Lee DeWyze’s career as a singer-songwriter skyrocketed in 2010 when he began competing on American Idol’s ninth season. Soon after securing his golden ticket, he emerged as a frontrunner in the competition, going on to perform stunning renditions of “The Boxer,” by Simon & Garfunkel; “Simple Man,” by Lynyrd Skynyrd and “Hallelujah,” by Leonard Cohen. At the end of May 2010, DeWyze was declared the winner of the ninth season of American Idol, released his first record with RCA Records—Live It Up—and went out on a headlining tour. Releasing new records every few years since, DeWyze had another big moment when his song “Blackbird Song,” was featured on The Walking Dead in 2014. He has been releasing singles off his upcoming record Ghost Stories throughout 2020 and 2021—the new record will be released on August 13, the day before his latest tour begins. Read on for our interview with Lee DeWyze, where we break down his career, take a deep dive into the thought and intention that informs his singing and songwriting, and break down the upcoming record.
What initially drew you to music and songwriting?
Lee DeWyze: I think when I was younger, my dad listened to a lot of vinyl, a lot of records, and he played those Cat Stevens records for me when I was so young. I just remember the story-driven aspect of songwriting and listening to vinyls is really what pulled me in. The same way you look at a picture book; that’s how I was listening to this music; very visually. I would read along with this music and I fell in love with the idea of telling stories and music. From a very young age, I was really into it. When I hit an age where I got more curious about picking up a guitar, my dad had an old guitar that he played when I was a kid. I remember my dad used to play a little bit just around the house, so I was familiar with the guitar. One day, I was like ‘dad, do you still have the guitar?’ We got it restrung and I pulled out all his old ‘How To’ books and I started to teach myself. Once I got the hang of it, I just started writing my own songs to other people’s music. I was like ‘okay, I have a G, a C, and a D—okay, this is every Beatles song, got it. I’ll just change those up and write my own lyrics.’ I started experimenting more with it.
And then I fell in love with Paul Simon and Simon & Garfunkel and their harmonies. I’ve always been a sucker for harmony. Even as a kid. I kind of naturally came into it; I learned harmony very quickly—how to do it; what it is and how it works. I’d have a Paul Simon song on and I would be singing all of Garfunkel’s parts or trying to find a third harmony. I really fell in love with that. It kind of just became there was no other option. This is what I am going to do. I sunk deeper and deeper into it. I was like ‘okay, this is who I am. Alright.’
You picked up guitar through your dad’s ‘How To’ books—did you ever take lessons or do you remain self-taught?
DeWyze: Never. And it’s funny, my knowledge on a technical level only goes so far. I know the chords and I know what I’m playing, but how many rehearsals ‘what’s that weird suspended chord you’re playing?’ I’m like ‘I don’t know, this one.’ It’s always been by ear for me. I can read music, but again, I’m really all feel. And I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that I am self-taught. And then growing up, lessons weren’t an option, we’ll say, so it’s just kind of ‘figure it out.’ And I did. To this day, I just kind of figure it out.
You had independently released two records before you were on American Idol, and then after winning, you of course released many more—how did that experience of competing on that show change the way you think about songwriting?
DeWyze: I think it drove me even closer to it. There was this moment, being a singer-songwriter, being on a show like that, playing other people’s music, there was this feeling of betraying the art form in a weird way. I don’t know why I felt that. At the end of the day, being on Idol was one of the hardest things I ever did. I think at the time, I always had these visions of me coming into my own as a singer-songwriter and having a career like that. I never, at the start, envisioned American Idol being any kind of step in that process. To have that kind of just happen I was kind of like ‘Woah. Okay. This is crazy.’ It was something I had to reverse-engineer a bit after Idol, which was getting back to that singer-songwriter part of me.
But I think what it did for me was it really made me appreciate it on a different level. I think before I was on Idol, I could write music and do whatever; there was a local audience, you know, your friends and family. And then there was that other half of it when you come off of Idol—millions of people know who I am now. Being the best singer was never something I cared about if I’m being totally honest. I was never like, ‘I’m gonna go on the show ‘cos I’m the best singer.’ I think I went on the show to challenge myself, and it put me in a unique position after the show to prove something if nothing else, to myself, that I deserved to be heard by all these people. I didn’t want to just be up there doing it because people voted for me. I wanted to prove that I belong here. I think on that end, it really challenged me as a songwriter to not just put out music, but to put out music that I think is good, not just because. If anything that’s how it altered my view on songwriting, after the fact.
Do you have a songwriting or creative process? What does that look like?
DeWyze: You know, I’ve been asked that in various ways. Every time I am asked that I always try to find a clever way to say ‘yes.’ But I really don’t. I wish that I did. Then I could sit down and say ‘okay, I’m gonna begin the process.’ Really for me, I sit down, I have an idea, I will play a minute of the idea—I guess this is the process. The process is the non-process, for me. Because I find that when I structure things out too much, that’s when I get off the rails. It’s when I let my process, whatever that is, just go, it’s like ‘okay, I wrote 30 seconds today of this piece, okay, I’ll come back to that in a couple weeks.’ But when it comes time to record it, I would say 50 percent of the songs I record are 85 percent done. The music will be done, but I’m always missing some lyrics when I’m going into the final recording. There’s always something that’s not done yet. In my head, I know I’ll get it once I’m in there.
I guess my process in the general sense is very in the moment. It’s very in the now. It’s very feel; emotions. It really is a lot of that. For me, I talk to so many people that have this process of ‘I sit down and I’ll write pages and pages of lyrics.’ A crazy thing that I never realized about myself until recently is I don’t have one book in my possession of a bunch of lyrics I wrote down. I have notes in my phone, but usually, when I’m writing a song, if I remember it, then it’s worthy of being a song. I have a terrible memory. I have a very good memory when it comes to music and lyrics. If I have lyrics and they work, I won’t forget them. It’s very in the moment for me, the whole process. A lot of it happens in the studio. There’s always the general idea in the lyrics and the story that I’m telling through the song, but there’s always that 10 percent that’s missing, and I’m going to feel that out when I’m in my studio, when I’m in that moment. That’s when I’ll figure that part out.
Jumping off of that where you write with such emotion and feel, vocally, when you’re going to lay down a track, how much intention and purpose exists behind the way you choose to sing on a song?
DeWyze: I think the way you sing something, it’s honestly no different than speaking. Take any word. The tone you’re using matters. It matters in speaking and so I think it matters in singing. For me, when I’m approaching a song like “Ghost Stories,” is a great example, I could have approached a much more aggressive ‘oh now hold me’—it’s a little more anthemic. But “Ghost Stories” was really meant to be this person talking to themself. The way I sang that song specifically was intentional. I would say on most of them; even on “Parade,” there’s a part in the chorus, I just let the lyrics fall, right before the music comes in. Everybody’s got this three-four, it’s almost like you’re in a bar with your beer going back and forth. I think, like anything else, you want to set the mood and tone for the song.
I almost feel, at times, that there needs to be a musical sommelier. I almost wish that when I put my albums out, I could put out a ‘this is best served with,’ for my music. This song is best listened to when you’re depressed at 11:47 at night; this song is best listened to when you first wake up after you get your coffee. These songs are written for a moment. Some songs you can just throw on, but I really do feel that a lot of my songs were written and recorded in a certain space, and I think that they’re best listened to in that space. That said, I also want to make it so someone can listen to the record and enjoy it, so finding the balance was a challenge. But also, it’s always a challenge.
Jumping into the new record, the album art is this really beautiful watercolor, abstract kind of image that seems very fitting with the music—how did that image come together and how does it represent the music, to you?
DeWyze: It’s an artist, Gregory Euclide, and he’s done other albums before, one of which being Bon Iver’s record. I kind of came across this image, just the image, and I dug deeper. When I saw the image, it just looked like how the album made me feel. And then, coincidentally, it has ‘sound’ in the title. When I talked to Gregory, I reached out and I was like ‘hey, I’m in love with this painting.’ He’s a contemporary artist, and there’s some real pieces he takes from the forest and it’s just this beautiful thing he does. I sent him the music; he was super into it. We talked a little bit about the piece. It wasn’t just something that I wanted to say ‘hey, I like this, cool, here you go, thanks!’ I wanted to know, ‘what does this piece mean to you?’ We had a great conversation about it, about how this was one of the pieces he was working on when we got out of school and was really getting into what it is he was doing. There was that emotion and passion in his life that was put into it, which I thought was really cool. And again, it just looked how my album sounded. This has to be it. After a little back and forth, he checked out the music, he loved it, it was a go. I’m so happy to get it because I don’t think there’s another image that works better for this album than this image. It made me feel looking at it, how it made me feel listening to it.
Is there a theme or emotional throughline that connects the record?
DeWyze: Yeah, I think the whole thing is very fluid throughout the whole thing, like one to the next. I think emotional vulnerability is the thing that connects all of these. I’m not gonna say the stages of grief because that sounds daunting, but it’s almost like there’s these moments where the person is angry, the person is grieving, the person is accepting, and it works in that order when you listen to it. You go through the stages of the emotion, and you end up at “We Were Alive,” which is this song that, to boil it down, is all of this, but at least we can say we were there, at least we can say we lived it. And right before that, “Waking Up” which is this very introspective song—I never like to say what songs are about, too much, for me, because I feel like it takes away what it means to someone else—but the order of the album is very intentional. I do think it is a front-to-back listen and I’m excited for people to hear it that way.
I know some songs from this record were featured in the EP Castles which was released in 2019, and now we’re seeing the full record in 2021—what kind of impact or influence did the pandemic have on the record?
DeWyze: Well, I got five of the songs recorded before the pandemic. And then I was working with my producer—we co-produce—we’re sitting down, everything was feeling really good, and then the pandemic hit. I had several other songs we were gonna roll into and those actually didn’t make the record. During the pandemic, it’s interesting, there was a year where I just couldn’t write anything. And then, I don’t know, it was out of nowhere, the music just started flowing again and I wrote the new songs and it just kind of worked. There was this weird gap. It was like two puzzle pieces that just clicked. Putting them together was just a complete piece. So, silver lining, I got these awesome songs out of it. I know for a fact that about three of these newer songs would not have come about had I not been home. You try to find the positive in things, and on that end, there’s that.
“We Were Alive” has this very interesting production, where your voice sounds dreamy and it melds nicely with the acoustic guitar, but then this fuzzy electric guitar comes in and it creates this interesting dichotomy in sound—could you speak to the story behind how the song came together?
DeWyze: Yeah, it started with an acoustic. I think there was this tension in the song that I always felt. It’s very conversational. I didn’t know who the person was talking to, exactly, I think that was always a cool mystery. The production of it was almost like the way you described the guitar, I heard it and I wanted it to be aggressive and fuzzy but I didn’t want it to be predominant. I wanted it to have that same feeling of an explosion off in the distance. You’re safe in your space, but you know out there, this exists. I wanted it to be a reminder to the listener of that tension, of that chaos, but also within the confines of this accepting—lyrically—song. When it comes down to it, we were alive. All these things you’ve experienced are all just reminders that we have lived. That was the reason behind that fuzzy guitar. I wanted it to feel like this dream state—very ethereal—and all of a sudden, that comes in and it’s like ‘oh, shit.’ It makes you feel uncomfortable in a good way; it doesn’t let you forget that it was there. That was very intentional.
“Ghost Stories” is full of these great acoustic layers: vocal layers, strings, acoustic guitar, all of which combines to create a very emotional piece—what’s the story behind this song, and what does it mean to you?
DeWyze: That one specifically, I would say, is really about emotional vulnerability. Emotional sacrifice. Doing what you have to do and having to live with that. That song has some of my favorite lyrics on the record. The second verse specifically, ‘the ghost of your enemy is your friend / keeping track of the time ‘til you meet again.’ I just remember that that lyric just came to me like that—the ghost of your enemy would be your friend. The way it played out in my head was this person taking on the emotional brunt of things for the people around them, almost empathically. From the opening line, that lyric: ‘hold me up, hold me up, I can see.’ It’s almost like this feeling that this person’s been there before, they know: ‘I was born with a chest that’s cursed / I buried it deep so no one gets hurt.’ It’s kind of like jumping on this emotional grenade. The journey they go on.
That’s a good example of a song I did not have completed when I recorded it. What was not finished when I went into the studio was that last “I can’t remember how long I’ve known / So I traded my heart for a wandering soul.’ That was not in the original lyrics. It was done. I went to record and I’m like ‘something’s wrong.’ I just felt like I left this person with that last verse, which was ‘the ghost stories that keep me awake / as the ceiling caves and the floorboards shake.’ It just felt like I left this person in this dangerous situation. It felt very real to me. I can’t leave the person in the story there. I need them to move on and be at peace with what’s going on. I had this thing in the studio where I was singing it ‘I can’t remember how long I’ve known’—that can be interpreted how anyone wants—‘so I traded my heart for a wandering soul.’ He was aware of what he was doing. It wasn’t accidental. It wasn’t unintentional. That’s just who this person is. That was also a good example of how singing matters. It’s almost a whisper. It’s not, but it’s got this quality. It’s almost like you’re trying to keep it down because you’re telling someone something very important.
This album clearly follows a very vulnerable, emotional story—is there catharsis for you, personally, in writing, recording, and performing these songs?
DeWyze: Absolutely. And on some records, there’s not. I’ve put out albums before, I don’t know. I always love my music. When I say I love my music, I could always change this, I could always change that. But I’m proud of what I put out. But I do feel on this record, more than any record I’ve ever put out, I feel that the story, if this was a book, it reads front to back. For the avid music listener, you have to listen to it front to back. For those people that don’t want to read the book and want to go see the movie, they can go pick any song they want and enjoy it for what it is. That’s how it was made. But truthfully, if someone was like ‘how can someone listen to this, ideally?’ It’s as if they’re listening to a storybook. Start at page one and just let it go. There’s something very gratifying about it, for me, when I listened to it several times through. It’s almost like I need to listen to the next one because it’s part of this bigger thing. I think for the first time, I made a record that felt like that, intentionally.
But there’s also a lot of strings on the record, which was also very intentional. There’s something about combining that orchestral feel with the singer-songwriter—I want to explore this more, because there’s something special about that, to me. And I think strings are a very emotional instrument—one of the most emotional that exists. It’s the closest thing to crying—listening to a violin. It evokes a certain emotion. To me, my songs mixed with that felt right. We pushed that and really leaned into it. That’s what this record is.
“Parade” has a slightly different feel to it than the rest of the album; it has this great piano line and this great build at the line ‘for the pseudo parade’—what inspired this song, and how did it come together?
DeWyze: That song, I think my approach on it initially was, you’re walking in a bar in Italy. I really do put these songs through visuals in my head—where does this song exist in the real world? Where is this song being written in this movie in my head? It almost has this theatrical feel, to me, with that piano line. It’s very intentional, very pushed. I think that song felt the most anthemic to me. I feel like that’s the kind of arc, in a way, of everything. It hits this breaking point. That would be the breaking point of the album. Something breaks in this character, and that’s what came out. It also touches on a thing that a lot of people have dealt with, which is just getting through today. That to me was probably inspired by just the way of things. You know, say it over and over but maybe if I say it slower and tell myself everything’s okay, just for today. It’s kind of sarcastic in the chorus, even, ‘hip-hip-hooray.’ There’s sarcasm to it. And so, it’s very me in the way I sang it. And I loved throwing that major chord right in the middle of that part, it felt ‘90s to me, in a weird way. That song was very anthemic for me. That was like this different breakthrough emotion on the record, which is why I think it felt different. It’s a different time signature—it’s got a different approach, vocally. It’s a little bit more aggressive, and that’s what we were going for.
The record comes out August 13 and you’re heading back on tour on August 14—how excited are you to get back on stage and perform these new songs?
DeWyze: I couldn’t be more excited, honestly. It’s been a long time. I think for me, just getting back on the road, it’s just gonna be me and my guitar and I’m ready to do that. I’m ready to kind of just perform these songs live for the first time. So many of these songs were released during the pandemic that it’s going to feel really good to get up there in front of a real crowd. I’m excited to get back out there on the road. At the end of the day, the fans were a huge part of the reason I was able to get through this time. To be able to kind of give back to them and get out there and play this music—it’s the first time I’ve ever released an album on the first day of tour, as well. It’s not like they had the album for three months—here’s the album, here’s the tour, let’s go. It’s very interesting on that end, so I’m excited for that.
You can preorder Ghost Stories here.