Wrabel on Songwriting: “I’ve Tried to Stay True to What it is That I Love and Feel I Do Best”

There’s a distinct characteristic that Wrabel’s father observed in him as a child. “The one thing Steve’s never done is something he doesn’t want to do,” the singer/songwriter who was born Stephen Wrabel tells American Songwriter with a smile. “I take great pride in that.” The Houston, Texas-raised singer first identified as a songwriter during childhood when he bought an album offhand by English singer/songwriter Aqualung, Strange and Beautiful. “I felt myself in it,” Wrabel recalls of his reaction. “It was the first time I heard music and was like, ‘That’s me.’ I felt so connected to it. I wanted to write songs in hearing that record.” 

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From there, he promptly started taking piano lessons and singing in church. He started to write songs in high school, taking his craft so seriously that he would put the copyright circle on his burned CDs and even formed his own company. “That really set me on that path and I knew I wanted to be an artist,” he shares. 

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After high school, he had a brief stint at the renowned Berklee College of Music before moving to Los Angeles, where he started pounding the pavement and gigged around the city. He was a writer before he was an artist, scoring his first major cut on American Idol winner Phillip Phillips’ debut album. He found a tight-knit community of writers to work with and soon found himself in the room with Kesha, Ellie Goulding, Adam Lambert, and other superstars writing for their albums. But he always walked in with a specific intention. “I like to write the truth,” he says. 

“I’ve tried to stay true to what it is that I love and feel I do best, and that usually is writing a true story with real details,” he adds.  Wrabel enjoyed his first international hit when DJ Afrojack remixed his song “Ten Feet Tall,” which reached the Top 10 on the Billboard Hot Dance/Electronic Songs chart in 2014. Wrabel has since written the deep cut “Lost Cause” on Pink’s 2023 album, Trustfall, with additional cuts by Backstreet Boys, Louis Tomlinson and Idina Menzel over the years. He also co-penned the lead single, “Bad For Me,” off Meghan Trainor’s 2022 album Takin’ It Back. The song reached the Top 30 on the BillboardAdult Contemporary chart.

He experienced another career breakthrough in 2019 with his own song “The Village,” an LGBTQ anthem he felt compelled to write after meeting two transgender children at one of his shows the day that federal protection for trans people was removed from public schools. “They were so themselves,” Wrabel observed. “I was so blown away by that.” He took this inspiration into the writing room with Andrew Jackson and Andrew Pearson, with the phrase “the village” swirling in his head. They turned the oft-used phrase into an encouraging message to trans people that won the praise of Pink and earned Wrabel considerable media attention. 

“‘The Village’ opened up this thing where I can write a song about anything,” the singer, who came out as gay at 23, says of how it impacted his songwriting. “It was my first time attempting to tell someone else’s story, which I approached with nothing but respect and delicate steps. ‘The Village’ really opened my mind a lot to: You can go after topics that other people aren’t talking about. It’s the closest thing to my heart that I think is the most special thing I will ever do.” 

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The singer sent the song to the two teens who inspired it, and they urged him to release it. “To see what that’s done, it’s unbelievable to me,” he adds about the power of music. “I’ve tried to maintain some of that wonder and awe in it all because I think it’s magic.”

Along the way, Wrabel has continued to craft his own voice as an artist across two albums and several EPs. The new album, Based on a True Story, arrived on November 17. The 11-track follow-up to his 2021 debut album, These Words Are All for You, finds him touching on themes ranging from “existential, beautiful love,” to his sobriety journey, on the deeply personal “One Drink Away.” The album arose out of, “Writing things that felt true and close to my heart from conversations [with] friends and with myself of checking in, ‘Where am I? What do I think about this? How do I feel?’” he says. “I think learning about my perspective on where I’m at and about life ended up being something I think [is] really hopeful.” 

That sense of hopefulness was instilled in him by a former publisher who made a comment that has been formative to his songwriting journey. “She pushed me to never see your best song as something you’ve already written,” Wrabel says. “I think the reason why we do what we do is to hopefully share something that can somehow positively affect someone. As long as I’m alive, I feel like there’ll be something to write about.” 

Photo by Celina Kenyon

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