Concert Preview: Lee DeWyze
Supporting his latest studio album, "Oil and Water," the acclaimed singer-songwriter will play an intimate show on Wednesday night at Rumba Café
Lee DeWyze’s latest single, “Weight,” aptly describes its atmosphere – a hushed, melancholic lead vocal suspended in a dense fog of persistent keys and percussive thunderclaps. It’s just under two-and-a-half minutes long, but its short duration is a beautiful ride. The fact that it has a pronounced cinematic quality isn’t just coincidence.
“[It] really was a song when I wrote it…it kind of started as one of these things where there was, to be honest, a film that was looking for a song,” DeWyze revealed during a recent phone conversation. “It kind of became more of this personal — lyrically and musically, all together — it was a happy accident in a weird way, because I was looking to write a song that was piano-and-vocal-based. The opportunity came around and I almost used that as an excuse, too, to do this song, if that makes sense. It was like ‘I can do it here!’ you know? So once I got in the studio and did it, it just felt really right and everything was feeling really good.”
The song’s haunting, reflective landscape certainly hasn’t been lost on Hollywood.
“Just recently, it was in an episode of Elementary, and it was in an episode of The Fosters as well. So for me it was kind of cool to see that people were connecting with the song in their own way. I think that’s always the goal, you know, when you’re writing music and putting out records and all that kind of stuff. You want people to connect and to relate or feel something. And any time you take a song like that and combine it with some kind of visual media that’s emotionally driven, it’s going to be a good combination. So it was exciting to see that.”
DeWyze released his sixth and most recent album, Oil and Water, last spring. Of course, winning the ninth season of American Idol brought the Mount Prospect, IL native and his craft into millions of households, but his professional career as a singer-songwriter began over a decade ago. DeWyze released two independent albums, So I’m Told and Slumberland, by the time he was twenty-three. Post-Idol, he wasn’t content to simply rest on the accolades.
“I’m a songwriter,” he clarified, “and for me that’s…and not in the sense that every artist thinks they’re a songwriter, like, ‘I’m a real artist!’ It’s more what I’m passionate about and what I love. Someone could take me as an artist or not, but I don’t know how many artists are out there that are excited about that. But for me, the songwriting is really what drives me as an artist, and the fans and performing live.”
DeWyze has continued to compose and record music that has made him a compelling contributor to the small screen. In 2014 his original composition, the gorgeously sparse “Blackbird,” received universal acclaim when it appeared on season four of AMC’s The Walking Dead. “Same For You,” a track from Oil and Water was also included in a recent episode of USA Network’s drama Suits.
And now DeWyze is on the road with an arsenal of exceptional new songs. He’ll stop by Rumba Café in SoHud tonight – one of a series of Midwestern engagements that will keep him moving through the end of May.
I have to tell you how much I love “Weight.” It’s just so well done. What is it about?
“On a personal level, the song’s about two kinds of ‘weight/wait:’ having to wait something out and the weight of something on you. There’s kind of a double meaning there in a sense. It’s kind of a song that’s about no matter what you’re going through, or what things may seem, or how bad something might be, most of the time all you have to do is just wait it out. And the thing is — this song’s a lot about time as well — and the thing about time is that [it’s] not going to wait for anybody. Life’s going to go on regardless of whether you’re living it or not. It’s not just ‘It’ll be okay’ — it’s more about ‘You’re going to feel this weight, and it’s going to be hard, but just give it more time.’ That’s why I think a lot of people have related to it, because who hasn’t been in that boat before? For me, it was one of those songs that I could really relate to.”
So is that direct personal connection to the subject matter critical to your writing and recording process?
“A lot of people ask me ‘Well, what were you going through when you wrote that song?’ I’ll play something and they’ll go ‘Jesus! Are you okay?!’ Lots of times, the things I get inspired from are not always from me. Sometimes, it’s something I see someone else going through. Friends of mine have gone through things, and it’s absolutely inspired me to write something, because I really think I’m a very in-the-moment writer. Some people think about, like ‘Is this a radio hit?!’ I just want the song to sound awesome, and I just want it to feel good. Whether it’s sad, or emotion, or upbeat and poppy, or indie and rock — whatever the case may be, I don’t go in with this ‘Okay, I’m making a song like this today.’ It’s very open, and it’s very ‘How am I feeling right now? What do I want to write about right now? What’s driving my thoughts today? What have I been thinking about lately?’ And then all of a sudden I’ll start playing something and then the lyrics come quick sometimes for me. I’m not one that takes a lot of time…I mean, I take time on my songs.
But lots of times, when the lyrics start to come, they just go. There are those ones where I’ll go ‘Damn it! I’ve gotta get this song right!’ you know? But once I’m in that dungeon, that studio and the music’s playing, I turn it up so fuckin’ loud, and I get the lyrics going, and it just feels right. I work with some great people. I have a great producer and engineer. His name’s Nico Grossfeld. He’s very talented. We produce together, and he just allows me to do whatever I want in there — whatever I need. I’m literally just in there creating music in real time versus ‘Let’s go in and record the guitars, and we’ll get the drums next week.’ It’s happening as it’s happening, and it’s really become my way of recording and writing.”
You mentioned on your Twitter feed recently that you were writing a lot and trying to do so when you were ‘fully submerged in emotion.’ Is that where you need to be to optimally write?
“For a while there, I was just like, ‘Okay, I’m going to go into the studio, and I’m gonna write something,’ which is awesome. It’s a great feeling to just go in, go grab some coffee, shoot the shit, and get some practice going in the studio, get the guitar, you know. However people get in their zones, you get in your zone, and you do your thing. But lately in the past six months or so, I’ve really tried to go in when I feel like I should go in versus ‘Oh, I have a day off today. Let’s go in.’ It’s more like when I’m really feeling it, I want to try and capture that moment, whether it be I’m having a rough day, or I talked to a friend and he’s having a rough day. I wanna right there and then, write.
It was really pouring [rain] here a couple of weeks ago, and I was driving through Laurel Canyon. And it was pouring. Just pouring. And I love the rain, you know. I grew up in the Midwest, so any time it rains in California it’s like, ‘Yes!’, you know? So I was going home, and instead I just went right to the studio, because I was feeling it right then and there. I felt inspired right now to go write something right now. And then I went to the studio and wrote something, and I’m really happy with the outcome. I grew up listening to Cat Stevens. When he would perform live, he would just throw it all out there, you know? He was living the song on stage. And as a kid, I really gravitated towards that.
I remember reading along to the lyrics to ‘Father and Son’ or ‘Longer Boats’ or some shit, and that record Tea for Tillerman was my favorite record ever. That combined with listening to Paul Simon and Simon and Garfunkel — what I loved about those songs is that they were very honest. There was no bullshit. When they sang (sings) ‘I’m sitting in the railway station‘ I was there with them in that railway station. I get it. I’m with this guy on this journey, and it’s like ‘Why do I feel this way when I listen to him?’ Because it’s the tone of his voice and the honesty in the lyric, and the way he’s singing the phrase and the way the song builds. There’s an honesty to it and an organicness to it, and that’s what I try to capture in my music. I want people to hear it and believe it, because it’s real.”
I couldn’t agree more with that – the storytelling aspect of songs is really important to making them believable, and I think you do that very well. But there are so many songs that are now being cranked out of writers’ factories, and the ability to have this pool of songwriters produce mass quantities of hits is often praised as being prolific. And maybe it is, but it doesn’t feel as personal or sincere.
“I agree. And you know what? I think when it comes to these songwriting factories — I’m all for getting together with other writers and ‘Hey, we’re looking for a song that…’ That’s a different way of expressing your musical talent and interpretation. But when it comes to me putting out an album, or what I’ll perform live, it’s just gotta be real and honest. If it’s not, I equate it to, like, sitting through jury duty. It’s like ‘I don’t care about this. This doesn’t mean shit. I just wanna go’. Because I love performing live, and I love performing my songs. And I like to cover one or two there that could be songs I wish I wrote. There are certain songs when I go ‘God damn, I wish I wrote this song!’ You know? But I’m so glad I didn’t because I’ve been so inspired by it. So it’s one of those things. I just strive to be the best songwriter, even if you’re not the best singer in the world. I mean, look at Bob Dylan.”
Right. But again, it’s about the honesty.
“Right. It didn’t matter how he sung because it meant something. I grew up listening to weird stuff. A lot of it was my parents’ influence. We had the Zeppelin, and the fuckin’ Pink Floyd, and the Mamas and the Papas, and all that shit. But I would listen to Tom Waits, and I’m fuckin’ nine years old, you know? Table Top Joe and stuff. But I remember I loved Peter, Paul and Mary as well. And some of their songs were classic folk, and others were theirs. And their harmonies. I fell in love with harmonies really young, and I remember literally and specifically saying to myself — I’d hear Simon and Garfunkel singing ‘Homeward Bound’ or ‘The Sound of Silence’ (sings) ‘[because] a vision softly creeping.’ I remember thinking when I was a kid ‘What is that?! What is happening right there? Why is that sounding like that?’
And I remember trying to copy it, but I couldn’t because I didn’t know the difference between a melody and a harmony. And eventually I figured it out, and I just fell in love with it. And then I listened to Peter, Paul and Mary who had a three-part harmony, and I was trying to find the fourth part. Now when I’m doing songs, and ‘Weight’ is a good example — there’s a second part in the lyric, obviously in the chorus, but in the second verse there’s this part (sings) ‘time won’t slow down and wait for you…‘ I put, like, six harmonies just on that one part. I try to use harmony like an instrument instead of just another voice.”
You’ve been on the road so much lately, and I know it’s something you truly love to do. What might be some of the realities of being on tour that people who don’t share in that kind of experience might not understand or consider?
“I think something that’s not talked about much … you’re living literally on the road. And then you come home. And it’s very strange sometimes, because I’ll be gone for let’s say a month-and-a-half, and I’ll be on the road, and every day it’s hotels, and traveling, and shows, up ’til 11 p.m., 1 a.m., 4 a.m. driving in vehicles and on planes, and stuff like that. And then all of the sudden, you’re with fans and there’s that high every night, and then you’re really low. You play, and I don’t mean low in a negative way. You’re on stage and there’s a high, and then you come off and you kind of come down from that high because that’s what it is — it’s a high being up there. And then all of this is going on, and then you come home. I have an amazing wife, and a dog, and I have great things at home, you know? My dog, he’s my life. My wife and I, we’re dog people. And my wife’s super supportive. Jonna’s her name. And she’s great. You come home and you’ve been going a hundred-and-fifty miles an hour, and then it’s ‘screeeeeech!‘ And not, like, in a bad way, like ‘This is boring!’ But you’re just, like ‘Shouldn’t I be doing something right now?’ It’ll be eight o’clock and we’ll have dinner and watch a movie, and I’m sitting here antsy as hell. Or we go bed and I’m like ‘I can’t fall asleep!’
It’s crazy – you think you’d come home and say ‘I’m putting this guitar away!’ But a day later, I’ll be writing stuff. I think it’s just really hard sometimes, but it’s also amazing. It’s so wild when I think about it. For me it’s just life. I’ll see a friend and say ‘Oh, yeah, I’m going to New York and then to Boston, and down to Memphis, and then Ohio,’ or wherever, ‘Gonna be gone for three weeks!’ And I’m saying this to a friend who’s never left the state, you know what I mean? I honestly sometimes forget how lucky I am to see the country, the world, and all different kinds of people from different backgrounds, different everything. It’s pretty awesome and I really try. I think early on in my career, I didn’t take time to enjoy the moment. I’m on the road, and I’m playing music for people and loving it. And that’s what this is about.”
Lee DeWyze will take the stage at Rumba Café, 2507 Summit St. in SoHud on Wednesday, April 5 at 8:00 p.m. Tickets range from $20 to $5 (plus taxes and fees, general admission, standing room only); guests under 21 pay an additional $2.