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Interview: Lee DeWyze

Grant Walters Grant Walters Interview: Lee DeWyzeLee DeWyze - Photo provided by the artist
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Returning to Columbus for the first time in two years, the singer-songwriter brings his latest studio album, 'Ghost Stories,' to the stage on Wednesday night.

It’s fitting that Lee DeWyze is my first touring artist interview since, well…[motioning widely] all of this happened. 

Our paths have crossed several times over the past four years, partially because Lee stops in Columbus frequently when he’s on the road. But most importantly, we make a point to connect whenever he’s headed in this direction, and each conversation is genuine and heartfelt. I can’t begin to explain as a journalist just how much fun it is to do your work when you and your subject immediately latch onto one another’s musical geekery. 

It’s also easy to support someone with DeWyze’s exceptional talent as a singer-songwriter, and his eighth studio album, Ghost Stories, shines as a soul-deep, cohesive set that finds him digging deeper internally than perhaps he ever has previously. Clocking in at just over a half-hour across 10 tracks, the relatively short set still manages to cover a lot of ground surrounding the human condition.

Ghost Stories moves nimbly between expressions of joy, sadness, humor, determination, gratitude, and love, and DeWyze’s expert embrace of nuance and melody give them depth and color. It’s difficult not to feel something tangible as each of the songs hit your ear, especially as many of them are reflections of the same events with which all of us have grappled in some form over the past 18 months. 

The day after the album’s release in mid-August, Lee began a 27-date tour in Salt Lake City. He’ll come back to Columbus on Wednesday, September 1 for his first show in Central Ohio since 2019 at Natalie’s Grandview, 945 King Ave.

Returning to the stage after a long hiatus with such evocative music in tow contains emotional multitudes for him, but he seems to be welcoming all of it in. 

Grant Walters: It’s been a while since we’ve talked. So, how have you been navigating…everything?

Lee DeWyze: I mean, obviously we could talk for hours about the last two years [laughs]. But all things considered, you know, I’m out here in the world putting out music, so I feel pretty lucky and grateful to have my album out and be on tour.

GW: This new record was sort of a ‘demi-pandemic’ work created in two distinct stages, correct?

LD: Initially, it was all going to be recorded together. But then it ended up being the five songs that I’ve already released, and then I did the other five almost near the end of what I’d call ‘stay-in-your house’ pandemic. It was just kind of like twins separated at birth, the first and second halves of the record. And it’s strange, because there are songs that wouldn’t have made the album had this not all happened. So, you know, you look for the silver lining. 

GW: Which is?

LD: I’m really, really happy with this album. I’ve always wanted to make [one] that could be listened to from beginning-to-end, straight through, like it was one piece – like a book, hence [the title] Ghost Stories. It felt like there were these ten chapters, and you kind of scroll through them. I was really proud of that, because that was the initial intent. I don’t usually approach an album with ‘This is how I’m going to do it’ or ‘This is how I’m going to record it’ kind of attitude. I just start doing it and whatever it is just sort of reveals itself. But with this one, it was clear to me that it was going to be front-to-back, you know?

GW: I think I can interpret what the title Ghost Stories might mean, but how did that concept surface in your mind as you were working on this album?

LD: It’s a good question. You know, I think that at the end of the day the reason why I named it that – why it felt that way to me – was that I’ve kind of been looking at it like the stages of grief. That makes it sound like it’s more depressing and daunting than it actually is, but if you look at the record like it’s a person, they’re going through many different emotions. And it just felt like with the past year-and-a-half with everything that’s going on these were stories in which everything was really emotionally vulnerable. 

They’re emotionally charged anthems almost representing what someone might be going through. So, again, it just kept coming back to me like it was reading a book about your memories’ ghost stories, your emotions’ ghost stories, your heart’s ghost stories – if your heart, or your brain, or your nervous system had a tale to tell. But as much as I love that collective echo, these songs also each tell a story and deliver a message on their own. 

GW: You’ve spoken recently about how several of these songs are decidedly more autobiographical than others you’ve written previously, where they feature you as the protagonist rather than telling someone else’s story. What’s the best example of that on this record?

LD: In ‘Ghost Stories,’ I’m talking directly about myself in that one – ‘Hold me up, hold me up…you see I was born with a chest that cursed’ – it’s not so broad or generic as to whom I’m talking about. I was much more vulnerable on this record, and I think that I was very forward in how I wanted to say things in songs like ‘Parade’ or ‘Waking Up.’ It’s kind of this vision in my head of me sitting around a campfire telling these stories about love, loss, anxiety, life, celebration – whatever. And I feel like when you say the word ‘ghost,’ people think of ‘wooo-oooh,’ but in my mind we all have our ghosts that hover over our brains when we go to bed, and hover above our hearts. That’s what the title represents. 

GW: And you experienced a significant period of writer’s block in the middle of making the album.

LD: Big time. 

GW: I can imagine that would have been incredibly tough to experience as a creative person. What did you learn about yourself before and after you were finally able to get past that specific obstacle?

LD: I’ll try and answer that as honestly as possible – if I discovered something about myself and my writing, it would be that these songs were also written for me as much as they were written for everyone else. If there’s one thing I did more of than anything else during this time, it was think. I view that every day in life, no matter if it’s a mountain or an ant hill, we all have this thing we have to climb. Our hearts are backpacks, and depending on the weight of what’s in them, it can be a lot harder to get over those mountains or hills. So I tried during that time to empty some of my backpack, you know what I mean? I think a lot of people went through different processes.

GW: And, I’m sure like most of us, there were some other good, or at least productive, things that came out of the time you spent not doing what you normally do.

LD: My wife and I spent a lot of time at home together, because we’re usually out at work and bouncing around – so, on that level it was great. We got to spend so much time together and talk about everything – it wasn’t like it usually is where we’re ‘Alright, I’ve gotta leave in a week.’ There was a lot of emotion in that. I took up gardening because I needed to do something creative – whatever it was. I realized early on that writing music was not going to happen right away, and my brain works in a way where I always have to be doing something. I cannot just sit and do nothing, so I was finding stuff here and there. 

GW: What were you feeling once you were able to write again? 

LD: I’ve likened it to a surfer in the past, and it’s the best analogy that I can give. The way I write music is that I’m the guy out there waiting for the wave to come in. And when it does, I ride the shit out of it, you know? I take it for all I can because I don’t know when the next one’s going to come. And for a while, there were none. So, I decided I would just head back in and wait for the right one. When it did, it was just like fuckin’…it went from nothing to everything very quickly. I was, like, ‘Holy shit…there are songs in there!’ It was just one after the other, after the other. For whatever reason it happened, it did. 

And we’ve talked in the past about the fact that I’m a very in-the-moment writer, so to start I’d just have a verse or a chorus. But it wasn’t until I got on the mike that I could say, ‘Oh, that’s what this song’s about.’ So when all of that came, I just let it take me. I didn’t feel any pressure…I mean, I did initially because everyone was asking ‘Oh, are you writing all these songs?’ I feel like everyone went through their own process, and I went through mine. Luckily, all these songs came. ‘Waking Up’ is the song that probably is the most direct reflection of those things that happened for me. ‘Parade’ was another one. They truly were products of their environment. 

GW: I’d like to focus on ‘Parade’ for a moment, because it’s one of my favorite songs on the album. I don’t know if it was intentional, but the chorus has this little subtle vocal inflection you put at the end of some of the words that channel Elliott Smith – I’m thinking ‘Between the Bars,’ in particular.

LD: It’s funny you say that because I kind of rekindled my love for Elliott Smith over the past year. You’re not the first person to say that to me. I didn’t put it together, per se, but I get why people are saying that and I take it as a compliment. I think there’s an element of honesty in his music that has always inspired me, and I try to be honest when I write. But you’re talking about [sings] ‘Hip hip hooray for this pseudo parade’ – that one?

GW: That’s the one.

LD: Yeah, that definitely feels very ’90s to me, which I love. That chord wasn’t in there to begin with, you know, that lift. But I felt like it needed something, and I thought ‘Something just doesn’t sound quite right here.’ Then, I added the chord in and was, like, ‘Fuckin’ A – there it is!’   

GW: Compositionally, I love that it’s ironic – the ‘hip hip hooray’ lyric being played off a melody that’s rather morose and shadowy. Where did that feeling come from?

LD: But that song…agh. Man. I think it’s about an internal struggle. It’s really a song about just getting through the day. Out of the gate [sings]: ‘I know we’re probably making more of this, that’s usually what the story’s moral is, uh-huh. So take some time away, I’ve heard it helps imaginary versions of ourselves uh-huh…’ Even on the chorus: ‘Say it, over and over, but maybe if I say it slower and tell myself everything is okay, just for today – hip hip hooray.’ There’s some sarcasm there, as well, which is really my personality coming through there. 

You know, I don’t like to say a song is specifically about this and that, because people really do attach them to things and memories in their personal lives, and it becomes their little soundtrack for whatever moment they’re having. I don’t like to derail that. But it’s one of my favorites on the album for sure.

GW: I was talking with a friend a few weeks ago about some of the essential albums I made a point to discover over the past year-and-a-half – and others that I hadn’t listened to in years, but dusted them off out of pure nostalgia. What were yours? 

LD: I think Our Endless Numbered Days by Iron & Wine was one of those for me. I love that record and I used to cover songs from it. I definitely explored my record collection – I listened to Paul Simon and just different things like Kishi Bashi and some Tom Waits over the past year. There was some influence, I’m sure, from the music I was listening to and the vibe I was in. Yeah, I don’t know. It just felt different, you know?

GW: I know this is a difficult subject, and I don’t want us to get too in the weeds, but obviously touring right now is really complicated on many levels. What have all the preparations and precautions looked like in your case?

LD: Dude, I can’t even begin to tell you. Ugh. I mean, it’s been…moving the tour five times. And then trying to find a time where you feel like you’re not doing the wrong thing. I think that’s a big one. It’s, like, ‘What’s the right thing?’ you know? I’m just doing what I can to get out here and play for people. I think people need music – it’s what I do and what I’m meant to do, and I’m doing it the best way I know how. That’s kind of what it is. 

It’s not an easy thing to navigate necessarily, mentally or physically. From a physical aspect it’s not being on the road for so long and then just coming out and doing it. It’s definitely a fuckin’ wake-up call. Holy shit. I think I’ve re-gained an appreciation for touring. I mean, I’ve always appreciated it – there’s no taking it for granted. But, you know, there have been times in the past where a tour’s a tour – you go out and play, you come home and go ‘Okay.’ This time, it feels more like there’s weight behind it. 

GW: Right on the heels of releasing an album that was challenging to put out, nonetheless.

LD: It’s the first time I’m going out at the same time as my album is being released. People are hearing the record for the first time, and here I am playing it. And I haven’t played these songs live before, either. I’ve played them in my house and recorded them, but I haven’t been up on a stage. So, from day one of the [tour], I was trying to learn how to really play ‘Parade’ live in that setting. 

It was interesting, and you learn little things about the songs and how you’re translating them. ‘Parade’ has this sort of aggressive approach and an odd time signature, so I’m trying to hold on to the integrity of the record, but also provide the live, intimate atmosphere aspect of it. Navigating that has been kind of fun, and the fans seem to be loving it. But going out on the road, it’s really been about being thrust into it, which was kind of a punch in the gut, you know? From zero to a hundred very quickly. 

GW: And, I’m assuming that you’re probably not doing as much of the interpersonal stuff that you’d normally be doing while you’re out this time, which I know is important to you.

LD: A little less fan interaction, I would say. But I think I’ve really been trying to make the stage a place where we can connect, too, which I love. And my fans have been with me musically this whole time. During the pandemic I would go online and play live on my Instagram, and so many people are coming up to me now and saying ‘You have no idea how much you doing that every Monday and Thursday gave us something to look forward to.’ I was able to reach out to people during that time, and the fact that they were there throughout was really moving for me.

GW: Getting these songs out and moving forward with them has to be cathartic.

LD: I’m just really glad you like the album. I had a moment when this album came out when I went back and listened to all of my other records. I’d never done that before. It was so interesting – like opening up a box in your attic of old photo albums. It was, like, ‘Oh, fuck, I remember that,’ and ‘What was I going through when that was written?’ This [new] album is a culmination of everything. I never like to say ‘Oh, I’ve grown as a songwriter,’ but I do hear how far I’ve come. 

I’m really proud of this record. I don’t know if I’d say it’s the best one I’ve ever made, but I will say of all the albums I’ve ever made, it’s the one that translates the best. It’s like watching TV episodes – ‘What happens next?’ If I’m being real, it feels like my career just started. It really does. I’ve emerged as a different person in a way, and that there’s so much to look forward to in my future in terms of songwriting more than ever. And I’m already working on my next music. 

I just want people to throw it on, let it take them, and be on that journey with me. 

Lee DeWyze brings his Ghost Stories tour (with special guest D’Arcy) to Natalie’s Grandview, 945 King Ave., on Wednesday, September 1. Doors open at 7 p.m.; show begins at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20 (plus applicable taxes and fees) via ShowClix. A $55 (plus applicable fees and taxes) VIP upgrade is also available for purchase. To purchase Lee’s new album, visit his official website: leedewyzeofficial.com

Venue note: Due to rising Covid-19 numbers, all guests will be required to present proof of full vaccination (card or photo), along with photo ID, OR a valid negative Covid-19 test result 48 hours prior to entry.

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