Wrabel calls it his favorite feeling in the world: that moment just before a song comes into being. "When the Rubik's Cube of the song hasn't quite clicked, and it's about to," he says. "You can feel it -- everything turning to lock this thing in."
It's a feeling he's chased for years, since he began writing songs as a teenager. "In high school I wrote the worst songs," he says. "But it still boggled my mind that you could just sit down and hours, or days later, something is created that didn't exist."
He has, of course, come a long way since then. Songs of his -- like "Ten Feet Tall," recorded by Afrojack-have been heard by millions of people around the world. But that feeling of fresh discovery remains. "I wrote a song with my friend the other day, and he said to me, 'That song will never not exist.' I was like, 'That's a little meta for me. It's a Wednesday. You can't go there with me right now.' But that idea -- I love it."
Wrabel specializes in music that telescopes small moments into songs with big impact. On tracks like "11 Blocks" and "Gimme Your Love," the drums may get huge, but the feelings are deeply personal. This is pop music rooted in the singer-songwriter tradition, and it all starts with Wrabel sitting at a piano, fighting for self-expression and...
"I write a song because it's probably something I won't say out loud," says Wrabel. "All the songs are true. It's all my little details. That's the only way I can survive: to be as open and transparent as I can be."
But getting to a place of transparency has been a process: Music school -- heartbreak, a new start. All leading Wrabel back to where he started- sitting in front of a piano, trying to make sense of it all. "For a long while I tried to steer so far away from that. I was chasing cool, making everything weirder. 'Edit the vocal! Put it in reverse! Chop it up!' And I woke up one day and was like, 'Why am I trying to be cool? I sit at the piano, and write kind of sad songs about stuff that I've been through. Do that! Go do that!" Wrabel was born 27 years ago on Long Island. His father was a salesman, and by the time he was in high school he had lived all over the country, even as far as Australia. Over and over he was the new kid in school. "I kind of liked it," he says "although I was scared of being the weird kid." Music became a passion in middle school. "I got an Aiwa 800 Watt four CD-changer and I would sing to karaoke tracks in my room -- and my room was over the garage, so I could just fucking crank it! My first recording was 'Can You Feel the Love Tonight' to a karaoke track -- which I definitely burned on CDs and gave to way too many people."
By 16, he was in high school in Houston and had begun playing piano. "I started taking lessons from the music leader at church. I wanted to learn how to play piano because I wanted to write a song." A summer program at the Berklee College of Music in Boston led to his enrollment at the college. While at Berklee, Wrabel posted original songs on MySpace, so when a songwriter in England invited him to come over for a writing session, he knew he wasn't long for school. "They yelled at me. 'You missed two weeks of classes!' I was like, "Yeah -- to follow my dreams."
Before the end of his first semester, Wrabel left school and headed to Los Angeles. "I just wanted to go for it," he says. He worked on his craft, writing with anyone he could, placing cuts with artists like Adam Lambert and Phillip Phillips, all the while developing his own material. The song "Ten Feet Tall" came out of the flush of his relationship with his first serious love, and helped land him a deal with Island records. "My mom kept telling me, 'Write a happy song, write a happy song. Everybody likes a happy song.' I did, and damn it, it's true!" He released his own recording of the song, and sang on Afrojack's version. An EP followed, but after a long period of creative searching Wrabel hadn't found what he was looking for, and he and the label parted ways. He found himself back in Los Angeles, wondering if it was time to pursue a career as a songwriter rather than an artist.
In the spring of 2016, Wrabel got a direct message on Twitter from Alex Hope, a songwriter/producer he admired. When they met, he had an idea for a song: He'd realized his ex lived only a few blocks away, and he often found himself walking by his house. " Alex and I were messing around in the studio," he says. "She was playing some chords. And I told her the whole story of my ex. I'd met someone new, but I'm probably going to walk home so I can maybe run into my ex on the street, and then I'm going home to cook my boyfriend dinner. She's like, 'We need to write about this.' " "Eleven blocks from my door to your door step. Three years later and it feels too close," the song began, building to a soaring chorus where Wrabel pleaded, "Someone stop me, please, from hurting myself, cause I'm two blocks away." It was a remarkable collision of personal details and the power of universal pop music.
"It came very naturally," he says. "I sent it to my manager, and he freaked out. The next morning my manager calls me at 8:00 Am." Coffee in hand, he called back and was told L.A. Reid, the chairman and CEO of Epic Records, wanted to sign him. "And I didn't know it, but my manager had sent it in the middle of the night to L.A. Reid. And L.A. called him seven times in the middle of night, and was texting him: 'Where are you? Who is this? I need this.'" He met with Reid two days later. "The first time I met L.A., he called me a singer songwriter," Wrabel says. "And I almost cried. Because I sit down and play piano for a reason. And I spent so long trying to push away from that."
"And then it all happened so quickly. Just months, and the songs are ready. I spent my whole life thinking, Am I ready? Am I ready for a relationship? Am I ready for my career? Am I ready for this session? This meeting? To play a show? Am I ready? But I realize I decide when I'm ready. It's not like you take a test, and you're ready. You just say, I'm ready." And he is.