Artist of the Month: The Many Passions of GRiZ

GRiZ has ridden an epic wave to stardom since his 2016 breakout album, Good Will Prevail. He’s even collaborated with Snoop Dogg, Wiz Khalifa, and Matisyahu, proving few can resist this Denver-based artist’s unique and funky take on live electronic music. Harry Levin learns more.

15 min
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May 5, 2020
Harry Levin

As the old saying goes, actions speak louder than words. And while most headline stars are happy flitting across the globe on private jets while sipping champagne and taking selfies, 28-year-old Grant Kwiecinski seems happiest when giving back to his fans — emotionally, physically, even monetarily — revealing his deepest intentions for GRiZ.

Across his exploits as a DJ, instrumentalist, producer, vocalist, and philanthropist, Grant’s primary focus is putting good into the world, and his efforts are grounded in one central principle: all change comes from within.

An often haunting dictum, it is through his own experiences that Grant understands this truth. Speaking to him reveals an exceedingly humble perspective on the interconnectedness of humanity. In his eyes, we are equal because we all want to improve, and by looking inward towards that commonality, we all can.

“I hope for my fans that they have people in their lives that are reinforcing the positivity within them, but I understand that it can’t always come from other people, so I’m hoping they have the strength to give that to themselves.”

Music is what gave Grant that strength starting from a young age. Back in his hometown of Detroit, he began playing saxophone as part of the public-school curriculum. This early introduction to music sparked his ability to connect with the world emotionally, thus solidifying his instrumental inclinations that remain a staple of the GRiZ sound.

Of course, the music of GRiZ exists equally within the instrumental and electronic domains. Sometimes it exists solely in the latter, as with “Griztronics,” the recent dubstep hit he produced with Subtronics.

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Grant’s journey into electronic music began at age 14, via IDM stalwarts like Aphex Twin and Squarepusher, alongside dubstep pioneers like Caspa and Rusko; a leftfield mix that explains the combination of heavy bass and erratic overtones in his music.

14 is an interesting age for everyone, but for a gay kid growing up with an emotionally abusive alcoholic for a father, “interesting” is an understatement. As Grant navigated those hectic formative years, he struggled, as so many who share his circumstances do, with finding the courage to express his true self. It wasn’t until his first years of college when Grant found that courage in the co-op basements of East Lansing, Michigan.

“I was playing these parties that were the coolest parties I’ve ever been to. People not really subscribing to what they left home with and bringing a new kind of energy. I had never seen it before. That, to an effect, saved my life.” This is where GRiZ was born.

From his vantage point behind the decks, Grant saw a crowd of people doing more than simply accepting him. They were showing him love. They had never met him before, but they were celebrating his love of obscure electronic music, and the actions of his newfound cross-dressing comrades made it clear that no other details (the least of which, his sexuality) mattered. There, for the first time, Grant mustered the strength to look inward and be at peace with himself.

“GRiZ became about finding peace within life,” he says.

This idea defines Grant’s mission to put good into the world. He gives back by encouraging others to find peace within themselves, and his chosen medium on this heuristic endeavor is music.

Grant’s taste in music is all encompassing. His decision to mesh his various sonic predilections through GRiZ reflects his subconscious desire to appeal to people from all backgrounds, musical or otherwise.

“The nature in which you would craft something creative, whether it be the colors that you choose to paint a painting to the words that you choose to write an article, all these choices that you make, if you are the most honest with yourself, are the purest extensions of your own human nature.”

Grant’s nature is one of understanding and acceptance. Across his considerable career, his instrumental upbringing succinctly coalesces with his fascination for heady electronic amalgams. There is something for everyone in the GRiZ catalog.

“I think that every single soul on this planet is so much more connected than we like to give credit for. I love so many different musical stylings and I believe there’s that collage of love within everybody,” he says.

Grant wants to give everyone the strength to find that collage within themselves. So, in that regard, he leads by example. Music is how he connects with the world emotionally, and his genre-fluid sound is the full expression of his emotional range; a window into his own collage of love. By understanding this perspective, Grant’s own emotional growth becomes apparent through his music.

But his output started primarily within electronic music. His first album, End of the World Party, was a grab bag of sound design. From there, fresh elements were introduced with every new release, a parallel evolution to his own inward journey.

First it was just his saxophone over the wubs and the wobbles. Then there was a trumpet, which soon became a full horn section. Quick to follow was the occasional unknown vocalist. Now Snoop Dogg, Wiz Khalifa, DRAM, Matisyahu, and more prominent wordsmiths are adding their voices to his aural output.

But the most personal musical triumph for Grant was using his own vocals, which he did for the first time on his most recent album, Ride Waves. Contributing a full rap verse was a big step forward for him — he was now completely giving himself to his listeners through his recordings, and if the vocal work on his new Night Bass single “Could U” is any indication, he has no intention to stop.

The more of himself he reveals in his music, the more his listeners receive his intention to endow them with inner strength; an intention he manifests physically at his shows. After all, Grant first found that strength within himself at a show, and after years of hard work he has the status and influence to replicate that experience for thousands of others via legendary bookings, like hosting Bonnaroo’s Superjam or his consecutive sold out nights at the infamous Red Rocks Amphitheater in Colorado.

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“We’re so connected within this expression of the human spirit…and I think it’s through that commonality that we all come together and form this singularity of consciousness at a show.” Grant is a part of that singularity because he is at the show for the same reason the audience is: to connect with himself and those around him. “It isn’t my space. I’m not the director of that energy. I am waiting for the cues of other people. My job is to listen. And so, I will create a space to listen.”

At his shows, Grant often gets up close and personal with his fans, or cuts the music for a moment to speak his truth. If he could, he would wait outside the venue and meet every single attendee to express his undying gratitude. And even though he can’t, his fans know he wants to, and they love him for it.

The GRiZ fanbase is a force unto itself. They revere him not only for his musical talent, but because he considers himself their equal. He’s just another person trying to find the strength to grow and connect with other people. Then in June of 2017, Grant revealed his sexual orientation to the world, connecting totally with his fans. For the first time, his entire following knew who he really was, and this didn’t scare him at all.

With his music, every new sound he adopted, every new addition to his live show, every artistic risk he took, his fans welcomed with love. So, when he revealed the most intimate details of his private life, Grant saw it as another opportunity to give back; to return the love he’s received to those who may be struggling with self acceptance.

“At that time of coming out, I thought it would change a lot of people’s perceptions about what it looks like to be gay. I really want kids to feel like if they’re gay, that’s cool.”

People revealed heartfelt details about their own lives to Grant after he came out. Many said his story was nearly identical to theirs, while others said he’d prevented their suicide. His own stepfather, who was raised to employ narrow-minded views about gay people, admitted that Grant completely shifted his perspective on queer culture. Such disclosures are the biggest compliments Grant says he can receive, but he makes sure to note that these confessions aren’t about him. They are about the confessors and their willingness to look inward.

“You think it’s about you, but it’s not. It has nothing to do with you. It has everything to do with that person. To see that person make such a courageous choice for themselves, you see how strong people can be,” he says.

With COVID-19, everyone needs that sort of strength. With his fans looking to him, Grant is leading by example, once again pouring his emotions into his music. Except this time there’s a caveat: Grant refuses to look at this situation positively, like it’s an opportunity to make up for lost production time. As he speaks from self-quarantine, he becomes audibly exhausted when discussing the situation in relation to his music.

“This art that is happening right now has to bring some life back into this world. We have to invite that, and at the same time honor the struggle and honor the sadness. I’m trying to tap into the pure sense of what I need to find healing within myself. The motivation comes from needing to balance out the darkness that is looming.”

Grant is certainly trying to balance out that darkness with his music, but he’s also doing so through his charitable outreach, which he’s continuing during the pandemic. As hard as he works to empower others to look inward through his music and performances, Grant acknowledges that a direct, intimate approach is irreplaceable.

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Hence Camp Kulabunga, an intimate four-day retreat hosted by GRiZ and his friends, which is focused on “radical inclusion, community, self-empowerment, and wellness.” The event is planned for September, and Grant hopes its minimalist setting will allow it to happen. There are only 100 spots available (applications are currently open), and throughout the weekend in the woods of Ortonville, Michigan, Grant asks that everyone stay sober and Internet-free as they practice meditation and explore a variety of other creative outlets that allow for self-discovery.

Grant doesn’t want money from this experience. In fact, he loses money every year. But his hope with Camp Kulabunga is that 100 people leave as better versions of themselves. From Grant’s perspective, self-improvement is how the world truly advances. That’s why his most notable philanthropic engagement, 12 Days of GRiZMAS, supports the cause most essential to his own self-improvement: music education for Detroit public school kids.

When he learned a few years back that over half of public-school music programs in his hometown had been cut, Grant realized half of Detroit’s children wouldn’t have the opportunity to discover music like he did. He started GRiZMAS to give students that opportunity, and the foundation has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Detroit music programs since.

But Grant doesn’t mention the numbers once, nor does he give himself credit. That money is just another part of his mission, and until that mission is complete, he will never set his intentions away from it. Because intentions become actions, and actions speak louder than words — sometimes, even louder than music.

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