Wrabel doesn't make "cool" music, and he's made peace with that.
Speaking to Logo over Zoom from his home in Los Angeles, the seasoned singer-songwriter, née Stephen Wrabel but known professionally as Wrabel, makes no apologies for his finding and owning his musical niche. He's beloved for his evocative, piano-driven pop ballads about love and loss. "I love love," he gushes. "I love cheese. I love drama. I love plain old honesty, plain old, 'Tell me the story. What happened? How did it happen? What were you wearing? What was the weather?'"
Does it ever tiptoe into cheese-y territory? Perhaps, but it's what Wrabel enjoys and where he excels. "Those are the kinds of songs that taught me how to write a song," he says.
After nearly a decade of working in the music industry, the 32-year-old is finally releasing his debut full-length album, These Words Are All for You, today (September 24). The years-in-the-making record is a taxonomy of Wrabel's greatest trials and triumphs, referencing everything from gutting heartbreaks (the poignant, atmospheric "London") to his ongoing sobriety journey (the stirring lead single "Nothing but the Love"). But his biggest point of pride isn't his songwriting or storytelling skills. It's his confidence in his creative vision and his ability to articulate it.
He recalls meeting with his producer, songwriter-producer Stint, to work on the album in 2020: "He asked, 'What do you want to make?' I said, 'Nothing you've never heard.' He was like, 'What?' And I was like, 'I mean that. Let's write that on the whiteboard. That's how much I mean that.'" He made him a playlist full of artists who inspired him: Augustana, Emeli Sandé, Bruce Hornsby, The Fray. "I was like, 'No tricks, please,'" he remembers telling Stint, laughing. "'If there's a sound that I've never heard before, I'm going to freak out.' And it was kind of this interesting container that I put us in because if you look up his discography, you listen and you're like, 'This is the coolest thing I've ever heard. What is that sound?'"
Of course, it's taken Wrabel years of varied experiences — some positive, some that left him riddled with "imposter syndrome, all-caps Self Loathing" — to reach this level of self-assuredness. Long before These Words Are All for You even had a name, Wrabel cut his teeth in the industry as a songwriter, collaborating with artists like Kesha and Adam Lambert on pop tracks. In 2012, he got his taste of major-label life when he signed with Island Def Jam Records. He released an EP under the label in 2014, but the relationship was short-lived.
By 2016, he'd signed with Epic Records, which oversaw the release of "11 Blocks," a lovelorn ballad about living 11 blocks away from his ex-boyfriend post-breakup, and "The Village," the pro-transgender anthem that put him on the map as a solo atist. He also collaborated with P!nk in 2019 on the moving ballad "90 Days," an experience P!nk loved so much, she actually shouted him out in an interview on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. "His dream is to make an album," she told DeGeneres, "and I hope that this is what does it for him."
Now, Wrabel releases music under Big Gay Records, a label he founded as a means of reclaiming creative power over his work. Although he remains "grateful" for the opportunities Island and Epic afforded him, he knew it was time to move on. The pivot was reaffirmed when he teamed up with the indie label Nettwerk, which released These Words Are All for You in conjunction with Big Gay Records. "That initial talk was my first time having a candid conversation about my work life, and what I want, and what I am not willing to compromise on," he says. "I've never felt confident enough to go to a label and say, 'This is what's happening,' but I was able to be very upfront."
Fully owning his own music allowed Wrabel to write about whatever he wanted, too. On These Words Are All for You, that includes sobriety, a complicated subject for him and many other LGBTQ people. This February, Wrabel celebrated six years sober. (He'd previously relapsed after the four-year mark, so this anniversary was especially meaningful.) For years, he internalized "so much shame" around being sober. "I felt like I couldn't tell someone I'm sober because they'll think I'm weak," he remembers, "or they'll think I'm fucked up."
Now, Wrabel knows he doesn't have to shoulder that heavy burden alone. "I can't carry the weight of that without talking about it, without sharing about it, without connecting with people about it," he says. "If I'm going through something, I like to write about it. And I like to reflect on it in the hopes that someone who might be going through something similar connects with it." He does just that on "Nothing But the Love" ("What could make me never wanna pick up a bottle again? / Nothing but the love you give").
"Pale Blue Dot," another beautiful ballad on the record, also invokes a fraught experience for Wrabel and many others: the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Although the world is beginning to resemble pre-pandemic life due to the widespread availability of COVID-19 vaccines, the virus is still spreading and poses a very real threat. It also exacerbated existing anxieties for Wrabel, who spent most of 2020 isolated from the world.
One silver lining, if you can call it that? Stay-at-home orders meant the norms of songwriting — dedicated sessions in expensive recording studios — were suspended. Wrabel actually cowrote "Pale Blue Dot" with Tenille Towns, a Canadian country music singer-songwriter, over texts and voice memos. "I was going on what I call my Jane Fonda walks, where I would put on my ankle weights and my little booty shorts and hit the road," he recalls. He sent Towns an image of the earth from space, a literal pale blue dot that launched him into an existential spiral. The rest was history.
Despite its unconventional origin story, "Pale Blue Dot" is a perfect example of the kinds of songs Wrabel does best. In fact, Wrabel's number-one piece of advice for up-and-coming artists might sound counterintuitive, but he swears by it: "Find your comfort zone and build a fucking house in it."
"A lot of people will tell you, 'Go out of your comfort zone, branch out, try crazy ideas," he adds, "and I'm like, that's all good. But that has to be the exception and not the rule, in my very humble opinion.
These Words Are All for You is out now.