Three months ago, I was sitting in a tiny coffee shop in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. There were probably, oh, five or six people in the joint. I had my laptop, my cup of coffee, my notepad. Happy guy, happy place.
I was told the live music would begin in 40 minutes.
“Crap,” I thought. “Last thing I need right now …”
Then Andrew Stratman began to sing. And I was mesmerized.
I mean that—mesmerized. Yeah, the guy has a terrific voice, and a kind demeanor. But it was more than that. Stratman wore his pain. Actually, lemme rephrase that: Wore his fucking pain. You could feel it in the music, in the words, in the way he stood there, shoulders slumped, beard seven or eight days old, the scent of cigarette clinging to his T-shirt. I’d never met Andrew before that night, but his presence and demeanor and music screamed, “I’ve seen some shit …”
And, indeed, he has.
I blogged about Andrew that night, and we’ve become Facebook pals since. I don’t say this about many up-and-coming performers, but I really believe this dude has stardom in his future. Maybe it’s talent plus desire plus drive, but … yeah. He’s got it.
Andrew Stratman, your truck has more than 250,000 miles on the odometer. But you’ve made it to The Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: Andrew, these questions tend to be unorthodox and sometimes annoying. So I’m gonna start with unorthodox and annoying. When I heard you sing I thought, “Man, this guy had it!” Then, during break, I saw you smoke a cigarette and I also thought, “Man, why would he do that?” Which leads to the question, Andrew—why the hell do soooo many singers smoke? I mean, your vocal chords are absolutely everything to you. It’d be like me pouring soda on my laptop, no?
ANDREW STRATMAN: I started smoking when I was young. At the time I suppose I thought it was to be “cool” or to fit in with everyone I was running around with. Like most adults who started smoking at an early age I regret ever picking the habit up. But, sadly, I really enjoy smoking. I recently realized it is yet another thing that I love and enjoy that I am going to have to give up soon. One of my favorite things to do on stage is to take a few drags off my cigarette and then stick it in the headstock of my guitar between the strings and let it smoke while I play. Then I pick it up and finish it off after the song is done. But like I said, I know I have to give it up soon.
J.P.: There are a lot of crap singers who make it big thanks to looks, thanks to style, thanks to equipment making their voices sound good. And you’re a guy with a remarkable voice and style, sometimes playing before 3 … 4 … 5 people. Does that at all irk you? Frustrate you? Why or why not?
A.S.: Obviously it’s frustrating to see people get things handed to them—not only in the music business but just in regular day-to-day life. I have worked since I was a young boy, and worked hard for everything I have. I believe that makes you appreciate everything more if you have earned it. Now, I’ll admit, I’ve had my fair share of moments that involve just being in the right place at the right time … there are lucky opportunities that have definitely made my life and journey easier. But having worked so hard and for so long to make it in the music business makes me appreciate everything—lucky, accidental, whatever—more than most.
J.P.: How do you write a song? Literally, what’s your process?
A.S.: I use my songwriting as therapy. So, for me, songwriting has always been an outlet for my emotion. Honestly, I will have an idea or a verse or a hook come to me and then, while I’m scrambling for my guitar and a pen and paper, I am just letting that idea or verse flow. Then I’ll pick up my guitar and try to put my words to music. Sometimes I will write a verse and let it sit for weeks before coming back to it. Sometimes I can write a whole song in 10 minutes—almost as if it’s just pouring out of me. Those are the ones that mean the most and that I am more proud of. It’s in-the-moment emotion that comes out of my mind and my heart and comes alive in a song that I can sing to one person or 1,000 people. As a songwriter and performer, you really hope that someone out there may be able to relate to the music and that, perhaps, it can help someone through his own struggles. Some of my songs are very personal and not everyone can relate. But for those who can relate, I hope they can relate very deeply and find peace in it. It’s a very cool feeling to see someone relate to your song.
J.P.: You’re from Missouri, I know that. And you first got a guitar as a Christmas gift when you were 13. But how did this happen? When did you know—really know—singing is my thing, and this is what I’m gonna try to do with my career?
A.S.: I got my first real guitar when I was 13. I remember an old home video of me when I was 5 or 6 in a red cowboy hat with a toy guitar and microphone singing a song I’d written about my grandpa’s turkey farm. Hopefully someone has destroyed that video before TMZ gets a hold of it. I played guitar and sang all through high school but never thought of it as something that was possible to do forever—and surely not for a living. But when I was 20 I was in a contest, Missouri Idol, and I sang a song I had written for my little brother, who had watched me grow up drinking and partying with my friends. As he got older he started following my path, and it scared me so bad. I remembered back to all of my close calls both with death and the law and I was so scared for him. The worst thing was, how could I tell him not to do as I did when he actually saw me do it all? So I wrote him a song. The chorus is: I don’t wanna see your name in writing/I don’t want to see your name in stone/I don’t want to see our mama crying/And I don’t ever want to be big brother all alone.
When I sang that song on stage that night I knew my friends and family were there supporting me, but I didn’t think about my best friend Tommy, who had lost his younger brother to an automobile accident at age 15. Drinking was involved. I was on stage singing, and I watched as tears rolled down my friend’s face in the audience. I realized in that moment what it meant to connect with someone—musically—on a level that personal. I knew at that moment that this is what I was born to do. Since that day that same scenario—touching someone, reaching someone, impacting someone—has happened hundreds of times and each time it is reassuring and humbling.
When I decided to give it my all I had just come out of a three-year relationship that ended horribly. Dealing with the pain of that, I couldn’t focus on anything but music. I didn’t feel like myself anywhere but on the stage. I decided to take all the love and heart that I was giving to my relationship and put it into my music. Once I started letting people see my hurt and see my pain, well, things just took off. There were little signs reassuring me that I had made the right decision … people messaging me to say that my songs had changed a life or that my version of a song had touched them in some way. Soon people began to offer things through sponsorships—speakers, gear, clothes, tires for my truck … anything to help get me on the road. To this day I have my doubts, but then I look back at all that’s happened in my career and I know I’m where I need to be, doing what I need to be doing.
J.P.: I saw you perform at a coffee house in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. I believe there were 10 of us there. How do you get motivated to play tiny crowds? Is it hard? Do you ever think, “I should just go home?” And what’s the smaller crowd/venue you’ve ever played?
A.S.: I enjoy performing for people. Some of my best crowds have been three or four people who really listen. I would rather play a show for a few people who listen than to 1,000 people with only three or four paying attention. But I do enjoy entertaining a crowd, getting people into my music and getting them going. Obviously they are two very different types of shows with very different content and material but I enjoy both very much. At the end of the day I’m playing my music for me and as long as I am happy with what I’m doing I can live with that. There have been a few occasions where no one is listening and I am literally playing to myself. In those moments, I’d rather go outside and finish the show for myself than to keep interrupting the crowd’s ball game or NASCAR race. But usually there is at least one person paying close attention, and as long as there is that one person enjoying what I am doing, well, I feel like I’ve done my job.
J.P.: I know a couple of guys from Blind Melon, and back in the 1990s they were together, like, six weeks before getting a record deal. It seems painfully hard to get one nowadays. Is that even still the goal? And what are the obstacles you’ve encountered?
A.S.: I’ve heard of several cases like that, and that is awesome. A record deal isn’t impossible to accomplish. But a productive, successful, profitable record deal … that’s a tough one. Obviously, your chances of success improve when you have more people working behind you, promoting you and supporting you and booking you and and believing in you. I’m touring by myself, playing almost every gig I can get my hands just so I have enough money to keep me traveling down the highway, slowly putting money back for a recording. I want a record that I can sell and be proud of. Money is an is issue in everyone’s day-to-day life. I don’t need much, as I have been sleeping on friends’ and family’s couches and floors for the last year of my life. But equipment needs updating, instruments need maintenance, vehicles need maintenance. I drive a 1998 Dodge 1500 pickup 5spd 4wd, and behind it I pull a 12-foot enclosed trailer with all my equipment. My truck has 250,000 miles on it. There is no telling when that old truck is going to leave me stranded 500 miles away from a gig. But I just keep driving it because I have no choice. We are always looking for investors and sponsors to help financially, because they believe I have what it takes to “make it” (by “make it,” I don’t mean “rich and famous.” I mean making myself a profitable business investment).
J.P.: Serious question—how can you afford to do this? How do you make ends meet?
A.S.: Sometimes I can’t afford to do it … or just barely can. I literally live off of tips and gig pay. That is for gas, food, room and lodging, and maintenance on all of my equipment. My truck included. Sometimes it gets pretty hairy. Last week, for example, I had half a tank of gas in my truck. I hadn’t eaten all day and I left the coast and drove to Hattiesburg, Mississippi for a gig that had been on my calendar for seven weeks. I got there and the owner of the club told me I wasn’t playing. He had no reasoning. He just kept saying, “It’s not going to happen. We didn’t have a contract. I don’t owe you shit.” To which I replied, “I don’t understand, but you have a great day sir. Go fuck yourself!” When I got back inside my truck my low fuel light was on, my wallet was empty, and I had 100 miles to drive to get to where I was staying that night. I drove to a gas station and played my guitar for about 1 ½ hours and sold a few T-shirts. That got me enough money so I could put gas in the truck and make it to the next night’s show. And that ended up being a huge success. You just never know, but I cannot give up. I have come too far to give up.
J.P.: You’re 27—young dude. You’ve worked as a carpenter. How long do you give yourself chasing the dream? Like, do you have an idea in your head? Could there be a point when you say,”Fuck it, this isn’t worth it?”
A.S.: I’ve always told myself that if I’m not supporting myself comfortably by age 35 that I will find a career. I’m hopeful that, if that’s the case, I will at least have made enough connections via music that I can find work for a decent salary, doing something I don’t hate. But, to be completely honest, I can never give up. It’s in my heart to play music. I will never be completely happy if I’m not playing music to people. But I’m very confident that a greater power is at work for me and that I will be successful.
I’m already doing things bigger than I had ever dreamed. Sometimes I do get discouraged and down but then I look back at the last year of my life. If you had told me then that I would be here now, well, I would have said you were crazy. The names and people that I communicate with—via e-mail, text, Messenger or phone—on a daily basis is very impressive even to me. Like yourself, Mr. Jeff Pearlman. I would have never believed that I would be interviewed by you or someone of your caliber. I am very blessed and grateful for where I am and what I have accomplished and the fans and folks who I have behind me who believe in me. With a support system like I have, failure is not an option.
J.P.: When you see “Make it Big Right Now!” shows like American Idol and The Voice, are you a fan or turned off? Like, are you OK with the instant success while you’re busting ass? Is it legit? OK? Or bullshit?
A.S.: I have mixed emotions on the reality TV shows. I have actually tried out for The Voice several times, and have gotten nowhere. It is very hard to show people what you’re made of with one verse and one chorus of a song acapella. They have heard thousands of people in these auditoriums—it’s like cattle. And they put them in a room with 10 other people to sing one verse and one chorus. I understand that it is a TV show and it does have to be entertaining and so a few jokesters get by to keep it entertaining. I believe that the actual judges and the judging process are genuine and legitimate. And, honestly, those shows are just a fast track of what real life consists of. To beat out thousands of contestants to make it to the top 10 or 20 that make the show … you’ve got to be good. But, at the same time, if you have a bad morning in audition, you don’t make the show. And maybe you’re amazing—you just had a bad morning.
J.P.: I’ve heard a lot of rappers talk about pain driving their music—the pain of the ghetto, the pain of seeing friends killed, the pain of selling rock on a corner. Do you understand that, too? Does pain drive country music? Your music? Or is it something different?
A.S.: I absolutely can relate to pain driving me. I’d say 90 percent of my drive and determination is thriving off the pain I feel from the things I’ve done, the people who have hurt me, the people I’ve hurt. Pain is real and people can relate to pain much easier than they can relate to happiness. You’ve heard my show and I’m sure you could feel the pain from my songs and the hurt in my eyes when I sang them. It’s real.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH ANDREW STRATMAN:
• What smells worse—your socks at the end of a long gig or moldy ice cream?: I’m going to have to go with ice cream on this one. I play barefoot pretty much whenever I can. Allows the foot to ventilate.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Nelson Cruz, caramelized onions, Guns n Roses, The Godfather, Big Daddy Kane, J.C. Chasez, Kindles, the color green, San Diego, BP, ostriches: Guns n Roses, green, caramelized onions, San Diego, The Godfather, Kindles, Big Daddy Kane, Nelson Cruz, J.C. Chasez, BP, ostriches (ostriches freak me out—bad)
• How certain are you that there’s life after death?: I believe in some form of life after death.
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: I have never thought that would happen.
• Someone offers you $200,000 to record, “Stratman does the Songs of Tupac: Country Style.” You in?: “Hey, Andrew, do you want to record Tupac’s greatest hits in your style? And we’ll hand you $200,000?” Answer: Fuck yeah!!!
• Would you rather father Celine Dion’s love child or fight Mike Tyson for 2 minutes?: That’s a pretty loaded question. Would Celine and I be in love, too? And just for the fun of it I’d take a hit from Mike Tyson. But only if I can pee in his pool.
• Derek Jeter has retired. What should we give him as a present?: I’ve always been fond of fruit baskets for retirement presents.
• I absolutely love this song. Your thoughts?: Great song. Love the video, too. It makes you think.