Brooklyn-based singer and multi-instrumentalist Michael Grubbs – better known as Wakey Wakey – writes refreshingly honest and intimate songs that tend to deal with personal issues and obstacles head on. His upcoming album Overreactivist, which drops February 26, features the writer’s most open and autobiographical work to date. We chat with Grubbs about writing on the road, pop music and getting to know yourself.
You wrote a large portion of this album while you were on tour. Do you do most of your writing on the road? Or do you prefer to write at home?
When I set out to write an album like Overreactivist or Almost Everything, usually I’ll go into a process of collecting ideas, a lot of music moments that I really like, and then when the time is right, try to make that into something cohesive. The road is a really great place to grab those first ideas. I think the more I develop those ideas away from a musical instrument, the better, as well, and a strange thing about the road is that you spend a fair amount of time not playing your instrument but thinking about playing your instrument. Then it comes time for the song craft part, where it gets shaped. Then I need a few instruments and my house, and everyone as far away as possible. I can kind of be a dick at that point. I guess you can describe my writing process as: you plant some seeds, you pick some apples, then you bake them into a pie.
You mentioned that Overreactivist is your most personal album to date. What topics did you explore on this record that you haven’t in the past?
I think part of growing up is getting to know yourself better. My music has always been pretty autobiographical. This is me getting to know myself on the deepest level I’ve ever experienced and writing about it during a time when I felt completely ungrounded. I also made a point to not censor myself or my ideas. A lot of times I’ll write something, then wake up the next day and say, “That shit makes you sound like a dumbass.” I guess on this one I left a lot of those ideas in and presented a less manicured version of a protagonist. At this point I actually have a hard time listening to the album, which is usually a good sign.
Outside of your home base of Brooklyn, are there any places that have given you a lot of inspiration – like other cities, houses, bars, etc?
I grew up in Virginia in a very religious home. The church where I spent the overwhelming majority of my youth grew during my childhood from under a hundred people, to being on television with a full pit orchestra and 500 person choir. The musical life there was vibrant and I’ve always struggled with my relationship to it. That spot has a lot of real estate in my musical mind for sure.
How long have you been writing songs?
As long as I can remember really. My first structured pop song that I can really remember I wrote around 1999 driving from Virginia to New York in a snow storm. I remember I pulled the car over onto the side of the highway to write it down. It was a good tune. I would always write melodies even when I was a kid. I would draw musical staves in my math book in school and write melodies.
What is your typical songwriting process?
Hooks usually come to my head pretty fully formed. The thing that then makes or breaks the song is how dedicated, available and willing I am to work out the rest of it. I have the occasional 30 minute song as well, which is always nice. They usually end up being singles [laughs].
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about songwriting since you got your start?
You really need to invest a large amount of time into learning the rules and basics of the craft. Then after a long period when they’re so instilled that you feel weird breaking them, you have to forget them all and just write. I feel the same way about musical theory. It’s like karate – knowing just a little is more dangerous than knowing none at all. (I don’t know karate) And the golden rule: if you don’t like it, it doesn’t go in. Actually, it really shouldn’t go in unless you completely love it.
If you could co-write with anyone, living or dead, who would you choose?
I’d love to get in a room with Dr. Luke and Max Martin. I’m a pop junky. I’ve been lucky enough to write with some real masters though.
Who are your favorite songwriters?
I’m a terrible DJ because I love it all. I love Kendrik Lamar AND Drake. I love Katy Perry AND Taylor Swift. I love the usual greats like Dr. Luke, Max Martin, Lennon, McCartney, Elton John, Billy Joel… I love hipster shit but I get down when James Blunt comes on. I just love music. My favorite writer that’s not famous is Casey Shea. You should interview him next.
What is the most perfect song ever written and why?
This is an absurd question. Two songs I have the utmost respect for are “Teenage Dream” by Katy Perry, but written by like 6 people, and “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” Bonnie Raitt’s cut, written by Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin. I also love “The Spider and the Fly” by the Rolling Stones.
If you were to record an album in an unfamiliar genre, which genre would you like to tackle and why?
I basically did that on my last album. I always wanted to write a pop album – see the aforementioned love of pop – so I did. It had 15 writers and 7 producers, and was a big ole beast called Salvation. I put it out myself, so it just weirded everyone out… haha. I think from now on I’m gonna stick to what I do best, which is just whatever I like. That being said, making a pop album was a ton of fun and I love the album.