617: Better Than Ezra’s Kevin Griffin on songwriting, ripping off Buffalo Tom and living in Boston
 

As the frontman and guitarist for Better Than Ezra, Kevin Griffin has long performed familiar alt-radio hits like “Good,” “Juicy” and “At the Stars” in a live setting while liberally mixing in parts of other band’s songs into their own; see “Juicy” seamlessly blend from the Rolling Stones “Miss You.” But tonight at Brighton Music Hall, the singer will explore not only the Ezra catalog in acoustically, but the many songs he’s written for or with other artists.

“Collide” by Howie Day, James Blunt’s “I’ll Be Your Man” and Sugarland’s “Stuck Like Glue” are just a few of the dozens of tracks he’s collaborated on over the years. Train, Barenaked Ladies, Blondie and Graham Colton have all benefited from Griffin’s way with words. Even megastar Taylor Swift took on the Better Than Ezra song “Breathless” at the Hope for Haiti benefit a few years ago, providing further proof of the songwriter’s appeal.

Along with Better Than Ezra, Griffin spent a formative period of the ’90s in Boston. When Vanyaland sat down with him earlier this week and brought up the band’s long unreleased track “Rarely Spoken,” he quickly explained just how much the region had an influence on his writing and stage presence.

“‘Rarely Spoken’ was my version of a Buffalo Tom song,” Griffin says. “I was really into Buffalo Tom and that record Let Me Come Over. I got a lot from Buffalo Tom. I loved that band and I kind of ripped off some stuff, I loved the way Bill [Janovitz, singer] stood when he sang and I started standing that way after I saw them at Tipitina’s in New Orleans. ‘Rarely Spoken’ was me listening to that album and getting inspired by Buffalo Tom.”

Might that be enough of a reason to play it in town tonight at what are notoriously off the cuff solo performances? We’ll have to see. But first there’s the matter of a 617 to get through where Griffin talked about the challenges of writing with other artists, the songs he wishes he had written and whether he looks back at his time spent working as a valet at the old Davio’s location on Newbury Street with fond memories.

::SIX QUESTIONS

Michael Christopher: Writing songs, especially the type of songs that you do, is an intensely personal thing. When you write them for another artist, what’s it like when you let them go to be interpreted in another way?

Kevin Griffin: If I’m writing with another artist and it’s for their project, I think that whatever I want to say is universal enough as a concept, lyrically, that that other artist is going to want to sing about it, and it is going to resonate with them. You find out on the fly when you’re writing with an artist; sometimes you’re completely on the same page, and other times – maybe they’re from England or something – and they won’t say something a certain  way you would say it in the States, so you tweak it and it evolves. But I think, in general, what I would want to say personally, usually it’s the case for someone else. It’s sincere, and usually it resonates with another artist – I’ve found.

Is there ever a part of you that sees how someone else arranges a song that either makes you cringe or scream out inside, “That’s not how it’s supposed to be!”

There’s been times where, yeah, I don’t like how somebody did a song and think, “Oh, you gutted the momentum, you gutted the rhythm,” or, “Why did you sing it that way? The reason you recorded it is because everybody loved the demo that we did, and now you’ve gone and done this and…it sucks” [laughs]. I’ve felt that a few times. But more times than not, the artist gets it right — or better than the demo was. But there have been a few, who shall remain nameless… because I hop to work with them again.

When you’re collaborating with another songwriter it’s one thing, but when you’re writing one on your own, at what point do you know it’s not going to be a Better Than Ezra song, that it’s going to be more suited for someone else?

Kind of from the start. I know what I’m going for and what I’m setting out to write. If anything, I’m setting up to write a song for someone else and then I realize, “Oh shit, this could be a Better Than Ezra song.” Usually when I’m setting out to write a Better Than Ezra song, I know, because I don’t have any considerations other than, “Does this work for Better Than Ezra,” “Have I sang about this before?” [Those are the] different considerations when you’re writing for yourself. The great thing about writing for other people is you don’t have to think about that, because I’ve probably never written a song for ‘A’ artist or ‘B’ artist. In that respect, you get to kind of reuse some of your tricks, because we’re all good at doing something a certain way.

Live, you’ve always had a penchant for seamlessly incorporating other songs into the Better Than Ezra sets and making them your own. What’s one song you wish you had written?

Hmmm…. gosh, there are so many. Probably from the ’90s, it would be, maybe, “You Get What You Give,” by New Radicals. That’s such a great song, you hear it so much and it gets licensed so much. In the songwriting world, not only do you want to have a hit; in a perfect world it’s a song that was a hit but also people licensed the hell out of it, because that’s the gift that keeps giving. “You Get What You Give” was licensed tons. Not that I wish I wrote the song, but “Send Me On My Way” by Rusted Root [laughs], that song has been used just ad nauseam. I’ve always loved “One” by U2. I’ve always been a big fan of “Bittersweet Symphony” by the Verve. Those are some good songs from the past. More recent songs… “Thinking Out Loud” by Ed Sheeran — such a good song. And maybe “Someone Like You,” Adele. There’s certain songs where I’m like, “Oh, that sounds like something I’d write — but I didn’t!”

Let’s talk Better Than Ezra. One of the most frustrating things for me as a fan — even though I’m supposed to be unbiased as a journalist — is when you’re referred to as the “Good” band. And part of me gets it; I’ve done the wordplay in headlines and in openings and closings of articles about Better Than Ezra. But it’s been 23 years since that song broke, and the mainstream media still considers the band a one-hit wonder, despite a litany of follow-up charting songs. Obviously there’s a dedicated fanbase that knows better, that sells out the shows when you come to town. But how frustrating is it when on the other hand you get people who write you off at that?

I honestly don’t get that. I’ve never seen our name on a one hit wonder list. “Good” will always be our biggest song,  because that was the first one that came out, and it’ll always be the one that’s gotten the most spins, despite the fact that we’ve had other number ones; “Desperately Wanting” went number one on alternative — like “Good” did.” The funny thing  is crowds now, they react more to the mid-2000s songs than “Good” and stuff like that. But I don’t mind. Just to be referred to at all is fine by me, and if a writer says, “Haven’t heard from this band since “Good,'” that’s OK because people still come and pack the places we play, our touring base. People wanted to pigeonhole a band — that’s just reality. I’m at the point where I get to say, “I’m a working musician and I’ve done this all my life, and continue to do it and it’s a great life.” So many things are just out of your control — I don’t lose sleep thinking about it. At the end of the day, whatever realm I occupy for somebody, as long as I’m occupying some realms. I’m so at peace with the story arc of Better Than Ezra; it’s good… no pun intended.

For most artists it’s just that way — it’s just the way it is. We all wish we were Coldplay or U2, or some band that’s just gotten bigger and bigger – that’s great. We all wish we were, to use a Boston reference, we all wish we could be Tom Brady, but most of us are gonna be a Doug Flutie. We’re gonna have our moment, nut we’re not gonna be hall of fame. It doesn’t mean we weren’t great and at the top of our game.

You’ve got a storied history with Boston.

Tons!

You’ve talked about Better Than Ezra’s history here extensively, how they played their first show at the Channel, lived here for awhile and you even wrote a song about Boston, “Normal Town.” Looking back at your time spent here, what would you say today to that Kevin Griffin today?

I would say, “Quit worrying so much.” I would say now, to that Kevin, “You’re a fucking baby, don’t be afraid to do something you want to do, and don’t let fear keep you in a certain spot.” It’s with age that you look back and think, at 25 I was such a baby and I was so scared and so old to be in a band that was unsigned. And in addition, I would say, “Enjoy the ride.”

::ONE RECOMMENDATION

I’ll give you a few. The album by Father John Misty Fear Fun. I would say Jacques-Imos restaurant in New Orleans on Oak Street in uptown New Orleans. The map room at the Christian Science Center in Boston, I always go there because it’s so cool — I still dig that. What’s a place that’s just magical…Joshua Tree National Park.

::SEVEN OF SOMETHING

I’m going to go back to the well here, but tell me if the following seven things are “good,” or “not good.”

OK.

The Misfits reuniting.

Good.

Meeting your music idols.

Good.

Donald Trump.

Not good.

Running through the wet grass

Good!!

People who come to the Better Than Ezra show thinking this is the “Laid” band.

[laughs] Good.

Kanye West.

Good.

Working as a valet on Newbury Street.

Good — exclamation point.

AN EVENING WITH KEVIN GRIFFIN OF BETTER THAN EZRA :: Thursday, May 19 at Brighton Music Hall, 158 Brighton Ave. in Boston, MA :: 8 p.m., 18-plus, $25 :: Advance tickets

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