Pop-rock's next hero opens up about escaping through music and finding himself in front of an audience
Brewing his morning tea in a Frankfurt hotel room, pop-rock newcomer GUNNAR is making his first visit to Europe. Playing shows across the continent supporting Maroon 5, The Hu, and Dead Poet Society on their respective tours, it’s a lot of “late nights and late mornings”, the 21-year-old smiles whilst idly stirring his drink, but simply put – he “wouldn’t have it any other way”.
Playing in a garage band before catching the attention of pop mogul Scooter Braun at the age of 16, GUNNAR is an artist driven by the electrifying power of live music. Since picking up a cherry-red Strat at just seven years old, the L.A.-based musician always knew that he wanted to be up onstage, but when touring was ground to a pandemic-induced halt in 2020, he found himself questioning his entire identity as an artist.
Uninspired after years spent following the direction of others, he became determined to unearth his true artistic voice, a realisation channelled vividly into his full-length debut, Best Mistake. Capturing the free-flowing energy and raw vitality of his live set, it’s an album filled with feverish guitar solos, sing-along-ready choruses, and soulful vocals, marking a vibrant new chapter for the California native.
As he brings the energy and emotion of his live show to venues across Europe and the UK for the first time, we caught up with GUNNAR to talk about his pursuit of authenticity, his passion for community, and what the future looks like.
You’ve been releasing music since you were a teenager, but Best Mistake feels like a rebirth for you as an artist in terms of your sound and style. What sparked those shifts?
It was a total rebirth for me. I started in the music industry when I was a kid, and things got a little more serious for me when I was around 16 years old. I ended up signing a record deal and a management deal at that time, and I got thrown into what other people thought was right for me. I did that for a while, but my live shows have always been where I get to express myself and be myself. To be honest, at the time, music was just a vehicle to get me to the live show so I could truly express myself.
When COVID hit, it was a tough time for me because with live shows taken away, all I had left was myself and the music. I realised very quickly that I was unhappy, and that the music I was making didn’t reflect who I am as a person and who I wanted to be. I went through a really tough time of deciding what I wanted to do in life, and I almost stopped making music. I wasn’t sure if it was right for me anymore, but I wanted to give it another shot with a new perspective. I decided that I’m not going to make music for other people, I’m not going to make music for Spotify, and I’m not going to make music for radio. I’m just going to go create what I want to create. That’s where Best Mistake started, and it leans a little more into rock and has a lot of soul and just way more of me in it. It’s a transitional album, and it’s an album to get me out on the road and back to doing what I love the most.
Previously you were situated much more in the pop sphere, but like you say that rock and soul influence on these new songs is huge. Does this new sound reflect the music that you grew up listening to a little more?
Definitely. A lot of what I listened to at an early age came out in this record because I started really listening to it again. Being thrown into the middle of the pop world in my early teenage years, I was always listening to pop radio to keep up to date with what was happening, and the love that I had for listening to music just to feel something was lost for a little while. Since I’ve been making the music that I want to make, I’ve been listening to music that makes me feel something, and it hasn’t just been about spotting a great chorus or looking at what producers have worked on a song.
I wanted to listen to music that I never had the chance to discover when I was growing up too. I was listening back to a lot of The Raconteurs, and I even got into some bluesy stuff like Muddy Waters. It’s been exciting to discover things that are new to me musically because I was thrown into this one thing and kept in that box for a few years as a musician.
What’s also clear across this album is how much you draw from your own personal, honest experiences in your songwriting. Is it important to you that your songs come straight from the heart and are honest reflections of who you are as a person?
I think it’s a necessity. I think that for a long time people haven’t really been able to tell the difference between what’s honest and what’s not, but especially within the last five years that’s changed. We have gotten to a point where subconsciously we know when things are real, and when they’re fake. It’s an intuition thing that somehow people have adapted and grown to have, and it’s so important to be real in what I create now. This music is me, and it’s the first time that I’ve felt like that with my music. This album truly came from my heart and my soul.
Does having that honest outlet empower you more to keep pushing towards your goals?
Creating something that you love sounds like such a simple idea, but for me it wasn’t, and as soon as I made that switch, I found a new energy and a new love for music. A new passion found itself inside of me whilst writing for this project, and I was no longer just making music so that I could get to the shows and express myself. I now get to express myself within the music itself. That means that the shows are going to be even crazier and more intentional because the music was made with that in mind. There’s been a really special energy and passion that has grown and thrived in me over the last year whilst making this album, and that’s only growing more now that I’m on the road and performing it.
Within that honest expression, something that often comes up in your songs is the topic of mental health. You started the ‘One Second of One Day’ livestream series during the pandemic to open up these kinds of conversations with other creatives, so how does music serve as a vessel for you in that regard?
The ‘One Second of One Day’ series is a perfect example of what I want to do with GUNNAR. When COVID hit and live music was taken away, that was a huge effort on my behalf to try and still have those connections through livestreams. It was an attempt to have real face-to-face interactions with people talking about important things, because at the time my mental health was going through a lot of sh*t. Being honest and owning the positives and the negatives of our own heads is crucial. Like I said, people know the difference between real and fake, so there’s no reason to hide it. We’re not in a day and age where the perfect is ideal anymore, people want to see the real you. If I can express that through lyrics, songwriting, and performing, then I feel like I’m doing the right thing.
Has music always been the thing that you’ve turned to as a way to escape your everyday life?
Absolutely, and honestly that’s what I didn’t have between the ages of 16 and now. That’s the part that I was missing, and that love for music that started me on my journey had dissipated and become something else. Making Best Mistake was such a crazy spiritual experience because I found myself rediscovering the passion and love for music that I hadn’t had for a long time. When you’re stuck in that cycle, you think that everything’s fine, but when you take a step out you see things clearly. Now I see a spectrum of emotions, feelings, and love for music and art.
That’s something which flows into the live experience of this project now. Do you feel as though you’re writing music specifically with your shows and those face-to-face connections in mind?
Every artist is different, but for me, it’s all about the live show. It’s about making connections with people, expressing myself, and giving people a safe place to express themselves too. The more you play live, the more you get back in the studio and write based on what happened at the shows. Having been on the road playing songs from Best Mistake live for a little while now, I’ve seen what connects and what makes the most impact in a room. I now have a new perspective on what I’ll be writing in the future and how I want to approach the next album, but it’ll always be curated towards the live show and live experiences.
In terms of the interactions you have with people at shows and the connections you find there, is community a big part of this project for you at this point?
Community is everything. It’s crazy how necessary it is to have a strong community of people who are on the same page. A live show is like a portal to a different universe. It’s a place where you can forget who you are on the outside, and just make memories, enjoy the music, and experience the energy within a room. Regardless of whether it’s a club or an arena, it’s a special place. Having a community of people who believe that and are willing to leave their egos at the door is crucial. Everyone’s there to let loose and express themselves, just like me and my band do up on stage.
Is that sense of community something that you were able to find in music as a fan growing up?
I grew up in a smaller town where music was an odd thing to do. There weren’t a lot of people where I grew up who did music, but as outcasted as it was, it was the only place that felt like a home to me. It was the only place I truly felt like myself, and music is such a special, unique thing in that regard. Without the right community, people yearn for that experience and those places where it’s safe to be themselves. I definitely did growing up, and I still do. That’s why I feel the way that I do about people coming to shows and finding community – I want them to feel the same way that I did.
Having taken the time to learn about the industry and yourself and now having this fresh start with Best Mistake, is this the most confident you’ve ever been in the music you’re making and the path you’re following?
Without a doubt. Simultaneously though, it’s also just the first step. This is the best music that I’ve created to date. It’s the most me, and it’s the most passionate I’ve been about music, but I’m already thinking about the next project and wanting to take it to the next level. Best Mistake is me separating from what I’ve been doing previously and stepping into this new chapter of my life where I’m being who I want to be. Now, I’m writing the music that I want to write and being the human that I want to be.
Is that helped by being able to release your music independently and have the artistic freedom to green-light your own ideas too?
That is everything, because what put me in a box as an artist originally was not having that. I was introduced to people who had done this with other artists, and you want to trust them and listen to them, but then the art of music gets lost a little bit. I lost myself in listening to people who I thought knew best, and so putting this album out independently was great. I got to do exactly what I wanted to do, from the artwork and videos to the lyrics and the production. It was all from me.
Record labels aren’t necessarily a bad place, it just wasn’t the right place for me at the time. I’m sure there will be a time in my life where being on a label will be the perfect place for me, but right now, it’s crucial for me to be doing this independently and to take that step for myself.
As you look towards the next chapter of GUNNAR then, what does the future for this project look like to you?
Our main goal is just to do shows. This album was put out to get me on the road performing live and making connections with people, and I’m incredibly proud of it. It’s the first step in me creating art as my own person and as a true artist, so it feels truly special to me. Now that it’s out though, I’m already excited about the ideas, concepts, and little demos I’ve been starting to make in preparation for the next step.
Is it easier to think about those next steps now you’ve taken the first one with the album?
Definitely, I think Best Mistake was a great learning experience in working with people you love and finding people to collaborate with. We’re on tour right now with Maroon 5 and Adam [Levine, vocalist] has been an incredible mentor and older brother figure to me. I feel like I’ve learned a lot about songwriting and the thought process behind it from him, so I’m excited to pick his brain more about those things.
As you mentioned, you’re on tour with Maroon 5 across Europe and the UK at the moment. With things continuing to grow for GUNNAR, who would be your dream artist to open for?
Honestly, the Maroon 5 tour has genuinely been mind-blowing because I know the words to every single song they perform! They’re one of those bands who have a show that is incredible to watch every night, and I’d love to tour with Arctic Monkeys or The 1975 for that reason too. There are also artists who I just love and think are doing incredible things right now, like Mimi Webb. I’m a huge fan of hers and to be able to do a European tour with her would be insane. I’d love to work with Inhaler and Jean Dawson too.
Photo credit: Hunter Cohen