"You have to sometimes let go of something in order to blossom" John Graayenstein on FLY

Over a plate of slap chips on a bustling street in the heart of Stellenbosch, I am introduced to the wonderful ray of sunshine that is John Graayenstein. From telling us about mercury in retrograde to offering me a triangle-player position for the next concert, John gushes about his love for music, Glee, and Henko -the lead singer of Almost Alive-who sits beside him, offering him praise and laughing at my bad jokes.


John Joseph Graayenstein ("pronounced 'Grine-stein', like Einstein"), John is a musician and actor who loves to intertwine his two art forms. Starting to sing at age five, Graayenstein's parents decided to kindle John's love for music. He is trained in voice and piano and was instantly recognised for his talent. In matric, Graayenstein took centre stage when he sang a solo song with an orchestra following his tune at the Hugo Lambrecht’s Music Centre Concerto. Sentimentally, his sister was in that same orchestra, playing the violin. Fresh from his most recent concert, where he performed with Almost Alive, John is excited for his upcoming sold-out concert in October.


It is clear from the beginning that Henko and John have great chemistry; Graayenstein proudly shows off his Almost Alive t-shirt and says it is his favourite black shirt. John performed his first concert with Almost Alive earlier this year, and thus the Almost Alive – Graayenstein relationship was formed. The two immediately clicked, understanding each other and enjoying music just as much as the other. John says Henko's mother treats him as if he is her own son. He is very adamant in crediting most of his success to Henko, his musical director, who instead tells him, "You don't give yourself enough credit". John insists that Henko was the greatest help with tweaking chords and refining the technical aspects and feeling for the performance. They also balance each other; Graayenstein dreams and Henko fine-tunes these to a more realistic perspective.


However, the performance consistently exceeds the standards set during rehearsals. Graayenstein states: There is such "impulse and energy", so much adrenaline, and great chemistry with the band and crowd. Feeling and emotion take centre stage during performances, and often, John Graayenstein likes to "take a moment" for himself during a performance, to look back at the band. After the first concert, Graayenstein stayed up the whole night watching videos of the show, also discovering how he has picked up some of his musical icon, Shirley Bassey's mannerisms.


What John Graayenstein is contributing to the artistic sphere is something different. In a genre that Henko coins as 'orchestral pop' and John as "Whitney Houston", Graayenstein finds that most of his audience ranges from 35 and up: "older people resonate with my type of compositions". Therefore, it is no surprise that Graayenstein's most popular platform is Facebook. Unexpectantly, John's first song, Flowers for His Heart, reached the Top 40 FM. In addition, John was shocked and ecstatic to discover his song playing on Deezer FM, a radio station in George, in the Western Cape. Hearing it playing on the radio in a town he does not even stay in, Graayenstein realised, "maybe I can do something with this". However, the most emotional and rewarding part of this accomplishment was when his mother, moved to tears by pride, told him that the song was "one of the best things [she] had ever heard".


Flowers for His Heart was written during loadshedding (but we will not credit Eskom with Graayenstein's success). "What else can you do during loadshedding but listen to your thoughts," John says jokingly. He finds it fascinating that he could create something from an isolated moment. Recorded in his university residence room, John found writing and singing his song to be cathartic and merely wanted a copy for himself. He never intended it to be played on the radio. Graayenstein still is surprised that this song - that reached over 2k views on YouTube- started merely as a thought and then heard it blasted back to him through radio speakers a little while later. "I have perspective now," Graayenstein says, recounting his climb in popularity.


John Graayenstein is currently in his third year of Drama at Stellenbosch University. When asked if his degree has impacted his music career, John says definitely. Drama has taught him to enjoy and interact with the audience, illustrating how to communicate to the crowd through song. He sings to the crowd, about heartbreak, for example, telling them his story, and they respond, through clapping, through tears, thereby telling him, in turn, their story. Graayenstein says that he feels successful if his audience can take something away from it (even if it is just that the bass player is so handsome, John teases Henko, recounting the reviews after his first concert). Graayenstein says there is a fine line between acting well and being sincere; however, both traits are crucial when performing.


John states that costume plays an incredible role. He says that it is necessary to make an excellent first impression. He usually sticks to all black, adding a flashy statement piece to accentuate the outfit. Henko says he has a selection of shirts and scarves. However, he always performs in leather pants. Costume, and good energy are the most important, John adds. "Just be nice. Be cool," he advises.


When asked about drama, Graayenstein says his least favourite musical is, controversially, Lalaland, because it was too 'lalalandy'. After rating a few Glee covers, John got into ranking five randomly selected Glee couples:


1. Kurt and Blaine

2. Rachel and Finn

3. Santana and Dani

4. Santana and Sam

5. Santana and Finn

6. Kurt and Brittany


His performance talent is well translated into Graayenstein's cinematic music videos. John explains that the music videos are very taxing, however, he enjoyed making them regardless. For his newest single, FLY, Graayenstein says that he almost fell off the roof they were filming on, adding that the drone flew into him at one stage. He loves that his music videos are not professionally made, which adds to a sense of adventure. When it is "just you and this guy with a car and a broken tripod," you have to improvise. The music video for FLY was shot in one take on the roof of John's residence. Everything worked out perfectly; even the wind blew Graayenstein's cape at the right moment in the song.


FLY is John Graayenstein's newest single, released on the 21st of September. Henko played a crucial role in the song's creation. John told Henko to help him produce something 'Cody Fry-esque', and, in short, Henko delivered. Originally, Henko was doubtful he would get it done, with limited access to proper production resources. Crediting divine intervention, Henko says that his friend then notified him about the SpitFirefree plug-in. Then, at eight o'clock in the morning, Graayenstein received a message from Uys with the arrangement. John is incredibly touched that someone -whom he has only known since April 2022- stayed up until eight in the morning and put so much effort into his song. "For John, anything," Henko says.


FLY was written as a form of therapy. "I was in a time of my life where I had to let go of something, of things I really treasured very dearly. But I had to let go of it for my own sake, for my freedom. Do you get that? You have to sometimes let go of something in order to blossom". FLY shares a couple of elements with Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody; There is a hint of sadness underneath all the glamour and melodrama. There is a sense of flying and of happiness, but also a sense of sorrow. John explains that when you learn to fly, you "are leaving something behind", which is scary but also an adventure. "Nothing can hold you back," John adds. Therefore, he found the song quite cathartic to write and record, which both Henko and Hanju Potgieter, another member of Almost Alive, helped him produce.


The young singer admits that he was incredibly emotional when Henko first sent him the arrangement, as he realised that his dreams were possible. Laughing, he admits that he did not sleep that night as he was listening to the song on repeat. "The arrangement is just genius," Graayenstein adds, driving the point home.


Graayenstein is not too sure about what the future holds, but he is very excited to see what comes next. With Henko's encouragement, he admits that he will release an EP of his three released songs on streaming platforms. Henko and I negotiate with John to add two new and unreleased songs to the album. There will be plenty of loadshedding in the foreseeable future to help stimulate Graayenstein's creative juices. He admits that he has a few songs he has written, even one about Henko (which Henko says he still has not heard).


What is definite is that Graayenstein wants to collaborate more with Almost Alive, especially to experiment with rock and jazz genres. He received training in classical music in matric, which taught him control but put a limit on creativity.


To celebrate his newest single's release, John is planning a premiere with honoured guests and plans to thank Henko's mother in his speech. He mentions how in Grade 11, his music teacher told him to stop pursuing music and to stop singing, therefore illustrating how wrong your high-school teachers can be.


John Graayenstein has a glittering future ahead of him, even if he is still unsure how it will unfold. His vocals are perfect and powerful, and his stage presence can evoke a wave of emotions. Thank goodness he did not listen to his high-school teacher (and neither should you). Stream FLY on YouTube and enjoy the talent of the young drama student, who goes by John Graayenstein.




Fly: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=A1x74L__ACU&feature=youtu.be

Written and interviewed by Ashley Allard

Fly single out now by John Graaystein

Photography by Ashley Allard + Inus Grobler