By Emily Gawlak
My interview with Lee DeWyze started late, because there were selfies to be taken. Girls, no older than 15 and 16, giggled and blushed and pressed their cheeks to the 29 year old singer/songwriter’s, only to be shouldered aside middle aged men and women- every bit as eager. When all of the fans were satiated with autographs and photos and hugs, which DeWyze doled out gleefully, we finally made it to the greenroom, buried in depths of New York’s just-south-of-midtown venue, the Cutting Room, where we perched amidst the gathering mess of countrywide tour—suitcases bursting with clothes, shoes, and instruments- a convenient analogy for the frenetic, barely contained energy of the singer himself.
As open as the young artist’s demeanor was from the get go, when we first sat down, I’ll confess, his winning stint on American Idol felt like the elephant in the room. I wasn’t sure how to broach the topic; was it appropriate? Was there anything left to say that hadn’t already been said, and said again? Even Lee used vague terms at first to refer to his experience on Season Nine of the reality show cum musical phenomenon: “this show,” “that crazy time.” But it was no ordinary night, and Lee was in no ordinary mood. “My album came out today, and you really caught me in a moment where I’m feeling…” Truthful? I asked. “Absolutely,” he told me with a laugh, “You know where there’s a mountain of snow, and someone coughs and it just falls? That’s where I am today.”
The day marked the release of Oil & Water, DeWyze’s sixth studio album, released by Shanachie Entertainment in partnership with PledgeMusic, and it took a fairly innocuous question, about how his recording has changed over the years, to shake loose that avalanche. “The process got back to where I started,” he began, “because when I was 16, 17, 18 signed to a small indie label in Chicago, it was in the studio, a couple guys, me writing the songs, recording them. Then all of the craziness happens for a couple of years, and when that happened, I went from a guy who just wrote songs, performed and did my thing, to a guy that’s now on this show, and it was very new to me. It was very intense… and at times uncomfortable to be totally honest.”
This was, he assured me, the scoop. What reporters have been picking at for years. But he hadn’t been ready to talk about it– and in many ways hadn’t even made sense of it all– until now. “I didn’t really get a chance to understand all of it while it was happening,” he explained. “I went from my small neighborhood in Chicago to being on Larry King Live doing interviews about what it means to be an American Idol winner, and I’m just like, “what is going on?” … I was really struggling with, are people going to know that I’m a songwriter? … sometimes the shiniest pebble in the water… there was a diamond underneath that you couldn’t see. And I wanted people to see that part of me.”
Lee often speaks in metaphors– he injects them casually into conversation, often when grappling with how to explain a big idea that’s bouncing around in his brain. And that’s Lee in a larger sense– he’s fighting as hard as he is to make music on his own terms, because he wants to make big music. Music that speaks in metaphors and broad strokes about the human condition. Poetry. But Idol means becoming a top-40 pop star.
“I had just won American Idol, I was on [RCA], and they wanted me to go a direction that I didn’t… suddenly I’m in a multi-million dollar studio in New York or LA – and I loved all of the people I worked with, don’t get me wrong – but it was all very quick. I had to fight hard to write on every song on my first record (2010’s Live It Up). I said, I’m gonna be a part of the song. I’m not just gonna take songs- it’s not who I am. That’s not a slight to people who do, but for me, that’s the part of music that I love- writing, storytelling… That’s where the roads separated. At the time when I won, the singer/songwriting on the Billboard side of things, on the pop charts, was not what I’m doing now. I knew what I wanted to do, and I know that sounds so… I mean, how can you be so sure of yourself at 21, 22? But I did, I really knew what I wanted to do.”
For most, telling a story like Lee’s would sound like a joke- “oh, I choose not to date models,” or “well, I’m purposely not writing for the New York Times.” But Lee’s story, strange as it may sound, is no joke. He went from playing to arenas filled with 20,000 fans, to intimate venues with capacities of 500 people, max. He split with RCA and found his way to Shanachie Entertainment, a humble, independent label founded in 1975 to release traditional Irish music, “Shawn-ah-kee” being an Irish word referring to- what else?- a storyteller. In a time where artists have a hard enough time getting recognized outside of the system, it’s tempting to misunderstand Lee’s story- to envy or vilify him. He played the lottery, won, and then turned his money back in.
“Walking that line between American Idol Lee DeWyze and singer/songwriter Lee DeWyze is really hard sometimes,” he continues, “Because you want to do what’s best for your career, but you don’t want to alienate people or sound ungrateful, so you give up a little bit of your ego, because you care about the fans and you care about the place that you came from, and you don’t want to be that asshole who says, “fuck American Idol.” That’s not it, it’s more… I’m not an American Idol winner who learned to sing and write songs, I’m a songwriter that won American Idol.”
Lee DeWyze found fame in this sudden, invasive and unrelenting way we like to dole it out in the age of Reality TV, only to realize what, perhaps, he knew all along- he never wanted fame alone, he wanted to make music. “I have a motto I live by, and sometimes it gets me in trouble. The truth is, I just try to be as honest as possible. In anything I do.” For DeWyze, that means we all – a record executive, a pesky journalist, and a 16 year old fan- get the same truth.
Thankfully, he’s finally foraged his path; for someone who wants to live amongst the greats- not just the top of the pops- Oil & Water has been a revelation. “I was able to just make music that I love,” he tells me, “And all of the things I loved and embraced growing up- the Harmonies of Simon & Garfunkel, the emotion that Cat Stevens puts into a performance, the storytelling of James Taylor- you’re a product of your environment, and that was my environment as a kid, musically. I was able to let loose and make the songs I wanted, and Oil & Water came about. When I first wrote “Stone,” it set a very high precedent for the record, because I heard it, and it was this rare feeling of, “this turned out exactly how I wanted it to fucking be.””
When talking about DeWyze, humility seems entirely beside the point. He’s an American Idol winner- he’s played to major crowds of adoring fans and put out six records, all before the age of 30. Had he sat there and told me how shocked he was to be where he is in life, I don’t think I would have believed him anyways- it wouldn’t have felt, well, honest. And I think that cuts closer to the quick- Lee’s “motto”- his commitment to truth both, it seems, to the world and to himself- lives at the intersection where genuine confidence meets genuine talent, and damn if it isn’t infectious.
Lee also isn’t alone on his mission. “This is important,” he stressed, leaning in, “without a proper team around you- and that means from management to label to family to friends- I mean, I can’t tell you the difference between not having those things and having those things. My wife, Jonna [Walsh], is the most supportive person- I would be an insane person without her. My manager Brett was there with me at 19… I know that he believes in what I’m doing and understands what I’m doing. So does the label- everything, the booking, the little things- because if people around you don’t get it or don’t see the vision, you’re just banging your head against the wall.” (Lee wants everyone to know that Jonna is currently on the show Baby Daddy on ABC Family.)
I thought back to Lee, laughing and chatting with fans at his pre-show meet and greet, and something he told me, unprompted, “the more I can connect with my fans and get a better understanding of them and them of me, the better I feel. When I get up there, and I play and I see familiar faces… if someone can say, “I went to Lee’s show, and I met him and we had a great conversation,” that’s what I love.” Suddenly I was another giddy fan, waiting anxiously in the Cutting Room balcony for him to take the stage.
When he finally did, amidst the flickering of candles throughout the room, the breathlessly recounted biography of his past decade fell into place. DeWyze stepped into a glowing half circle of lights, a kick drum and acoustic guitar his only company, and the talkative young man from the dressing room fell away. With the lights obscuring his face, I saw- and heard- what he so badly wants the world to see- the troubadour, the poet, the storyteller.
“I can’t tell you the feeling of putting out a record, and the same day having people in the audience sing it back to you,” he beamed out at the crowd. Since he couldn’t tell us, he sang it to us, his soulful tenor slicing through the heady air. Lee is offering his truth- his whole truth- and you know what, he’s not even asking you to like him. He’s just asking you to listen.
“I feel like at this moment in my career,” Lee nodded, lounging back into the couch, “all of the puzzle pieces are connected. The music is there. The fans are there. Everything feels really good. And I’m just really excited.”