When Graham Colton began writing songs for the follow-up to his 2011 album Pacific Coast Eyes he soon realized that he wasn’t happy with his creative process.
“I just picked up the guitar and started to do what I always do and it wasn’t very exciting to me. It felt like I was playing the guitar the same old way and singing in the same spots and the same things were kind of happening and it just didn’t inspire me.”
Colton turned to friends for help, including members of Oklahoma City’s Flaming Lips, and soon discovered there was consensus about which path he should follow on the new set of songs he’d begun.
“There was this resounding common denominator of dropping the guitar, trying to make myself the most vulnerable creatively. That was really what started this new wave of strange creativity.”
Colton had undergone some major changes in his personal life. He was a new father and living in Oklahoma again after a long stay in Texas.
“To be honest, I didn’t feel like I was even remotely the same person I was even five years ago," he said. "I even listened to different music. In all senses, I just felt like a different guy.”
Without management, a record deal, or many of the career comforts that had landed his music on major television outlets such as American Idol and Oprah’s Big Give, the possibilities were limitless.
“There really wasn’t anybody saying not to do it,” Colton said. "I was really fortunate. I have made a lot of friends around here that are some of the most talented people I’ve ever worked with. They were all saying, ‘You’re capable of so much more than what you’ve done.’"
Confident that he would be able to distance himself from his old ways of working and audience preconceptions, Colton set about writing the song “Born To Raise Hell,” a song about notorious serial murderer Richard Speck.
“There was this odd melody where I was just saying, ‘La la,’ over and over and it was unlike any other chorus I’d ever written," he said. "I knew off the bat that it wasn’t a love song, it wasn’t a traditional pop song. I was just thinking, ‘What the hell am I going to write this song about?’ My producer, Chad, was kind of saying in the studio that his dad had this crazy story where his dad picked up a famous serial killer. I said, ‘Oh man, that’s the song. We gotta write that song.”
His time as an independent artist is marked by greater autonomy in his creative output, a marked difference from his days on a major label that supported him on tours with Kelly Clarkson, Dave Matthews Band, and John Mayer.
“I was never told to make a certain kind of album but you definitely could feel the pressure," Colton said. "I really felt like I had to deliver a certain kind of sound. I don’t want to say that I didn’t have any decision in the matter. I really did. But you definitely feel that pressure. You feel like, ‘OK. I’m on a major label. It’s one of the biggest labels in the world. They want hits.’ I had just gotten off the road with Kelly Clarkson, so we were playing arenas, 15-20,000 people. I don’t regret that time, I don’t regret those songs. But I’m just in a different place now and it feels pretty good.”
Graham Colton performs at The Orpheum Theatre on Thursday evening as part of the Emerging Artist Series. Colton's new album is "Lonely Ones."