Interview: Lee DeWyze

Lee DeWyze

Recently I was able to chat with veteran singer-songwriter Lee DeWyze before he embarked on his US tour in support of his latest record, Ghost Stories. In this detailed conversation, Lee and I discussed how the pandemic influenced the material found on the album, his noticeable growth as a songwriter in songs like the title track, his recent TV/movie syncs he’s completed, and artists that he admires in today’s music scene. Lee DeWyze begins his 35-city Ghost Stories tour the day after the record is released on August 13th. Pre-orders are available here.

Thanks, Lee, for connecting with me today! Can you describe how these past two years have been for you, and your excitement level for the new album, called Ghost Stories?

Yeah, I mean, the last few years have really been something that I haven’t obviously, like many people experienced before. So, like many things on the road, within my career, whether it be things happening with the weather, but this was much different. So being prepared for it, I can’t say, mentally that I was. I remember the moment when it started, we had a couple more dates to go. And it’s funny, I was in the middle of recording this record, literally in the middle. So I had like five songs recorded. And our intention was to continue, and we were in a nice groove and a nice path towards finishing. And then the pandemic kind of became what it was, and there was this moment of having to kind of put everything on pause, as many people did. It doesn’t matter if you’re a musician, an actor, or an everyday person working wherever you work. Everyone was experiencing some sort of obstacle in this element and a feeling of having to figure it out, kind of in real time. And there was no, “Okay, here’s what we’re going to do, and this is what we’re doing today.” And so decisions had to be made and we canceled shows. And, we didn’t know, so we moved the tour. And then obviously, we went on the tour twice. And finishing the record became a bit of a thing, because I had players on the record that were there, but I recorded everything in my studio. So having musicians come over and record different things, it had to be done remotely. And there was just this kind of feeling that we’re not putting out this record when we planned to. And so once that decision was made, what’s interesting is that I had other songs that actually didn’t make the record, because I wrote the newer songs during this time. But those newer songs came in almost a year, maybe. I mean, there was a solid year, and it’s crazy to even talk about these lengths of time. But there was a year of really nothing creative from myself. I felt really debilitated. You know, it was just kind of a big punch in the gut. And so, having everything kind of be derailed a little bit, it was kind of a regroup situation, and analyze the situation, and what can we do? And so during that time, I said, “Well, what is it? How can I help?” And so what I started doing was these morning song shows on Instagram, playing for people twice a week for a long time. I did, I don’t remember how many shows, but 50 plus of them where I was just jumping on and playing and just to kind of bring a little bit of something to everybody. And that’s the way I knew how to contribute at that point. Because you kind of feel that feeling of, what can I do? 

And I’m sure the Instagram shows kind of kept you fresh as far as, not only vocal-wise, but also just from playing every day?

Definitely. I mean, it was really strange. For me, I spent the last 10 years touring a lot and to not have been on the road now for I don’t know how long, it feels different. Going back out, there’s anxiety, there’s just a lot of things, but I’m really excited to get back out there. I’m really excited to to get back into the swing of it. But when it came to finishing the record…I finished it I’d say in the last couple months, and I was working with my producer, Nico Gross Feld, who co-produced with me. We produced the songs together. And I flew out to Michigan to finish the record to where he’s living now. So, it was definitely a different process than originally intended. And so I think the silver lining in all of it is, you’ve got to look for the good…and that was when these other songs came about and I can’t say that I felt inspired for a really long time.But all of a sudden, like a wave, it just hit me. And I started writing and writing and writing and writing and writing. And the record really became what it is today. And it truly is a record that I intended to be able to listen to, beginning to end, as a work of art. It was definitely written in kind of, I don’t want to say it’s a concept, but there was these underlying tones to the record that really flows throughout and I had some amazing people play on it. I had Jordan Cats who played some trumpet and horns, and I had Dave Eggar play strings on a lot of the record. So I really wanted to kind of combine the singer-songwriter feeling with a little something more orchestral, with strings and so on, and that all came out really beautifully. And everyone, Nico, Dave, and Jordan all do a really phenomenal job. And they really brought the songs to where I knew they could be. And so, I’m really proud of this record. I feel that I can genuinely say my blood, sweat, and tears went into this record, more than I can say that about maybe any record I’ve ever made. It carries a different weight for me. And so for that reason alone, I’m just really excited to get to get the album out there and have people hear it, because it’s what I’ve been working on for a few years now. And it’s gonna be nice to put it all out there.

That’s great to hear. I mean, that definitely sounds like a labor of love along the way, for sure. The pandemic affected a lot of artists in a lot of different ways with their creativity, and you alluded to that a little bit earlier, but what did you learn about yourself as an artist during this time period?

That’s a good question. I mean, there’s so many things. But to just touch on a few…I really found that through the years, I’ve grown in different ways. And I think that I’ve never been one to force anything. I think the worst thing for me is there’s songs that I recorded in Britain, in a day, that are some of my favorites. It’s more about forcing myself to be creative. I think that’s a really tough spot for me, when it comes to writing for something else, whether it be a movie or a TV show, or for other artists that for some reason that flows with me. But when it comes to writing something for this record, specifically, I really kind of found myself learning to let it come to me more than trying to find it. And I would be doing a disservice to the situation if I didn’t say that. I’ve learned to appreciate just what I do. More than I ever have. I mean, to go from touring all the time to that feeling of no touring at all. And so now it’s that old adage, you don’t know what you got till it’s gone. And it’s not so much that I didn’t appreciate it, but I’ve really learned just how much of a part of me it is. I think I really learned or it was really brought to the forefront, with how much a part of me performing is, and also the writing and recording is. And really, when it all first happened and the walls caved in a little bit, it felt like this piece of me was just gone. It felt like this part of me, that’s been such an essential piece of me, was taken away. And I think there was a lot of noise over this time too, as we all know, on every front. So learning to fill those voids with things that are healthy, I think is something that I really got better at. I think it really kind of just forced me into a position to kind of explore this part of me. That isn’t on the road, and that is not in the studio recording. And I think my wife and I both, we’re both in the entertainment industry and we spent a lot of time together, so at the end of the day, did this experience that we shared together mean something? I think there’s just little things you learn about yourself. And there’s little things that you figure out,  whether it be how to cope, or how to deal with whatever it is. And I think for me, a lot of those things kind of bled into the music. I think not being afraid of making certain decisions on the record, I think there’s this feeling of a freedom to just explore the emotional space that I wasn’t able to necessarily tap into before. Or at least, I had a different approach, if that makes sense?

It does make a lot of sense, and I understand that you and your wife are celebrating another wedding anniversary, correct? 

Yeah. On July 21, it will be nine years.

Congratulations! How would you describe your relationship with her? And are there certain songs in this record that are a direct reflection on your time with her over this time period?

I tend to write sometimes in a way that reflects just things I understand more than things I’ve even experienced. Or things that people try to understand, I really do take from the people and the things around me. So all the relationships in my life, somehow bleed into everything I’m doing. There’s certain songs in the record that are my favorites and things like that. But with our relationship, this was a relationship strengthening process for us. And if you’re kind of put in this position, you need to be there for each other. And so I can say wholeheartedly that we’ve really been there for each other through this time, because both of our industries shut down completely. And you do what you have to do. And so, on that front, it was a very emotional time, it was a very stressful time, but having that other person, and kind of knowing they’re going through it with you helps. And I think that that was for a lot of people, and that’s why a lot of people shared their stories, as well as to let people know during this time that it’s okay to feel depressed, or anxious, or paranoid, or sad, or angry, or whatever it is. And so, I think understanding that aspect of things, it took a minute, I think it took everybody, and I think it’s still taking people a minute around it all. And so for me, when it comes to writing, I truly, truly do enjoy writing very much in the moment. I will sit down with my guitar, and I’ll have an idea. And I like to envision that I have all of these songs, all of these rooms, and a door opens up and I will lean into it so hard. And so I really, I hit this wave of inspiration, for whatever reason, and I can’t even really pinpoint why. But when I was feeling nothing musically and I was feeling nothing creatively, and then all of a sudden…boom. It’s kind of like when you’re hungry and you’re saying, “I need to eat.” And I’ll just have this huge rush of creativity. And obviously everyone, from my manager to my wife, were just very encouraging of that. And also that’d be silly too, but I had the time. And once I was in that zone of being able to write, and be creative, I had the time to dedicate to it. And there wasn’t this pressure, where I suppose that I have in the past. So, I could really dedicate my time emotionally. It’s almost like I had to filter out a lot of other things to kind of be left with a concentrated version of my creativity where I could take the best parts of it and put it towards that. And that’s what I tried to do for this album.

Sure, that makes a lot of sense. And I got an early listen on the album, thanks to your management, so I appreciate that. Ghost Stories hits the streets on August 13, and I came away extremely impressed by your growth as a songwriter on what is now your eighth studio album.

It’s so funny when I hear that, and it’s like anything else. You grow, and you hope to grow, and I never want to record to feel like the previous record, because it’s very easy for me to just keep making records that sound the same, if I wasn’t sure. But on this one, I really appreciate you saying what you said, because, for me, it really was <growth>. I can’t say it’s my best record, because I do love so many other albums I put out, but Ghost Stories feels the most representative of me

Yeah, I would agree with that. It has an authenticity to it. 

Yeah, and for me, honesty and music are everything. I just need my music to feel honest.

So is there a certain song on this record that you can’t wait for your fans to hear, and react to, when you go on tour?

Again, it’s crazy because usually when I put out records, I know what I’ll want to play live. And there’s a couple of the songs on the record that have been released. But there’s six songs in here that fans have just never heard before. I think “The Parade” is one that I’m really excited for them to hear. I’m really excited for them to hear “Waking Up.” I’m just really interested in knowing that they haven’t heard them, and now that it’s coming out, they’re gonna be able to just hear all of them. Especially after all this time, it feels really good. And I truly believe in this record. I think every artist suffers from this situation where the record’s are never really done, you know? But you have to, at some point, decide to stop, and realize it is done. And so for me, I don’t have any regrets on this record, at all. Not one. And I think that’s something I haven’t felt in a long time. But when I put out other albums, I’ll have this song I wish I would have done something different, but I don’t feel that with this one. I feel really strongly about the songs and in the stories within the songs. I really wanted that to be part of it as well from beginning to end, there’s a story told, and I just love that there’s a flow to it that people can kind of follow as a whole, and they can also pick their favorites. And I guess that’s what I really wanted to do, instead of just really worrying so much about anything other than writing the songs I wanted to write. And then making them sound the way I want to hear them. And how I wanted the songs to feel emotionally. I wanted the songs to sound like the emotion the song brings out. And that’s why I really love the use of strings on the record, because to me, adding that kind of orchestrated feel to it just kind of brings out different elements in the songs, which I think really guides the record along as well. And I’m just really proud of it. I can look back on it, and I’m proud of the people I’ve worked with on the album, and I’m proud that we were able to get it done. And I’m excited, mostly for the fans, that they get to hear it soon. And there’s a lot of these songs that evoke emotion and I hope that, even after all this time, they’ll be able to feel something listening to it. And that’s really my goal. That they can feel something.

Yeah, I can definitely hear that in your voice, your excitement level. And this album in particular has a very classic, singer-songwriter feel to it. The guitar tones in particular are exceptionally moving. I really came away impressed with that. What stood out from these recording sessions? Do you have any vivid memories of during these sessions that you can kind of look back on?

Wow, that’s a good question. With the later songs, I was sitting with them, and I wasn’t able to record them. I wasn’t there yet. So I kind of had to go and record a bunch of them together. And I think having these ideas and stuff kind of sitting in there, and being in the session, having them brought to life, it literally felt like I was…Frankensteining them and bringing them to life. It was that feeling of, they’re alive now. It was exciting! Even on the songs that are mellow, or whatever, seeing them being brought to life just with such a feeling of happiness, I suppose, but the gratitude. I just felt gratitude to be able to be doing this, and I think a lot of that bled into the album. The emotionality of it, and if anything, you said something that really rings true for me…that I feel the emotions that I gathered and I felt that they were really poured into these sessions. And I think a lot of that bled through, intentionally or unintentionally. That’s what I could feel. I could feel the huge release, emotionally, recording these songs, and that’s what I really took away from the sessions themselves.

That’s great. So let’s talk a little bit about the upcoming 35-city tour. I’d imagine you’re eager to get back on the road, after you said you’re kind of like a “road warrior” from all these years. Are there certain production elements that you put into the show that you think fans will particularly enjoy, or with the setlist that you’re considering? 

I think what’s going to be nice about this tour, because of the situation and the scope of things, there’s elements of “back to basics” on this tour. But in the best way. This setlist, I’m going to be playing the full record on tour, where sometimes you’ll put out a record and you pick like six or seven songs from it, but I’m playing the entire album, in its entirety on tour mixed in with favorites of the fans, in mind, over the years. And so being able to build the setlist around this whole record that I’m releasing the day I’m going on tour, basically, it’s pretty cool. And there’ll be some elements that we’ll have stage-wise and things but really, the reason the “ghost stories” element is kind of that vibe of, “Gather around, and let me tell you these stories,” and through music, and emotion, that’s really what the story is. And I think a lot of people are yearning for that. I think they want that. And it’s gonna feel so weird, with that first show, when it’s the crowd and I’m there and I play that first chord…I can only imagine how that’s going to feel, but I’m sure it’s gonna be wild to be on the road again. But I think fans are looking forward to hearing the new songs. I’m looking forward to performing so many of these for the first time on stage. And I think a really cool element is that I haven’t played any of this live for anybody. So there’s some anxiety, but in the best way. And also a feeling of just being grateful that I’m able to go out on the tour. And I’m happy to bring the fans this new record, because this new record for me, I won’t say it’s my favorite record I’ve ever made…but as far as front to back, I think it’s the most complete body of work of mine.

It’s definitely gonna be one of your most memorable, I’m sure. And also from your whole career path, I think in general, where I followed your discography over the years…this record in particular really stuck with me at this time period.

Well, that’s awesome. And I appreciate you listening and I do feel like it’s a record for the times. And I’m just honestly really excited to get out there and play. I look back at the whole thing and I can’t believe it’s done. I can’t believe that the record’s coming out and I can’t believe it’s happening. From everything, to the album artwork, right down to the songs, I feel proud to be putting it out there. It just feels good.

I have also interviewed other singers, songwriters, and bands, and they have told me that once an album’s finally released, it’s almost not even theirs anymore. It’s for other people to interpret. What’s your perception on that?

Yeah, I feel the same way. I mean, I know what the songs mean to me. But I’ve said this in the past, and I believe that songs have this tendency to become soundtracks to memories for people. And I just want people to take the songs, and for whatever they feel they mean, because that’s how they’re intended. And also, I hope they serve as a great soundtrack for somebody’s moment in time. I hope the fans and people that are hearing it, or just now hearing of me, or the music for the first time will kind of form their own thing. And I think that’s going to be cool. I’ve had so many people come up to me and say, “This song means this to me.” And then they’ll ask, “What’s the song really about?” The truth is, the songs are about whatever it is for you. And I wanted it to stay that way.

That’s great. And I understand that you do a lot of charity work. What are some of the organizations you’ve most recently paired up with? And what are some of their core goals, and missions?

These past few years, it’s been tough, but I’m still doing a lot of that work. Some of my favorite things that I’ve done are things that people never hear about. Those moments where you can bring joy to someone’s life that needs it the most. I love animals. So anytime I can get involved in the animal kingdom, I love it. I also think that kids are the most amazing. You’ll see a kid, and you’ll have your own struggles, but you’ll also see someone that’s just in way worse shape than you are. And to see the kind of inspiration they can bring…it puts things into perspective. So any way I can help, or do something, I think that that’s part of what it is I do as well. And my thing is my music. If I can use that to help bring awareness to something or help carry a message that I believe in, that always feels good.

That’s great, and I’m glad you’re able to still give back, even during these difficult times. But let’s now focus a little bit on your TV and movie syncs that you’ve done in the past, as well as what you’ve done recently. I know you’ve done stuff for The Walking Dead, and Same For You, but is there anything you’ve done recently that you are excited to share? 

There’s a couple things in the works right now, and there’s a lot of fingers crossed right now. Really cool projects. But I think right before the pandemic, I was able to write a song for the new Secret movie. And during the pandemic, I finished up a song I wrote with Rita Wilson, which was cool, and we connected before the pandemic, and then she put out a single, “Colors,” a country song. And that was a fun project to work on. But I’ve always loved the movies, and I’ve always loved television, even from growing up. Cat Stevens, and Paul Simon with The Graduate, I remember as a young kid thinking it was so cool that these songs are in these movies.

And there are usually iconic tracks that you can kind of associate with those scenes, too.

Exactly. So from a very young age, I was enthralled with that. Harold and Maude, and Cat Stevens. Just different things where I’ve always really been drawn to, and I loved the challenge of it. So whenever there’s an opportunity to write for something…I think my music lends itself to like cinema in a way, because it’s got this emotion. And so, I think that when I’m writing, a lot of times people have asked me, when you’re writing what do you think of? And it’s a funny balancing act where I don’t think I’ve found that just trusting my instincts on the song is always going to be my best bet. And I’ve just been lucky enough to get my songs placed in shows and movies. And going into the Julia Roberts trailer too, this is the movie that we just did. We just had a song performed, and it’s just the thing that I think I’ve always been driven towards as well. My songs lend themselves well to visual media because there’s so much emotion in the songs and a lot of times they’re very story-driven. So, when you place that with something great on screen, it just kind of works. And then there’s a couple other projects in the works right now, which I’m really excited about. And fans will see more of that. So I’m happy about that.

That’s awesome, and I appreciate all your time today, Lee. I just have one last question for you. What are some current artists that you admire today, and are there certain qualities that you’re drawn to when you hear a new band, a voice, or singer that piques your interest?

Oh, man, there’s so much. There’s so much new music, and it’s funny, because for that first year I didn’t listen to much at all. So, there’s not one particular artist that stands out. I mean, I think I’ve been just listening to everything. I’ve been more open to new music than I ever have been. So for me, there’ll be a new song and I’m more where I used to be, and now I’m much more kind of open to that. When I’ve been writing records in the past, I kind of block out music. Because there’s two sides to that. You want to see what’s going on in the music industry, but you also want to not do that…so I’ve just been really open to everything. My friends sent me messages to check this out. Or check this band out. So my scope for new music has never been wider. You know what I mean? From the latest Sujin record, which was super obscure and weird, but I’m into it. So, some stuff I think is crap. <Laughter> There’s really something for everybody. John Mayer’s new record, Sob Rock, I love it. And I like the vibe of it. So I’ve just been listening to all sorts of shit all the way to Iron and Wine. That’s one of my favorite bands, and I think he’s just a great songwriter. And I’ve always admired his work and stuff he’s been putting out so, there’s a lot out there. But I think right now you’re just seeing a burst of music, a burst of people releasing and, there’s so much right now that I’m just glad to be a part of it.

That’s great. I wish you nothing but the best and stay healthy on the tour. Congrats on the wedding anniversary coming up in two days. So congratulations again, and congrats on all your success. I hope this record does great for you. You definitely deserve it.

I appreciate it, and I’m glad you enjoy the record. And if I could say lastly, I just give my thanks to all my fans and everyone that’s shown their support because they’re a huge piece of how I was able to get through all of this. And this record is for them, and I’m excited to put out Ghost Stories, and I just can’t wait for everyone to hear it.

That’s great, and definitely come out to the tour, everyone!

Definitely! Enjoy yourself and enjoy the music. 

Thanks, Lee! I appreciate all your time, it was great to talk with you.

You too, Adam.