Just three years ago, Kina Grannis was a USC student secretly writing songs in campus stairwells. Today, however, the singer-songwriter and YouTube star is releasing her debut album, appropriately titled Stairwells — a coffeehouse-friendly acoustic-pop compilation that harks back to the days she spent at her alma mater.
“When I came here, music was what I really wanted to do, but at the same time I was really shy and self-conscious, so I found myself retreating to stairwells in New North, Troy Hall and VKC,” said Grannis, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in social sciences in 2007. “I just kind of sat there and wrote for hours because it was the only place I felt safe being me. I guess this album is a tribute to where I grew into an artist.”
The 24-year-old musician — who first received the attention of millions of Americans when she won the Doritos “Crash the Superbowl” contest in 2008 and currently has more than 140,000 YouTube subscribers — appeared to be much at home in McCarthy Quad for our interview.
“I’m so happy to have an excuse to come back here,” Grannis said. “I miss it.”
Grannis’ years at USC were her musical launching pad. She joined the Songwriters Club during her freshman year and was selected by the Thornton School of Music to record a CD as part of its Protégé Program, directed by Thornton’s Associate Dean of External Relations Christopher Sampson. The student-produced project developed into her first record, Sincerely, me, released in 2005.
Sampson, who became Grannis’ songwriting mentor, gave the budding artist an assignment — to wake up and write music for an hour first thing every morning.
“That’s when a ton of my writing happened,” she said.
One song on her new album, “Strong Enough,” is a product of those early morning sessions and was written during her last semester at USC.
Though she didn’t admit it to anyone at the time, Grannis confessed that music was the only thing she could imagine herself doing. So in her senior year, when she received an e-mail from a complete stranger in Austin, Texas giving her the chance to become a full-time musician after graduation, she did the unexpected and said yes.
“There was a lot of debate, but I moved to Austin … and got involved in their music community,” she said.
For six months, she sang in a now-defunct band called Doctari, raising the eyebrows of her friends and family back in California.
“The whole thing was kind of strange,” Grannis said.
Then came the Doritos “Crash the Superbowl” contest, which invited aspiring singer-songwriters to submit a song with the chance to have a music video produced and aired during the Superbowl.
Grannis submitted an original song, “Message From Your Heart,” and won. Her music video aired to 97 million Americans in a highly coveted 60-second spot after the first quarter.
“I broke down and was crying in my family’s arms for like 10 minutes,” Grannis said. “It was the most emotional thing. And at the time, I wasn’t even realizing what this meant. All I knew was that something just happened. I didn’t actually watch it at all.”
As part of the contest, Grannis also scored a record deal with Interscope Records. She then left Austin for Los Angeles and never turned back.
“It just got so crazy so quickly,” she said.
Although winning a deal with a major record label is every fledgling artist’s dream, Grannis parted ways with Interscope after just six months, finding herself at a creative crossroads with the company.
“Major labels just have so many people they need to go through before a tiny little step can get done, and it was a really slow process,” Grannis said. “At the end of the day, in my mind, the album was already written. I just wanted to record, while they still wanted to develop and have me write with other songwriters.”
Grannis decided to produce her full-length debut album independently, setting herself apart from other plucked-from-the-masses stars such as Justin Bieber and Esmée Denters who have opted to go the major label route.
“It has been a huge challenge trying to be a label by myself. Hundreds of thousands in marketing money would’ve been nice,” Grannis said. “But I had to make the album I wanted to make, have creative control and keep my YouTube, so [I don’t regret it] at all. I’m happy I did it.”
The USC alumna represents a new wave of musicians who are proving that they can make it in the music world — without the help of record companies — through media-sharing sites like YouTube and MySpace.
“The strange thing I’ve found is what people consider ‘making it.’ One way to make it is with a major label or American Idol,” Grannis said. “But I don’t think people have caught onto the fact that so many artists survive by doing it on their own.”
With the help of the Internet, her supportive family and her growing fan base, she’s proven that she can do just that.
Grannis is the 32nd most subscribed musician of all time on YouTube, a statistic that includes major artists. And some of her most popular video covers of songs by artists such as Rihanna, Taylor Swift, Michael Jackson and Jason Mraz have well over one million views.
The artist uses her online medium not only to share her acoustic covers and original songs but also to connect with fans. She frequently updates her blog and Twitter account and includes shout-outs and birthday wishes in her videos.
With each video requiring anywhere from four to eight hours to record and edit, maintaining her web presence has practically become Grannis’ full-time job.
“Sometimes I can’t believe I’ve gotten to the point where I can just do music [full time]. It’s something that I’m definitely grateful for,” Grannis said.
The singer-songwriter cites Bon Iver, Sigur Ros, Imogen Heap, K’s Choice and James Taylor as her favorite artists, and these influences come through both in her video covers and on her album.
Mostly acoustic and entirely heartfelt, Grannis’ latest album is refreshingly simple, with catchy pop hooks and soft, pleasant harmonies.
She worked with producer Rich Jacques on the record, who she met after winning the Doritos contest. Though they had initially worked together just for fun, Grannis felt Jacques truly understood where she stood as an artist. So when it came time to find a producer, she knew exactly who to ask.
“He was really good at capturing what I wanted and let me be a part of the production, which is another thing [about producing independently],” Grannis said, “Big producers will often just go and you don’t have a say in what your song will sound like. But I was there every day, playing little parts on the piano and trying to figure it all out.”
Grannis plans to tour the United States this spring and summer and hopes to eventually take her music to Europe. For now, though, she’s got a lot on her plate.
“It’s been exciting and so, so stressful,” Grannis said.
With a full-length album under her belt and a tour on the horizon, Kina Grannis has come a long way since her days at USC playing songs in stairwells, afraid to share her music with others.
But even after all this time, there’s one thing that hasn’t changed.
“There’s not many stairwells where I live now, but it’s still my favorite place to play,” Grannis said.