Grayson is the stage name for Australian singer-songwriter Michael Edser – it’s a reference to his childhood street in the NSW city of Newcastle. He relocated to Nashville in 2011, which followed on from a stint in Europe where he toured with some of the biggest names in Ireland including Aslan, Bagatelle and John Spillane. He has also performed with Aussie legends Jimmy Barnes, The Whitlams and Vanessa Amorosi (amongst others) back home in Australia. These days Grayson writes and produces music for other people, as well as himself. He recently released a new single, ‘Margarita’, and brought it to the Tamworth Country Music Festival. We spoke a few weeks after that.
‘Margarita’ invokes beaches and summer, but Nashville is a long way from a beach – where does a Newcastle boy get his waves in Tennessee?
I feel landlocked all the time. It’s one of the worst things about living in Nashville – it’s a long way from the ocean – and when I first came to America I lived on Venice Beach [in Los Angeles] so I always felt I wasn’t too far away from home. Obviously when I moved to Nashville it was a whole different kettle of fish. We get down to Florabama once a year, which is on the border of Florida and Alabama.
Culturally it would be quite different for you. I do think Australians can get culture shock in the United States. But that Newcastle lifestyle … It’s a burgeoning city, in the last few years there’s been a lot of change there, but it is a surf town in so many ways.
Definitely. Everyone has a surfboard, everyone has a guitar. It’s a cool city. If I didn’t have to make a living I would never have left Newcastle – it’s God’s country. My dad used to tell me it had the best beaches in the world and it was a really cool place, and I just thought it was my dad being a proud Novocastrian, but honestly every time I go back it’s harder to leave.
While you were growing up in Newcastle, what did you listen to and when did you start playing?
I’ve answered this question a lot doing radio tours over the years – especially the country radio stations, they ask me what I grew up listening to, and I piss them off because I tell them that I listened to the Backstreet Boys, Googoo Dolls – everything that was on mainstream radio in Newcastle, which was three radio stations: KO FM, NEW FM and NX FM. And it’s still like that. And that’s one of the reasons why country music still isn’t as big as it is here, because if you want to be in Newcastle listening to country music, driving to the beach, you have to be streaming something – there’s no mainstream country radio station – and that’s were Australia is so limited. So I grew up with whatever was on radio, which was ‘Barbie Girl’ by Aqua, Backstreet Boys, because that’s all I knew – there was no internet to stream music. It was, literally, these are the biggest people in the world, this is what’s on NX FM, this is what I’m istening to.
And, of course, silverchair – one has to mention silverchair when talking to a Novocastrian.
As I got older I grew to love silverchair and what they achieved, especially in that time, was phenomenal. But when I was 15 or 16 I thought they were too heavy – I was driven to that more melodic, ballady kind of stuff. So I never was a huge silverchair fan, but as I’ve grown older I’ve fallen in love with their stuff.
Back to your single – because I took a little detour there – is it from an album or, as Sam Hunt has been doing recently, are you releasing a single with no album in sight? In this age of streaming, of course, it’s now feasible to do that.
I was meant to do an album last year but I became a dad for the first time, so last year was literally a write-off. It was the best and hardest thing I’ve ever done, becoming a dad. It really is awesome. But there was no time to do an album. In 2016 there was a single. We quickly rushed out ‘Margarita’, and I’m in the preproduction stage now to do an album. It’s going to be a little bit more stripped back, more acoustic driven. We’re not 100 per cent sure if ‘Margarita’ will just sit there as a single or it might make the opening track of the album, because it’s a little bit more upbeat. We’re going in a slightly different direction with the album – more focused on the maturity of the songwriting. We’re going to try to stand out with a little bit of different stuff. So it’s quite exciting, and that will happen this year.
As a songwriter as well as a performer, because you can deliver singles on their own, or release EPs instead of albums, do you think this makes your job more exciting, in a way, because you have different avenues to release music, or is it a little bit scary?
It’s always hard making decisions. I’m a little bit OCD. To get me into the mixing room when it’s someone else’s music I’m producing, there’s no stress, but when it’s my stuff it’s very important. There’s plenty of options which saturate everything. Even when you’re looking at guitar tones in the studio, you press a button and there’s 15 000 different options – how the hell are you meant to pick one? It’s quite hard. But it’s the same with releasing. I don’t think I’d ever go back and release an EP – for me it’s going to be a single or an album. I’ve been culling the songs. I’m down to about 12 songs from 40 that are potential for the album. You’ll see a 9- or 10-track album.
Do you write songs as the ideas come to you or do you tend to dedicate some time to it, knock out a bit and then do something else?
If I’m going into a co-writing session I’ll have an idea with me. If I’m writing by myself I’ll pull up my phone and there will be 40 or 50 little phrases that I’ve written down in the last week or so that have come to my head and I’ll base the song around that. Living in Nashville, as a writer, out of those 40 songs I’m looking at right now there’s 5 or 6 that will go to other artists that I’m not going to put on my album just because they don’t fit the direction that I want to head in. There’s some very poppy American-driven songs … America sells. America loves America.
So you’re quite used to giving your songs to someone else?
It’s quite different to Australia. If it was Australia you’d never give your songs to someone else, but over here – I first came to Nashville on a publishing deal. I was literally getting paid to write songs for other people. You can always write another hit song. As long as there’s money coming in I don’t care where it’s coming from. If someone wants to take one of my songs and make it the biggest world smash ever, that’s huge credibility and that opens some major doors as an artist and a writer. So only positives can come from it.
You first went to Nashville in 2011 – do you feel like your musical style has changed since you moved?
Yes, definitely. You always have to evolve. The last two singles have been pretty poppy. The next album’s going to be more folk/Americana. I think every project you bring out you have to change and evolve. If you stay the same you end up like the ska scene – that genre never changed, and it died. You have to keep moving.
As you said, you went over there on a publishing deal – that’s a pretty big move. Even when you have the prospect of work, it is moving a hemisphere. Did you have any reservations about going?
You don’t really think about the future in music because you don’t know what’s next – it’s one of the best and worst things about the job – so it’s endless possibilities. You’re fresh and bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. But I look at a calendar now and I’ve been pretty much on the road for ten years. I have an amazing family back in Newcastle, I’ve got a twin brother who I only get to hang out with once a year – there’s lots sacrifices that you make and you don’t think about them when you’re actually making that jump. All you’re thinking is dollar signs and all the things you’ve worked hard for. Your friends and family want you to do well but you have days where it takes its toll, where you have a rough day or a shit writing session and you’re driving home in the snow thinking, What the hell am I doing here? There’s plenty of ups and downs to it. But it is still exciting. When I hear a song that I’ve written on radio or I play in front of a big crowd, or I do a studio session with Carrie Underwood’s drummer or Tim McGraw’s slide guitar player, I think, This is why I’m here – I’m getting paid to tell these people what to do. It’s kind of surreal. So when you have those good days they press the refresh button and remind you why you’re here.
How did you start working as a producer?
I fell into that. My publishing deal was coming to an end and I was freelancing some session work. There was a new studio in town. Long story short this guy loved everything I did on a track and I was his go-to guy and all of a sudden I started producing and working for his label. Now we six or seven major projects we do every year and when I’m not doing that I’m on the road or writing, so it’s busy, and add a baby to the mix, it’s interesting.
How far ahead is your calendar worked out?
I’m already booking gigs for December in Australia. I start my album hopefully next month, then I’ve got five or six things over the American summer with a bunch of gigs. So I’m pretty much full for the whole year – then we’ll start looking at next year.
I imagine it feels terrific to have all that work booked up, because as you’ve said it can be uncertain as a path.
If you’re busy in my industry it’s good – the minute you’re not it’s very bad. So it’s awesome.
You’ve done other things related to your music – in 2011, when you first arrived in the United States, you made a documentary. So it seems like you are involved in lots of different creative acts but how did you even think to start making a film when you got there?
I always had this idea that I wanted to see Route 66 and I met a girl in California who was a filmmaker. She really liked me music and she really liked me – I ended up having a relationship with her – and we went on the road and shot it all with a couple of cameras. It won an award at a film festival in Hollywood. That’s why I was able to come to Nashville – a couple of people in Nashville saw the documentary and said, ‘This guy can write. He looks like he’s a lot of fun. Let’s get him out here.’ Everything happens for a reason. That was a very cool experience – I’ll take it with me for a very long time. Very eye opening.
And now you’re involved in a different type of filmed content because you’re in a reality TV show. It sounds like a fairly nice reality TV show because it doesn’t involve people going to an island or anything like that – it’s about people going to Nashville. So what’s that been like?
We shot the pilot and the first episode last year and it’s still getting pitched to major network TV. So it’s something that may get seen, and hopefully does. If not, it’s good for the CV and and it will lead to something else. The people involved have got their fingers, toes and hands crossed that it comes off.
You recently came back to Australia for the Tamworth Country Music Festival. How was the festival and do you think you have quite a different perspective on Tamworth and the industry here now?
Tamworth is always going to be Tamworth until someone takes it by the scruff of the neck. I think it’s a little bit in danger of dying out, especially if you go to some of the venues – all you can see is grey hair. I think there is an influx of younger people getting to it but they’re not there for the music – they’re there because it’s free and because there’s drinking. If it’s going to last it has to be about the music and about the organisation. If you come to Nashville on any night, every venue has live music. Tamworth achieves that once a year. But as far as doing the big stadium shows and getting new people interested every year, I don’t think Tamworth’s achieving that. My gigs were awesome. The people were awesome. The festival is awesome but I’m kind of concerned. I think the main problem is that you’ve got 12-year-olds busking in the streets that are quite horribly talented people. It’s bad. The first thing people see walking up Peel Street is all these 10- and 12-year-old girls trying to sing Taylor Swift. There’s a million things wrong with that. One is that that’s the first impression of the festival: that it’s amateur hour. I understand kids have to have a go and all that, but they should do a big kids pageant or talent show – get them off the street, get them in a proper venue, charge a ticket, make it a real thing rather than kids doing karaoke on the street. The second thing is that you’ve got the TREC centre in Tamworth that holds 20 000 people. It sits there during the festival and nothing happens. I don’t understand why they don’t do all the huge Australian act and the big American acts in that centre every night of the week, charge a ticket and make it a really big, special thing. For me, Tamworth, it’s hard to get a park, everything’s unorganised, only half the things are in the guide. So I think Tamworth is an awesome thing – it’s obviously been going for 45, 46 years, hopefully it keeps goings – but it needs someone to take it by the scruff of the neck and take it to that next level, otherwise it’s going to die out in the next ten years.
Looking ahead in your career now – are you hoping to keep evolving your musical style? Do you want to write more for other people? Do you have those sorts of long-term goals or you’re just focusing on doing your best work now and seeing where that takes you?
I think we’re going to get the album done and we’ll have a single or two go to radio here and see what happens. With everything that’s going on in America right now, with all the shootings and who’s the President, I think by the time my child is school age I would like to see him in a more stable environment. So if we’re still chasing our tails in five or six years’ time and it makes no sense to stay here, we’ll be Australia bound. If everything’s going good and the career’s moving forward, we’ll stay here. You have so many moving factors when you live overseas, and with the music industry you don’t know what’s next. The only focus for me right now is that hopefully ‘Margarita’ does well and the album does well, and it’s a twelve-monthly thing. Every twelve months you have to weigh everything back up. So talk to me in twelve months and I’ll tell you what’s happening [laughs].
Watch the video for ‘Margarita’ on YouTube