Scotland-born, New-York based singer-songwriter Greg Holden has been writing folk music for years, but has gained recent recognition for co-writing “Home”, a smash hit for American Idol contestant Phillip Phillips. In the last few years, he has garnered a following via live YouTube videos, supported acts including Ingrid Michaelson, and had his music featured on hit TV shows like Sons of Anarchy and One Tree Hill. Greg chats with American Songwriter about keeping his English accent, Mumford & Sons’ reaction to “Home,” and Dawes’ perfect song.
You consider your music to be English Americana. How would you define that?
When I first came to New York, I was very determined to not become the kind of artist that moves to America and suddenly becomes Bruce Springsteen. I have an accent. I grew up in a working class town in northern England. I pronounce the ‘H’ in herb. I can’t deny that I’m not heavily influenced by American music. I just wanted to keep my accent, keep the English words and phrases, but be totally open to the idea of my music changing based on my environment, and the musicians around me. That’s why I once described it as English Americana, and I guess it stuck!
Why do you think “Home” was able to be such a smash hit? Is it the melody, the message, the timing?
Perhaps it was a bit of everything. Timing was certainly a factor, it fit perfectly into the folk-rock genre being released at the time. It’s also a very simple, and honest song, so maybe people were able to relate to it more than I’d anticipated.
How did you feel about having an American Idol winner involved with it? Any reservations there?
Honestly, none. I was broke, and knew that the exposure would help both the song, and myself. Not only that but I was just glad that one of my songs would finally be heard on such a huge platform. It was more than I could do for it, so it went to a good home as far as I’m concerned. No pun intended.
How did you feel about Mumford and Sons saying they thought it was one of their own songs in Rolling Stone? I believe the quote was, “when did we record this?”
I was just honored that such an awesome band had recognized the song. I love Mumford & Sons. Respectfully, I’m more influenced by bands like The Pogues and Flogging Molly, so as much as I’d love to give them credit for “Home,” bands have been playing four-to-the-floor acoustic rock for decades.
Tell us a bit about your new album I Don’t Believe You.
I wrote the majority of I Don’t Believe You two, maybe three years ago. I was in a very different headspace back then, and when I hear it now I realize what a personal crisis I was going through, ha ha! I was drinking a lot, and I was feeling very discouraged by the things around me, and the songs are basically musical descriptions of what I saw and noticed, good and bad. It’s a very personal album, and in a way quite sad. But I am very proud of it, and it’s the most honest thing I’ve ever created.
How would you compare it to your last album?
Well, my first album was basically a collection of various recording sessions that I was just trying to get out into the world. It was my first record, and I was excited to release it and find out what people thought. I hadn’t quite figured out what I was trying to say, or sound like, and was more or less experimenting. It turned out great and I’m still proud of it, but the new album is much more consistent, and focused.
Who are your songwriting heroes?
When I first started writing music, I was listening to bands like Rancid, Slipknot and Green Day, as well as Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin and The Beatles. So my musical influences were a little over the place. But I’d say in terms of the music I make now, my influences are the old school fellas like Dylan, Petty and Lennon.
When did you start writing songs? Were they good right away, or did that come later?
I started writing songs as soon as I could play guitar. In fact I learned the guitar so I could write songs. I was 18. The songs were probably awful.
What was the first song you ever wrote?
The first song I ever wrote was called “You Go Left, I’ll Go Right”. I think based on the title you can probably figure it out. It was about having my tiny, sensitive, 18-year-old heart broken by my first girlfriend. When I first started writing, I didn’t know you could write songs that weren’t about girls…
How do you go about writing songs?
It’s always different, but ideally I like to spend time on the lyrics first and really get stuck in to the content so I can figure out what I’m trying to say. Then if I like what I’ve said, I’ll stick some music to it. Lately I’ve been writing with friends a lot more, which changes the process considerably. We tend to concentrate on both the music and lyrics at the same time. I’m starting to like that more actually, it’s less self-indulgent and way more enjoyable. I used to think I had to be drunk, sad and alone to write good songs, turns out I was wrong thankfully!
What sort of things inspire you to write?
I try to pay attention to what is going on around me, and not just write about my feelings, or heartbreak or whatever. Writing about other people helps me get out of my own head/ego, and I like to think that people can relate to an external observation much more than my internal crap.
What’s a song on I Don’t Believe You you’re particularly proud of and why?
I think “The Lost Boy” is my proudest achievement. It’s a song I wrote based on a book by Dave Eggers called What Is The What?. It’s a true, biographical story about a Sudanese Refugee called Valentino Achak Deng. After I finished the book, I was totally devastated. I needed to write “The Lost Boy”. It came out one night while I was half asleep in bed. I sang it into my phone’s voice recorder and the next morning recorded it “properly” in my bedroom. Miraculously, the song fell into the hands of the right person, and 10 days later it was part of a national charity campaign in The Netherlands. The song itself raised $85,000 for Red Cross, and hit No.1 on the Dutch iTunes on Christmas Day. Through a song I was able to directly support the reason I wrote it, and that was a weird feeling. I still can’t quite believe it happened.
Is it easier, or harder to write songs, the more you write?
I go through songwriting cycles. Months will go by and I won’t write anything. I’ll convince myself I’ve peaked, and that I’ve got nothing left, and that I’m washed up. Then all of a sudden I’ll pump out four or five songs, feel great about myself for a few weeks, and then fall straight back into a self-loathing black hole of creative hell. It’s really fun!
Are there any words you love or hate?
Yeah, Love and Hate.
Do you ever do any other kinds of writing?
No, but I wish I could. I’ve thought about writing a book, but I’m too stupid, and don’t have the attention span.
If you could co-write with anyone living or dead, who would it be?
Who do you consider an underrated songwriter?
What do you consider to be the perfect song, and why?
“A Little Bit Of Everything” by Dawes. Why? Because it tells three heartbreaking stories in one song, each of which could make you cry all on their own. I still, after two years, cannot listen to that song without losing my shit. I wish I’d written that fucking song.