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“I’m not the same guy.”

That’s certainly an understatement for Graham Colton. After a major label career, numerous TV appearances and the limiting musical peg of “singer-songwriter,” Colton has gone through a complete reinvention on his new album Lonely Ones.

Credit his reinvention to a few things: Colton’s return to the Oklahoma music scene; a budding friendship with the Flaming Lips; and for his new record, an entirely new approach to songwriting.

Colton’s return to Oklahoma may come as a surprise. The singer admits he initially had to leave his home state to find his footing as a musician. “My dad was in a cover band, but besides that and some open mic nights, I wasn’t exposed to any sort of ‘scene,’” he admits. “I’d just sit around writing songs in my bedroom. It wasn’t until I moved to Dallas that my professional career in music started.”

And while that early career led to success — major label albums (Drive and Here Right Now), performances on The Tonight Show and The Late Show, videos on TRL, tours with everyone from John Mayer to Dave Matthews Band to Maroon Five — there were tradeoffs. A little stifled creativity. The musical designation of being a singer-songwriter, a genre not known for taking risks.

Things changed after Colton move back home. There, he met his wife, and re-discovered a thriving music scene…which included a creative friendship with Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips. “Oklahoma has a tremendously active music community,” says Colton. “Wayne and I met at a few functions and hit it off. I started chatting about my past, what the Lips had done, and having these really long, crazy music conversations. Everything really graduated from there.”

Inspired, Colton decided a complete reinvention was in order. “I didn’t have a starting point for this,” he admits. “But I knew I had to grow and do things differently than I had done before.” Eschewing labels, he turned to Kickstarter to connect directly with fans. “I couldn’t do it like I’d done my last two records [2008′s Twenty Something and 2010′s Pacific Coast Eyes]. I wanted to work with some good friends [longtime collaborators Chad Copelin and Jarod Evans] and record in good studios. This was going to be a record where I wanted the freedom to do something new, without any parameters.”

Now reconnected with Copelin and Evans and ensconced with his family back in Oklahoma, Colton felt comfortable taking chances. And working closely alongside Coyne and Steven Drozd of the Flaming Lips certainly helped radicalize his recording process. “It was completely unlike anything I’d ever done,” says the singer. “It wasn’t a Flaming Lips record, but I borrowed some gear from them and used those guys as a sounding board.” 

Instead of writing an acoustic song and having his band flesh it out, Colton took the opposite tack: he never wrote on guitar. “Guitars became an accent, not the cornerstone,” he says. He would try out scenarios where Copelin and Evans would make sounds in one end of the studio, and he’d begin writing from there. And the singer would spend hours just “twisting knobs and pushing buttons,” both Chad & Jarod’s Blackwatch Studios in Norman, OK and the legendary Sonic Ranch studios in Tornillo, TX, home to some of Colton’s favorite bands (Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Beach House, Bright Eyes)

“The point was to make me the most uncomfortable,” he says, laughing. “I had to unlearn everything from 12 years. It was amazing and humbling at the same time.”

Lyrically, Colton found the shift liberating. “I had been an autobiographical storyteller,” he says. “I love that, but this was the polar opposite. The sounds made me think different things. I mean, I’m married with a kid and live back home…I wasn’t writing love songs. It was freeing: I didn’t feel the need to be real direct. This time, I wrote visually.”

Lonely Ones release date January 21, 2014

The result, Lonely Ones, is a lyrically desolate album — dark at times, open to interpretation at others. And there are moments when Colton’s voice works as more of an accent to the song, rather than the focal point. “It needed to be another instrument,” he says. “As a singer-songwriter all you have is your voice and your lyrics. I could let that go here.”

The biggest example of change comes from the first single, “Born to Raise Hell,” an initially upbeat psychedelic rocker full of “la la las” and whistles that disguises a rather gruesome subject matter: a story about a hitchhiker who turned out to be a famous serial killer. “The guy, Richard Speck, was in the car with Chad Copelin’s dad,” says Colton. “He had a big tattoo on his forearm that said ‘Born to Raise Hell.’ Once I heard that story, I was like, I have to write about that.”

Musically, Lonely Ones runs a wide gamut, veering from synths to guitars to strings, full of psychedelic flourishes and big production. But at its heart: a real sense of melody and plenty of choruses to wrap your head around. Think of it as catchy, thoughtful headphone music.

When Colton takes to the road this fall, he’ll face his next challenge: turning his bold new music into something equally as bold in a live setting. “I’ve been doing a lot of solo acoustic before this, and that won’t happen,” he says. “It’s a full band, and there may even be moments where I don’t play guitar. These aren’t songs you strum along to.”

He adds: “Just like the record, I’m prepared to unlearn my live experience. I’m just really excited to begin everything again.”


Oklahoma City singer-songwriter Graham Colton changes his game

Oklahoma City musician Graham Colton has changed his game musically, encouraged by the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne. Colton will perform songs from his 2014 album, “Lonely Ones,” during a free concert at 7 p.m. Tuesday in Bricktown’s Centennial Plaza.

Guitars do not chime on Graham Colton’s new single, “Born to Raise Hell,” and if there are any six-string instruments on the song, they certainly are not calling the shots. Instead, spacious keyboard sounds and layered vocals carry the day.

As he plays the track through the mixing board in his private studio in central Oklahoma City, Colton is smiling. He has changed the game.

“I had all these little fragments of songs, and this song started from this keyboard the Flaming Lips loaned me,” said Colton, who will perform songs from his 2014 album, “Lonely Ones,” during a free concert at 7 p.m. Tuesday in Bricktown’s Centennial Plaza. “I just started pushing buttons and doing weird stuff.”

And it was Wayne Coyne who encouraged the button pushing. In 2012, Colton and Coyne met at Blackwatch Studios in Norman and collaborated on a cover of Sparklehorse’s “Don’t Take My Sunshine Away.” The result sounded nothing like the guitar-driven pop-rock Colton recorded for Universal Records on 2004′s “Drive” and its follow-up, “Here Right Now.” It simply did not sound like the guy who opened for Counting Crows and the Wallflowers.

The Sparklehorse song began Colton’s journey to recording “Lonely Ones,” and it was Coyne who pushed him down the road less traveled.

“He said, ‘Dude, put the acoustic guitar down. Put all guitars down. Just open up a different part of your brain and see what happens.’”

Colton began hanging out at Coyne’s house, spending several evenings listening to Coyne’s favorite mindblowers such as the Beach Boys’ 1966 classic, “Pet Sounds.” As Colton absorbed Brian Wilson’s “teenage symphonies to God,” he started to hear how his own music could take on new dimensions.

“We listened to stuff that was seemingly pop music but had all these twists and turns,” Colton said. “It wasn’t just ‘verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-out.’

“And he would be like, ‘Dude, did you see what happened there? It’s a completely new section.’”

Relishing the new

Colton, 31, is relishing this new section of his creative life. After parting company with Universal five years ago, Colton began building relationships with area musicians and taking an active role in the Oklahoma music scene, performing at events such as the Buffalo Lounge at the SXSW Music Conference in Austin, Texas.

Even before the Sparklehorse cover, Colton was experimenting with new styles, collaborating with Blackwatch’s Jarod Evans and Chad Copelin on rerecorded and reimagined versions of songs from his first independent album, 2010′s “Pacific Coast Eyes.”

And last year, he released a collection of vintage-sounding California country-pop with singer-songwriter Lindsey Ray under the name Sooner the Sunset.

But with the upcoming “Lonely Ones,” Colton is trying to do something new at every level and bring fresh minds into his creative process. He is currently making a video for “Born to Raise Hell” with LAMAR+NIK, the Oklahoma-based music video production team that recently shot two videos for legendary alt-rock band Pixies.

Colton’s Centennial Plaza show is the kickoff date for a one-month U.S. tour with Bronze Radio Return. The tour will showcase the new songs, which he said reflect his new mindset.

“The residue is almost off me completely now from that whole major label, radio-driven, album-selling thing,” Colton said. “Now I’m comfortable in Oklahoma City, and if I don’t sell lots of records, I don’t sell lots of records. I’m not looking through the lens of 2007. I don’t have to be on ‘Letterman.’ I don’t have to tour with Dave Matthews. I’ve done that.”

“Basically, this show is the beginning of everything.”

The Oklahoman



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Steve Dalmer



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