“It’s a total dream come true.”
The media attention from that second strike of viral lightning has given Erhard an essential career boost. The crowd watched through their phones. Despite holding a day job as a back-end developer for Denver’s Greystone Technology, the theme of authentic, organic existence has captivated Erhard since his days growing up in Del Norte, a small rural town on the western edge of the San Luis Valley. “I tried every style of guitar playing and vocal style I knew: weird lyrics, cool lyrics, super-pop crap lyrics,” he said. “I felt like I needed to do the ‘Manifest’ thing,” he said. Since the Wonder video’s massive success, his modest following has exploded, resulting in gig offers in countries like China, Turkey and France, places he’d only dreamed of playing before. They ended up writing 30 songs during their trip. His solo work rests heavily on a technically complex tap-and-slap style of percussive guitar popularized by Michael Hedges in the ’80s, sometimes paired with nonchalant vocals, sometimes not. “It put us in this really weird mood. Unencumbered, Erhard and Bannigan aimed to use the time offline productively. It was there that Erhard ground out a sound that is entirely his own. It was precisely what he’d sought refuge from in his six days in the desert. Then, something funny happened: It went viral. “Now I have more time to write the best music I’ve ever written.”
Erhard had planned to play less shows in 2017 to focus on honing his sound, but the people have spoken. Especially because that world — the one “Manifest” in part decries — won’t let him go. In November, “Manifest” shot to nearly 1 million views from Facebook and YouTube in its first week, and an appearance on Reddit’s front page. Fresh off leaving Fort Collins alt-bluegrass band Pandas and People (it didn’t end well, Erhard said), they set off for the desert outside Taos, N.M., in an old white Subaru Outback to look for inspiration in isolation — something of an unofficial songwriter’s tradition. Lately, the internet’s steady stream of fake news and politicking had permeated Erhard’s psyche to the extent that he needed to write a song about it. For Erhard especially, it was as much about escaping the constant psychic noise of the internet as it was seeking artistic enlightenment. (“I want to write music that moves people, rather than impresses them,” he said.)
But pulled between the purity of a musicians’ musician and the accessible, trend-obsequious world of pop, he has struggled to stay the course. Naturally, this video went viral, too, popping up everywhere from Rolling Stone to BBC World News and, of course, The Denver Post. “We wrote some of the worst songs on the planet and it was just a really exploratory time for us.”
In the Earthship, Erhard worked under strings of Buddhist prayer flags and southwestern Native American symbols. The vibe was a carry over from the spirit of his hometown in a section of southern Colorado known simply as “The Valley,” an area hot with alien observatories and cosmic undertones. I don’t know if it could have been more organic.”
Erhard and Bannigan’s shack was an Earthship, an up-cycled structure designed for self-sustained, off-the-grid living. He hits on a potent ratio of those elements in “Manifest,” an exemplar of the kind of musician Erhard wants to be. The internet, though, and the power of social networks, was exactly what would launch his career as a full-time musician. DENVER, CO – JANUARY 26: After two viral videos — one with Stevie Wonder — singer-songwriter Grayson Erhard was able to quit his day job and “write the best music I’ve ever written.” (Photo By John Leyba/The Denver Post)
Last September, 25-year-old singer-songwriter Grayson Erhard and drummer Ryan Bannigan holed up in a shack built low into the New Mexican desert. “Manifest / your world is your reflection,” Erhard sings in its video, surrounded by televisions and computers that flicker with images of then-president Barack Obama, Kim Kardashian and infomercial detritus. Over Erhard’s knotty guitar playing, the two launched into an impromptu duet. On March 12, you can see him at Denver’s Soiled Dove Underground — no internet connection required. We’re out in the middle of nowhere in the ground. “I’ll teach you the words you don’t know,” Wonder said. Hence “Manifest” was born, a cultural narrative that laments our dependence on social media and its propensity to overwhelm our lives. “In the city there’s this pressure to categorize yourself, but in the valley I am what I am,” Erhard said. “Fans are buying music and merch on a daily basis and I’m finally at a point where I can live off their support,” Erhard said. “My life afterwards immediately changed,” Erhard said of the moment. Two weeks ago, Erhard was finishing a truncated cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” to a small audience in a hotel lobby during musician trade show National Association of Music Merchants when Wonder himself approached the stage. Erhard apologized to him for not knowing the lyrics to the second and third verse. The structures since moved on from scavenged trash to smooth wood, a face of sloping glass windows, adobe features and green tin roofs blending into the desert landscape. Written in part to assail the internet, Erhard’s song was championed by it. He’s since resigned from his day job at Greystone Technology to pursue music full time.