Wrabel photographed on Aug. 16, 2019 in New York. 
Wrabel photographed on Aug. 16, 2019 in New York. 
Jessica Xie

Wrabel's Road to Happiness: How the Singer-Songwriter Went Independent & Found Joy

For the last decade, the 30-year-old singer-songwriter has been working with big names like Kesha and Adam Lambert while slowly building up his solo career. Now, he's ready for his breakthrough.

Each month, Billboard Pride celebrates an LGBTQ act as its Artist of the Month. Our August selection: Wrabel.

Stephen Wrabel is feeling personally attacked by his own Wikipedia page. Under the Personal Life tab of his page, the first sentence simply reads “Wrabel is gay.”

“'Gay' is hyperlinked!” he says, roaring with laughter. “Like, I am so scared to click on that hyperlink! Honestly, I am too scared to click on it!” But when he ultimately does, he finds that it sends him directly to the Wikipedia page on homosexuality. “Oh my god, they said, ‘You are scientifically gay!’” he squeals. “They definitely don't mean happy, just super gay!" 

But on a gloomy August day, sitting in Billboard’s New York offices, Wrabel is, in fact, quite the picture of that other definition of gaiety. He’s just wrapped two months of touring in Europe with P!nk, is opening for her in Long Island tonight, and has just released “Magic,” his latest in a recent string of uplifting singles. “In many ways, I feel the happiest I've ever been,” he says, smiling. 

Much of the Los Angeles-based pop singer-songwriter’s past work would suggest that he wasn’t always so joyful -- on many of his previous songs like "Bloodstain" and "Sideways," Wrabel has worn his pain on his sleeve, singing about heartbreak, loss and discrimination. He had become so synonymous with sad songs, that he even found that songwriters and producers would almost exclusively offer up sad songs for him to sing. "Every time I went into a session, someone had, like, a mid-tempo sad ballad with a piano, ready to go," he says. "Like, 'The mic is on, baby girl! Get in there and cry! Who hurt you?'"

But on his upcoming EP, Wrabel strikes a different tone of cautious optimism. Titled One of Those Happy People (due out September 13 via Big Gay Records), the singer explores some newfound feelings of joy, even when he’s not sure why he feels that way. On songs like “Love to Love U” and the upcoming “Flying,” Wrabel revels in a euphoric kind of love, while simultaneously dabbling in new sonic landscapes. Gone are the simple vocals paired with a piano, replaced with sweeping synths, funk-driven guitars and hard-hitting beats. 

For Wrabel, the EP’s title track best describes how he feels today: the song’s lyrics see Wrabel questioning whether or not he’s actually happy, or if he’s pretending to be “one of those easy, breezy fucking people,” as he sings. “There's a flip side to this,” he says. “That song kind of explores that idea of me being like, ‘I don't know if I trust this.’”

In 2019, though, Wrabel has reason to trust his happiness. Along with going on tour with P!nk, he also appeared as a featured artist on her latest Billboard 200-topping album Hurts 2B Human, for the ethereal ballad "90 Days," which he co-wrote. An Imogen Heap-inspired heartbreak anthem, the song sees the pair yearning for clarity from a love who won't give it to them. P!nk liked working with Wrabel so much that she gave him a shoutout of The Ellen DeGeneres Show, where she remarked, "His dream is to make an album, and I hope that this is what does it for him."

Working with P!nk, Wrabel says, certainly introduced him to a previously untapped level of exposure, especially getting to open for her and perform alongside her in Europe. "I kept thinking I was going to get used to it, like, every night walking up on stage, and I just kept getting that nervousness," he says. "It was very surreal -- I just can't believe it happened."

The kind of exposure the star is seeing today is a far cry from the start of his career. In 2008, Wrabel moved out to Los Angeles after dropping out of the Berklee College of Music, and spent his first few years struggling to find his way into music. He lived on the floor of his brothers apartment, sleeping on "a blow-up mattress that used to deflate in the middle of the night," and attempted to find gigs where he could. "It was, in hindsight, much scarier than I thought it was while I was doing it," he says. 

But he eventually found his footing, he says, after getting sober and coming out of the closet. Soon, he found himself in a near-constant writing spree, working with everyone from American Idol alumni like Adam Lambert, Phillip Phillips and Katherine McPhee, to pop artists like Ellie Goulding and Pentatonix, all while writing and releasing his own songs. "I was writing two or three songs a day at one point," he says. "It was just that kind of thing where I was basically living on Parliaments and Red Bull."

As he became known for his personal pop confessionals, he signed a deal with Epic Records in 2016 after then-CEO L.A. Reid heard a demo of his song "11 Blocks," and brought him in a mere 5 days later. "From the day it was written to the day that I heard it on the radio was like three and a half months, or something crazy like that," Wrabel says. "There was so much excitement there for that [song]. It all kind of seemed to work out."

It was during his time at the label that he met and began working with Kesha on her critically acclaimed, chart-topping album Rainbow (he co-wrote her third single "Woman," and a Japanese deluxe-edition track titled "Emotional"). The two immediately hit it off and have continued working together since, including on her latest single "Rich, White, Straight Men." Wrabel calls her one of his "favorite people to work with," which he attributes to her willingness to try anything. "She will commit so much to an idea ... I find that to be really rare with artists, who are just willing to go for it."

But just one year after joining the Epic team, things began to shift — Reid exited the company amid allegations of sexual harassment, leading to significant internal restructuring and, as Wrabel says, a lot of creative changes as well. "There were just so many disagreements on creative things, and just weird head spaces," he recalls. "When that kind of system starts stalling, it's like you're on a rollercoaster, and you're going around the loop as it starts slowing down. You're screaming, like, 'No! Don't slow down yet! Just get me back down!'"

So, seeing that his personal creative authority was dwindling, while the instances of "conference calls about a snare drum" were increasing, Wrabel made the difficult decision to leave Epic Records in August of 2018. Looking back, the singer says he doesn't regret signing to Epic or leaving, saying that "I love record labels, and when they work, oh my gosh it's wonderful ... I kind of just wanted to make something completely outside of that."

Following his departure, Wrabel founded his very own record label, the aptly named Big Gay Records. Every time he says the name of his company, Wrabel can't help but giggle. "It's so funny to me!" he says. The name came from a visit to Nashville, where Wrabel saw the names of publishing houses lining the streets of music row, and he had a thought: "It would be dope to have a publishing house on music row in the middle of Nashville called Big Gay Records," he says. "Like, a big rainbow house."

He admits that there are plenty of challenges that come with independence, especially without a well-established system like he had at Epic. But with his newfound power to publish his own work on his own terms (yes, his publishing company is also called Big Gay Songs), Wrabel says he doesn't feel the strong need to chase after success. "When '11 Blocks' did really well, I was like 'Oh, I need to write! What's '12 Blocks'? '13 Blocks,' '14 Miles,' whatever, let's do it' ... you're essentially just searching for 'the next,'" he says. "It was so cool to be able to write a song, and then be like, 'I like this song, let's put it out!'"

Part of this newfound independence also means getting to work with the artists he chooses. For example, Wrabel said he always wanted to work with producing all-stars like John Hill and Kid Harpoon, both of whom have credits on his new EP. "The whole time that I was at labels, those are the producers that I've always wanted to work with," he says. "Now to have their support and partnership on it is, like, kind of surreal."

Independence is also a crucial step for Wrabel in terms of expressing himself freely and openly. Indeed, his Wikipedia page doesn't lie -- Wrabel identifies as gay (he points to a necklace he's wearing with the word "gay" emblazoned on it) and often writes from a queer perspective. His most beloved songs, like "The Village" and "11 Blocks," deal directly with the queer experience in the modern day.

Wrabel says he never felt pressured to "tone down" his identity while working in the label system — in fact, he says if anything, he was encouraged to express those emotions more often than not. The real struggle came from within himself as he pondered whether or not there was a "cap" on how successful the music industry writ-large would allow him to become.

"There is such a weight put on to 'relatability,'" he says. "So when you're gay you're like, 'Well ... who's gonna relate? Can we clarify?' Even being at labels, I think I have always been scared of being mishandled or misrepresented, even though I've had some wonderful experiences with some executives."

But then he sees how his fanbase reacts to his music, craving representation, as he craves to give it back to them. That's especially true of "The Village," where he dedicated the video to highlighting the struggles of transgender youth. "You have a responsibility to be honest," he says. "Because if everyone's themselves, you're going to inspire others to that. So I always try to be honest when it comes to my sexuality or anxiety or whatever."

That's another reason Wrabel is excited for his fans to hear One of Those Happy People -- since most of his past songs about being queer revolve around pain and sorrow, he's anxious to give his fans some joyful tunes of affirmation. "There's no wall between us anymore," he says. "It's just kind of like, 'I made this, I like it, here you go.'"

As for his future, Wrabel says he still has his heart set on putting together his debut album ("I'm almost ready for it," he assures me), and is looking forward to touring his new EP in October. After that? "It's all just Big Gay Possibilities!"

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