Teen YouTube Star Greyson Chance: All Grown Up And Drinking Jameson
When I was 13 years old, I was busy doing bathroom photo shoots to try and craft the perfect selfie for my Myspace page, imagining my escape from middle school to the greener pastures of high school. But deep in the middle of America, a 13-year-old from Oklahoma was on a far different path. Sitting at a piano at his middle school talent show, Greyson Chance ripped through a fiery rendition of “Paparazzi” by Lady Gaga. It may not have impressed his classmates, who sat stone-faced in the background, but it definitely impressed the people who saw it on YouTube. In the six years since it was uploaded, that video has garnered over 57 million views, caught the attention of Ellen DeGeneres, landed Chance a record contract, and set him on a path that altered his life forever.
A lot has changed since Chance sat down at the piano, rocking swooping vintage Bieber hair. He’s 18 now, and he’s transformed from a boy singing Gaga songs into a svelte vocal powerhouse. He’s also sprouted up past 6′ tall, his voice dropping more than a few decibels in the process. And while he disappeared for a few years, Chance is back with a new five-track EP, Somewhere Over My Head, and a video for his single “Back on the Wall,” which shows the singer holding a glass of alcohol and smoking cigarettes. It’s clear that he’s entered an entirely new chapter in his life and career.
Even though I had watched the new video, it was still a shock when I opened the door to the Chinatown apartment where we were set to meet last week, and there was Greyson Chance, standing tall and beaming with excitement over his return to music. It’s been a tumultuous few years; Chance was dropped from his label, Interscope, and moved back to Oklahoma. But if any of that had bothered him, I couldn’t tell. As we climbed a narrow staircase, he was chatty, talking about thrifting clothes and the unusually balmy weather.
“In Oklahoma, if you can put money on the bar, you’re fine.”
Chance is in the midst of one of the most important moments of his career. But when we went into the apartment, the only source of anxiety he showed was about being a few minutes late to the interview–there was subway traffic. No matter how many appointments he’s booked, Chance insists on taking public transit, which makes him the one person I know who actually enjoys using the subway. We sat down to talk about everything from his favorite alcohol and passion for political engagement, to the new James Blake album and his aversion to adopting a “bad boy” image.
You went viral for the “Paparazzi” cover back in 2010. Is it weird to look back on that?
It is. I think people—well, I don’t watch it too much. I think people often assume that when you look back on it, you see a completely different person. For me it’s not the case at all. It’s funny you know, growing up in Oklahoma, I was completely normal back there. And that video gave me a career. It started everything I’ve done for the past six years.
Do you still feel normal now?
I feel more normal than people probably think. I mean, we travel a lot and I get to go to crazy places, but it’s all centered around me going to a piano one night and writing a song, and doing something with that. It feels normal. It’s fucking weird as hell, but it feels normal enough.
Ellen is really the person who set everything in motion when she saw your video and signed you. What was it like working with her?
She was the world’s best partner. Best person you could ask for. She was very protective over me in the beginning and put me in touch with the right people. Even after I was dropped from Interscope, she was right there next to me.
Do you guys ever hang out?
Not recently, but I’ve been to a few dinners with her and Portia. They’re fun people, they’re vegan.
Are you vegan?
Hell no. [Laughs]
You’re holding a drink throughout the “Back on the Wall” video. Hypothetically, what would your favorite alcoholic drink be?
[Laughs] I drink whiskey, which is what we had in the video as well.
Did you actually get to drink alcohol in the video?
Yeah, it wasn’t a fake drink, come on. [Laughs] It was real Jameson, and we shot the car scenes the day after so you don’t have to worry about me drinking and driving. I think a lot of people will see that and think of it as a plea for attention.
But you just like Jameson.
Well I do like Jameson, but to me it’s a reckless song, and I just wanted to associate that [with] the video. The cigarettes were an added bonus, as well.
So you actually smoke?
In Oklahoma, every once in a while, yeah.
What do you do in Oklahoma when you go back?
Write all the time. There’s just a lot of clarity there. LA can get really murky and you can be in the industry and be invited to so and so’s party and do this and that. You can get dragged into a lot of parties, stuff like that. And I don’t like that. So when I’m in Oklahoma I just take advantage of the time. Go out with friends, sleep in, and just write as much as possible.
What direction do you want to go in with your career now that you’ve released your new EP?
I think the thing is that for me, at the end of the day I’m not the coolest kid. I’m not gonna try to be swagged out, walking down the street, making you think that I’m the shit. I just want to write music, and I’ve been blessed and fortunate enough to have people that want to listen to it. I went through a lot of stuff with label drama, being dropped from my label, finding a new management team, finding my footing again. This EP to me is what the fight was for. It’s songs that I like, that I feel passionate about, and I’m happy to put ‘em out.
Are you ever gonna go for the Zayn Malik thing where he plays up the bad boy image and talks about his sex life all day?
No. That would be a nice and boring album. Even on the train here we were, ten stops away, and I pulled out a book and I was reading. That’s where my focus is. I’m not some cool kid, I don’t like being pictured that way, I don’t like trying to act that way at all because it’s just very disingenuous. Again, it is pop music, but I like to think that there’s authenticity to the songs.
What book was it?
I don’t read fiction anymore. It’s called Arab and Jew, it’s about Israel/Palestine. [Laughs]
Do you pay attention to politics?
A lot. But I don’t talk about it.
People just don’t really pay attention to politics anymore, and it’s just kind of crazy.
Here’s what I say—because most of the people who follow me would know that I’m a Democrat. I’m not blasting anyone who thinks [differently], but I think people should vote. I think everyone should vote, if you’re 18.
This is your first election, right?
Yes, this is my first election. And I think you should vote, and you should vote for whoever you want to vote for, no matter who it is, except Donald Trump. Whoever you want to vote for, just not Donald Trump.
You’re about to graduate high school. Do you want to go to college?
I would like to at some point. Right now I’m going to stay focused on the music. I think there are opportunities right now where I could get general education credits online. Again too, I think it just kind of balances me out. I think it’s good to sometimes be like no one get ahold of me from this time to this time [because I have school.]
What career would you want to go into? Law?
Yeah, yeah. I need two lives. I need a law guy and I need a music guy.
If you could collaborate with anyone who would it be?
At the moment right now—have you heard the new James Blake album?
Oh my god. Incredible.
Love that. Don’t think he would do anything with me, but that’s ok. Oh, Sam Smith, I think he’s the man. Someone asked me the other day like who would be the dream and I was thinking that, if I could pick anyone dead, it would be Ray Charles.
Have you had the James Blake album on repeat?
Yeah, I really like his record a lot. I balance it out, because I listen to a lot of pop music, but it’s good to listen to left of center stuff. I listen to just a lot of different stuff, you know? I think as a musician you kind of have to. I respect pop music a lot, but sometimes you don’t just want choruses, sometimes you want beats, sometimes you want rock music. But no, the James Blake record, definitely repeating it.
What pop albums are you into? Like Carly Rae Jepsen?
No, no Carly Rae. [Laughs] I would say there’s an artist named Totem who I really like, who’s a male artist who does a lot of amazing pop stuff. The Drake stuff has to count as pop now, doesn’t it? I love the Drake album. I wasn’t a Rihanna fan until ANTI. I thought it was really really dope.
You turned 18 back in August, so your birthday is coming up. Do you have any big plans?
No, I’m not a big birthday person. I actually hate birthdays. It’s like New Years for me, although maybe New Years is a bit more optimistic. I’ll probably get a Barnes and Noble gift card and geek out.
And then you have 21 to look forward to.
Well, in Oklahoma, if you can put the money on the bar you’re fine.
Images shot exclusively for Milk by Carlos Santolalla.
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