He tuned out TV and radio for years.
He spent his 20s scribbling lyrics late into the night at New York City cafés. Music gigs and odd jobs helped make ends meet.
"I was waist-deep living in the East Village with friends," he said during a 2008 interview.
He never realized what TV could do for a struggling musician until an executive producer from the TV show "One Tree Hill" phoned. They wanted to use his track "I Don't Want to Be" for the theme song.
DeGraw immediately said "no, thanks."
"In my dad's generation, musicians who went on TV were considered sellouts," he said. But slim pockets led DeGraw to reconsider the offer.
After audiences heard the single on the show, it shot to No. 1. His 2003 J Records release "Chariot" went platinum.
"It was like an atom bomb," he said. "It changed my life."
DeGraw grew up in South Fallsburg, N.Y. When he wasn't "getting his fingers dirty being a typical boy," he was learning guitar and piano and listening to classic rock. A Billy Joel concert made him decide to be a musician instead of a doctor.
"I saw the joy that came over people's faces and saw that music could be a form of medicine," he said.
Then, as a teen, DeGraw received Ray Charles and Sam Cooke records from his brother's boxing coach.
"He said that if I learned that music, women would do things to me I wouldn't understand," DeGraw said with a laugh.
After high school, DeGraw took his rock, soul and country influences to Berklee College of Music in Boston. But learning the scientific breakdown of an art form seemed "sacrilegious" to him.
He conquered his fear of failing and moved back home to work at a lumberyard. After a few months, he sold his truck and lit out for the Big Apple. These days, DeGraw, 31, is on tour supporting his self-titled sophomore CD, which dropped in May.
Howard Benson (My Chemical Romance, Daughtry) produced the album.
"(Benson) let me be as expressive musically as I could be," DeGraw said. At times, though, DeGraw admits he can be a "melody-oholic." "I try to put a melody into every part of a song that I possibly can," he said with a laugh. That didn't stop his album from debuting at No. 7 on the Billboard charts.
DeGraw's successful music career led to a new TV habit of watching The History Channel and A&E, but he's still out of the loop sometimes. He didn't know who R&B artist Ne-Yo was until he bumped into him at a recent event. He'd never heard of reality star Kristin Cavallari until she landed a role in his video for "Fell in Love With a Girl."
DeGraw admitted to falling in love himself "a couple times" in the past, but he has also experienced what he calls "gasoline fires."
"They are relationships that are amazing for the first three days and then kind of burn out," he said.