It’s been somewhere to the tune of 30 years in the making, but Greg Griffith’s debut solo effort is more than a professional turning point– it’s the culmination of several lifetimes. Currently based in Manhattan, Greg spent years behind the board for an array of artists as wonderfully diverse as Southern Rock prodigals Gov’t Mule, queercore punkers The Butchies, and Indigo Girl & icon Amy Ray. He played bass with Los Angeles alt-rockers Mellowdrone, found sobriety, and tech’d around the globe with Jane’s Addiction and Macy Gray. Greg battled banality and burnout in the realm of commercial advertising, wrote for film and television, and then walked away from it all to reinvent himself as a painter. Whether he knew it or not, each shift was merely a chapter in an ongoing story that finally gets its due. Under the banner of Gregory Dwane, the native North Carolinian bares his roots and years with a perfectly pitched taste for unabashed alt-country that righteously shitkicks, rocks, and drops into confessional songwriting at its most earnest.
AI- For a fellow who just released his first album, you’ve got a heck of a pedigree and backstory! For you, tell me where that story really starts for this album.
GD- In some ways, I started to try to make this record around 1996 or 7. A couple of the song ideas are from that period. And then life gets weird and I moved to L.A. and I have a kid and work and blah, blah, blah… But I never stopped writing or thinking about these songs. Even though I wasn’t putting out records, I was still writing songs. So in some ways, it began a long time ago, but the period that allowed the space to sit and make it was in the last two and a half years. I had started the process, I had started some songwriting feeling interested in playing music again. I’d taken a break because I’d burnt out– and life and kids and all that stuff– and then COVID happened! Lockdown happened and it allowed me this period to just really dive in a way that I just hadn’t.
There was something about the isolation that took all the negative voices out of my head, took all of the things that seem like obstacles in normal life out of the way. I just started writing and it snowballed! I did three or four songs and people were like, “Hey, this is pretty good!” That gave me a little encouragement and I went and recorded four songs with some great players that weren’t busy that usually played with Steve Earle or all these other amazing musicians. That gave me some confidence and I went and finished some other songs! I don’t know if that answers your question, but definitely, there’s a long story and there’s a short story (laughs)!
It does! And it also brings us to some other questions. You talk about that period of time in ’96, ’97. Now, that is before you headed to the West Coast, to Los Angeles? Where were you at that point in time?
I was in Brooklyn or Manhattan at that time, and I was playing in bands and producing small records and engineering. I was mainly working as a recording engineer and at that time in New York, there was a really fruitful alt-country scene. There was a lot of clubs that had bluegrass nights and a lot of alt-country musicians were living in the city. It was just a real fruitful scene, and I really enjoyed that. That was fueling some of my songwriting around that time. Car Wheels On A Gravel Road came out around that time! There was just a lot of great music in that genre happening in New York at that time.
You talk about all the producing and the engineering that you were doin’, and when, and when I look at your credits, you see Mellowdrone, you see The Butchies, Le Tigre– you wouldn’t necessarily immediately think that alt-country flavor was gonna be what your music was, but it certainly is. Is that what you always imagined the sound to be?
I wrote music for advertising for a long time, so generally, I can fake a lot of things, you know? I can make an orchestral thing, I can do a rock thing, but when it came to songwriting and telling my story and being vulnerable and honest in the way I wanted to write, the roots idiom, just was the thing that worked best for me. It felt honest. I grew up in the South, it’s not that foreign to me, even though I’ve lived between New York and L.A. most of my life. I’ve always listened and kept in touch and loved country music and know the histories.
I’m a music lover, so I’ve never drawn a line at “I only listened to this, or I only work on this.” For me, it was always about good songwriting and good people and trying to get a project off the ground. I love that aspect of making a record, but for songwriting and my story, this is what felt the most honest. Once I got that ball rolling, it all made sense. It’s like that thing of going against the grain or against the tide or the river– you know when you’re in the flow, in the right place. I think for me, the proof is in the cohesiveness and how this record feels. It feels like a solid statement, and that was really my goal.
You talked about writing for commercials, doing jingles, working in advertising. I absolutely understand the fatigue that can come from having to produce and be creative on command, or as a legit nine to five job. But you had to have developed some serious chops when you were doin’ that! I think that ability to write sharp and catchy, I hear that cadence in some of the songs on the album. “Gimme A Solution” is an example where I hear that ability to really connect with melody.
That’s an interesting one to pick out. I didn’t expect you to pick that one!
(Laughs) Which one should I have picked?
I don’t know? I was thinking something that was a little more bouncier! You learn to work fast, you learn to not wait on the muse, you learn to mix and make decisions quickly, and ultimately, all these things are what make songwriting. You make a choice and you go with it! I started to apply those things to my personal songwriting. The thing about advertising music is that music is about eliciting a feeling from the consumer in a way, and I applied that to my songwriting like, “What feeling do I want the listener to take away?”
I’m not a great storyteller. I can’t write the classic country story song. My brain doesn’t work that way, but I can tap into people’s emotions and hopefully connect with them about these simple ideas about healing or family or all these things and life moving too fast. These are simple ideas– but how can I put that into a song? That’s really what I tried to make happen on this record.
You say you’re not a great storyteller? I’d have to disagree! Going back to the album itself and lookin’ at some of the songs, there’s some great tales on here! “I85” is completely relatable and fun, and I think “Don’t Change For Me” is a ridiculously good story. You have to appreciate, you have a teenager of your own, and you were at one point in time, a teenager in a small town, I’m sure like I was, just lusting for change! And then you grow up to become an adult and you wanna hit the pause button to get away from that change! I think that’s an amazing story!
Well, thank you. That’s definitely that story. You wake up one day and life is just moving so fast and I’m like, “Just stop!” Again, that was kinda what lockdown was for me. I had literally prayed for a respite some days like, “I just need a break! I just need to slow down! I need to spend time with my family! I’m so busy!” And then here I had it! I had two years just with my family! It wasn’t easy, but I got that thing that I had prayed for, I guess. “Don’t Change For Me” was that feeling I wanted to get out there.
Now, going back to workin’ in advertising– when you left that, was that the segue into your time away from music when you started workin’ in other mediums? Went back to school, became a painter, and opened your gallery?
Yeah. In some ways, I feel like I left music even in advertising, you know? ‘Cause you’re doin’ a very particular kind of music. You’re creative, but after 15 years, it’s not that creative. There are a lot of people doin’ great work, but in my experience, it became very monotonous and as anything that you love and make your job, it becomes a job. I found myself listening to talk radio all day and not wanting to listen to music (laughs)! It made me sad ’cause this was the thing I had wanted, I’d loved since I was 12 years old, like “Who am I?” But things come in strange packages, and I had picked up painting and fell in love with the creativity that wasn’t music and wasn’t attached to my income.
I had made a decision I was gonna go back to school and get my degree and maybe teach painting. Studying and the process of learning about painting really helped me as a songwriter, gave me the structure that I had never applied to songwriting. If you’d told me, “Greg, take five, six years, go paint, and then you’re gonna write your first record and it’s gonna be pretty good,” I would’ve said, “You’re crazy! What are we doin’?” But that’s exactly what happened!
What drew you to painting, to begin with? It’s almost a lateral move, certainly, from music, but what was it that sparked that interest in you?
I’d always been into contemporary art and enjoyed it. I’d lived in cities and gone to galleries, and there is this artist thing that we all have that you’re like, “I could do that. Why can’t I?” You know, this kind of arrogance that we have? It’s the thing that makes listening to music difficult for some artists. and I know a lot of artists like this, writers, where you’re challenged. It’s not an enjoyable experience. It’s a challenging experience listening to some music, where you’re like, “Damnit, I gotta go home and write a song because I just heard this amazing song!” It’s a particular trait that a lot of us have and painting was kinda like that. There were these artists that I love, and I wanted something different.
I had been messing around with paint, doing some projects with my son who was maybe kindergarten, first grade around that time. I enjoyed mixing color and learning. I was learning. I’m one of those people who just likes learning things, and to be sane, I always need to be thinking about something. So painting, learning about painting was that for me. Songwriting is that too– thinking about stories, grabbing things out of the air. I always need to be active otherwise I get in trouble! That was what painting was for me.
I was specifically gonna ask you about the difference in being creative through the visual medium versus the sonic medium and how that relates together for you. Tell me about how that was actually able to help you with songwriting.
Fundamentally, the similarities are there. They’re both storytelling. You’re trying to convey an idea and a story through a single image, and that idea helped me. I thought, “Well if I can convey an emotion with a single image, how can I do that through my songs and keep them simple and direct and everything that I like about Tom Petty or Lucinda Williams or Hank Williams?” But what really worked for me was that the thing about painting is that it’s all about showing your process and making sketches and redoing it. Somewhere, I had told myself that you had to get it right the first time with music or songwriting. I made it a really high mountain for myself.
I went, as a kid, straight into recording studios in New York, assisting on records with Shawn Colvin and working with John Leventhal and being around these giants of songwriting, and it made it this incredible thing. It made me better, but it also scared me to death! Painting allowed me to go, “It’s okay to make sketches. It’s okay to rewrite and write again and make demos and trash that demo tomorrow and make it again. It’s not about getting it perfect the first time– or even the tenth time! It’s just about progress and moving forward. And sometimes the mistakes are the beautiful things, so allow space for improvising and making mistakes.” It’s a simple idea, and I think some people apply it to songwriting from the beginning. I just didn’t connect those dots, and painting really did that for me. In some ways, they’re so similar. Color is a frequency. My painting doesn’t actually look like my songs. My painting is very contemporary, but they are very connected for me.
You talked about some of the great players you were able to gain access to during a time when nobody was touring or playing. I love the lead guitar on the album. That’s Jim Parker that plays lead guitar on most of those songs? That cat is just amazing!
Yeah, man! It’s a strange world… I was makin’ this record and I had started the process and I knew I needed a partner who understood the genre, the idiom, the whole thing. A lot of people had left New York even prior to COVID, but a lot of that alt-country scene had gone away. I put an ad on Craigslist in Manhattan, listed some artists, and Jim Parker answered it! Jim works in fashion. He’s a very dapper, handsome fellow that runs a fashion company– but also is a rippin’ guitar player! I could be like, “Make it more Brad Paisley,” and he’d make it more Brad Paisley! He just understood what I was saying, and we really had a connection. He was the anchor. Once I got him on board, it felt real. It’s like these songs all of a sudden had these ornaments to them that was like, “This is good! This is good playing, decent songwriting– we’re gonna make a record!” And that’s where it went. Once I had his partnership, it was on!
You also get to hang out with your old pal Amy Ray on a couple of tracks! You go back almost a decade or longer with her. You worked as a producer and have written with her before, right?
Yeah! That came out of my work with The Butchies. I had been in a punk band in the ’90s with the drummer for The Butchies, and she has just always been a champion of mine and just kept telling Amy, “You gotta work with Greg!” Amy just likes interjecting new people. She’s been doin’ it a long time, and she’s good about bringing people in to just breathe some fresh air for her, I think. So she brought me in and we made the first record– I think that was Didn’t It Feel Kinder— and then that went well and we did some touring. I had moved back to North Carolina at that time and I’d set up a studio there. We actually did that first record in Asheville at Echo Mountain, and then the second record came around and we did that at my studio in Greensboro, North Carolina.
She wanted me to do a third record, but that was right when my life was falling apart (laughs) and my mental state was not that great! I started this new job and was about to get divorced, then I was burnt out and it didn’t end the best, I could say, at least on my part. So in some ways, for me, being able to work with Amy, it was good to just be able to reconnect with her. She was very kind to sing on this record for me, which I could never thank her enough for. She made that song truly special!
I noticed in the liner notes, you have yourself listed twice. You are Gregory Dwane Griffith, and then you are Gregory D. Griffith. Gregory Dwane– do you treat that as an alter ego?
That’s my middle name, it’s my father’s name. I don’t treat it as an alter ego. It is in me whether I like it or not. The main reason for using it, there’s a lot of Greg Griffiths out there and there’s a lot of Greg Griffith of me that’s like a painter or advertising, you know, all these other things. There were no Gregory Dwanes spelled the way that my country relatives spelled Dwane, so just from a marketing point of view, it allowed me a lot of space to be able to take up some Google space without having competition. That was the main reason I went with that. I was going to go with a band name or do some different things, but it just felt like long-term, that was a better moniker to have.
Are you still producing projects for other people or any plans to?
I would love to! That’s the thing I wanna get back to. During COVID, we got a little space in the hills of Connecticut, and I built a studio out there. There’s nothing I would love more than to get back into producing. My real secret goal is I would love to get into more songwriting in Nashville, get into some songwriting rooms, which I’ve been doing a bit of over ZOOM, but I’d love to get in person with some people. I’m ready to dive back in on my terms and choose projects that I think I’m a good fit for. And just enjoy it!