Last summer, I saw Lee DeWyze perform at the Ohio State Reformatory, better known to most as the primary filming location of the 1994 Academy Award-winning film The Shawshank Redemption. A minacious Romanesque compound, the Reformatory served as a working correctional facility from 1896 until it was shuttered in 1990 due to mounting deferred maintenance.
You can imagine the kinds of stories the walls of the Reformatory could tell after nearly a hundred years of operation. On a previous visit to Columbus, which was incidentally the first time he and I first interviewed together to preview a local gig in support of his 2016 album Oil & Water, DeWyze, an avid fan of Shawshank, scoped it out as a potential venue for an intimate concert event. The Reformatory has a chapel, a cavernous room that sits above the gap between its iron-adorned east and west cell blocks, its massive concrete walls an unintentionally perfect vessel for acoustic music.
On a warm August night, DeWyze walked on stage (which was the chapel's old wooden chancel set with a folding chair) and delivered an absolutely stunning unplugged set to a handful of fans sitting in the rickety old pews, which crackled and squeaked as they shifted in their seats. With only his six-string in hand, he played a small batch of songs that would eventually land on Paranoia, which finally dropped late last week.
It was one of the best hours of music I've heard. I wish I could precisely explain just how beautifully those compositions climbed the bethel's peeled-paint concrete slabs, but I'll fall short.
Spatially on Paranoia, DeWyze adeptly recaptures some of the vastness he got to play with inside the Reformatory, using synths and experimenting with vocal layers to craft a sort of aural balloon that lifts his lyrical reflections ceiling-ward. It's a bit of a departure from some of the folksier stuff on Oil & Water and 2013's Frames, but not to the point where his soulful rasp is lost in waves of programmed wash.
At its center, Paranoia still finds DeWyze riding life's rollercoaster and using the best of his musical instincts to tell a meaningful story. The album's lead single, the celestial ballad “The Breakdown,” has been in rotation since November. Last week, Paranoia landed on top of iTunes' Alternative Albums chart. On February 15th, the eve of the record's release, DeWyze began an eleven-city premiere tour in his home state of Illinois, which will take him through the beginning of next month in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.
DeWyze is one of my favorite artists to talk to, and we uncovered a good deal of common musical ground between us the past two or three times we've crossed paths. A few weeks ago, we spoke again after I'd received an advance stream of the new album, and I was eager to discuss it with him. Unsurprisingly, we both had a lot to say, and our same-page connection picked up from where it had been left.
In prison, last summer.
Grant Walters: First and foremost, you've made a great record, so congratulations on that. I can tell it was absolutely a labor of love.
Lee DeWyze: Thank you!
GW: You've really committed to some things musically that are an evolution from Oil & Water, and certainly different for you, in general. What I noticed as I listened to the album, and you can tell me if I'm wrong, is that there seems to be this very intentional story arc that runs through the track list. It starts in this sort of dark, ominous place with “Paranoia,” and eventually resolves itself with positive affirmation on “Carry Us Through,” where that darkness gives way to something much more luminous. Was that calculated on your part as you threaded these songs together?
LD: You know, it’s funny, they weren’t written that way as an arc, but once they were all done the arc was there. It wasn’t written in the sense of ‘let’s start with a beginning and then we’ll make a middle and an end.’ But it definitely resulted in this order of music, and it came down to ‘where are these going to go?’ It just kind of all made sense of where they should. It almost felt like writing a movie or a story where you’re like ‘well, this one can’t go here, because this hasn’t happened yet!’ You know?
And that sort of started to happen with them. It was weird, but it was cool, though. It was fun because when I was making this album, the songs ended up being very ethereal, very spacey, open and very warm. You know, you listen to a song sometimes and you hear it as if you were to play it in outer space, and the sound just keeps going. And it's really about that. I really wanted them to have that feeling.
With all the records I've ever made, I've always gone into it with this mentality of 'okay, I know how this record's going to pan out. This is the vibe, this is what we're doing. Let's do it!' It really came down to 'well, alright, I'm going to write this song because I want to, because I feel inspired to write this song.' And as we got going it seemed like these songs really made sense together. It kind of went from me writing songs for whatever reason to 'oh! I'm making an album. Okay!' And now I see it making sense and now I see what's going on. Once that kind of kicked in and I realized that, I got much more focused on writing for a record.
But as far as my music goes, it's always lent itself to visual media licensing and synchs. I've really come to the conclusion that, at times, my music is very cinematic. And I don't know why I do that. It's not an intentional thing. I think it's the feeling I get when I'm writing it, or singing it, or listening back to it. I just like that kind of feeling, I guess. So, I think that's why it works for those types of situations, this honesty and emotion that I try and put into the music that people can really gravitate to, and grasp and understand and get on board with.
GW: So, there was undoubtedly some emotional push and pull for you as the album came together. How did that impact the artistic choices you made while you were writing and recording?
LD: I don't know, it was just really one of the most interesting processes in writing a record I've ever had. I've had the blessing of being able to make a lot of records, whether it be before all the madness back in the day, or now. I've had the process of 'oh, I'm writing a record and I'm seventeen. Nobody's ever going to hear this!,’ to being on a major label and all that stuff. It's kind of been this really interesting situation where I've experienced it all. I've done the self-release, I've done the indie label. I've done it all. And every process has ended up a little bit different. But this one, in particular, has felt much more like a different place for me as I was writing and recording.
Someone asked me recently, 'what was the hardest and the easiest part of making the record?' And I found out the answer was the same, actually. I would come to these certain points where it was 'is this really what I want to do? Is this something Lee DeWyze would do? Would I make this musical decision?' Having to say to myself 'no, it's not' and that being the scary part, but then also just doing it and having it be the best choice I could have made. And not that I was second guessing myself, but just being able to step outside of those boxes and going 'you know what? Fuck it! I'm just going to do what sounds good to me, and what feels right to me.'
And that's what I did, and I'm really happy where it ended up. Each song had its own story and its own world, and its own reason why I wrote it. I was just riding it out. And some of the songs were written in real time. “Let Go” is a good example, where I just sat there with a guitar and started playing that riff, that [emulating the melody line] “doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo.” I did that for, like, thirty minutes playing and listening to it, thinking 'I know what that this is about, I just don't know what this is about yet. But I know. I can feel it.' And it was feeling very empty and alone, so that's where I started with the first lyric [sings] “why does it feel like we're alone?” Once I figured it out, I just sort of went with it.
GW: I've talked about this concept with other artists, but one thing that I love about this record —and I think most of your albums qualify as this—is that it's a listener's piece. When I initially heard it, I went through the tracks start to finish and thought 'you know, I need to come back to this.' And it wasn't determining whether or not I liked them, because I did, but more how I felt about them and how they connected with me. So, as I've listened to them again over the past few days, I've uncovered some different nuances, and the album actually sounds different to me today than it did the first time.
LD: I love hearing that! I really, really do. Genuinely love that you're saying that. Because at the end of the day, and I think it's kind of a thing that all artists want, having someone listen to your record from the beginning to the end as a piece is always kind of an internal goal that most writers have. I really did want it to feel like a record you could just throw on and listen to all of it as a whole. It's either ten three-minute songs, or one thirty-minute song with different pieces and parts.
Here's the thing—with these songs, I tried to look at them as if each were their own little movie, and I just want people to live in that movie for, like three-and-a-half minutes. I want them to experience that for three-and-a-half minutes. Whatever it is, whatever the emotion is, whatever the feeling is. If I can achieve that, that's what my ultimate goal is. I just want someone to listen to it and be in it.
That's why the lyrics are so important to me. You know, the hooks are important, and the drums, and everything else that makes up the song are important. But for me, what makes writing important and special is this feeling of 'man! If I can sing a lyric or write something...' You know, it's like that old saying “don't think of a pink elephant.” And you're like, 'I'm now thinking of a pink elephant!' You can't help it. You're thinking of that now. And that's how I try and write lyrics sometimes. Maybe it's a topic you don't like thinking about, and some people black that out, but now I'm singing about it. And now you have to think about it, and you have to evaluate it.
And I think that's what I really love about music. It's very open to interpretation, and a lot of these songs are. People have come up to me and said 'oh, I love that song “Let Go,” because my wife and I are going through a thing.' And I go, 'oh, wow!' And then someone else will come up to me and say, 'you know, there's this thing that happened two years ago, and I've been having trouble getting past it.' Everyone has their own views on what the hell these songs are about. And I love that. I've said a million times I'm excited for people to hear my music, but I'm not just excited this time—I'm anxious about it. I really want people to hear it because I've made different musical decisions.
GW: And those choices obviously involved giving your own expectations of what one of your records should sound like a slight tilt.
LD: Even playing around with my vocal and how it sounds, like on the song “Paranoia,” for instance. I honestly didn't want to make another album. And I will someday and, yeah, I'll continue to make music the way I've always made music. I like having my guitar and singing and playing songs. I love that. But there were some of these where I had my acoustic guitar and was, like, 'this isn't a song for [it]. It's just not.' So, I would build up this whole track, and a good example of that was “Carry Us Through.” It was this very Lee DeWyze circa 2016 [laughs], big, stompy, harmonies, all this stuff.
And what's really fucked up is that people around me were saying “oh, man! Dude, this is awesome! It sounds awesome! I love it!” And personally, I was saying “you know what? I don't. I don't like the way it sounds. I like the song, but something's just not right about it.” So, I went into the studio with my friend and producer [Nico Grossfeld] who I work with. We produce everything, and I'm always in the room. I'm never the guy who's, like, 'alright! Here's a song. Let's see how it sounds.' I'm involved in every decision, and I'm really steering that ship.
So, I told him “take everything off.” And he said “really? What do you mean?” And I said, “take everything off.” And he gets me, so he said “alright. Cool.” All that was left was the vocal and the piano. That's the song right there. That's it. Let's build on that. It just turned into this very pure thing, this very different feeling that it didn't have before that I wanted it to have. To be honest, to be totally honest, I was, like '[“Carry Us Through”] isn't going to make the album.' Because it just wasn't feeling right to me. And then after I revamped it, I was like, 'well there's no way this is not going on the record.' And it's become one of my favorites on the album, because there's this feeling you get, at least for me, that when it's done you can kind of tell. You're like, 'yeah. This is the last song.'
GW: You mentioned your partnership with Nico and how you're both in sync. When you insisted on boiling these songs down and deviating from standard operating procedure, did he offer some points of negotiation or pushback?
LD: To be honest, I'm pretty stubborn in the studio. Very rarely will someone deter me from doing something, to be totally blunt. If I want to do something, that's what I'm going to do. The reason I think Nico and I work so well together is that there's no ego involved for him, at all. He's not doing this for any other reason than he wants the music to sound its best, as well. And when I'm working with him, his whole goal, really, is to make sure that he wants it to sound the way I want it to sound. So, however he can achieve that...he'll say “oh, is this how you want it to sound?” And I'll say, “No. That's not it at all.” Or “Yes! That's it.”
So, it's this really good combination of things where he'll ask, “what are you trying to do here?” And we'll go through it. I'm kind of crazy in the studio. I'm kind of manic where I'll go, “pull up this! Pull up this! Pull up this!” And he's right there with me. And that's why we work so well together because no matter what I'm saying, it's never ‘dude, I don't know...' It's like, 'alright, man. Let's try it. What do you want? A xylophone? Alright, here's your xylophone.' He gets what it is I'm trying to do, and he allows me to do it. And he's also a good friend of mine, so it's been a pleasure to work with him.
GW: Anyone who knows me will not be surprised by this, but my favorite song on the album is “Lonely Hearts” because of the harmony work on the choruses. And I especially think it's great because those harmonies don't sound like multitracking, but rather like you were able to somehow sing live with a couple of other versions of yourself around the same microphone. And then there's still a little bit of that acoustic guitar layered underneath which gives it a specific cadence.
LD: Yeah, I wanted to keep the acoustic, and I remember it was originally all acoustic and I wanted a little bit of that in there still because I wanted it to feel real. And the way I've been doing harmonies—and it's so funny you're saying all of this—is to try to not just be, like, 'yep! There's my voice. And there's my voice. And there's my voice here and here.' No, it needs to be sung a different way. It needs to have a different feeling to it on this part. You're, like, nailing it out of the park as far as what my thought process was going into it. So, I love hearing you say that.
GW: It sounds so natural. It doesn't sound like studio layering. And that's a significant credit to you, because I think there are very few people who can pull that off. I quite love that it's a bit of a throwback, it just has this vintage patina that really works.
LD: And there's a dust record track on that, as well. Very subtly. You can hear some crackling, like you're listening to vinyl almost. And the reason for that was because I wanted it to have that old feeling to it. I don't know. Everything was just working so well at that point. I love that you love that song, and I love that song.
GW: Every good story has peaks and valleys. And that's what really makes this record work is the narrative and how true to life it is in terms of the path it follows. It's lingering on those brighter spots that surface out of sadness, or frustration, or reflecting on our mistakes. It's so cohesive.
LD: Well, thank you. I appreciate that. I'm really curious to see what the response will be from fans of mine. But, I mean, it's still me.
GW: Of course. It's absolutely you.
LD: Through and through. Listen, it is a dark record [laughs]. I'm not trying to hide or avoid that, either. It's a dark record. But there are also these glimmers of hope in each song. It's a thinking record. And then, there's the surprise track, 'Got it Right', right in the fuckin' middle of it. And you're, like, 'what the hell is this?!' And for me, that was really just wanting that moment of 'whoa!' Everything has its super highs and super lows, emotionally or whatever. That's just the high of this record. This record has its own nervous system, let's say, and that's the high.
GW: Because our site is undyingly passionate about the format: what are your five favorite albums of all time?
LD: That's a really tough question. I'll go for Tea for the Tillerman by Cat Stevens, Simon & Garfunkel's Greatest Hits, Paul Simon's Graceland, Plans by Death Cab For Cutie, and Elliott Smith's Either/Or.