Greyson Chance is living out of suitcases. He parks his two Samsonites, piling his backpack on top of them. He’s at ease, crossed legs but an open demeanour. His most valuable possession is his voice, and he speaks mostly through a sincere smile. His brown hair bounces over his forehead like Leonardo DiCaprio’s in the 1990s. He pushes it back with his hands while discussing the many ways he has pushed himself forward.
Just hours ago, Greyson was trapped in an elevator. He had gone to Brooklyn to support a friend’s art gallery, but the two of them ended up stuck in the building’s stalled elevator until well past 2:30 in the morning. He survived just fine, these things happen, and he has endured years worth of feeling confined by now.
These days, though, Greyson has grown accustomed to being free.
“I’ve been a gypsy for this past year,” the 22-year-old singer-songwriter says, pointing toward his belongings. “Literally, that bag, that’s me. It’s pretty nice. It’s rent-controlled.”
Seven or so years ago, Greyson’s life seemed completely out of control. This portion of his story has been told countless times and should not be dwelled on: technically, his debut came at 12 years old in May 2010 when a video of him singing Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi” went viral enough to warrant an appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. He scored a record deal with Ellen’s label eleveneleven in partnership with Interscope Geffen A&M Records, only to be dropped by the time he turned 15. He went home to Oklahoma.
Greyson recognises portraits, his album released in March, as his true debut. He wrote it while attending the University of Tulsa with the sole goal of proving to himself—to the 15-year-old boy crying and “wondering what the fuck was gonna happen with my life”—that he could conceptualise an album that he wrote every word of, top to bottom. Before portraits, Greyson hadn’t touched a piano for over a year. He had committed to being a college student and was enjoying it while taking an indefinite or maybe even permanent hiatus from music.
He needed to go to college to grow up, to realise how much he needed music.
Each of portraits’ 12 tracks vulnerably reveals a vignette from Greyson’s life, but there are two in particular that need evaluating for the purposes of this vignette.
First, “black on black.” The song’s first verse opens with, “I think I’ve seen you before/ On a poster that I hung on my door.” It was at least in part inspired by the idea of rockstar-filled posters in his bedroom. Greyson’s earlier music depicts the detached boy in the bedroom literally stargazing at icons on posters. But in portraits, the man has left the bedroom and confronted what it means to be himself in the real world.
“There was such a long period of my adolescence where I was stuck in the room, and I was looking at the posters of these people and thinking I wish I could be like that,” he says. “But I didn’t feel like I had the strength, I didn’t feel like I had the ability because of what happened in my past. You know, getting dropped by a label and then getting dropped by your management and going through all of that, especially at a young age and as an artist, it really hits. It’s a hard blow. It’s not just like a flat tire. It’s like a few flat tires and some engine problems.
“For the longest time, I was looking at these artists and these people I admired saying, ‘I wish I could do that, and I wish I could be on that level.’ In many ways, portraits was me stepping out and finding that strength to say, ‘No, I am the one on the poster and I can be that.’”
Greyson is that. By the end of 2019, he estimates he will have performed 112 shows in support of portraits around the world with his current North American leg extending into late January 2020. When writing the album, he hadn’t given a single thought to what might happen afterwards and certainly did not expect for it to be embraced wide enough for touring to materialise.
“There was a large part of me that was like, ‘I wonder if I’m gonna finish portraits and then be like, ‘OK, I wanna step back,’” he remembers. “But after I finished the record and we were touring, I was like, ‘Oh, no, I wanna keep going with this.’”
Greyson nearly retreated back to the Oklahoman bedroom. Instead, he packed up his Samsonites and committed to a more nomadic lifestyle. It has been on stage with his fans that he reconciled his past and reclaimed his future. Enter the second portraits song: “white roses.”
While at Tulsa, Greyson experienced the worst breakup of his life from “the boy I thought I was gonna marry.” In the aftermath, he would run miles and miles around Tulsa’s campus every day in a distorted effort to heal. It wasn’t until he sat down to pen “white roses” that he found his lifeboat.
“There’s nothing more fulfilling than to share a story and then go out and talk to people and see them responding back to it,” he says, then adds:
“It took me a year of singing it to realise that it’s not his song anymore. It’s mine now with the fans. Because every night I see people in that audience feeling that same emotion that I felt when I wrote it. And at the end of the day, that’s worth it. Money can’t give you that shit, drugs can’t give you that shit. That’s real. So I will tour. I’m gonna keep on doing this until I can’t.”
On Nov. 8, one day before his portraits tour stop at Sony Hall in New York City, Greyson began a new chapter by dropping a single called “Boots.” It is his first song since signing with Arista Records and Sony Music in June. The premise is simple. When spending time in Los Angeles, he and his hometown friends from Oklahoma noticed people paying inordinate amounts of money to look Western when nothing else about them validated the image they were projecting. As a young man who grew up on wide roads with ditches on the side and could get Wranger jeans for “five cents in a dumpster,” he saw right through it.
“What Oklahoma has taught me is that just because you’re wearing the hat does not make you a cowboy,” he says. “It’s much more about your attitude, your loyalty, your wildness and your willingness to throw a punch in a bar.”
Oklahoma, the music industry and the unique road Greyson has traversed through both have developed within him a distinct radar for what’s real and what’s not.
He mentions that he wishes mental health was talked about more. He encourages challenging questions to be asked about the toll being an artist in the music industry takes. “If you haven’t noticed, there’s a lot of us, and there have been a lot of us through history that doesn’t make it through,” he says. “There’s a reason why that happens. And I don’t think we’re talking enough about it.” He ponders if he would be experiencing the same emotions or difficulties if he had just stayed home in Oklahoma and become a bartender. That’s an unknown. He does know, however, that he would not be as fulfilled.
“I’m strong,” he says, “and I know that. But it’s because there have been a lot of bad days, for sure.”
Touring around the world has provided the payoff. He hopes, and he thinks he sees, his fans at every show recognising what he’s doing as authentic and informed by all of the trials he survived. He simply doesn’t care anymore. He has been through the worst the music industry has to offer. As a result, he asks himself three questions: Are you happy with the music? Are you happy with the art? Are you happy with the show? The answer right now is a trio of yesses.
“Nothing is secure in music,” he says. “Nothing. I learned that at a really, really young age. So my security that I feel now is when I’m on stage with the fans. That feels secure. Nothing else is secure. No matter how good it is. It’s not secure. You should get a bottle of wine and talk to Lady Gaga about that. She’ll have some great stories to tell you.”
On stage at Sony Hall, the biggest venue in the States for Greyson to date, he embodies those words. His voice sounds like a life lived, and his lyrics lay that bare. He opens his set with “west texas,” a message about remembering where you came from. His first words to his audience: “I can see the sky for miles, I can see that time so clear / When you told me ‘forever’ was a word that I should not fear.” He’s talking about his mother, and the countless phone calls they’ve had where he was desperate for validation or sympathy but was met by her asking what he planned to do about it.
Greyson has a clear plan for moving forward. After “west texas,” he has a message he needs these fans to understand. “I am a servant to you and you only,” he demands. “My mom raised me to be a good man, and I wanna be a good man for you.” Once he has given everything he can to those at Sony Hall, he’ll pack up his Samsonites and move along to tells fans in Boston the same thing. He will tell people in whatever city will have him. He is no longer afraid of forever because he now knows what he wants to spend forever doing.