When I arrive at The Foundry in Philadelphia to meet gnash and his assistant, he’s finishing up another interview and portrait session. After we finish, he’ll head to a meet and greet. His nails are painted in purple glitter (purple is the color of the night; his band and crew wear hoodies and sweatpants with “BROKEN” printed in vivid lilac), and at every moment, he’s smiling about something.
gnash and I spend 25 minutes discussing positivity and happiness and success and meditation, and to wrap things up I ask him if there’s anything else he wants readers to know about him. He says no, “but there’s something I want them to know about themselves.” I’m not surprised at this answer; our conversation has been as much about what goes on inside his mind as what his music means to other people. Anyone reading this article “should do their best to smile today because they’re a lot more powerful than they think they are. Somebody else might need that smile more than they know and at the end of the day they need that smile more than they know, and that I love them and I understand how they feel, and I appreciate them for reading this, and I appreciate you for asking great questions.”
“Today is a great day,” he told me at the beginning of our conversation. He started his day by walking to a nearby “vegan-leaning” breakfast spot, and while it was snowing when he woke up, by the time of our interview, the sky was clear, and he was looking forward to taking a nap before the show. He needed to drink more water, “but otherwise today is a great day – well, for all those reasons it’s a great day, plus it’s also a great day because I woke up, and I’m happy, and I exist, and I feel successful because I feel happy.”
That’s what success is – happiness. Seeing other people smile makes gnash feel happy; during the show, he’ll ask the crowd to take a second to smile. The performance is “output output output” as he’s trying to encourage other people to feel better, but “that little moment… does that for me. Seeing that many people smile at one time is so powerful, energetically, ’cause people are a lot more powerful than they think they are.”
The songs on gnash’s debut album we – which is out now on :): (that’s pronounced “happysad”) / Atlantic Records – come from personal experiences. Some of these are painful experiences, but he tells me that “without sounding overly dramatic, I think that life, a lot of the time, is painful.” Coming from just about anyone else, that would sound rather dark, but gnash is simply aware that pain is sometimes a fact of life, and that’s okay. While answering my questions, he was “thinking about fifteen things,” but it’s not for lack of attention. Rather, it’s because of how powerful our minds are. “We as humans were given these extremely powerful brains that are so powerful that they consume themselves with thinking and worrying and being fearful and having anxiety and being egotistical and narcissistic and over-exaggerating things and feeling weird and feeling great, all of these things. We’re constantly feeling something because our brains are just bored, we only have so much going on at any given moment.” He always aims to be happy because “if I don’t work from a positive mental place at all given times, I won’t see the greatest success in life, and the greatest success is happiness.”
gnash clarifies that there’s a difference between being “positive” and being “happy.” Being positive is about focusing less on negative thoughts and emotions like fear or embarrassment that happened in the past, and more on being grateful to be alive and content with where you’re at in the present. If he’s overwhelmed, he recognizes that “it’s usually about past or future.” To remedy that, “if I just focus on that exact moment I’m living in, there’s so many things to be thankful for, and that’s what I thrive on when I start to feel really sad.”
Having a creative output is also crucial, and it’s not about skill but expressing what you’re feeling. For gnash, creativity comes in the form of writing songs to get stuff off of his chest. It’s a life goal of his to make a song “about every single thing I feel,” but sometimes the realities of traveling and being on the road make it difficult to write and record. In addition, when writing songs, there are some things he doesn’t even want to discuss, but sometimes the things he assumes nobody else will connect with end up being the ones listeners connect with most. He lists “insane” (“I fake a smile to keep the sad thoughts out of my head,” he sings in the first verse), “feel better,” and “be” as songs that are specific and personal, but have reached and helped many fans.
“dear insecurity” is another “ultra-personal” track, but it quickly connected with fans, who began posting on social media about working to overcoming their insecurities. On the verses, he gets specific about his own insecurities (“I feel like what shouldn’t be couldn’t be clearer / My nose to my clothes, from my chin to my skin” he sings on the first verse), while he tries to make the hooks to his songs “as grand as possible” and more generally accessible. Fans were inspired by gnash’s openness to apply their own experiences to the song, “almost filling the verses in for themselves. It’s almost like I should put a version of it out with no verses and just let the choruses play and then let people paint their own Picasso on that.”
For the meet and greet, on each day of the tour gnash will be doing a different arts and crafts project with fans. In Philadelphia, they’re decorating hats. In the lobby of the venue are two tables, splattered with purple paint and glitter, with a white baseball hat and fabric paint at each chair. Making the hat is “a gift to themselves,” an experience to remember and something physical that they can take home that they made.
More importantly than the crafts that they’ll bring home is the conversations they’ll start and the friendships they’ll form. While painting, gnash will bring up questions – “what are you grateful for, what’s your dog’s name, things like that” – to help everyone to get to know each other and become friends. The show “is just the dojo for me to bring people that love the music into a room where they can communicate,” and some real connections have come out of the tour dates. Seeing other people sing along to the same songs that you are makes it possible to bridge the gap and share their individual stories. gnash reflects that many people don’t have any friends, and he has “very few friends”; but after each show, “I got at least six hundred new friends, and that’s fantastic.”
The conversation continues after the show, where he hosts a nightly broken hearts club meeting. Fifty to a hundred people will meet up after the emotional experience of the show to regroup and come together. It’s a free meeting where they can talk about how they feel and bring up questions. The broken hearts club meeting is a chance to meditate and come together, and it’s also been effective in helping people make new friends: “I’ve seen people talking to their new friends online or making a group DM or exchanging Snapchat names or whatever it is. That’s been beautiful because that was the point of the broken hearts club tour, to get people to come together to talk about how we feel, because if we feel together, then we’ll feel better.”
That same idea is the core behind the journey across gnash’s prior EPs U, me, and us, and his album we. “The story of we is where we take the songs now and how we apply them to ourselves and help ourselves with them,” he shares. While everyone’s experiences are different, “feelings are not necessarily unique…We’re humans, and you can categorize those feelings into buckets, and that’s not to say you can feeling-compare, there’s things that are obviously more extreme than others, but if you’re feeling, let’s say generally lonely – how is that resolved? Other people. Where do you do that? You can come here, or you can do that at the grocery store, or you can go to the park, or you can – whatever – it’s just about having that thing that you – jump – and you have that thing to talk about.” The broken hearts club meetings are a chance to plant the seeds for conversation and for friendships to grow. He quotes the album closer “p.s.” – “I planted you a garden for your flowers to grow” – adding that, “the idea is that all of the songs on the album are these seeds for people to grow their own gardens from and bloom together.”
“happysad” is not just gnash’s label and genre; it’s his whole outlook. “happysad is a range of emotions that I feel like I exist between a lot of the time,” he explains and describes a middle line of emotions. When he’s sad, writing a new song or playing a show might pull him back up to happy; but when he’s happy, if he thinks about something too long, he might fall back down in to sad. When asked if it’s possible to have a steady equilibrium, he shares that “I think it’s possible; I just haven’t quite figured it out yet.” However, every day he works to stabilize that line a little more and “create a baseline that’s in the happy side of things,” whether by meditating routinely, tapping into his breathing, drinking enough water, or thinking about things he’s grateful for. It’s all a chain reaction: “Happy is success, success comes from peace of mind, peace of mind comes from doing what my purpose is, and so right now I’m doing that to do peace of mind, to do success, to do happy, to make other people happy – and then my baseline will be increased and I’ll feel like a fulfilled individual. I’m working towards that this year- that’s my goal by the end of the year.”
I observe that he seems to have a very healthy way of handling his emotions, and he nods in agreement. “I do my best, and we try to encourage people to do the same,” he says. Following “dear insecurity,” for which he brought out an acoustic guitar, gnash lead the crowd in a “mini-meditation,” counting down from three and instructing people to breathe in and out to let go of the bad stuff and “replace it with the positive energy in this room.” On stage, “I talk about how important it is to drink water and think and have space to think and be proud of yourself and not let small or big things get to you and just know that everything will pass and that it’ll be okay and tomorrow’s just a dream away and all the things that I encourage people to believe in.”
Before he wrote songs, gnash was a DJ. “DJing is just another beautiful form of expression, so I finally felt like I wanted to make the songs that other people could play to feel better,” he says about the transition to becoming an artist. Not everyone is so comfortable expressing their emotions. “I’m unique in that, I think,” he reflects, “and I think that that is actually what drives the purpose of being the person on the soapbox for other people. ‘Cause I’m saying something and that makes it a little bit more comfortable for another person to say it.” He tells a story of, at five years old, being the “mayor” of the street he grew up on, going around to introduce himself to new neighbors and offer to help if they needed anything. “I’ve always been like that,” he says. “I’ve always been someone who is down to lead the conversation and not only lead the conversation but leave the conversation with people for them to lead the conversation themselves.”
For the broken hearts club tour, gnash and his team purposely chose smaller rooms. “What we aim to do every night is send all 250 to 600 of those people home with a new empowerment to feel like they can lead the conversation we had at the show together in their bubble, in their existence,” he explains. Sometimes, the quietest people at the arts and crafts event will be screaming and singing along and going crazy by the end of the show. He recounts excitedly, “All of a sudden now they feel empowered, and they feel inspired to go back into their life, no matter how down or miserable or sad the people are around them and be that light.”
It’s all about creating “that ecosystem for yourself of people around you that you love and you trust, and you’re grateful for,” to bring you back to the positive baseline, which “puts you back in that success, which is happy, which is seeing the people around you happy. And all of that is based on peace of mind – you have to have peace of mind, and that is achieved through meditation- that’s the core of everything.” Of course, bad days still happen, but gnash is self-aware enough to know that “if I’m having an off day, I probably haven’t taken time to meditate and I probably haven’t taken time to drink enough water.” He was first introduced to meditation through a yoga class in college; his favorite part was the breath work, “and that’s meditation.” He has also explored mindful meditation, which he describes as “a system created by more Western believers in meditation to – not necessarily cancel everything out or not think about anything through your mind. Turning worry to concentration and fear to love, and just being present in the here and the now and breathing and taking time for yourself.” During the performance of “pajamas,” a celebration of staying in with your loved one and focusing on the here and now, he proclaimed, “fuck the news, let’s be present.”
“‘Cause that’s really what it all comes down to,” he continues, “taking time for yourself to channel into whatever message is sitting right there that you needed to hear for so long.” We live in a world where people feel pressured to always be doing something and going full-speed ahead, to the point where they don’t have time to acknowledge what’s going through their head. It doesn’t have to be that way, and gnash says that “the most successful people in the world take time for themselves to meditate every day…. If you’re not taking time for yourself, then you’re never genuinely gonna be successful, happiness, because you’re not happy, so you’re not expressing that, you’re not spreading that to everyone that surrounds you.”
All of the money or records in the world won’t translate into happiness if you don’t have that inner peace. “I had ‘i hate u, i love u,’ I know what it feels like to be monetarily successful, I know what it feels like to be financially successful, and I’m thankful for that,” he stresses, “but all the while, I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t grateful; I wasn’t trusting, I wasn’t loving of the people around me, I wasn’t positive, I wasn’t happy to wake up every day. I was miserable.”
Some people aren’t open to positivity and will take to criticizing other people’s interests or the things that have helped them. gnash offers that sometimes this criticism comes from people who aren’t ready to feel better themselves yet. “Those insecurities and those things can live with somebody for the rest of their life,” he points out, “but if you’ve found something that helps you feel better – thrive in that. Love that. And don’t let anybody else’s opinion or interjection get in the way of that, because that is what’s gonna get you to that next step.”
Towards the end of the set, he played “superlit” per fan request (it wasn’t originally on the setlist). He quotes the song mid-interview – “negative energy will never get the best of me” – and tells me that when negative comments do come up, such as on a promoted Facebook post, he normally deletes them. “Negativity spreads negativity… my understanding of reality doesn’t provide negativity to me. It doesn’t allow me to receive it and when I do start to do that, I keep a lot of people around me that remind me that we’re doing a good thing and I’m doing the best I can do to feel great every day and to help people feel great and to help people feel better.” Nowadays, waking up every day “and feeling fucking fantastic” is what matters the most. He has peace of mind, he’s happy, and with that, gnash is successful.
gnash is on the road for the broken hearts club tour now; head to his website to see a list of all tour dates.