Years before “I Don’t Want to Be” propelled him to pop/rock success, songwriter Gavin DeGraw began honing his piano skills at the age of eight, followed by his participation in several cover bands with his older brother in upstate New York. After a brief stint at the prestigious Berklee School of Music — where he rubbed shoulders with future singer/songwriter contemporary John Mayer — DeGraw decided to take his original songs to New York City. He arrived in the late ’90s and steadily expanded his audience with a series of buzzworthy shows, one of which was captured on the concert recording Gavin Live. The steady buzz led to offers from major labels, and DeGraw eventually signed a record deal with Clive Davis and his J Records imprint (home of Santana, as well as R&B mainstays Alicia Keys and Angie Stone).
DeGraw’s debut album, Chariot, arrived during the summer of 2003. Like the singer’s early days in New York City, Chariot slowly built momentum and earned the young DeGraw a small but fervent following. By 2004, the lead-off single “I Don’t Want to Be” had become a Top Ten hit, and the album itself was soon re-released in expanded form under the title Chariot + Stripped. DeGraw’s next single, the titular “Chariot,” was also met with positive response and climbed the charts in 2005, pushing the album to double platinum sales. DeGraw took five years to release a self-titled sophomore album, which appeared in 2008, initially charting higher than the Chariot release but failing to spawn any comparable singles. Then DeGraw shifted gear and the looser and seemingly less labored Free appeared only a few months later in early 2009.