In June 2017, The Varsity sat down with up-and-coming Toronto artist, grandson. A year later, The Varsity caught up with grandson to discuss the major changes that had occurred in the last year, including a new label, new mentors, and new projects.
The Varsity: It’s been exactly year since we sat down to have our first interview, and in this time, you’ve been able to achieve a lot of success.
grandson: Has it been exactly a year?
TV: A year minus a few days.
g: That’s amazing.
TV: A year ago, you had four publicly released songs with a combined 3.5 million plays on Spotify. Now, before the release of your first EP you have eight released singles. Do you want to try guessing how many plays you have now?
g: I don’t know man, let’s go with fucking 20 million?
TV: More than double that: almost 50 million plays on Spotify. What has this massive growth in support meant to you?
g: While it’s awesome, I think of it as an affirmation that what I’m doing here is providing the sort of support and is meaning something to some people. It’s a reminder that we have a lot more to do. It’s definitely an achievement that I’m proud of, to have accumulated this sort of engagement in the music that I’m making. It is really reflective of the people or else maybe I got lucky with playlisting: there are a lot of factors that contribute to numbers. So, I’m not really too caught up in the numbers game. What I’m really caught up in is how do those numbers translate into people really giving a shit. What it means to me is people giving a shit and that’s exciting, and I hope that I can get more people to give even more.
TV: Two of your most successful songs, “Blood // Water” and “thoughts and prayers” have racked up nearly 20 million plays on Spotify alone. Yet these two songs are both seen as political anthems for environmental protection and gun reform, respectively. What do you think your job is as a musician to support political movements?
g: That’s a good question. I’m trying to tell stories that are true to people listening. I am very proud of the sorts of feedback I’ve gotten. I’m also proud, more so particularly with “thoughts and prayers,” that we’ve been able to raise thousands of dollars through selling limited edition merch to support the Youth for Safety and Justice Fund… They have taken these poems and this song that I wrote and turned that into concrete resources for activists. I think that is something I’m really proud of, but what can you say? Hopefully of those 20 million plays, you get a handful of people that are inspired to have difficult conversations, be it with their parents or the responsibilities of government, about transparency, about progressivism, about the future of these sorts of issues. That might be the biggest change I can possibly make — injecting into some kid a seedling for change.
TV: Last time we talked, you named a couple of your musical inspirations such as Bob Marley, Kurt Cobain, and John Lennon. How have they and how has their history in music helped motivate your political activism?
g: Well, I think they really exemplified that sort of relationship that I want to have with culture at the particular time that they were making music. They’ve had an impact on me when it gets exhausting. I’ve spoken to a lot of other musicians and activists about a certain fatigue that can set in when trying to make change or when talking about big stuff: these things take time and they move slowly because it requires the active participation of millions of people. Sometimes I can get a little discouraged along the way. I think that’s human. I try not to be too hard on myself for it.
TV: On April 4, 2018, you were signed to the record label Fueled by Ramen, the same label that supports Twenty One Pilots, Panic! at the Disco, and All Time Low, to name a few. How has Fueled by Ramen been able to support you as an artist?
g: They’ve been awesome. It was really important to me when it became time to expand the team around me. We were able to maintain flexibility beautifully. It was important to me what the growth and success of this project might look like, because through the process of finding our team I found that a lot of people can see potential in something on any vision, but you have to have an aligned vision. I was really grateful to have a team that’s not committed to changing what’s happening here, but rather just pouring gasoline on it and giving me more resources at my disposable to play with.
TV: I want to talk about something that is definitely an amazing opportunity you’ve had, but unfortunately it stems from tragedy. On July 20, 2017 Chester Bennington of Linkin Park passed away from suicide. You tweeted about his legacy and your dream of one day opening for the band. On May 24, 2018, you were featured on a song with Chester’s bandmate, Mike Shonida. What does it mean for you to be able to live out your dream in a different way, but essentially being part of something bigger?
g: When talking about mental health and advocacy, I think that for someone who lived a life as hugely impactful as Chester, I can’t imagine trying to get into words of what that loss meant to so many people. I am constantly in awe and admire Mike’s capacity to take all of that confusion, grief, and frustration and channel it creatively — to make this really raw, confessional project. That’s pretty cool to me. It pushes me as an artist to kind of go, ‘wow’; it really inspires me to have that relationship with my fans and to be that sort of open book. I think he’s done that throughout his career with Linkin Park and Fort Minor and what it means for me to be able to work with someone who’s pioneered so many movements of how to fuse rock and hip hop and pop and electronic music. I think that I can confidently say that I would not be doing what I am doing if Mike and that band didn’t pave the way.
Another thing that’s really impressive to me about Mike is his commitment to music fandom and his commitment to discovering new talent and finding the other young upcoming artists that are kind of following in his legacy. He actually reached out to me first; he just followed me on Instagram one day, having heard my music on Spotify. The whole thing was pretty surreal. I shot him a message thanking him for everything that he’d done. I really didn’t come at him with any particular agenda. My intentions were not that. It really was just mainly, ‘maybe he could be a mentor. Maybe he could be a friend.’ With everything going on with the label situation and the expansion of what grandson is, I knew that I wanted some more mentors around me. I think it’s important, no matter what your condition is or your profession in life.
One day, I wrote the song on the spot, my contribution to it. I played him some ideas, he played me some ideas. I wanted to hear what the rest of the album sounded like, so he played me the beginning of “Running From My Shadow.” He didn’t really have the end flushed out. He didn’t really have the structure where he wanted it. I asked for his blessing to take a stab at it — then it came out a couple of weeks later.
TV: So far in your career, your music has come out as singles. Your first EP, a modern tragedy volume 1, released on June 15, 2018 as your first multi-song release. How has this project been different than your others?
g: In some ways it’s an extension of what I was already doing, which is just trying to tell a story, one song at a time. But it’s also been really exciting to look at this first body of work. Keep in mind this is only volume one. But to begin to kind of lay out a more cohesive ‘Magnum Opus’ of sorts… this is where it’s at. It’s a reflection of where I stand as a young, disenfranchised poet in the twenty-first century, politically and societally.
TV: Last year you mentioned sitting on over 30 unreleased songs. You only chose five songs to put on EP. How did each song find its way onto it?
g: Well, part of that was having a team around me that helped me kind of establish where my songs were at and trying to figure out how and when we can get more music out. This felt like a very natural evolution from the singles I was putting out. I wanted to continue to build creatively and find that cohesion and these five songs tie together in some ways as being very reflective of these past couple of years for me as a songwriter. This is my first EP. I have eight singles — that’s only four songs more than this time last year. We’ve got a lot more ahead of us than we have behind us.
TV: Going into the summer, you’ve released your first EP, you’re playing festivals, you’re going on tours with Hobo Johnson, Joy Wave, and Nothing but Thieves. Where do you see yourself a year from now and what is your goal?
g: If I tried telling you last year where I’d be in a year, I wouldn’t even know where to start. So, I wouldn’t have the audacity to claim that [I know], but I know I’m going to write some big songs. We’re going to continue to make controversial pieces of art that can give people like me a sense of understanding and belonging. We’re going to find more ways to take these messages embedded in these songs off of Spotify and onto the pavement. We’re going to roll out some more ways for people to be able to latch on to their identity as a ‘grandkid,’ be that through what they wear, and through other ways in which they can point to someone else and say, ‘you believe in the same things I believe in. You understand me.’ I just want to be able to provide that forum and that sort of community engagement. And we’re going to rock the fuck out. We’re going to be playing some bad-ass shows, making some bad-ass music. It’s serious, but it’s also a good time — it’s fun.
grandson’s EP, a modern tragedy vol. 1, came out June 15.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.