This 17-Year-Old Singer-Songwriter Is an Internet Sensation
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the internet is gifting us something magical: young, earnest musicians with real chops.
By Evan Peck Dunbar
In early 2014 I was scrolling down my timeline on Pheed, a now-defunct social media app, when I noticed a recently posted video of a good-looking kid sporting a red Nike hoodie, sitting on a couch and strumming an acoustic guitar. At first I ignored it — but within a day it seemed like half the people I followed on Pheed were reposting the video. I clicked. Good thing too: The kid blew me away with his clear tenor and a skillful repackaging of Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” that, unlike the original, wasn’t a heartfelt plea but an acceptance of the inevitable. This shockingly mature voice belonged to Grant Landis of Joplin, Missouri. He was 14.
Now, at 17, Landis has 431,000 Instagram followers, over 300,000 fans on Twitter and a cumulative 48 million loops on Vine — the latter being, perhaps, the gold standard for new video-friendly stars. Today, Landis is writing his own music in addition to performing covers of songs like Passenger’s “Let Her Go.” His latest release on SoundCloud is a prime example — his original “Why You Gotta Be You” is a mid-tempo R&B-influenced pop song that calls to mind the lyrical stylings of Ed Sheeran’s “Don’t” and the instrumentation of early Frank Ocean and Bryson Tiller. Over FaceTime, Landis tells us he loves songwriting and cites John Mayer as a major influence.
The old writing, recording, publishing and performing model began its implosion over a decade ago, abating in favor of the democratic web. The problem is that the internet doesn’t just expose the talented; it also allows the truly ungifted to lip-sync and pseudo-rap to big money and six seconds in the Vine spotlight. More than 300 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute; the competition is crowded, to say the least. Perhaps the biggest difference between Landis and the rest of the pack is that he’s critical of the culture of performance over creation. Stephanie Kellar, associate professor of music business and management at the Berklee College of Music, admires this quality in Landis — he’s honing his craft, she says, putting himself “out there as a songwriter.”
And this is intentional: “I have an emotional attachment to my songs,” Landis says, “and I think that sets me apart.” He bemoans the dearth of true singer-songwriters these days. Landis mostly writes at home — the lyrics and the melody emerge together — as well as in Nashville when he’s there working. “When I sing my own songs, my audience can tell that I actually have a connection, and they appreciate it.” Take one look at the pop charts, and you’ll see that superproducers like Max Martin and David Guetta are writing a lot of today’s pop music. Even when the performer is listed as a co-writer, his or her contribution to the song is often negligible. As the old music industry saying goes, “Change a word, get a third.”
Born in Joplin to a teacher and a construction manager, Landis spent his early childhood playing baseball, and performing in school plays and talent shows. On Sundays he watched others sing in church. It wasn’t until he joined the after-school guitar club in sixth grade that he discovered his own passion for music. Stephen Gilbreth, who taught Landis guitar for three years, remembers that even in seventh grade, girls would crowd around Landis whenever he played. “Kids would come up to him in the hallway and say, ‘Hey, Grant, play us a song, sing us something!”
In July 2014, Landis traveled to Los Angeles to perform at a big festival coproduced by HYPE! Projects. When the CEO of HYPE!, Paris D’Jon, saw Landis perform, he signed him on the spot and became his manager. D’Jon also began working with Justin Bieber’s agent, Mark Cheatham, to figure out how to market Landis. However, Landis and his parents made it clear that finishing school was a priority, along with building his brand slowly so he wouldn’t be a flash in the pan. Next, Landis took a page from Sheeran’s career playbook, who became a pop star not via the internet but by playing scuzzy English clubs between his mid-teens and early 20s. In spring 2015, D’Jon promoted Landis’ 37-gig Bedtime Stories tour, which was followed a year later by the Grant Landis Live 19-date tour. Those shows boosted Landis’ fan base and introduced him to major producers, including Keith Thomas, the Grammy winner behind 40 No. 1 Billboard hits for artists ranging from Amy Grant to Heather Headley.
You’re gone but still,
I can’t face the truth
That you moved on,
and we’re just another memory,
and that I’m just the past,
and that’s always what I’m gonna be.
Still I wish you’d
come back to me.”
— lyrics from “Come Back to Me”
But Landis, of late, has been nearly inactive, says Kellar. That’s because he’s focusing on songwriting — understandable but dangerous in the web age. Kellar says he’ll have to walk a fine line of keeping the fan base engaged while carving out enough time to write and grow: a “cover-discover” YouTube approach with a 2-to-1 ratio of originals to covers, fan-only webcasts to showcase new music, live performances to tweak new songs and improved SEO to reel in more views of his internet content.
So goes the struggle of a modern singer-songwriter without the reputation of Taylor Swift or Carly Rae Jepsen to fall back on. How can one both create and self-promote? Landis, not even legal, already has his own artistic theory. “It makes people mad that I don’t come out with much,” he says. “But it’s just because I’m trying to mature myself and perfect everything … before I start really exposing myself in that way.”
- Evan Peck Dunbar, OZY Author Contact Evan Peck Dunbar