I had some of my best shows solo acoustic in places like S.P.A.C.E., and with a full band at Lincoln Hall. I have different types of songs, and sometimes it is fun to kind of rock out, and sometimes it's really, really cool to hear a pin drop.
Q - I was reading some interviews where you said Chicago was one of your favorite places to play.
It always is. I've always found that I just connect to the city a lot when I'm there. New York and L.A. are great. I spend a lot of time in both those places, but there's something about Chicago.
It seems like every show I've played there, opening or headlining, has just been like magical. There is such a musical energy in the city. You really don't find that a whole lot.
Q - Of course, you are coming to town with a new album in tow, "Pacific Coast Eyes." You are an independent artist again. Do you think being an independent artist again gives you more opportunities? How do you look at it?
I think it is a different kind of opportunity. I've been doing this for almost 10 years, but I feel like I am just coming into my own, learning how to be a "professional" whatever, songwriter, singer, musician, however you want to call it.
It's definitely exciting, because not only does it give me total creative control, but it just lets me do whatever I want to do when I want to do it.
With the landscape of the music business the way it is now, you don't have to adhere to the model that a record has to be 12 songs, you have to release an album every two to three years, nothing sooner, and you have to have a song that will be your first single and that one is going to be pushed to the radio.
It's just fun to know that I've got a fan base that will support and encourage whatever I want to do.
Q - So would you say these are your best days?
Yeah. The album making process was challenging, just because I wanted to raise the bar coming from releasing two major label albums. On a major label, you are pretty much guaranteed that you will work in the best studios and you are going to be surrounded with great people and players, because there's certainly the money to do it.
If this album sells a million copies, awesome, but if it doesn't, then it's just a piece of the puzzle.
I just feel like I've been able to exhale. I know that sounds really corny, but I don't feel the pressure that I did of having to deliver a big hit single.
I hope that comes through on the album. I hope that the album feels a bit more open, and a bit lighter and warmer.
I'm definitely in a better place. I got married last year. I don't have as many unraveled love songs.
Q - Speaking of your song "Best Days," did you think it would blow up like it did, with everybody wanting to use it? Did you have any idea when you wrote the song that everybody would love it?
I remember it was the last song I wrote for my last album, "Here Right Now." My last album making process was the most difficult time in my life I've ever had.
I had written more than 150 songs for the label. As an artist, you are expected to write with all these people that are hit makers and super producers.
To be put in a room with complete strangers and be expected to write a song sort of by 5 p.m., it can be great and not so great.
When I wrote that song, I wrote it with a friend of mine, Dave Bassett. It was actually at one of the lowest points in my life. I was frustrated and I was just bummed out that I wasn't in the studio and didn't even know if I even was going to get to make an album.
But I just found myself being thankful and appreciative that I get to wake up every day and write songs and play music for a living.
It is one of those moments that you hear people talk about. We wrote it in about 15 minutes. We wrote the chorus first, and then we didn't even know what to say in the verse.
I basically just put the pencil and paper down, and told him to press record when we were demoing the song. I just sort of started saying whatever came to mind, and those verses were the ones that came to mind.
I didn't really try so hard on that song to write the perfect line. It just kind of came out naturally.
Q - And were you surprised that so many people wanted to use the song?
Yeah. I still have a tough time listening to my voice on my cell phone voice mail. I never think my songs are going to go off and do these great things.
To think that song and my voice was playing for however many millions of people on "American Idol," I absolutely never thought that would happen. I never dreamed in a million years that would happen.
I knew that when I wrote it that it was a well crafted song. I sort of said everything that was inside of me in about three and a half minutes. But I never think that any of my songs are going to be more than songs that I can play for my friends in every city.
Q - In making this record, were you thinking at all of matching the success of that album?
Sure. As I said before, the challenging thing is as an independent artist is that you want to take a step forward, you don't want to make the same record again, but you want to raise the bar.
I started the album writing process starting from "Best Days." I felt like I had caught lightning in a bottle.
But when I started trying to write more songs that were in the vein of "Best Days," it just didn't feel right. I kind of went the other direction for a while, and did some writing, and started writing songs that were a bit more fun, and not as heavy, not as life oriented.
With songs like "'Twenty Something" and "Our Story" off the new album, I feel like I have a little bit of both. I feel I've kind of met in the middle.
Q - Being an independent artist again, does it feel like when you first started out playing coffeehouses and handing out CDs?
Yeah. The funny thing is that's honestly where I feel this album kind of lives.
I do feel like this is the best album I've ever done. But in another way, I'm not just promoting this album. I'm lucky enough to just kind of say, hey, whatever songs you connect with from any album, hopefully you'll come to the show and be a fan forever, and that's cool.
It's not so much about selling this album as it is just trying to make fans and to spread the word. That's a comfortable spot for me to be in.
I talk to a lot of bands that are just getting started, and it's tough out there because there's so much music available. I can imagine how difficult it is to bring in a brand new act that is trying to push through.
People just have endless reach to find music. I'm real thankful to already have a group of people that are expecting new music from and to come hear me.
Q - Over the years, you've played with the likes of Counting Crows and John Mayer. What was it like playing with those people and what did the experience teach you?
We started with Counting Crows and The Wallflowers and Better Than Ezra, bands that are still heroes of mine. I played Counting Crows when I was 16 and I just got my driver's license. That was the first CD I had put in my car.
I opened for them for five tours right off the boat. I dropped out of college just to go on tour with the Counting Crows.
That was one of the most magical times of my life. We were not thinking about anything else but just getting in our van, playing as many concerts in a year as we could, and just trying to sell CDs out of the trunk of our car.
But then as it grew, we learned pretty quickly that we could take those same songs that we played in front of Dave Matthews' crowd, we could perform them in the exact same way in front of Kelly Clarkson's audience, and they connected.
And that was cool. It was fun to be able to play in front of 15,000 people every night for Kelly Clarkson, or for John Mayer.
I'm in a place right now where I have learned to appreciate that if I'm playing for 15,000 people or 100 people, it really is quality over quantity. I appreciate all the small victories, as well as the big ones.
Q - So do you have any dream projects or dream collaborations?
I've always wanted to perform, write or record with Tom Petty, because he's probably my biggest influence.
But it's kind of one of those things, like when you dream about collaborating with somebody or performing with somebody, you hope that it resembles what you think it will.