I first met Grady Lee well over a decade ago, when we were both in the junior lifeguards summer program in front of the East Beach Grill. He was a stringy kid with dirty blond hair, a goofy sense of humor, and irrepressible energy. On more than one occasion, it got him in trouble. Buoy swims at East Beach served as a kind of collective punishment for Grady’s constant antics, and it sometimes earned him the scorn of his comrades. Why couldn’t he sit still? Why couldn’t he keep his mouth shut?
These days, nobody is asking Lee to keep quiet. In fact, it’s just the opposite: He’s in the early stages of what looks to be a promising career as a pop musician, and he’s just signed on with his first label, Artist Publishing Group (APG), which describes itself as “a modern label for forward thinking and entrepreneurial artists.” His profile on the digital music service Spotify has more than 350,000 monthly listeners, with songs such as “500 Days of Summer” and “Can You Hear the Moon” among his most popular.
Grady was born and raised in Santa Barbara, and the city that raised him has made its way into his music. “I don’t think I realized how special it is to grow up in Santa Barbara until I left for the first time,” he said. “I think it took me moving to a different city to really understand what it meant to grow up here.”
Like many kids from Santa Barbara, the beach lifestyle is a central aspect of the city’s identity. “I think growing up with a family that was really aquatic and surrounded by the surf scene definitely made its way into my music,” he said. That influence comes across in the easygoing, catchy rhythm of his music.
Lee grew up listening to bands like Nirvana, the White Stripes, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but he claimed John Mayer was his biggest musical influence. “I think when you’re going through the classic teenager stuff of feeling like no one understands you, his music struck a chord,” Lee said. “When I was first starting to write songs, he was the catalyst.”
A self-proclaimed “funky kid,” Lee admitted that he didn’t always have an easy time fitting in when he was young. His song “Model Student,” filmed at his alma mater of Dos Pueblos High School, includes the lyrics, “I didn’t dress the same / I didn’t act the same / But the popular kids / peaked around 17.” The song has traces of triumphalism, as Lee skates through the hallways of his high school, belting out lyrics that describe his difficulties.
But Lee said he was never uncomfortable with the fact that he was eccentric. “I think when you’re younger, you want to fit in, and that can make you kind of insecure, and you don’t want to cause too much of a scene because standing out and being yourself can be scary,” he explained. “But I’ve always tried to accept it and be happy with it, even if it was a little isolating sometimes.”
As Lee’s music career starts to take off, he said he’s still learning how to “speak his truth” and let go of any inhibitions he has. “I don’t try to overthink my process; I think that’s the bane of creativity. Your subconscious knows more than you do,” he said. “Kind of letting go of your worries and speaking your truth is what I’m trying to do now. I like music that sounds like it was made by someone who really cares about what they’re saying.”
Asked about his musical goals, Lee said, “If I’m responsible for helping one person take a risk and follow their path, that to me is unbelievably gratifying.”