As someone who has carefully built a steady career in the music industry over the last decade, Stephen Wrabel always makes sure he’s speaking with consideration. Even over Zoom, the 34-year-old approaches conversations the same way he does songwriting — with candor, humor and a lot of self-editing.
“Maybe this sounds cliché,” he tells Billboard, before trailing off for a moment and revisiting his last thought. “Actually, I think most things in music sound cliché when you explain them. So that’s just what it is.”
The cliché Wrabel is referring to is the title of his sophomore album, Based on a True Story (out Friday, Nov. 17 via Big Gay Records). Across 13 artfully penned songs, Wrabel tackles his own demons — including sobriety, anxiety and heartbreak — while simultaneously trying to provide space for those listening to insert their own daily struggles into his diaphanous lyrics.
It’s a delicate balance, Wrabel says — writing songs that allow for personal catharsis over painful memories, and also offer some uplifting thesis of hope for listeners. Specificity often opens the door for ubiquity: “When I hear a song and there are those details — like saying ‘It was cold outside,’ or ‘I was wearing a red sweatshirt’ — my brain changes those details to what my details would be,” he explains. “I never want a song to feel overly broad, because I feel like you lose the truth in it.”
Details come in spades throughout Based on a True Story. On “One Drink Away,” Wrabel recalls dark memories of “getting blacked out in the sun” and “a place I won’t go and it’s on my way home,” before arriving at the heart-shattering claim that, despite his progress with sobriety, “I’m just one drink away from who I was.”
It’s a skill the artist has honed through writing for other artists. Along with managing his own solo career, Wrabel spent over a decade building a career as a sought-after songwriter, working alongside artists like Kesha, P!nk, Celeste, Adam Lambert and dozens more. In writing songs for others, Wrabel saw firsthand how his brand of exacting lyrics could impact others.
Take “Lost Cause,” for instance. A B-side, Wrabel-written ballad off of P!nk’s latest album, the song details the various red flags arriving at a relationship’s dramatic ending, with the singer declaring that they’re “tired of thinking that tragic’s romantic, it’s bad hope.”
Wrabel originally wrote the song “years ago” while in a dark place, intentionally using “pointed” lyrics to cope with a breakup. While on the road with P!nk for her 2019 European tour, he mustered up the courage to play the song for her — and as she later told Billboard, it became one of the first two songs to form what would become Trustfall.
It wasn’t until he was prepping True Story that Wrabel decided to listen back to his original demo of the track. “The more I listened to it, the more it started taking on such deep meaning for me,” he says. “I think that I just started feeling the weight of it, and it ultimately took on this other meaning where I was telling myself, ‘Whatever anyone thinks of me, like, leave room for.’” He ultimately re-recorded his own version of the song, which appears as the penultimate track of his latest project.
While Wrabel speaks with confidence about his skill as a songwriter, he hesitates when it comes to the strategic side of being a solo artist. “I feel like the landscape [of the music industry] right now is like the Wild West — just this chaotic, oversaturated mess,” he says with an exasperated sigh. “For example, my song ‘Love is Not a Simple Thing to Lose,’ the closer for my first album, is probably my favorite song that I’ve ever written, and there are a lot of times where I find myself thinking, ‘Damn, I do kind of wish that that had its moment.’”
So when it came time to release a new solo project, Wrabel relied on the prevailing business minds around him. His management team proposed an idea to release the album in three parts — first with two standalone EPs called Chapter of Me and Chapter of You, with True Story tying the two together with a set of new tracks. Wrabel immediately understood the idea’s potential.
“The positives of that Wild West mentality is it allows me to really take advantage of the fact that I am independent, and I can do literally whatever I want,” he says. “Normally, a song like ‘Beautiful Day’ would be buried as track number nine on the album, where it wouldn’t get its day to shine. This felt like a natural, easy way to give these great songs a moment of their own.”
Wrabel speaks from experience about songs getting their moment. His signature song “The Village,” an emotional ode to society’s cruel treatment of the LGBTQ community, went viral for a second time earlier this year, after dance troupe Unity delivered a stirring performance to the track on Britain’s Got Talent. The performance and song quickly picked up attention on TikTok, much to the singer’s delight.
“I think maybe four days after I saw their performance, I was on a plane flying to Liverpool to go meet them, because I had to,” Wrabel says. “One of the most beautiful moments of my career was getting to talk with them about their experiences growing up queer, with this internal dread and discomfort that so many of us have felt. To know that there were so many kids sitting with their family, turning on the TV and seeing themselves in this performance just gave me goosebumps. They were just so brave.”
The singer-songwriter is also quick to point out that, despite being released six years ago, “The Village” still sounds as poignant today as it did back in 2017. With right-wing legislatures around the U.S. taking aim at the rights of transgender people — the very community who served as the inspiration for the song — Wrabel can’t help but feel a bit demoralized that there is still something very much wrong in the village.
“This song is six years old, and I don’t know that we’re in a better place,” he says. After a beat, his face lights back up. “But it does give me hope that I get messages from people every day who are hearing it for the first time and relating to it. I’ll never not be talking about ‘The Village’ for as long as I will be making music, and that’s a good thing — it has sort of become a lighthouse in my career.”
That sense of responsibility and care for his fan base is what informs Wrabel’s identity as an artist; even when examining his own idiosyncrasies through music, he maintains a steadfast objective to put out work that provides solace in a world that can feel cruel. “I’m always trying to make something helpful,” he offers with a smile.