During his flights from Denver to New York and Los Angeles, Dakota Ridge High School student Graham Stookey has more on his mind than most of his peers.
As many of his fellow seniors begin stressing about prom dates and college acceptance letters, Graham is negotiating terms with record labels on both coasts, choosing a deal that could help solidify his musical career and make him a household name.
But just months ago the 18-year-old singer-songwriter, generally recognized as a talented kid with a boisterous, affable personality, was in their teen-angst shoes. Graham was drifting in the restlessness of his final year of high school, eager to move on.
But that all changed on Oct. 16, when Graham’s best friend, Keith Wall, made a video of his original song “Jonah.”
Wall, also a guitar player at Dakota Ridge, joked at the end of the recording that if teen pop star Justin Bieber could attain fame, so too could Graham, who consequently exploded in laughter.
But a week later the video, which reportedly sparked initial interest because of the “Justin Bieber” tag in its title, had accrued more than 100,000 views on YouTube.
Graham received a phone call from a California-based entertainment marketing and development firm, representatives who ultimately became his managers. And record labels began contacting him.
“He filmed it. He put it on YouTube. I didn’t think anything of it, because I had always reality-checked myself out of ever thinking anything could happen,” Stookey said at a March 9 interview at his family’s home near Dakota Ridge. “We put the video up, and then a week later it explodes. I get a text in chemistry class. … Last time I (had) checked it was 10,000. I thought 10,000 views was incredible. I was fine if it stopped right there.”
To date, the original video has been watched more than 337,000 times, and Graham has performed on Ryan Seacrest’s website, CBS News and Oprah, where he unexpectedly was provided an impromptu jam session with rock legend Lenny Kravitz.
“I knew nothing about the Lenny Kravitz thing. I always thought that off-stage surprises were a load of crap, but they’re not,” Graham said.
Kravitz also handed him an autographed electric guitar.
“I nearly passed out, as he walks out in all his rock-star glory. He’s the epitome of a rock star. It was a dream come true.”
If Graham’s almost overnight rise to modest fame has been a surprise to anyone, it might be his mother, Shelby.
“Five minutes ago he was a carefree kid in high school, and we wanted him to have a really nice high school year … and then this happens,” Shelby said. “This dream really landed on his doorstep. We didn’t go looking for it, but it feels like a door he had to walk through, because it wasn’t our plan.”
Despite Graham’s previous plan to attend college — he applied to the Belmont University School of Music in Nashville, Tenn. — his education has been put on hold as he explores the possibility of performing professionally right out of high school.
“School (was) as a social outlet, really, because music’s always what I’ve wanted to do. Everything else was kind of noise,” said Graham, who has focused on music despite aptitude in other academic disciplines. “I’m going to get an education; it’s just depending on when. … If I can do music for a living now, why would I go spend four years trying to get to a place I can get now?”
Shelby, herself a 2008 graduate of the Denver Seminary, supports the decision.
“College is one of those things that he can pick up later,” she said. “I think when you’re more mature you appreciate it more, and you actually learn more.”
But Graham’s post-high school education may be the least of her worries.
While Graham was checking into a posh Los Angeles hotel so he could record a five-song EP, his brother, Collin, a 2008 graduate of Dakota Ridge and a Marine, was in Afghanistan, taking cover from a monsoon under a Humvee.
“I pray for him constantly. … I have my entire church praying for him,” Shelby said of Collin. “The weirdest thing about being a parent in this situation is that my family is so entertaining to people, because of the extreme things my kids are doing.”
A normal life — for now
Despite being on the cusp of success, Graham is still living a somewhat normal life in South Jeffco, albeit under a magnifying glass.
As the Columbine Courier’s staff photographer prepared to take his photo, Shelby called out to Graham, cautioning him to make sure no errant underwear was strewn about the basement floor.
“It’s been really fun, because I can experience all of this without having the stress and all the stuff that he goes through. I hear about everything, but I can just kind of sit back and relax,” said best friend Wall. “I’m like the only one who sees that entire process.”
Wall, whose baby picture sits in a frame near the Stookeys’ kitchen, noted that the increased attention to Graham is noticeable at Dakota Ridge.
“Watching Graham at school is hilarious now,” Wall said, explaining that students frequently comment to Graham in the halls about his TV appearances. “Girls he hasn’t talked to in years are talking to him on Facebook.”
Regardless of media coverage noting the comparison of Graham to Bieber, the local musician’s viral rise to Internet stardom would be more accurately attributed to his refined chops, skills he honed years ago while practicing, of all things, death metal.
“When I was 13, I picked up the electric guitar for the first time. And throughout junior high I got really into shred death metal. So I grew my hair out really long and started shredding. It was a pretty awkward time of life, but so is every middle school kid’s,” Graham said. “I would just sit in my basement and drill exercises and kind of get the technical part of it.”
But a visit to a John Mayer concert transformed his perspective. With a heightened regard for lyrics and emotion, the young metalhead cut his locks and picked up an acoustic guitar. The techniques he honed in his previous studies transferred surprisingly well to a new genre, making Graham a unique face in a medium that often has more sparkle than skill.
“What makes him unique is proficiency in all those areas. He’s a true renaissance man,” said Ben Kusin, whose entertainment company, F/AME, manages Graham. “Upon seeing his video on YouTube, it stood me still, because it’s rare that you see a kid his age who has that kind of musicality.”
Kusin and his business partner, Brian Adler, boarded a flight to Denver a day after contacting Graham, forgoing their tickets to a World Series game that evening.
Though Graham’s EP is now available on iTunes, he has yet to select a record company for a full-length album. With so much interest, Graham apparently has his choice among recording giants, Kusin said, explaining that he could not yet say which companies have approached him.
“We are actively speaking to labels on both coasts — all the major labels,” Kusin said, noting that a label will suit Graham well if it does not attempt to pigeonhole him. “He’s very original and unique, and he needs to be himself throughout his career. … (If all goes well), he will be a household name.”
Part of Graham’s plan to “get out of his parents’ basement,” where he practices for about an hour a day, is an Internet campaign designed to raise contributions to cover travel and other expenses. On Indiegogo.com Graham, raised his goal of $15,000 in only three days.
And before he sees his dream of headlining a show at Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Graham has a lot of writing to do. Despite having completed 10 songs, at least 20 more are in various stages of completion.
“I write music out of experience. I write what I know,” he said. “Of course, there’s the girl part of it, just because I’m in high school. I’m the kind of kid who wears my heart on my sleeve and gets screwed over all the time, so that gives me plenty of ammunition to write music about.”
And though he embodies a self-described up-front attitude, most, including his principal, perceive him as a gregarious student keen to make others feel good about themselves.
“He’s this really humble, genuinely nice human being,” said Dakota Ridge principal Jim Jelinek. “He’s so good to everybody. That’s who he is.”
And in spite of his potential future as a rock star, Graham is, for now, just another 18-year-old facing transition.
“I’m just a suburban kid from Littleton, Colorado,” he said. “This thing just kind of landed on my doorstep, and I’m running with it.”