Breakup, Family, Taking Time Out & Deals: Dissecting ‘Portraits’ With Greyson Chance

A breakup, entering a new life stage, family, intimacy, taking time out, college, and spending six months deciding whether to take a record deal. On the surface, the majority of Greyson Chance’s twentieth year on the planet felt like the life of many of his peers & our own experiences at that age.

But nearing a decade of making music professionally, Greyson’s got a knack for diving into those experiences in a much more considered way than many of us ever could.

“If you want to know what happened in my life last year and how I feel about it, put that record on and go start to finish, it’s all there.”

From the opening acapella harmonies of shut up, Greyson Chance’s record portraits – which he considers his proper debut – is sonically incredible. Ballads soaked in RnB tones and dressed in tasteful darker pop beats talk about the unique experience of Greyson’s last year – a year spent studying History at uni & thinking the musical chapter of his life was completely over.

Greyson says the tracklisting of portraits is “very important” to him, which sound-wise, makes sense. shut up, the album’s first single, is a beat-driven ode to the nervous energy of talking too much instead of letting the universe connect you in the early stages of a relationship. That’s followed by a contrasting song about the remnants of a relationship that finished – bleed you still. I ask why that’s so early in the record.

“I was in university last year up until May, so I had had my record deal offered to me in January, and this is after me really coming to terms with my decision of when I went to school, saying I’m done in music. I said ‘I’m not going to do it again’, so I think when I took six months to decide whether or not I was going to take the deal and decide to make a record, one of the most important things to me was really creating something sonically that made sense from start to finish. Bleed You Still, outside of what the song is about, there was something about coming out of Shut Up, and immediately just hearing that drum, that I think just felt like what an artist should do on an album.”

The breakup of a relationship is documented multiple times in Portraits, but Timekeeper – which came out a couple of weeks before the rest of the album – is the focus track of that breakup, cathartic to the point where Greyson wanted his ex to hear it and ‘fucking hate it.’

“In a break up, you go through different phases, and there are certain songs on the album, White Roses being one in particular that was immediately after when I felt the deep hurt, but Timekeeper came during my resentment phase, where I was a little bit angry and I wanted to say some things.”

“I don’t know if he’s heard it, but I’m guessing if he has, he’s probably not too happy about it, but that’s kind of okay with me, if I’m being honest.”

NK: Sometimes in a breakup you feel like the 90% of you wants to rebuild as your own person and learn to live a life that doesn’t surround that person, but then there’s the extra 10% of you that wants to be that snarky little bitch and annoy them that little bit. Would I be right in thinking that’s kind of the case in your break up as well?
GC: Absolutely, absolutely. For me too, if I’m being completely honest, I wish I could say that there was a lot of pre-meditated intention when I was writing, and I wish I could put myself on a pedestal and be like, “Oh yeah, I was very aware of the artistry I was creating.” But when I went into the studio, and during it, I was writing to sort of heal myself, and to cope through it. So for me, I just followed where my heart was taking me, and what my instincts were, and for each phase I think you have a different song on the record about it.

Just before Greyson went to uni, a fan-favourite song called seasons came out – almost a send-off to let everyone know where he was at. Come time to put portraits out however, that song is on it, re-worked into a speedier version, something that made sense to the sound & currency of the album but still keeping true to the sentiment.

“That song was really special to me, because it was the last one I wrote in LA before leaving, and we put it out independently the summer I went out to school, and we didn’t have a team around it, we didn’t have a push for it, and the fans just really gravitated to it, and it did well streaming-wise, and so [manager] Alex had this idea of, ‘What do you think about recreating it?’ At first I was very opposed, and I said, ‘No, that doesn’t make sense.’ Then the more I thought about it, the more I said just in terms of my life story, it does make sense, because I am entering into a new season… I wanted to change the production, but I wanted to add a new verse as kind of a catch up, to say, ‘this is where I’m at now.’ I actually think that’s probably my favourite part of the album, that verse going into that pre-section, just because I really packed a lot of emotion and a lot of sentiment into that stanza, and yeah, it’s the most honest way that I could say, ‘Here’s what happened in my life from the time the song originally came out, to this version now.’ A part of me is like, do I just keep it going? Do I do Seasons 20? Seasons 21, Seasons 22? Who knows.”

Two of the tracks on the album are spoken word – one a piece-to-mic about his Mom’s smoking habit and the second, a voice memo recorded in an Uber on Greyson’s first legal night in Vegas.

“The first one talking about West Texas, that song is extremely important to me, as my grandma has been slowly passing away the past few years, she has very bad dementia, so I wrote that song really through my experience of seeing my mom have to go through losing a parent, and thinking about what she might say to me in her final moments, and that’s a big fear of mine. I’m very close to my parents, and so obviously losing them is something that keeps me up at night, and I was finding after I wrote that song, that any time I would play it for someone, there was just this particular story of the one that made it onto the album, I would tell that story at my brother’s fraternity house, of how my mom just pulled me aside – it’s a true story too – I think she probably dropped some more f-bombs in the real version of it than I could probably have put on the record.
But I would just find myself telling that story, because I thought it was so compelling, and then it was one of those things where I said, ‘well I’ve been intro’ing this song with this monologue, why don’t I record it? Why don’t I put it down?'”

A complete contrast from that inner monologue is lights, a 25-second voice recording of a conversation as Greyson soaked up the lights of the Las Vegas skyline for the first time as a legal human.

“It was the first time I was going to be in Vegas after being legal, so it was a very fun, anticipated trip, I was in this cab and this woman was just spewing this tea and just telling me these things, and I was laughing my ass off saying, “Gosh, this is just so special.” And I had put my phone on, and hit record. Again too, I think the first song has a bit more of a sentimental value. I thought it really intro’d the song well.”

That voice memo introes the glitzy, fucking sassy, catwalk kind of song that is ‘Black on Black.’ Greyson gets to flex a bit of a rap on the bridge. I don’t know whether he’s calling it a spoken word moment, but why did he decide to do a little rap verse?

“I really wish I could come up with the perfect Van Gogh answer for you to talk about that song… but it just happened. The track was playing, and I was listening to it, and all I could picture in my head was just this spoken word part. And actually… uh, maybe I do have a better story for that. I was listening to a lot of Wolf Alice when I was making the record, and you know their song Don’t Delete the Kisses? In the original version, and also in the Charli remix, the way that she anticipates her verses, they’re sort of talky, but it’s also just a little rhythmic. I remember being in the studio and just thinking of that, and just hearing it in my head, and then out of nowhere, I think I wrote that verse in like a minute or two, and it came out really quickly. “

“The producer of that song, Todd, who I love with all my heart, he’s like, “Greyson, it might be a little too much.” And I was like, “Let me be a fucking artist, come on. Let me go, let me go.” And yeah, we did it and at the end of the session, he was like, “Okay. I think you’re right.” And I was like, “Thank you, finally. Yes. I won.”

Black On Black is not only my favourite. Ellen, who first signed Greyson almost a decade ago, is obsessed. It’s not just fun… it’s hot. I wonder whether writing about intimacy is weird to Greyson at all?

“No, not really. I think I do have a Black on Black side of me that I just maybe don’t put out into the world too often, or maybe it only comes out in the private hours of a bedroom moment. I remember just hearing that song and thinking it was so fun, and I wanted the album to be versatile, and I didn’t want it to be super heady and cerebral all the time, and so to me, it just felt like a really good pop song. At the time I was listening to a lot of Seinabo Sey’s latest release, she has a record called Good In You, and it’s a bit more up tempo, it sort of comes out of nowhere on her record, and I remember thinking that’s such a great moment, I wish I had something like that.

Once you’ve heard this album, you find it really difficult to come to terms with the idea that it almost didn’t exist after Greyson quit the industry to study History. Here’s a guy that’s naturally born to make songs and he nearly didn’t do that beyond his nineteenth birthday.

“I think I just relearned my purpose, and said, “You know what? You do need to be doing this.” And on top of that, I think I just looked at myself, and I said, “Listen. You’re 20 years old,” at the time I was, and I said, “You’re never going to be that age again. You’re never going to be this young. What’s the worst that can happen?”

“I set out two goals for myself. I told myself that I wanted to make a body of work, and I wanted to tour it within a year, and that’s what we’ve done now, and I think for the first time in my career, I wasn’t worried about, “Okay how’s it going to do? Is it going to respond? Am I going to reach the bottom line? Am I going to do all these things?” Whether it went well or not, I was going to be fine regardless, and I don’t think I’ve ever had that clarity in my career as an artist like I do now. Nic, what’s the worst thing that could happen, man? I put out a record and no one likes it? Cool, I go back to Oklahoma, and I go to a bar with my friends, and pick it up somewhere else, you know?” That’s the head set I’m in right now, and it feels really nice to be there.

The wonderful thing is the record is going well. Greyson’s already started writing the follow-up and assures us we won’t be at a “shortage of music”. We are lucky that he realised he was made to do this.

portraits is out now.

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