One day, not too long ago, Stephen Wrabel had what he describes as an “out of body experience.” Superstar Dutch DJ and artist Afrojack had fallen for a song that the Los Angeles-based singer, songwriter, and musician had written called “Ten Feet Tall.” Using Wrabel’s emotionally affecting vocal and piano tracks, Afrojack remixed the song and declared it the first U.S. single from his upcoming album. The DJ, who plays to hundreds of thousands of people a night at top electronic music festivals like Tomorrowland, began spinning his remix of “Ten Feet Tall” at his live shows. Clips started popping up on YouTube.
“Literally every morning I would wake up, go to my computer, look for it on YouTube and cry,” Wrabel says. “Just watching 150,000 dancing to my song with disco lights flashing, it was like, ‘Holy crap, this is really cool.’ Afrojack blew the lid off the essence of the song. I can’t listen to it without having a perma-grin on my face.’” Last October, Wrabel flew to Amsterdam to perform “Ten Feet Tall” live with Afrojack before a crowd of 7,000 people. “There were canons shooting out fire and dancing ladies in silhouette,” he marvels. “And let’s just say I’m used to playing to smaller rooms,” he adds wryly. “If 30 people show up, it’s like, ‘You guys, Hotel Café is f**king packed right now. I can’t even see the exit; this has to be a fire hazard.’”
With Afrojack’s remix of “Ten Feet Tall” being used in a Bud Light ad that premiered during the Super Bowl to an audience of more than 108 million viewers (plus an upcoming video, featuring Wrabel, shot by Hype Williams), Wrabel should get used to the attention. “Ten Feet Tall” will also appear on Wrabel’s Island Records debut album, which is shaping up to be a collection of lushly melodic and heartfelt, but bittersweet songs that he calls a series of snapshots from his life over the past two years. He describes “Ten Feet Tall” — a love song “about that first month of a relationship before reality kicks in” — as the happiest song on the album. “I’m not a big talker, relationship-wise, so writing songs gives me the freedom to say things I’m thinking that I might not be brave enough to say in person.”
To capture the range of moods he was going for, Wrabel teamed up with a host of noted collaborators, including Jimmy Hogarth (Amy Winehouse, KT Tunstall), Chris Braide (Beyoncé, Sia), Jim Eliot (Ellie Goulding) Greg Kurstin (Tegan & Sara), Drew Pearson (Katy Perry, OneRepublic), Dan Black and Greg Wells. “I wanted the music to capture the emotion of my experiences,” Wrabel says. “My mom always says, ‘The day you don’t run your life by pure emotion will be so glorious,’ but I think it’s more fun this way. More tragic, but more fun. As far as the sonics go, I like things to sound clean and crisp, rather than overdone and glossy. Less is definitely more.”
Wrabel fell in love with music from a young age — the one constant in a peripatetic childhood. His father’s job in sales took the family from Long Island, New York, where Wrabel was born, to Missouri, Virginia, California, Australia, and Texas. “I think moving around probably helped me,” he says. “I feel comfortable walking into a room where I don't know anyone. I can size people up quickly.” When Wrabel was in fifth grade, his mom asked him if he wanted to take singing lessons with a woman from their church. “And the woman was like, ‘Holy shit, this kid can sing,’” he says with a laugh. Wrabel took guitar lessons, began playing piano, and wrote his first song at 16 after buying an album by British artist Aqualung. “I became obsessed with him and his music,” Wrabel says. “That’s when I knew I wanted to write my own songs. His work was so pretty and emotional and it really inspired me.”
While still in high school, Wrabel was accepted to Boston’s Berklee College of Music. While there, he got the opportunity to work with the British writer-producer Paul O’Duffy (Amy Winehouse, Swing Out Sister), who offered him two weeks at his London studio. When the college’s administrators weren’t excited about his extra-curricular recording projects, Wrabel decided to leave to focus on his songwriting. Through MySpace he met producer-arranger Eve Nelson (Chaka Khan) who encouraged him to move to Los Angeles. He was 19. With his parents’ blessing, he moved to the West Coast and tried to get his music career going. “I lugged my piano all over L.A., playing wherever I could, like Genghis Cohen, Room Five, Karma Coffeehouse, random sports bars in the Valley, just to get some live experience,” he says.
Two years ago, Wrabel got a break when Pulse Recording, which represents some of the biggest songwriters and producers in the industry, signed him, leading to co-writes on songs by Phillip Phillips and Adam Lambert, though the goal was to develop Wrabel as an artist. A session with Chris Braide yielded “Ten Feet Tall” and “Office Lights,” which Wrabel considers the beginning of his record. “Something just happened when we wrote that song,” he says. “It was a confidence boost where I realized I have something to say and that it was time to write a record. Shortly after that I signed with Island Records.”
As the story goes, Island Def Jam Music Group chairman and CEO Barry Weiss and Executive Vice President/Head of A&R Karen Kwak signed Wrabel on the spot after hearing him perform at the Pulse Recording office. “It felt like that old-school thing where an artist walks into the record label chief’s office, sings two lines, and the record company chief makes it rain,” Wrabel says with a laugh. “Barry said, ‘You are what I’ve been waiting for since I got to the label, this is a no-brainer.’ I called my mom from the bathroom full-on crying. After the deal was done, I got to buy her a nice present, so that was good. It feels like my future is wide open.”