Gnash Just Wants You To Be Happy

"U" gotta hear this guy out

Photo by Nadav Benjamin

How we are taught to understand and express our feelings is paradoxical. On one hand, we're taught to listen to and honor them—expressing them freely. On the other, expressing too many feelings is looked down upon and sometimes shamed. The middle ground is murky and wrought with more negatives than positives, for bottling up any sort of emotion does the soul harm in the long run. We seek to understand, but more importantly, we seek confirmation that our experiences and feelings are valid. 

The rising West Coast pop act gnash is here to validate those feelings. Through his three EPs, gnash has cultivated a sense of connectedness and become a beacon for all things good. His Twitter and Instagram profiles are rife with words of encouragement. He wants more people to distance themselves from relying on social media for guidance and escape, putting out empowering messages that inspire others to explore the world around them and within themselves. It's the internal struggle between the light and the dark that fuels his music and what makes his unique brand of pop so soothing. Listening to gnash is like curling up with your favorite whatever while wearing your favorite whatever in wherever your favorite place may be. He's got the power of optimism on his side, which makes it hard for a cynic to play the devil's advocate. Earnestness is power, and gnash has it all. 

Ahead, we speak with the 22-year-old about artistic exploring, the perils of social media, and, of course, the feels.

How did the music come about?
Well, I’ve been a DJ since I was 13. So, it just kind of felt like a natural progression to start singing on the things I was producing. I’ve been producing for other people since I was in high school. Basically, I was going through a breakup so I came up with this idea to do a three EP series called u, me, and us. My dad raised me to talk about my feelings instead of getting angry or holding them in. That’s kind of what I did. I just wrote them out in the simplest form I possibly could, and sang over some tracks, and that’s how it started coming together with the songs.

Did you dabble in any other mediums, like painting, writing, or photography before this?
My mom was in the film business, as a producer and a director. Growing up, I would always shoot photos, and all the art for all the singles have been photos I’ve taken on disposable cameras. I’ve done painting projects and stuff like that in school, but for the most part, music was always my favorite way of expressing myself. I feel like every song I make is kind of a sampling of how I felt that day. Between the chords and the drums and the words, it’s like a snippet or a cross section of how I felt on a certain day.

Did you grow up surrounded by music?
Yeah, absolutely. My dad always sang, and when I was little, he would play guitar and sing me to sleep. My mom grew up playing cello and piano. My uncle used to own piano stores. So we have a piano in our house. Music was always around me, but I never specifically gravitated to any instrument. I took guitar lessons, but I think, as most people do when they take guitar lessons, they kind of just play a song because they want to learn, and they’re like, “Cool, I learned Green Day this week” and then the next week they’re like “Cool, I learned Fall Out Boy this week,” but you never really go anywhere with it, you know what I mean?

Do you remember your first concert?
Yeah! Backstreet Boys and then *NSYNC and then Aaron Carter. The golden trio.

What musician has had the biggest impact on you?
Weirdly enough, I look up to Jack Johnson a lot as a songwriter and just for a vibe. If you listen to my stuff and his stuff back-to-back, you’ll see a lot of similarities because I’m really inspired by his chord structures and the simplistic storytelling he does. I’m a huge fan of Ben Gibbard’s writing. As an artist, I’m influenced by John Lennon. His songs are amazing, but what I like most about him is his art. You can see his influence in my logo. Obviously, Kanye West, too, just because he is a living legend.

You speak a lot about how the Internet’s a waste of time, but you obviously need it to promote yourself. What would you say your relationship with social media and all things digital is?
I think that social media is a good thing for getting people to come together. I also think it makes people stay inside too much. I think that it makes people disconnected from one another. It takes what’s so important about humanity—which is human connection—and lessens it to the size of a phone screen. People are losing the human connection between one another, and I think that love, and happiness, and sadness and feelings are all based on dealing with other people. If you reserve yourself to your bedroom and are on your phone all the time, that’s one way to live and I’m not going to hate on you for your decision, but I think, personally, I would much rather go outside, and if it’s snowing, look at snow. If it’s beautiful out, look at the beautiful sky. If I can take a drive to the beach, I will. If I can go to the park, I will. I feel like there’s so much world out there, and people are getting used to getting that on a phone screen.

When did you realize all this?
The moment that I really realized all this was when I was ordering lunch in Oregon, on tour. My phone was on the table and I was looking at a photo on Instagram while I had my sandwich in my hand. My phone screen auto-locked and on the screen was a reflection of the clouds above me. I realized I was looking down for so long that I hadn’t even looked up at all that day and it was already lunchtime. I was like, “This is messed up.” So I think that a big part of my music and my movement going forward is gonna be about getting people to go outside. And it has been for a while now. My first tour was free where I just pulled up to the park, and came out, and performed songs for people. It was all merch funded. The whole point was to get people to go outside and experience the world and team up. I want people to get outside more and get off their phones and start living and start loving life again. 

Speaking of connections, what sort of connections do you have with the relationship that inspired the three EPs, and what lessons did you learn from that?
While I was writing those EPs, I was in a very sad, negative cycle with someone who I had a lot of potential of being in a happy, positive cycle with. But once you get kicked off on the wrong foot, you need to take some time and reset. So these EPs are just a representation of me going and finding myself and saying, “Wow. I need to be in a happy cycle with somebody.” I’ve been figuring out how to do that. Making songs and having people say, “Wow, I feel you. You’re right about this.”

Now, I have six types of feelings listed. Can you tell me the last time you felt each? The first one is joy.
Joy. Last time I felt joy was when my little sister and I went and dropped off a bunch of forms at the college she’s going to go to. We brought Sadie, my dog, with us, and she was sticking her head out the window, and it was just hilarious. She was smiling because the wind was blowing her face back, and her joy of experiencing the world—because she tends to be an in-the-house dog—made me have the same amount of joy. It was awesome. We had a great drive.

How about anxious?
Anxious. Oh! I was going to have a session today, and I didn’t feel like I had any songs written that were very good to work on in the session. So I was rapidly writing a bunch of different songs, and then I turned that anxiety into a good thing. I just wrote a song about how I was anxious about not having any songs ready for the session, and kind of like how I feel with life right now. Sometimes anxiety is the hardest one to diagnose. You don’t realize you’re having it.

What about anger?
I try not to get angry. Upset is a better way to explain how I get. I think that anger doesn’t really solve anything. If you express “I’m upset about this,” then I think there’s a way you can move toward resolving the issue. If you’re angry, you’re just kind of in a rut of “I’m angry. I’m going to be angry.” That’s just not a way to live, but the last time I felt angry was also when my sister and I went for that drive. I found out my sister hadn’t finished all the forms yet. I was upset that her forms weren’t done yet because I really want her to go to college.

Feeling down?
I’ve been growing this lavender plant in my bathroom, and I realized that I hadn’t properly watered it. It wasn’t getting the moisture of the air from me taking showers because I was on tour. So the plant started to turn down, and that made me feel kind of down because I feel like the plants that I bring into the world or purchase or grow are kind of part of me. So I watered it and I woke up today, and it was it’s coming right back to life.

When is the last time you felt happy?
Right now because I’m outside, and I’m looking up and it’s a beautiful day! I find happiness in all the little things. This morning I had a great English muffin, and that made me happy. I had English breakfast tea and that always makes me happy because there’s caffeine built into that, and caffeine is synonymous with happiness for me. I can go all day on that one.

The last one is love.
Love. The last time I felt love is just about ten minutes ago when I saw my mom in the kitchen, and she was watching something on Netflix. I thought it was cool because I’m not doing poorly for myself right now so I’m able to help my family out and the fact that she’s able to chill until about noon and then start her day, that makes me feel love.

What lessons did your father teach about embracing your feelings and all that you are?
My dad grew up in a super-intense environment. His family was not very united. There just weren’t a lot of good vibes there. I think when he had me, he was like, “I’m gonna be a total 180 of that.” So growing up, no matter what it was, as long as I was down to talk about it, he was down to talk about it. If I was capable of expressing myself and not getting angry and punching things or whatever, then I was to be listened to, and the situation was to be handled in a reasonable way. And, you know, the other thing that my dad taught me is that it’s always better to be yourself than to try and be someone else. If you try and be someone else, you’ll eventually get called out on a lie.

At the end of the day, what is one thing you do for yourself to wind yourself down and ground yourself?
Meditate. Yoga and meditation. I learned in school that it’s so important to know yourself and to be one with yourself. The best way to go about that is to breathe 10 minutes a day. Really breathe. Sit somewhere by yourself and just breathe. Whatever wants to come into your mind, let it come into your mind and then put it somewhere else. Be mindful of your thoughts. Mindful meditation is so important in the world that we live in. So that’s something I do for myself every day—multiple times a day, even—whenever I start to feel any type of way. I meditate and out of that usually comes my next song idea.

What is the last half of 2016?
The last half of 2016, for me, is about letting people know that they’re not alone in their feelings or what they want to say and however they want to be because I’m right here with you. Also to get people off of their phones and their computers and go outside.