Wrabel is finding his place in the pop world, and he’s doing it his way.
The 30-year-old singer-songwriter (whose first name is Stephen and whose last name is pronounced “ray-bull”) has been hustling for more than a decade, but in 2019 he went from behind-the-scenes player to pop star.
“There have been so many ups and downs,” says Wrabel, “but I’ve just always kept going.”
Indeed. In 2008, after a semester at Berklee College of Music, Wrabel moved to Los Angeles to try and make his way in the industry. Multiple recording contracts came and went, and he broke out in 2014 with his Afrojack collaboration "Ten Feet Tall." In the years since, Wrabel — who is sober after struggling with years of substance abuse — released dance hits with Marshmello ("Ritual") and Kygo ("With You") and became a go-to songwriter, crafting tracks for everyone from Ellie Goulding (“Devotion”) and his close friend Kesha (“Woman”) to the Backstreet Boys (their comeback single "Don't Go Breaking My Heart").
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Earlier this year, Pink released his song "90 Days" as a duet with Wrabel, and the pair performed the ballad together on her Beautiful Trauma World Tour while he was on the road opening her. And in September, the rising star released his soulful new EP One of Those Happy People, which he is currently promoting on his own headlining tour.
“I don’t tend to look back often,” says Wrabel, “but it’s been a very onward and upward kind of path.”
Here, Wrabel looks back on how his all-star collaborations — and his sobriety journey — set him on the path to pop stardom.
Tell me about your trajectory, from when you decided to pursue music professionally to where you are today.
It’s hard to believe I’ve been out in L.A. for 11 years. But I moved out here, and I started playing shows wherever I could play; lugging my keyboard to happy hours to play for the bartender and one girl that just got off work or whatever; and writing songs with whoever would write songs with me. There’ve been so many false starts of meeting a producer and feeling like, “Oh, this is my mentor and we’re going to take over the world” — and then not. There’s always another opportunity, and I’ve tried to just always just focus on that through setbacks.
I’m curious how your songwriting approach differs when you’re writing for another artist, versus writing for yourself.
It’s constantly a changing thing. It’s not like literally giving up a kid, but you’re giving up something that feels like part of you, and I feel so lucky to have so many good experiences where artists really care and are really appreciative and respectful and pour their own hearts into it. That makes all the difference.
With the Pink song “90 Days,” that was one of the songs where I was like, “This is my baby, and we aren’t sending that out to anybody.” And then I had a meeting with RCA and had played it for [music executive] Keith Naftaly over there, and he was like, “Play that again, play that one more time, play that one more time.” And you know, when someone like Alecia [Moore, aka Pink] comes along and says like, “I’d love to sing this song with you and to work on it with you,” the answer is: “Yes please, I can’t wait, holy s—.” The Backstreet Boys’ “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” was one where I kind of went in that session writing for me, then we landed on that and I really loved it. I felt connected to it, but couldn’t tell if it fit.
You’re an independent artist now. How does this experience compare to when you were signed to a label?
I’ve been in the label system; I went through two deals. It’s not like I came out [of contracts with labels] and was like, “I hate labels. They suck. They’re awful.” They did so much for me. They can really work, and when they really care and show that care, it can be a really incredible thing. But, I think even in my own head, I started overthinking everything and trying to recreate something. You know when something works, I feel like your gut is to do it again, so [after 2016 hit "11 Blocks"] I was just going into session after session writing a mid-tempo sad song.
Well, your new EP is actually very happy.
A year ago I was walking into every room and they had like the saddest chords, like, “Okay, hit the mic, baby girl. Cry your heart out.” And [while making One of Those Happy People], it’s been really cool in this creative new way to feel free and to have fun. I feel like I had fun on this more than anything I’ve ever done for my own project. And I think that translates. Some of the first new tweets were like, “Oh my God, is Wrabel thinking happy thoughts,” and I was like, “I guess, I feel pretty happy.”
How has your sobriety informed your music?
I’ve gotten sober twice. I went to treatment twice, once when I was 20 — I got out on my 21st birthday — and then again when I was 4½ years sober. And a lot of that has to do with kind of this path that I guess I’ve chosen, or has chosen me or whatever the weird mystical ways of the universe. It’s a lot of ups and downs and all arounds and it can really mess your head up if you let it.
I probably had a year after my first chunk of sobriety of writing drunk and feeling completely dependent on it. Like, “Oh when I write, when I’m messed up it just unlocks this part of me and everything just flows out,” and, you know, it’s easy to kind of believe that. And one of my best friends that I worked with at that time, we were like Thelma and Louise: We’d like sit in the car, parked outside the studio, drinking like a Thermos of wine, chain-smoking cigarettes, writing lyrics and then run back inside and put it down and feel like, “This is the best song ever.” And then you listen back now and realize it wasn’t.
I have learned it’s so much better to be present in the room and to be present in writing.
I was running around with a song called “Ten Feet Tall” I did with Afrojack, and I was drinking for a good chunk of the peak of that, and looking back it kind of sucks to feel like I kind of missed some of those things. I remember, we played Fashion Rocks [benefit concert] at Barclays Center [in 2014] and my brother texted me like, “Oh, you look so comfortable onstage.” I was like: Damn, I was trashed. And that kind of sucks to feel like that was such a moment and someone so close to me, like my brother’s like, “You look so comfortable up there.” I’m so proud. And I’m like, “No man, that’s just because I had one of the interns backstage go find me some booze before I went on.” So it’s been really cool: It’s been the best year of my life in so many ways, and it’s been so nice to really be fully present for the ups and the downs. I’m experiencing it all. This year has just been so sweet and it’s so nice to feel like I’m here for it, present.
So what’s next for you?
I think I moved out here craving fame and fortune. I had such an immature definition of success. External validation is really nice, but also, it’s kind of on me to feel like what I’m doing matters. My definition of success now has changed. Success is getting to do what you love with people that you love. I’m working with people I really care about — like Kesha. I’ve been working on her new project, and she really pulled me in the trenches on that, which was so incredible, and I feel so thankful; she’s one of my best friends.