When Corey Gray was 19 years old, he packed his life into his white sedan, and with his guitar as his co-pilot, drove from Dallas to Los Angeles to pursue his lifelong dream of becoming a musician. Though Corey supported himself working as a bartender during his first two years in Los Angeles, he never strayed far from his goal: music, music, music.
In 2011, Corey found himself at the Keep Your Soul Records studio space co-writing a song with a friend. Within minutes of his slender 6’2 frame sinking into the studio’s ancient couch, Corey was approached by Keep Your Soul founder Jake Coco about recording a songs.
Now 23 years old, Corey still spends the majority of his days seated on that sagging couch, but now as a signed artist with Keep Your Soul Records. Though he has been working with Jake and Keep Your Soul for two years, Corey seems still in awe of the rows of guitars and professional recording experiment spread out before him. With his fear of never “making it” receding into the past and his entire musical career laying in wait before him, Corey has nowhere to go but up. Stretched out in the recording studio’s swivel chair, Corey shares with NMR his memories of nervously performing for the first time, his thoughts on whether YouTube musicians need to move to Los Angeles, and why Keep Your Soul Records was the perfect fit for his music.
Check out the full interview below or visit the last page for the partial video interview.
So you just turned 23 — how did you celebrate?
Corey Gray: I did May 31st, it was very exciting. Oh gosh, I went to a few local hangouts and met up with a lot of friends and sang karaoke. It was really bad. I don’t usually sing karaoke, so it was fun though. Had a good time.
What is your go-to karaoke song?
“Stacy’s Mom.” I just was feeling it that night, and I don’t know why because, I don’t know, most people go to like “I Love Rock and Roll” or like some cool 80s song. I went with “Stacy’s Mom,” which was good. It was fun.
I don’t think you should regret that situation at all.
Eh I guess not. It was fun, I had a good time.
Did you then say, “Guys I’m on YouTube, you can find me there.”
[laughs] No, no I usually end up just yelling when I’m doing karaoke. We’ve been a couple times; I went with a friend of mine, Jess Moskaluke, who’s also on YouTube and really talented, and we went into a karaoke bar and she killed this Carrie Underwood song. This girl was hosting karaoke there and was like the only one there that actually sang, and so when Jess got up — it was like Jess went up, and then I went up, and then Jake went up, and there were like five people at this karaoke place and it was really strange — they’re all just lost that Jess had just gotten up and actually like killed a song, so that’s cool. Really like karaoke but don’t do it much.
So besides being a professional karaoke singer, what is a typical day like for you?
Well lately I have just been getting up and coming straight to the studio. Been recording a lot. I just finished an EP; we’re still doing a few things on the back end of it and just been helping shoot videos. I like to help a lot with the artists around the studio here with Jake and Julian. I’ve learned a lot about cameras and angles and things I never thought I’d learn anything about aside from music, so that’s really cool and it’s really helpful too for my own being, I guess, to just know what’s happening on the other side. Aside from that, lately I’ve been moving and that’s about it. Writing, writing a lot and occasionally going to the beach to get away from writing, so sometimes I write at the beach too so pretty much just do music 100 percent of the time.
Where are you originally from?
I’m from Texas originally. I came from North Dallas when I was 19, I moved out here. Actually I started going to a community college in Dallas; I went there for three semesters, and then one day I called my dad from the parking lot and I was like — I was living with him at the time — and I was like, “Okay so … I don’t know how to tell you this any other way, but I’m about to go in and drop out of all my classes.” And he had actually paid for that semester for me and was kind of baffled. He just got this like long sigh, just [makes sighing noise] “That’s pretty disappointing.” And he’s always been very like pro-college, pro-learn something you can go do something with afterward, and I just don’t have it in me. I’d go every day, and I actually really liked some of the topics, like I loved, loved speech, I loved history and things like that, and English I’ve always really had a good time with, but I just didn’t have a plan after college, and the only thing I really wanted to do was music. You can get a college degree in commercial music that you can pretty much take to nothing so I eventually just decided to drop out. One of my buddies had already moved out here about a year before I decided to drop out, and I worked full-time for the rest of that current year at a private school for autism in Texas that one of my friend’s moms ran, and then packed everything up, drove out here and just kind of hoped for the best [laughs]. I really didn’t have a plan. Honestly I was pretty much just gonna slip demos underneath doors at radios, and I honestly had no direction. I just knew I wanted to sing, and so it was pretty interesting when YouTube came around, and yeah, just became a good way to demonstrate everything.
When did you first start using YouTube?
Like five years ago I want to say I had a channel. I think I maybe had 15 subscribers on it. I had it for like a year, and I didn’t really understand how to use a YouTube channel; I just kind of used it occasionally just for posting videos. And then about two and a half years ago, I met Jake Coco, and I actually came here to this studio — I was sitting right out there — and I was here to write for somebody else which apparently Jake had no idea was even going on. He was just here that day and had already looked up some of my stuff because we had a mutual friend who was running a website to kind of bring artists together. And he just kind of directly was like, “So, enough about the other song that you guys are talking about, but you have some songs, and would you be interested in recording one?” And at the time, I had just walked in here to this beautiful studio and it was the first time I had really found a studio in L.A. that suited the kind of artist that I was, because I’d been in meetings at other producers’ studios and stuff which were all very pop-related and pretty much just had vocal mics.
Is that your first tattoo?
I went to Hawaii recently and I was snorkeling around some coral, and it was my first time snorkeling and I like — have you ever been snorkeling? So I was like in panic mode because the waves were getting pretty heavy and coming into my snorkel and I got up and was trying to breath. I got myself situated, and then I swam around to this coral rock and I started to climb on top of it, and it cut up into it (the tattoo) so I got to go get it retouched. Won’t be too bad.
It says “create reality”?
Yeah, create reality. It’s kind of a quantum physics thing mixed with self-empowerment, I guess just to kind of — meet a lot of people who are in these tough situations and don’t understand that they can just change them if they want — including myself at some points.
What were the first couple months like when you moved out to L.A.?
Those were very, very intense, actually, because I moved out here, I was staying at my buddy’s apartment and I wasn’t really sure what we were going to do. He was planning on this lease being up pretty soon but wasn’t sure if he was going to move out or he wanted to move in together. I just knew that I wanted to be here, and he was kind of a hopeful situation so I moved out here, and you kind of get stuck in this thing where you wake up in the morning and you have so much that you know you want to do but you have no idea where to begin. Even as far as just making demos and like putting them underneath doors, like you really just kind of wake up and you stare at a wall and your brain goes crazy because you’re 1500 miles away from all your friends and family and they think you’re crazy, and eventually you just kind of start going for something. But at that point it was just kind of about just knowing for sure that I was going to have a place to live, but it ended up being very perfectly fine. My buddy ended up just renewing his lease there, and we just split. It was actually me and him in a one bedroom apartment, but it was a really nice one bedroom apartment so it was actually kind of awesome. We had a good time for a year there, and then over the course of that time, I ended up meeting a lot of really, really creative people who love just collaborating to come up with ideas for how to get everybody going, because we meet so many really talented people in L.A. that also are sitting in the same boat where they’re like, “I don’t know what to do. I wish I could just walk into rooms and meet people and stuff,” but being around this environment doesn’t necessarily create that opportunity but it does give you a lot of really talented friends. Some of them are into photography, some of them are into recording, some of them are into this, that and this, and you kind of like start seeing the picture — especially with something like YouTube — you can just create a team of people and if you have a good plan and you have a driven group of people — which is honestly the hardest thing to find — you can make a lot of really cool things happen for different people and yourself included. My buddy started a website over the course of that time that Jake and I ended up bumping into each other through, and then the rest is kind of history, just kind of kept going in the path of let’s create stuff and we’ll see what happens. So, definitely a very fun time in my life for sure.
How were you supporting yourself when you first moved out here?
When I first got out here, I had saved up a lot of money. I’d been working full-time for about a year and a half and just putting back everything that I made. I got out here, and half of it went away really fast just getting my stuff out here, and then rent in California is not cheap so I went through that for a little while. In high school I always had three jobs; I always paid for everything down to clothes and cell phone bills and everything. A lot of my friends had help from their parents, but I never really experienced that, and then I just kind of was talking to her one day and I was like, “You know, I don’t really know what I’m going to do. I’m probably gonna just look for this but hopefully I still have time to make time for music somehow.” And by the grace of whomever, she just decided randomly to help me out for a little while, and then I ended up getting a job at a restaurant serving, moved up to bartender for a little while and then by this point in time, I had been working with Jake for a little while and slowly just kind of moved out of that and into this, so it’s actually been really fun. I’m glad looking back. I’m really, really happy that I ended up working at restaurants, and it just gives you a lot of experience to write about and draw from. It’s been fun. It’s weird ‘cause people talk about how hard things can be, and there were definitely days where you were like, “I don’t know what I’m going to do.” But then you’re surrounded by really creative people, you’re really inspired by everything — and way more so than back when I lived in Texas; it was very uncreative just due to the fact that there was nothing around that I really related to, and then when I got out here, I met a thousand and one people immediately that I was like, “Yes, yes, where have you been all my life? Like I’ve been waiting on you to get here,” so it was really nice.
Do you think it’s important for people who are pursuing a musical career on YouTube to move to L.A.?
I think that’s helpful because especially for something like YouTube, where you can create your own content, you meet a lot of other creators that love to do things just even down to film or photography, but I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary. We work with some artists that don’t live anywhere near here, and also there are other cool, awesome towns: there is Nashville, there’s New York, there is really cool places to be. But it definitely was kind of like a dream to move here anyway so I just wanted to be here and around much more of the music business than I was in Dallas, and in doing so, realized there are a lot of benefits, but I won’t say it’s completely necessary especially for some people who are just unreal talented. As long as you can display your talent to the world somehow, eventually you’ll grow, so that’s the beautiful thing about the freedom to find whatever music you want. YouTube kind of opens that door.
What was that moment you realized that you could do music full-time?
I still don’t really understand it. Like I wake up, and I’m like, “Things aren’t going right,” because just knowing I’m not going into a normal job I just don’t feel like I’m doing something that’s generating a living, and then every month I’m completely fine, and I’m like, “Okay so … I’m here. I can still just make music and everything’s cool? Okay, whew cool.” I don’t know, but everyday it does become more apparent that it’s time; I finally have the time to give everything completely — which I kind of always have anyway — but to know that if I randomly get the itch to just drive to Northern California and sit on a mountain and write in a journal for four days, somehow it’s going to lead to my job going better somehow, which is helpful because I do that kind of thing [laughs] a lot. I’ll just disappear a lot, so it’s helpful.
What are some things that inspire you and your music?
I would say the most inspiring thing to me is just meeting other people who are also really driven. I love to just look up interviews for people who inspire me. Will Smith is one of the biggest for sure; I can watch his interviews all day, and just listening to how focused and driven he is and also the outlook on life he has and him and so many other people. Just going to shows, Jake and I will just randomly go out in Hollywood sometimes and go to Hotel Cafe and sit and watch people. We won’t even know who’s going to be there, just to sit and watch people come through and play is like really, really inspiring, and they always have some really good people at Hotel Cafe. Also just going out into the world; I love traveling a lot, a lot. I got the chance to go on tour with Julia Sheer at the end of last year, and just getting to see so many people, and people who knew who I was also and the effect that my music has had on them is the biggest inspiration I think that I’ve ever felt, and it sounds really cheesy to say but it’s like you meet them and they’re like, “This song does this for me, and it really means a lot to me that you did that.” Just that feeling of like knowing you’re connecting with people and you’re helping them out and whatever they’re going through in life is like reminds me why I would rather be completely homeless with a guitar than rich and like no way to make music.
You could always sleep back on the couch in this studio. It seems to be very popular.
That couch is so comfortable. It looks like it’s not but as soon as I sit on it, yeah.
You sink right in.
Exactly. He’s actually been asleep [points to cameraman] this whole time [laughs]. And it’s also a bass trap too, so when we’re mixing, like all the low end comes through and just like fills the couch and you’re just like, “Yes, I am in this massage chair. This is amazing.” And sometimes we’re also here till 5 in the morning and all of a sudden I’ll wake up and look around, and Jake will be sitting over here mixing something, and whoever else is here, Caitlin or whoever else, will just be like, “You doing okay over there? You fell into the trap, you sat down.” So yeah, I wouldn’t mind going back to the couch, but yeah, I just love music. Like I said, I’d rather be poor and have a guitar than loaded with money and living in the best apartment or house or whatever, in the best city or whatever and not have a way to listen or play.
Was there a moment where you were like, “I’m hooked. I want to do this the rest of my life”?
Yeah actually. So when I was in Texas when I was really young, my parents had just gotten divorced, and my dad and I were driving — we had lived in probably like five new apartment complexes over the course of like three years — and there was a school I went to in Addison, Texas, where in fourth grade you were allowed to join the orchestra and in fifth grade you were allowed to join the band. And I really, really, really, really wanted to play drums in the band, but I was in fourth grade so I had to choose orchestra, and I was like, oh whatever, but I still did it because I was like, it’s cool, whatever. So I picked up viola, and we were playing such basic stuff, and if you ask me now, I couldn’t play viola to save my life, but we had all learned — it’s the cheesiest song in the world — but we had all learned “My Heart Will Go On” because it’s like easy, really easy. But I remember we were rehearsing it for the first time with the full orchestra where before we had done just the violas for today, and so we hadn’t heard it all together yet, and I was sitting in the middle, my viola and my bow, and we started playing it, and as soon as the cellos and everybody kicked in behind me — and we even had like a little guy playing timpani and everything — it all started to play and we were on stage, and I just remember having like this overwhelming feeling of like “Oh my god, this is the best feeling I’ve ever had in my life,” and I was like probably the only dorky little kid sitting in the middle of the orchestra with like this one little tear like, [whispers] “This is the best thing ever.” And then, I think that was the moment where I was “That’s where I’ll be for the rest of my life. I want this feeling forever,” and nothing has beat it so far.
When did you get into singing?
Oh man, so after the viola experience, I ended up going to — we finally settled in Plano, Texas, which is north Dallas — and I started playing drums. My dad had remarried to a woman whose son played drums, and it was like my big moment, I was like, “Oh god I’ve been waiting for this forever.” He taught me a few beats, and I ended up picking it up really fast. I got my own drumset, joined a few bands around town, we played live shows, and I just really wanted to play — like I loved drums, they were my favorite, they still are one of my favorite instruments, but I just wanted something more. Then finally I got a guitar for Christmas one year, and my step-dad taught me all my major chords and I learned a little bit of bluegrass, kind of got into that, and then I started taking that stuff and going into the world of music that I actually really listened to everyday — which was far from Merle Haggard, although he’s great — but I started listening to Sum 41, Blink 182 and that whole realm of music, Coldplay even, and I remember the first time, ‘cause like I’d go into other rooms while my mom was in the kitchen cooking or something and I’d go to a room near her and like sing a little bit to try and get her to hear me but wouldn’t do it in front of her. And finally one day she was like, “You have to stop, you have to stop this,” and she took me to the shop outside where it was just her and I — it was like 4 in the morning, and she would not let me leave until I sang a song. And I eventually sang “The Scientist” after sitting there for so long — by Coldplay — and from that day on, I wouldn’t sing for anybody else but I’d follow her around the house as she did laundry with a guitar singing the same song over and over and over again, and then I’d learn a new song and I’d be like, “Mom, got to sing you this song. It’s going to be awesome.” And then finally one day I just couldn’t take it anymore and I booked a show for myself. I didn’t even have a full set; I was like, “If I don’t do this now, I’m never going to do it.” So I worked at a local venue in north Dallas, and I booked a show there and then just rehearsed every day, and the band that I was playing drums for was like, “Oh, you have a show. Whoop-dee-do.” They were like annoyed that I was doing something aside from them, and then everybody came, I got a bunch of my friends and family to come. I had the most nervous experience of my life getting up on stage, but the moment that I started singing and actually got into the set and felt the whole circle thing happening where you’re singing for these people and they’re actually interested and care and you can tell that they like it, and that was like, “Okay, this is my next move,” and then I started working on that on the side and then eventually the band thing fell apart ‘cause — that young especially — it’s hard to have five different egos that want to go in the same direction. Most people are like, “Every song needs a drum solo” or “Every song needs a guitar solo,” and the bassist is playing 87 notes and nobody wants the actual big picture, they just want to have fun in high school. Eventually the band thing ended, and I just kind of stayed solo ever since. It’s easier that way.
Why was the Keep Your Soul record label the perfect fit for your music?
Actually because I remember it was about two and a half years after I moved here, and it was right before I met Jake, and I was kind of at a point where I was just really, really sick of like being lost, I guess. I had started to find a little bit of direction, but it was kind of at a point where I had just been married to music where some days I like loved it and some days I was really mad at it and didn’t like it at all. I started getting really specific with what I wanted, and I was trying to picture a perfect world, in a perfect situation, what would be what I need? And I wanted to produce. I knew I wanted to sing and be an artist, and I knew I wanted to just learn everything I could about the actual business, and so the next day I walked in here and had a talk with Jake Coco; we had kind of talked about a deal, and nothing really actually happened right that day except recording, which was awesome, and this whole environment here where I’ve got the ability to play with Pro Tools and learn even more instruments if I want to to just get better at everything. It’s been perfect because I have somebody who is really good at production, who can teach me what they know about production, and I can take into my own world, and then I’ve got the ability to learn kind of how music business works through like this new frontier of YouTube where I just get to be a part of the decisions and learn where everything is going and how deals work and how they used to work and how they work now, and as different opportunities come along, it’s kind of like unexplored territory on everything, and it’s really exciting for me so I get to be a part of the business, the production and the actual artistry of it, and I couldn’t have planned it out better so I feel really lucky.
What have been the advantages and disadvantages of being a part of this new frontier?
Well the advantages I think are just the fact that you kind of don’t have to wait on somebody else. You can do everything like as soon as you have the idea, it’s up to you to put it together, and you don’t have to wait on anything, you don’t have to get anybody else’s approval, you can just do it and put it out. On the other side, there’s for people who haven’t really explored much of the business end, they can kind of get used, in the fact that they’re releasing stuff constantly, and a lot of that stuff, whether something gets claimed and they have no idea why there’s ads on their videos, even from that to a completely different perspective where somebody knows that this person, because they may have 100,000 subscribers, they know this person will at least sell a little bit. They run them through deals where they had no idea they had any power in the negotiations, and you know, I think like anything, it’s sometimes you just have to learn the field you’re playing in really. I feel like there’s not a super high amount of disadvantages. So now that YouTube is around, it’s also kind of giving people the freedom; the old industry now is like kind of dwindling because nobody knows how to keep reigns on something that everybody wants to explore and be a part of.
Because there is a such a high concentration of content on YouTube, is it hard to set your music apart and bring new people to your channel?
You know, I think it can be, because like you said, there is so much going on and so many different directions. I think most often I catch myself like, okay, how can I find more subscribers? How can I do this? And the most successful thing I’ve found to do is just to, rather than trying to bring subscribers to your channel — which you never really want to let go of that motivation — at the same time, the best thing you can really do is just learn about yourself, and who you are, and what kind of artist you are and the more you narrow that down and get more specific, the more people are going to catch onto it. In a world where there is like millions of channels on YouTube, you’re going to run into a bunch of people where all of the traffic is, and as long as you’re walking through Times Square singing a song, even if everybody else is singing a song, there is going to be people who walk around and like your song and want to follow it, and the awesome thing is you subscribe to as many channels as you want so you can really feed yourself whatever you want.
What are you currently working on?
Currently finishing up an EP; we’ve actually got all of it recorded, we’re doing a little more mixing on it and then probably in the next month and a half we’ll release it and get to shoot a new video. I’m so excited. I love original music videos, do all the photo shoot stuff and have everything out and ready to go and just be refreshed with giving the world more original stuff. I love doing covers too; I love them. It’s been a lot of fun, but it’s also like a completely different feeling when you release something completely original that people still relate to and makes you feel like you’re worth something. For anybody who’s wanting to create, don’t be afraid to. Don’t be afraid to put who you are, completely who you are, out into the world. There’s always going to be negative comments, and no reason to focus on them. If you can demonstrate what you want to demonstrate, do it. Hopefully success will come.
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Photography By Robin Roemer