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Community Festival: Greg Holden Interview

31 October 2015 | Ryan Ormonde

Community Festival in Shoreditch offers a chance to see many emerging musicians do their thing for a live audience. One featured artist, New York based singer-songwriter Greg Holden, talks to London Calling about his approach to writing songs and his bittersweet connection to London.

Whatever you think about Cher, she’s well worth following on Twitter. Earlier this year, British singer-songwriter Greg Holden received a characteristically exuberant Cher shout-out, adorned with sparkling emoji. Referring to ‘Boys in the Street’, Holden’s song about a father reluctant to accept his gay son, a ‘heartbroken’ Cher tweeted that she ‘Was F-Word Mesmerized By VIDEO’.

To date, Holden, who has been living in New York for the past six years, achieved his biggest success by co-writing ‘Home’ (recorded by Philip Philips), American Idol’s most successful winner’s song in the history of the U.S. talent series. ‘Boys in the Street’ was commissioned by Everyone is Gay, an organisation supporting LGBTQ youth. Less known in his home country, Holden joins a line-up of upcoming artists for a one-off concert as part of Shoreditch’s Community Festival, 3-5 November.

London Calling: You lived in London for two years [2007-9]. How did you find that?

Greg Holden: It was a very strange time. I was working for Apple on Regent Street, I was in a failing relationship and I was broke. I was playing a lot of one-off gigs in Camden and trying to give it a go with music but wasn't quite there yet.

LC: Why did you move to New York?

GH: Because the musicians that I had spent my early years idolising all had stories about New York. It was always this mystical place, so far-fetched for me that I had to get there. That was the challenge. So when my relationship came to an end and I was at my wit’s end with my job: that was the time to go.

LC: You’re a Bob Dylan fan. Would you say he’s your big hero?

GH: He’s the classic singer-songwriter for me. He’s the guy that has stuff to say. He has an opinion that he’s not scared to express. And for me that’s something definitely worth idolising. Someone who just doesn’t give a shit.

LC: Have you visited any places associated with him?

GH: Oh yeah, man! When I first moved to New York that was all I did. I was reading his autobiography at the time. He would mention these streets or these bars and I would just go there and write songs. My whole first album was written in those places.

LC: You’ve written several songs where you are putting yourself in someone else’s position. Are you very empathetic?

GH: Definitely. Even as a child I remember being very affected by things that would happen to other people. That’s one of my favourite things, to write songs about other people. A lot of singer-songwriters [write and perform] ‘rinse and repeat’ love songs about how much they miss their girlfriend or whatever and how they’re in love. And it’s fine - those songs are great. But I think the only real way to say something more important is to get inside other people’s more interesting stories and tell them. My life’s pretty boring [laughs]. When I’m at home I’m just cooking and doing my thing.

LC: ‘The Lost Boy’ was inspired by a Dave Eggers book about Sudanese refugees [What is the What]. What are your thoughts about the current refugee crisis?

GH: It’s hectic. It’s a problem that’s growing and getting worse and worse and worse, unfortunately. In the West we’re set in our ways. We don’t want things to change; we don’t want this to happen to us. I think people forget that this has been happening for thousands of years. People have been moving across the world forever; people are in trouble sometimes. I think it’s everybody’s responsibility who can help, to help. The fact that [countries] are closing their borders is just fucked up. It’s really disturbing.

LC: Let’s talk about ‘Boys in the Street’. There aren’t many pop songs that are as direct about being gay. There’s the Parson James song ‘Sinner Like You’...

GH: I haven’t heard that one.

LC: ...and Mary Lambert’s ‘She Keeps Me Warm’. They’re both by Americans from religious backgrounds. Both artists are gay. What do you think of this new openness?

GH: Thank God. I can’t believe that people haven’t been writing about it before. I wish that more songs like this existed. Injustice and lack of acceptance has been going on for years and years and years and it baffles me that it’s not a common subject for singer songwriters to talk about.

LC: If you were gay it would be seen as a brave thing to do, but in a way because you’re not gay it’s also a brave thing to do...

GH: I appreciate that.

LC: ...because it contributes to people’s perceptions of you. A lot of people are going to assume that it is your voice.

GH: A lot of people ask me if I’m gay and I’m like, what difference does it make? Honestly, who cares?  The meaning of the song doesn’t change just because I’m straight.

LC: Do you think you could put yourself into anybody’s position - anybody’s life story - in a song?

GH: I’ve just started writing my next album and the whole album is going to be that. It’s going to be an entire album of characters that aren’t me. I’m going to try and talk about a lot of different subjects - not all heavy - to encourage people to realise that there are more people on this planet than themselves. And I have to remind myself that daily as well.

LC: Will it be as direct as ‘Boys in the Street?’

GH: Yeah, I hope so. I certainly don’t want to go backwards. Now I’ve written that song I feel like I have to move forwards and write songs that are even more powerful.

LC: So is that song a benchmark for you?

GH: Yeah, definitely. That song has got a lot of people’s attention and it certainly gave me a lot of recognition from people I would never have expected to get recognition from before. So I have to keep doing that and get better at it.

LC: Does London feel different now?

GH: Yeah, I enjoy it more now that I don’t live there. I love coming back, I love getting to see people and it’s such a beautiful town. I actually forget how beautiful it is. When I get there I realise that I’ve missed it.

Greg Holden performs at Community Festival, Shoreditch on Thursday 5 November. To book tickets, see website.

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