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WHAT HE'S FIGHTING FOR
BY JAY S. JACOBS
In concert, Tyrone Wells tells a story of a time when he was struggling to get his music noticed and had to take a gig playing at a swap meet. While he was playing his love ballad “Sea Breeze,” he heard a woman talking on a cell phone telling someone that he was playing the song. Wells was surprised that the woman would say that, after his set he walked up to her and asked he what that meant. The woman explained that her best friend’s boyfriend Sam had written the song for the friend. This was rather surprising to Wells, who distinctly remembered writing the song himself with co-writer James Grey.
He told the woman he was the author, but she was having nothing of it. Finally he showed her a copy of his indie-released CD, with the song on it and the writer’s credit for himself. Suddenly the woman grew angry and called her friend. Turns out Sam had been playing some of Wells’ songs for his girlfriend and claiming that he was composing them for her.
Wells felt a little bad about diming the guy out, but Sam brought it on himself. It’s going to be harder and harder for this dude to get away with his deceptions, because Wells’ major label debut CD Hold On (Universal/Republic) is now starting a buzz in stores and on radios and websites.
Wells is touring tirelessly to promote the disk; a show which is made up of his own great music, funny and self-depreciating intro stories and a cool soul medley made up of songs like Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” Michael Jackson’s “Rock with You,” Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop (That Thing)” and Mary J. Blige’s “Family Affair.”
We stopped in to chat with Wells backstage at his recent show at World Café Live in Philadelphia.
How did you originally get into music?
I’m a preacher’s kid, so I grew up around music a lot. I have four sisters who are very musical. My mom played the piano. My dad played accordion and sang. My grandpa sang. So I just was around it all my life.
You mentioned your father was a preacher. How do you feel that influenced your art?
I think initially, when I was first out of high school, I felt like I had to play Christian music because I was from a preacher’s family. I felt that pressure. Not that they put it on me, but I just thought I should. More recently I’ve been able to strike that pressure – which is probably self-applied – and find my way and still make the music I want to make. So that the music has integrity. I’m proud of what I’m doing.
You were originally in a Christian band called Skypark. When did you realize that wasn’t the direction you wanted to go?
Even when we were in Skypark, when we were asked if there was Christian band we should bring in, we would say no, because we felt like that was really just kind of pigeonholing the market. It was really kind of cutting out a lot of people from listening. Our music wasn’t preachy. It wasn’t really… it was kind of like Switchfoot of something like that, where we certainly all shared a belief system, but we didn’t push that in the music. We felt like we were Christians by faith, but not Christians by genre.
While there are certainly some spiritual lyrics on Hold On, I don’t think I’d necessarily call it a religious album. Was that an interesting balancing act to pull off?
Yeah, it was. But I try to just be honest and write from the heart. Whatever comes out… I never felt quite at home with the Christian market. Just because I felt like the subject matter of what you could write about was so limited. So, I kind of just started to think it would be easier for me and I would enjoy writing more things.
I really like the single “What Are We Fighting For,” which also has a very trenchant message. Is it inspired specifically by Iraq or by more about the world in general?
It’s definitely more general. It was first inspired by watching the news and feeling discouraged about all the death that was going on. That was the seed, but as I wrote it, I wanted it to be broader than what is going on right now. I tried to make it more personal, too. In the second verse I talk about the different loaded guns that we all pull, which are silent indifference or thoughts of vengeance or words from a wicked tongue. These are all weapons. We all can wield them.
It seems like on the new CD, when the songs turn to love like “Sugar So Sweet,” “Sea Breeze,” “Falling,” “Looking at Her Face” and “Don’t You Change” they seem to be rather hopeful or positive. Is that a reflection of where you are now in your life? Also, as a songwriter, do you find happy relationships more interesting than troubled ones?
I think it’s probably a little bit of where I am. I’m recently married, a year and a half ago…
Thank you. It’s still funny. Even when I was dating her, I would write these horrible sad breakup songs. And she’d be like, “What’s this about?” (laughs) They were coming out of left field. I think I still wrote them because… a lot of the time the seed for a song is a feeling or a memory. It doesn’t necessarily have to be where you’re at then and there.
Like, for example, are you a “Jealous Man”?
Right. Right. (laughs)
The new album seems to experiment with a lot of styles, “What Are You Fighting For” has a gospel feel, “Baby Don’t You Change” is bluesy, “She’s Leaving” is rockier, “Sea Breeze” and “Dream Like New York” are really lovely ballads, “Jealous Man” is very minimalist, “Sugar So Sweet” is funky with a real rock-based chorus, “Need” is folkier. Were you looking to experiment with styles on the CD?
Yeah, I think when I write I tend to write eclectically. Then when you bring a band into the whole occasion and all their influences, it becomes kind of a little bit eclectic. It wasn’t really intentional. Well, I mean I guess it was in that I didn’t think about it. So it just happened.
In “Dream Like New York” you say the child inside you dares to believe you can fly. Do you dream as high as the skies?
Yeah, absolutely. It’s an exciting time for me. I’ve been doing this for quite a while. When you sign a major record deal there’s a feeling of validation. You feel like, wow, this has been working. Whether or not it’s like – you know major labels, for a lot of artists, they come and go – you just have to be about the art that you make. I’m grateful that they’re here now. Who knows if they’ll be here in a couple of years. But I’ll keep doing the art and I’ll continue to dream and hopefully the music that I write inspires people.
You’ve indie released two projects, Snapshot and Close: Live at McClains. How did you hook up with Universal?
This is really weird. For like six years I was doing the indie thing. Never talked to one label. Not even indies. I just did my own thing. Then in the course of two weeks, literally, after I made Hold On – because Hold On was made independently – it just hit that tipping point. At least in California where we were selling out venues that held over 1,000 people. It all of the sudden had started turning. Within a month we had talked with literally every major label. We had showcases everywhere. New York. LA. We actually had a couple of offers on the table so we got to do a little bidding war (laughs) which as an artist you’re very grateful for.
Some of the songs on the new album were also on the indies. How did you decide which songs you wanted to revisit?
I decided to redo, I think specifically a couple of them on the record Close. It’s a live record. So I wanted to recut some of the songs that never had studio treatment. But, “Sea Breeze” I had recorded several times. The reason I released it again is because the audience is so much wider now. When you have your first record in the stores, I wanted to put those songs that I knew people really connected to. “Sea Breeze” is one of those ones that really has some legs on it. I think one of the times I really knew, I showed up at a wedding that I played that was about an hour away from where I lived. I didn’t know any of the people in the room. I started playing “Sea Breeze” and half the room was singing along with me. I just knew this song was connecting beyond me. So, I knew I wanted to put it on the record.
Radio playlists are so regimented these days. You used to be able to hear rock, pop, country and soul on the same station and that just doesn't happen anymore. Do you think that can make it tougher for a band to find an audience?
I don’t know. I think I missed out on the real free radio days. I’m probably too young. When they would play all the genres… I love that idea. Because I think there is so much good music all across the different genres. I think it’s a little bit harder, because everything is so niched. This radio station will only play this kind of music and this radio station will play this kind of music. You can’t be on the station unless you write this kind of music. I think our record is pop enough for some of these stations, but it’s not quite pop enough to really hit Top 40. So we find ourselves sometimes feeling in between the radio stations. A little too pop for the really, really – not rustic, but the stuff that is not slick at all – and then not slick enough for the stuff that’s really slick. So, I feel that pull.
Nowadays musicians have so many more ways to reach out with their music – movies, TV, iTunes, your official site, your MySpace page. Does that open things up a bit?
Yeah. Absolutely. At every show we have people who have came because of MySpace. Another thing that is huge is the TV placements. I’ve been grateful to have quite a few TV placements.
I’ve had I think 25 to 30 TV placements now. The list of shows is too long. I think you can find it on my site. But there’s a bunch of them.
In the end, how would you like people to see your music?
I hope that people will feel like the music – without being too corny – like it’s a friend. There are certain records that I put on that just feel so good and you have memories that are associated with the music. I just hope that the records that I make can become friends with the people that buy them.