How Wrabel's music hit '11 Blocks' came to be
It's not often that you hear someone sing for the first time and feel instantly emotionally connected -- but with Wrabel, you do. It truly is love at first listen.
Known by many as Stephen Wrabel, this longtime musician was first introduced to music with his Uncle Carl's cover of Frank Sinatra songs -- but there was no turning back when he heard Aqualung at age 16.
Now, 11 years later, the breakout artist just finished his tour with the likes of Andy Grammar and Gavin DeGraw, his song 'Ten Feet Tall' was famously covered by Afrojack around the world, and he's written songs for artists like Ellie Goulding and Pentatonix.
In person, Wrabel is a hard one to miss. He's over 6 feet tall, has unruly, curly hair that makes him seem even taller, and has more tiny tattoos than he can count.
On the horizon for Wrabel is a 2017 East Coast tour and more.
While anyone who has heard Wrabel's music can understand the talent he has, it's certainly just the tip of the iceberg for the career of this young musician. Check out our full interview with him below!
#OnOurRadar is a feature that showcases creative minds and up-and-coming talents. To see more of past interviews, click here.
How did you first fall in love with music?
Growing up we listened to my Great-Uncle Carl cover Frank Sinatra songs. We listened to that blasting on the way to school -- his voice is just so, he sounds like he's in the Rat Pack. So, growing up I was interested in music. The first record that made me realize I wanted to do this was an Aqualung record. I think it was "Brighter Than Sunshine." I saw the album cover and bought it randomly at Barnes and Noble when I was 16. I put it in my CD player in my first car, and I probably smoked a secret cigarette and drove down Westheimer in Houston, Texas listening to it. It was so sad, and so pretty. I wanted to do it. I had been singing for a while and learning to play the piano, but I was really captivated by that. I have been a diehard fan of his since then.
What is your songwriting process like? What goes into creating a track from start to finish?
It's different every time. I rarely start from the title, but I did "Ten Feet Tall" that way. With "11 Blocks," I came into the studio wanting to write a song called "14 Blocks," because I didn't count. I knew my ex lived close, but it was closer than I thought. I usually start with a piano and some kind of riff or chords, and then I start seeing melodies and do a lot of free association, which is oftentimes when the words come out. If I'm working with a producer, they're normally piecing together a track, or something like that. Otherwise it's just piano and me, and I write a lot with other people. It always happens in a different way, so that's kind of fun. I always say my favorite feeling is the feeling of putting a song together. It feels like doing a Rubik's cube. You try to notch it together, and then it finally clicks in. That's the best feeling, when the final line comes together.
Do you think you'll ever run out of sadness for your songs?
Yes, I do. It is so confusing and hard to know what to do with that. I thought I did run out, but then I wrote this song that's on the album called "Hurts Like Hell" and it's really sad. I write everything about this first relationship I had, "11 Blocks," "Ten Feet Tall" etc. I'm getting a lot of mileage out of that, but there have been moments where I'll go in to the studio and I'll think it's not there. I called my manager after writing a song, and I said: "That was it. It's gone now, what am I supposed to do?" I have a hard time writing happy music, because I'm scared it'll be cheesy. Now, I've done this song "Poetry," it's very happy. I went back and tried to freeze a moment from that relationship on this trip we took to Ohio. It was the best moment ever, and I had the word Poetry floating around in my head. It's been fun to find new ways to re-frame things, or not tell the whole story because it ended sadly. It's been interesting.
Listen to '11 Blocks':
What inspired you to write and create "11 Blocks"?
It was last year, and I had just left Ireland Records at the beginning of the year. I was not good in my head, and I felt like being an artist was impossible. I didn't quit, but I decided I was just going to write songs for other people. It felt safer, and it was still a big year for me. I had a song out with Pentatonix, with Ellie Goulding, with Will Young, and I felt okay. But it's weird to write a song and then have someone else sing it. I always wished I had sang it. That itch got bigger and bigger. I had tried for a long time to write a 'big hit' but that really messes with your whole system.
I stumbled into "11 Blocks" because I was sad and emotionally masochistic and walking past my ex's house. I'm not sure what I was looking for, but it was close to my house. Then I had this idea in my head and I counted the blocks, and it was 11 blocks. I met this girl Alex Hope on Twitter, who had done a bunch of work on Troye Sivan's record. I followed her on Twitter, and I emailed my publisher telling him it was probably impossible that this would work out, but that I really wanted to work with this girl. But then, within five minutes of me sending the email she had DM'ed me on Twitter. She told me she loved Sideways and that she was moving out to LA and wanted to write. We got together when she moved. I went to her apartment, and I was there for ten minutes and then I told her my idea, and asked her to help me sit down and write a really simple kind of sad song. She sat down and started singing this part that's now in the song. It just started flowing. We wrote it in two hours. When I sent it to my managers, it was four months and two days from the day we wrote it until the day I heard it on the radio. The email said, "I think we just did it" with the attachment. It was so cool.
What's your favorite part of being on tour with Andy Grammar and Gavin DeGraw?
I've been such a fan of both of them for a long time, so I feel a bit like a fangirl, like I don't belong, even though they are so kind and welcoming. It's weird to feel like a fan, and then be on the same stage as them. It's been amazing to feel like I'm in the mix, like I'm doing this and it's real. It's been amazing to play with them and meet fans. My favorite thing to hear is that someone has never heard of me, and has never heard my music, and doesn't know how to say my name. That's the best. It's such a cool feeling. It's one thing if the song is on the radio and hearing it, but it's another thing to be playing it live and have that face-to-face experience.
What have been some of the bigger challenges for you as an artist and getting to this point?
Everything. Myself. I mean, I'm a big one. Everyone always jokes about self-sabotaging and that sort of stuff, but I find that it's very real. I know as a creative person that I'm terrified of everything. I'm terrified to share an idea, I'm terrified once I flush out the idea. Fear is a huge component, and fear of the power that creative power people can have. Not that creatives are better-than others or separate, but there's a weird thing that happens when a song is created -- it can go wherever. It can be done with honest intentions or selfish intentions, but I try not to get caught up in it all. I try to do everything very simply. There's so much BS and politics and ego, but I try to keep everything very simple. The obstacles would be anything that gets in the way of song creation and who I am, whether that's fear or BS or anything.
Was the decision for you to not go to college and pursue music an easy one to make?
That was not a difficult decision for me at all. I applied to go to college a year early out of high school. I went to a very preppy high school in Houston -- meaning, everyone went to college and everyone graduated. I think I'm the only person in the history of my high school to not graduate college. For me, I didn't know what I wanted to do specifically, but I knew the general gist. I knew what I didn't want to do, and I didn't want to stay in Boston for four years. I went to the Berklee College of Music, and I knew I didn't want to stay there when I could have been doing something else. I kept thinking, what could I be doing in New York, or Nashville or LA? I felt like I would rather learn that way -- trial and error -- than in a book. I don't know how to read music or notate music. I just kind of do whatever. I don't know how to use a computer barely. Having someone teach me how to write a song didn't make sense to me. I've written some really bad songs for sure, I still do and I probably always will, but it's that kind of trial and error that I like.
"Ten Feet Tall" was a huge deal when it came out -- what was it like for you when Afrojack released a version of your song?
It was crazy. It felt like it was so long ago, but it was the first thing that ever came out for me. That was a song that was very personal for me. I wrote it the first week of my first real relationship, when I thought everything was just the best. A couple years later, it was the worst. It was bizarre though because I wasn't familiar with the EDM world at all when this happened, and it was as the genre was transitioning into the pop world. I was in London for three or four months writing my record, my imaginary record that never came out, and I would wake up to an email from Afrojack with him asking 'what do you think of this version?' and it would be a YouTube link of him playing my song in front of a giant festival full of people. It was so crazy. It was similar to this tour though, where you see these things happening but until you experience it yourself you don't know what it's like. We played all over the world, and people were screaming the song.
How has social media helped your career as a musician?
It's helped me vent my stupid, weird, sad thoughts between the hours of midnight and 3AM. I love it. I love it. I really love Twitter a lot. I love Instagram, I do this thing on Instagram where every third picture is a drawing. But, there's a lot of mean people on Twitter. I've had to block people who are mean to me or my friends. There's no space for that. If I go through my timeline and see something that is hateful in any way it's a block, because I don't want that.
But it can be so, so, so amazing to connect with fans and strangers. I DM a bunch of my super fans and I'll write them a note. I've had full heart-to-hearts with people I don't know, and I've seen some dark things. It's hard to know how to deal with that and help people, but thankfully I have access to an expert. I think social media can actually help people out of bad places, because you can connect, whether it's spreading a song, or sharing a story, or sharing support, or giving community to people that wouldn't necessarily have one.
What's next in the future for you?
I'm kind of out until the end of the year, and I'm doing radio days all throughout December. Next year is... I have no idea. I know it's really busy, but I don't know exactly. The record is coming early next year, and possibly another tour. I'm writing now for some other artists, I have a single out now with Marshmallow.
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