THE FEATURE STORY
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Lee DeWyze: American Idol winner to songwriting giant
Lee Dewyze first garnered a national audience when he auditioned for, and then went on to win, American Idol season nine. But his passion for writing and making music began years before that. He told us, “I was writing music, and performing for years before making an appearance on the show. American Idol was just my way of getting myself out there, because I wanted to write and make music for a living. It is my passion.”
His passion is now resonating in hit singles like “Black Bird Song” which he wrote for tv show, The Walking Dead and “Weight“, which aired in the season finale of CBS’ Elementary in 2016. This all solidified for Lee by inking a deal with SONGS Publishing this past June, 2017.
As icing on the cake, Lee plans to release new music starting with a single, released Friday entitled, “The Breakdown“, available on both Spotify and iTunes. We caught up with him this week and he graciously took a few minutes to discuss everything, from taking the American Idol stage, to his success now as a prominent and sought after songwriter.
Marian: Since first breaking into the national music spotlight in 2010 and winning American Idol, how would you say you and your artistry have evolved or changed?
Lee DeWyze: I believe as an artist, I’m always growing. I don’t ever want to settle or become complacent with what it is I’m doing musically. What drives me to evolve and grow is constantly challenging myself to surprise myself, and fans with my music. To say “I’m going to make music like this…” or “I am this kind of artist…”, inhibits what I’m doing in the studio and draws invisible boundaries around what I can and cannot do.
My new music definitely reflects where I’m at creatively right now. Songwriting is at the core of what I do and who I am. Telling stories and sharing experiences whether it be mine, someone else’s, or just a thought in my head has always been the constant. I love drawing a listener into the song. Whether it be on the recording or live, It has been very exciting to perform and share my new music starting with the release of my new single “The Breakdown”.
M: Let’s talk about your new single “The Breakdown”. What can you tell me about the story behind it? Is it personal?
LD: “The Breakdown” is not a story so much about a single event, as much as it is about the mental and emotional process one’s mind and heart goes through whilst dealing with the fear of losing something or someone important to them. It’s about preparing for the inevitable, coming to realizations, and opening up your eyes. There is no mention of a he or she, him or her. It can really be from any point of view and can mean what it means to each individual listener. As far as it being from personal experience? I guess that’s something only I’ll ever know :)! I will say it has been incredible to see what the song has meant to different people. I think that’s the power of music and the beauty of this song.
M: Do you have plans to release more new music this year? If so, when can fans expect it?
LD: There is definitely a plan to release more music this year. “The Breakdown” was just the beginning in the next chapter of what I’m doing musically right now. I have quite a few songs I’ve recorded in the past year or so and fans can expect more new music over the next few months.
M: What is your writing process like? Has it changed over time?
LD: My writing process is very in the moment. I like to write when I’m in a particular moment or mood. Many of my songs (“The Breakdown” included), were written in a very “real-time” fashion. I pick up the guitar, start to play something, feel a melody out and let the emotion of how the song feels guide what its about. A lot of time it’s what’s fresh on my mind, or something I’ve seen or have been thinking about pokes its head out into the song. Once something feels right, I roll with it. Sometimes I say “I should write a song about XYZ”, and I’ll focus my energy on a specific idea.
Then there is project driven writing. That involves writing for specific projects, whether it be a movie, tv show, etc., which I find very satisfying as I get to step outside of whatever box I may be in and aim my writing toward scene or a story laid out before me. That is always an exciting challenge. Signing with SONGS Publishing this past June was just another step in that direction for me.
Overall the process is constantly changing while remaining the same, if that makes any sense. I do most of my recording and producing in my own studio with my engineer/co-producer Nico Grossfeld out in Los Angeles. It is important to work with talented people you trust, and who understand what it is you’re doing. Working with the right people in the studio is an essential part of getting the best out of yourself as an artist, and a crucial part of my writing process. I believe that goes for all aspects of one’s career.
Marian: Having been thrust into the national spotlight via American Idol, what have been some of the pros and cons of establishing your artistry and songwriting career that way?
LD: I think this is a question, to be frank, needed time for me to be able to answer fairly. Being on, or winning a show like American Idol, is a different experience for every contestant, winner or not. When one goes on a show like that, you are surrendering the musical introduction of who you are as an artist into the hands of television, cover songs, television ratings, and judges. No one can really prepare for that. We live in an age where one of the biggest artists got their start on YouTube, another on a Disney show, etc.
I was writing music, and performing for years before making an appearance on the show. American Idol was just my way of getting myself out there because I wanted to write, and make music for a living, because it is my passion. I will absolutely and indefinitely always appreciate the fans that voted for me, and connected with me on the show. It was able to launch my career in a massive way, and for that I thank fans from the bottom of my heart. That said, I am a songwriter above all else. The show is not built to showcase ones “song-writing”, but that is what you sign up for. I think because of that it can make for a difficult transition for a songwriter to make that jump into showcasing their songwriting ability and who they truly are as an artist. I believe what I have done since the show demonstrates far more who I am as an artist and songwriter.
Marian: In the last few years you’ve had quite a bit of success, from writing “Black Bird Song”, to most recently being signed to a publishing deal. In retrospect, what do you consider one of the most defining moments for your career?
LD: I think every moment in my career has been important. To touch on the two you mentioned, “Blackbird Song” was released shortly after my record Frames. I believe that to be a defining moment because I think it really allowed people a chance to see what I’m doing and the kind of artist I am all over again in a new light.
Over the past few years, I have had much success with song placement and syncs which has allowed people to discover my music in a different way, while also introducing my new music to my fans, as well as a wider audience. I also feel signing with a company as well-respected and chalk full of talent as SONGS, really outlines the kind of artist and writer I am. It makes me proud as a songwriter being in such great hands and company.
M: What have you found to be the most rewarding part of being a songwriter and recording artist full time?
LD: The most rewarding part for me as a songwriter, is being able to connect an audience with my music. Whether hearing it on a tv show, a movie, someone’s headphones, or live in a venue. I love writing and bringing stories to life through music. Moving people through music is so incredibly rewarding. The power of music is real and I try to wield that power in the most honest of ways. I have incredible fans, who make what I do well worth it. This is a full-time career, and I have a very supportive family, and a supportive team of people working with me from my friend and manager Brett Radin, to all the people who work daily on making sure things run smoothly. And of course, my incredible wife Jonna, who is truly a beacon of support for me. There are so many aspects to what I do, and at the end of the day, there’s nothing like performing a song live and connecting with a crowd. It really is a special thing.
M: What do you want your music legacy to be?
LD: I hope that if nothing else, people will listen and discover my music for years after I’m gone. I hope that it can mean something to someone. I think music has the power to do a lot of good. I hope that’s what mine does. I don’t know if a person can define what they want their legacy to be exactly… I suppose I hope I’m remembered as far as my career goes anyway, as a great songwriter. I think that’s something all songwriters want and strive for.
M: What words of advice/encouragement would you pass onto aspiring songwriters and musicians?
LD: Keep writing. Keep recording. It’s going to be hard, thats okay. It’s just part of it. If you love music, you don’t need to be famous to sing, or write a song. Look for creativity around you. Learn from your mistakes. Strive to get better. Also, be yourself. Do what you want to do. Put people around you that you trust, and learn to trust the people around you. It’s your career, you get to decide how you want to approach things, don’t forget that. Always, keep writing. Keep honing your craft. The more you do, the better you’ll get. The better you get, the more confident you’ll be. The more confident you are, the more people will believe in you. Find your style. Don’t try to be a certain thing, just be you and nurture that musically for yourself and see what it grows into. And lastly, get yourself out there however possible. It’s a very competitive industry, don’t be afraid to try new things. Play that show, write that song, be the artist you want to be.