Long before he won “American Idol,” Lee DeWyze was slugging it out in Chicago with an eponymous band, having released a pair of albums on WuLi Records, drawing some WXRT airplay, and getting cameos on a sports show called “The Chicago Huddle.” Though that path could’ve maybe/possibly/eventually led the 24-year-old singer/songwriter/guitarist to major-label life, a tide-turning United Center tryout put the Mount Prospect native on the fast track.
“It sounds so cliché, but you have to stay true to yourself and you can’t let the celebrity or the media or the whole thing change who you are,” he relates, phoning in from his new home in Los Angeles. “I’m the same exact guy I was before ‘Idol,’ but things are different now in the sense that people want to take pictures and there are paparazzi when I go out to the mall or out to eat. But the best way to handle all of that is to remember where I came from and be the same person when I’m taking photos or signing autographs as I am when I’m hanging out with my friends.”
Just prior to his 2010 victory, DeWyze was splitting his time as a musician and working at a paint store in his hometown, never missing Bears games and living outdoors when he could. But now that he’s at the center of a whirlwind recording, touring, and promotional schedule behind his national debut, Live It Up (RCA), he’ll have to put a previously spontaneous lifestyle on the shelf.
“I like to go camping, fishing, and hiking; basically I’m an outdoor freak,” he continues. “I love watching football, but I’m not a couch potato because I’m always on the move. I used to call my friends and say, ‘Do you want to go camping this weekend?’ because that’s just how I am, always wanting to be on the move.”
Besides his literal move across the country, Live It Up has sent DeWyze on a national media blitz, including “On Air With Ryan Seacrest” and “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” hoping to introduce him to those few people who don’t watch “Idol.” Yet even with the ultra mainstream-minded approach, the tunesmith is an anomaly among the talent show’s more specialized victors, starting with the fact that he co-wrote all but one out of the 11 new tunes.
“It would be really hard for me to sit back and let other people write songs for me. Not that I have anything against those who don’t write their own music, but if people are going to sit around and write for me, I’d like to be part of it,” DeWyze asserts. “I was able to have a big hand and make a more honest album on a personal level than I thought it was going to be. It came straight from the heart and it’s what I wanted to do, which makes me really proud of it.”
The liners boast the respected likes of veterans Toby Gad (Alicia Keys, Fergie), John Shanks (Bon Jovi, Sheryl Crow), David Hodges (Kelly Clarkson, Weezer), and Espionage (the Norwegian production team behind some hits by Beyoncé and Train). “I learned not to be close-minded,” he adds. “It’s one thing to sit back and say, ‘I’m a writer and I don’t need other people,’ but at the end of day, there’s something to be said about different creative minds coming together and creating something. Co-writing was never something I thought about or did before, but after this process, I can say I’ve done it and would do it again.”
The results find DeWyze singing primarily about romantic relationships, from the light-hearted “Sweet Serendipity” to the remorseful “Stay Here,” the relatable “Me & My Jealousy” and the self-explanatory “Beautiful Like You.” No matter what the emotion, the tunes generally point to the Live It Up album title, which DeWyze hopes will inspire to make the most of each moment, intimate or otherwise.
“The title really sums up the whole album because the past year has been the case of me doing just that,” he confirms. “I tend to sing harder with my vocals sometimes, but one thing I wanted to incorporate with that was fun songs. I didn’t want every song to be hard-rock sounding or an over-the-top vocal sound. I wanted a mix that had elements of pop, folk, and rock and I think that was accomplished.”
Much of those musical musings stem from an upbringing that was split between Q101-styled rock bands of the 1990s and a hearty dose of 1960s and ’70s troubadours, plus plenty of classic rock and blues. “I’ve always listened to Cat Stevens a ton, and as a teenager – Radiohead, Green Day and Blink-182, Incubus, Soundgarden, and all of that,” DeWyze says. “When I was really young, my dad would listen to Simon & Garfunkel, Led Zeppelin, and B.B. King, so I grew up being exposed to a lot of different artists. I totally fell in love with music very young age and realized that’s what I wanted to do for a living. It’s almost like an addiction, like a drug, because without music in my life, I don’t know what I’d be doing.”
Just prior to being crowned the “Idol” champ, DeWyze found those ambitions confirmed when some 40,000 fans, friends, and family members packed the Arlington Park Race Track for a free show. To add icing to that day’s cake, a hometown parade was thrown in his honor and the Cubs invited him to throw the opening pitch at an May game.
“To see all the people who supported me at home was just incredible and I couldn’t have asked for anything more or scripted it better,” he recalls. “Having that experience really helped me through the last couple weeks of ‘Idol,’ especially because I was in this kind of lonely and worried state away from my family in this monster of a machine.”
Of course, the outcome removed all of those pressures instantly, but it did uncover a new set of hurdles, mainly the stigma placed on the program by more critical viewers and music connoisseurs. On one hand, the win brings a built-in audience, but on the other, those who weren’t familiar with the local’s back story were quick to balk that no dues had been paid. Clearly the latter wasn’t the case, though winning “Idol” isn’t necessarily the ticket to the top, as any of his predecessors not named Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood will attest – from the budget bin.
“Coming off of ‘Idol,’ I may be perceived differently than if I was just an artist, but the end result is same,” DeWyze defends. “A big part is not riding that wave too long . . . I’m not trying to prove anything, and because I know that about myself, I’m just making music that I enjoy and making this a career. It might be easy for me to say I’m tired after everything I’ve been doing this past year, but there are no breaks because I love it so much. The goal for me is longevity and doing this for the rest of my life.”
And they don’t take away the camping.
– Andy Argyrakis
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