photo: Stephanie Parsley
Although Andy Frasco’s new album is titled L’Optimist, the way he comes to this exuberance is by acknowledging life’s anguish.
“This is the most happy I’ve ever been,” he reveals, “because finally I’m asking the questions that I’ve always suppressed. So now that I’ve got that out of my system, I feel free again. I’m finally seeing the light on the other side of the tunnel and that there are other ways to be happy.”
Frasco is known for sharing positive sentiments not only through his music but also via his Monday morning motivational exhortations, his World Saving Podcast and his I Wanna Dance With Somebody interactive livestream, which debuted during the lockdown.
Through all of this, he has fostered an intimate connection with a flourishing, fervid fanbase. Frasco and his band the U.N. have been captivating audiences during recent tours leading up to the Aug. 11 release of L’Optmist. These appearances have included a number of spirited standout sets at festivals such as Peach, Summer Camp and Northlands.
While he is a dynamic live performer, Frasco takes particular pride in the crowd response to his original material. “I’m 35 and I’ve been doing 250 shows a year since I was 18. I don’t know how much longer I’ll be crowdsurfing two football fields,” he acknowledges. “So it’s important to me that I don’t always have to rely on that to put on a great show. The music can be the connection.”
You recently appeared on the main stage at the Peach Music Festival, which is something you’ve been working toward for quite some time. How would you describe the experience?
With all these festivals, I started out almost like the Make-A-Wish Foundation band. They’d throw me on the small, late-night stage where everyone’s drunk and not really listening to the music. Then they realized we had a good party and they moved us to the second stage. Now I finally feel like we’ve taken a step in the right direction, where people see me not just as a party. They want to hear my songs.
I’ve always wanted to be on a main stage with people singing all the lyrics, and crying with me, laughing with me, supporting me and rooting me on. It’s given me confidence that they see me not only as an entertainer but also as a musician.
In presenting your music, you leave room for spontaneity yet you also put a great deal of advance thought into your sets. How does this play out when it comes to musical guests, with so many artists joining you onstage at Peach [including Mihali, Mike Dillon, Karina Rykman, members of Melt and all of Dogs in a Pile]?
I enjoy doing the sit-ins. We’re playing 25 festivals this season, and everyone wants me to be the sit-in king and have all their friends sit in.
So the game plan for sit-ins is that I’ll see the schedule two days before and start texting my friends. I’ll also tell people, “If I see you on the side of the stage and you’ve got that look in your eye like you’re hungry for it, I’m gonna call your ass up.” I also tell all my friends, “If you’re feeling angsty and you need to get something out before your set, come to the side and I’ll get you up there. We’ll blow this shit up!”
There’s no preparing when it comes to the songs, though. That’s not required. Music is a language. I want to have a conversation without overcomplicating anything or overwhelming anyone. I want everyone to feel comfortable.
But I was game-planning the Peach set for a while. I felt like Phil Jackson. Every day I’d be studying the dimensions, how far the chairs were from each other, what type of things I could do to the get crowd interaction going, what bands I haven’t had sitin yet. I still have the drive to be both a better entertainer and a better musician.
It’s the same thing with my album. Even though I’m really proud of the new album, I still need to think about the next record. So I’ll be flying to Nashville in two days to write songs with other songwriters because I’m still learning my craft. When we stop learning, we start dying. I never want my brain to stop learning anything in life.
I think that’s what keeps people like Billy [Strings] going. I’m super impressed with how Billy keeps evolving because he’s got that itch to be great.
Not only that but his audience has remained with him for the ride.
I think that people are attracted to genuineness. Billy’s not trying to be anyone else. I don’t try to think too much about this, but I think they can tell that I’m not trying to be anyone else. This is who I am. I’ve always been a joker. I might sometimes say things I shouldn’t say on a microphone, but that’s what I did when I was a kid at the dinner table. I think people need realness.
I also think that my ultimate strength, and something that comes natural to me, is understanding what a room needs. I’m not the soloist dude. My thing is to surround myself with band members who are a bunch of specialists. The drummer can sing his ass off. My guitar player shreds and also sings.
I think of myself as the point guard of the show. I’m not going to be giving you 40 slam dunks. I’m not going to be giving you consistent 80% mid-range solos. I’m the guy who’s going to set up the whole room so everyone can have their day.
That’s why I’ve loved players like Chris Paul, Derek Fisher and Rajon Rondo—they’re great about facilitating. One thing that comes secondhand to me is gluing the fans to the artist so that there’s no fourth wall.
This has been true ever since I was a kid growing up in LA. I began to DJ bar mitzvahs after I found out there was a market for cheaper DJs. So I would DJ bar mitzvahs and work on my MC skills when I was 12 and 13. I knew then that I could keep a room engaged.
From the beginning, it was about the fans and keeping them in line with the mission. This is why I think the dance party did so well. This is why I think the podcast is doing well. There’s some weird thing in the ether where I’m connected with the fans.
At the outset, you mentioned how people are no longer viewing you solely as an entertainer. Was there a moment when it felt like something turned for you?
I think that happened when I started interviewing their favorite musicians, actors and comedians on my podcast and having real conversations with them. They saw that I’m not just a jokester and that I care about the community I’m in. I care about the artists I work with. I wanted to give those people a voice in a way that they didn’t always have.
Once I did that, people started to view me a little differently. They were like, “Let’s see what he actually says in his songs.”
Then during COVID, I was doing those dance parties in my house for people, giving them motivation while we were all dancing. I was telling them, “Don’t give up on your life! Don’t give up on your dreams! Even though you’re scared, don’t give into all this stuff that’s formulating in your head.”
So, out of all that, they began to take me more seriously, above and beyond the party.
Some of those dance parties made it to the front page of Twitch and had a few hundred thousand concurrent views. Did you ever look down at your computer, see those numbers and become rattled? Or did you take it all in stride?
It was surreal. I would be getting texts from Shappy [Peter Shapiro] telling me that we’ve got 400,000 people in the stream while I’m doing my motivational speech about drinking more water.
I’ll admit there was a brief moment when I was like, “Why isn’t my music getting this much love?” [Laughs.] Then I realized what we’re doing here is the same reason why I started doing music, which is to heal people and help people.
My calling has always been to help people grow together as a community. It doesn’t matter what vessel I had—if it was my band, if it was a festival, if it was a club show, if it was my podcast or if it was the dance party, I just felt confident that I could help lead my community toward happiness when they were having dark times.
Do you think the podcast has impacted your songwriting in any way?
Yes, in a few ways. The reason why I started the podcast is because I was partying too much. It was about year seven of my touring. I felt like I was in a rut—playing bars and sleeping in my van and sleeping with bartenders so we could all sleep at their houses. It became this Lost in Translation/Twilight Zone feeling.
I wasn’t writing the songs that my brain was telling me to write. I was writing songs to entertain the party people at my shows in the early years. Then I finally quit doing all that stuff, like coke and one-night stands. I had all these weirder thoughts that I was suppressing because I was drunk. I wasn’t drunk during the day because I had to work, but I was drinking all night.
So when I did the podcast, I started hearing other people’s approaches to how to live this life a healthier way.
My brain started responding well to it, amazingly. I started writing songs about what I was going through and what I had been suppressing through work.
I’ve had feelings of depression throughout my life. As a kid, I was always looking for my parents’ attention because they were older when they had me.
I didn’t really fully understand all these feelings until later. I’m thankful that’s happened though. Now, I can finally write about the challenges, celebrate my wins, understand my losses and learn how I can grow.
With the podcast, in talking to all these musicians, talking to all these actors, everyone has that pinnacle moment in their life where they could pick one side of the road or the other. The people who picked the bright side of the road have been inspiring and taught me that I could follow that path too. I don’t have to marinate in my own shit just because I’m tired. I could get out there and fix my life. Through that, I found how to approach songwriting with what I wanted to write about.
Is there a specific song you wrote where it felt like you were finally on that path?
There are a few—“Dancin’ Around My Grave” and “Somedays.” “Iowa Moon” from the new record is another one.
Those are the songs that really woke me up by saying, “This came out of you. This is what your brain and your heart are telling you to sing about. Don’t be afraid to sing about it.”
I was always afraid to sing about this stuff because everyone’s expecting me to be Mr. Happy and Mr. Optimistic. Sometimes we need to talk about the darker things in life too. That’s the reason why we’re artists—to talk about it all.
I’m writing to find out what’s going on in my head. It was same thing when I used to write these motivational blogs. I was also super scared of flying so I’d write these goodbye letters whenever there was turbulence. [Laughs.] Then I’d read them back and I was like, “Oh, that’s what I’ve been suppressing in my head for the last couple weeks.”
Writing songs has become therapy for me because it’s very hard for me to open up. Even with my parents and my friends, the most vulnerable I am is through my podcast and through my songs, through my live show, through the speeches I do at the end of each show. That’s when I’m most vulnerable.
People turn to you for inspiration with such zeal. Do you ever find that becomes overwhelming or burdensome in some way?
Inspiring people has never been a burden for me. However, there are some times when it can take its toll. I do these Monday morning motivations. I’ve got to wake up every Monday at 6:00 a.m. Maybe I had a show till 4:00 a.m. and my dopamine levels are low.
But I think the realness of motivation happens when you pull it out the most. I think about Jordan in the flu game or Kobe when he dislocated his finger—since no one else was making shots, he had Gary Vitti push his finger back in. When I’m really low, I think about these athletes. I even think of Paul Pierce, as weird as it is for me to say that, when he went nuts after he got hurt [in game one of 2008 NBA finals]. You’ve got to get it from within because there’s a bigger purpose in this whole thing.
But I’d rather have the burden of inspiring people than the burden of an accounting job for some company that doesn’t care about me.
This can be a difficult industry because there’s no retirement plan. There is no pat on your back at the end of the day. When you’re 80 and you look back at your life, you’re not going to get any awards. You did the music and you did your art, and you’ve got to be good with yourself just knowing that you tried your best to make everyone happy.
The biggest burden to me is making sure that I tried my best every day and did not waste a single second.
I’m not the greatest soloist. I’m not the greatest jammer. But I know that I have my part in this community to glue everyone together. Sometimes when everyone’s low or people are going through difficult times with misunderstanding themselves and having too much in their head, I want to make sure I had the chance to try to help my community feel better about this fucking weird circus we’re in called the music industry.
You mentioned “Iowa Moon,” which is a tender love song. There are a number of those on the record, which is new for you.
I’ve really only had one girlfriend in my life. That was the first love song I ever wrote. [Laughs.]
I’ve felt love before. I feel it onstage every day through my fans. I feel it through the podcast. But there are different types of love. I am married to five dudes, but I don’t have sex with the dudes. So I don’t have the other stuff that helps you get through all that and bonds you even closer.
Having had Jill in my life when I wrote that song— we’ve since broken up—I felt like someone really cared about me in a way that was not just “Andy the Showman” or “Andy the Workhorse.” She liked how I’d eat my food or how I snored and all the other intimate things.
I realized that there are different forms of love and how confusing it was that there wasn’t just one path for life.
I keep thinking about how I’ve been so hyper-focused on this one path ever since I was 13. I’ve always wanted to be in the music industry and kept chipping away at it—from getting an internship at DriveThru Records at 13 to getting a job at Capitol to moving to New York for Atlantic at 18, then figuring out I wanted to be a musician. That’s all I’ve ever been hyper focused on. I’m dumb about everything else besides music and basketball.
It’s what I love. But, thank God, I realized that there’s other ways to have love too. It was nice. I’m a city kid, so I didn’t find beauty in a cornfield until I met her.
I went into this record after I just came off an eightmonth tour and I had 35 days to finish the album. It was COVID, then I went straight to tour, and I’m the type of a guy who needs to put out a record every year or else I feel like I’m losing steam. It helps my brain grow as a songwriter if I’m cutting the rocks or whatever they say.
So I wrote a song a day for 30 days. I wrote a lot of songs with Steve Poltz and Chris Gelbuda.
I like writing with other people because they can pull new stuff out of me. We’re creatures of habit and sometimes we’ll start writing songs about the same things we’ve been writng about for 10 years.
The reason why I’m writing songs is to find out what’s hiding inside me. All of us have things we don’t want to say out loud sometimes. It’s nice that music can let me say it out loud.
I knew I was having different feelings in my head beyond the “keep following your dream” songs that I’ve written.
I was like, “I’m kind of not thinking about myself right now. I’m kind of thinking about someone else in the moment. I want to write about that.”
This whole record is basically about finding out that we can care about others in a different way.
The album closes with “Miss Getting High.” What led you to end the record with that sentiment?
It’s the idea that I’m over taking drugs and I’m ready to find happiness through something else. You get to that point where the drug you’re taking isn’t fun anymore. You’re just doing it to do it—to suppress something.
The reason why I ended the record with “Miss Getting High” is there’s going to be a new chapter in my life where I’m focusing on the other things that make me happy.
It’s not about the drugs. I missed doing things just to do them—that’s what made me happy. It’s about eating ice cream and sitting in a park and being on the swings and not thinking about anything else but the ice cream dripping on my kneecap.
Today, I made breakfast, which is something I never do on my day off. [Laughs.] At first, change is weird for everybody. Like I said, we’re creatures of habit. So if you’ve been doing the same habits for so long, when you do change how you live, your brain’s gonna fight it.
When I wrote “Miss Getting High,” it was like, “Man, this sucks. Everything I used to like, I don’t like anymore. I don’t like smoking weed as much anymore. I don’t like getting belligerently drunk anymore. I don’t like any of that stuff that used to make me happy. So what’s next?”
It is now a year later and what’s next is loving myself and loving the people around me. I wanted the end point of the album to be me saying, “You did all that when you were younger. You’re nostalgic about it, but you’ve got to keep walking. You’ve got to keep moving, keep growing and forgive yourself for whatever you regret.”
Sometimes I regret not going to school and having the college experience. Sometimes I regret staying up all night and giving my whole life to the bar scene. But you can’t beat yourself up about that.
I’m still confused about being a human. We’re all still learning how to do life.