Interview: 'American Idol' Winner Lee DeWyze -- He Did It His Way

by Kim Potts, posted May 28th 2010 11:07PM
That Lee DeWyze is one chatty dude. Sure, winning 'American Idol' is probably gonna put you in a good mood, but as he gave lengthy, well thought out answers about his past, present and future in a press conference call earlier Friday, one thing became clear: If the 'Idol' producers want to know one thing they should improve upon next season, it's giving viewers the chance to get to know the contestants a little better.

In seasons past, we had a good feel for the contestants' personalities, especially as the Top 12 got smaller and smaller and each singer got more screen time. In season 9, not so much, which is why almost every post-elimination night interview with the contestants this season ended with almost all of them proving to be much savvier, more engaging, more confident and more interesting than they ever appeared to be on the 'Idol' stage.

Food for thought 'Idol' producers ...
That Lee DeWyze is one chatty dude. Sure, winning 'American Idol' is probably gonna put you in a good mood, but as he gave lengthy, well thought out answers about his past, present and future in a press conference call earlier Friday, one thing became clear: If the 'Idol' producers want to know one thing they should improve upon next season, it's giving viewers the chance to get to know the contestants a little better.

In seasons past, we had a good feel for the contestants' personalities, especially as the Top 12 got smaller and smaller and each singer got more screen time. In season 9, not so much, which is why almost every post-elimination night interview with the contestants this season ended with almost all of them proving to be much savvier, more engaging, more confident and more interesting than they ever appeared to be on the 'Idol' stage.

Food for thought 'Idol' producers ...

But back to DeWyze.The laid back Chicagoan who flew under the radar early in the season had plenty to say about his time on the show and his many plans for his career post-'Idol':

What is it about you, do you think, that made 'Idol' viewers keep voting for you week after week?
Throughout the show, even in the beginning when I was a little more reserved, I'm a real guy. Whether it be on camera or off, I stayed true to myself. I really wanted my experience on the show to be about me and performing my music. I can connect with an audience, because I know what it's like to be on the other side of it. I know what it's like to have a goal and (try) to reach it. Throughout the show, I was trying to be myself and make it about the music ... and I put my emotion into every song.

What kind of album do you want to make?
I want the album I make to be something I'm happy with. I'd like to have a folk/rock, kind of alternative vibe to it. I want it to be very earthy, but at the same time, be able to reach out to a lot of different people. I think that I've expressed that to the people that are in charge, and they're all ready to work with me. It's a really good relationship. Working with 19 and those guys ... they're just a great group of people. They really know what they're doing. A lot of people, when they try out (for the show), they say, "They're going to make me do this, they're going to make me do that," but truthfully, I think what they want for you is to do what you're best at ... I'm looking to make an album that really speaks to everybody, with good stories and good music to back it up. It's the kind of stuff I like to listen to. I want a song that someone could listen to and say, "That was a song that reminds me of this time in my life." It's going to be really cool to put a lot of my experiences in the song, and just be able to make something new.

When you met all the past 'Idol' winners at the finale, did any of them give you any helpful advice?
Meeting the past winners in the beginning of the show ... we got to meet some of them ... was really almost intimidating, because you see what they've accomplished, and you just want that. There's a sense of, I want advice, I want to know how you got through this. In the beginning, it's very different, because there's a lot of us. Coming closer to the end, we get to meet more and more of the past (contestants). They've been really amazing. Adam Lambert was awesome on the show, because he's a real genuine guy. He's original, and I like him, he's got a good attitude ... I got to talk to David Cook a little bit. He's one of the nicest guys I've ever met in my life ... I got to talk to Kris Allen, Ruben (Studdard) ... I actually saw Carrie (Underwood) for a little bit at the 'Idol' party. She was so supportive ... "Anything you need, just let me know." She's been awesome. There's a line you cross once you get to this point with everybody. I've joined them in a sense. I look to them for inspiration. They've been through the same process, and they've been able to make their marks on music the same way I want to make my mark on music

Did you get a chance to talk to Simon, who was such a fan of yours, at the finale after-party?
I did see Simon, and we "cheers"-ed, and he said congratulations. He told me he's proud of me and excited to be working with me. I told him thanks for the opportunity, because without 'American Idol,' I wouldn't have had this platform to start a career on a major level.

Were you tired, by the end of the season, of everyone talking about how you had worked at a paint store?
The paint store thing was made into a whole thing this year ... being the average American working guy. Initially I was kind of, "Why do they keep talking about that?" But at the same time, that's what this is all about. It's giving people an opportunity you wouldn't have had if you hadn't tried out for the show. It's cool. It's good. It keeps me grounded, remembering where I came from. I know what it's like on the other side.

How difficult, or outside of your comfort zone, was having to sing songs in genres that you weren't necessarily familiar with, or don't necessarily like?
I think a big part of 'American Idol' that scares people and actually has stopped people from trying out is the fact that you do have to do things that are not necessarily your genre. But my thing on the show was this ... you're given a song, and you do have some say in it. But you go with whatever song you have to go with and you take that song ... the judges always say make it your own, make it your own, and sometimes it sounds retarded when they say that. But at the same time, you really do. It's one thing to get up there and play a song the way it was written originally ... My thing (was), I just wanted to take every song and make it sound like a song that Lee sang. The judges gave me credit. They said, "You had some great arrangements." When I was at the studio, we were given free reign to arrange our songs how we wanted, and I did. That's what got me through that part of it ... because if it was just a matter of singing songs exactly the way they were written, that would have been a lot more difficult. Shania Twain week, that was kind of a rough week for me, because it was so out of my element, but I did what I could with the song. I think it's part of the game. That's what 'American Idol' is ... It was frustrating at times, I won't lie. There were some songs I wouldn't sing in a million years.

Were you happy that 'Beautiful Day' is the song you had to record as your first post-'Idol' release?
I like that song a lot ... it's a really good song. Is it something that's necessarily in my genre? No. But again, there were (other) songs on the table, and I went with the one I thought would represent the moment the best, because they didn't have an original song written for this (this season).

How much did your hometown visit factor in to how you approached the end of the competition? Did it fuel you to go home and see how many people were really supporting you?
By the time you get to that last three weeks, you are ... I'll just tell you straight out ... you are just exhausted. There's so much mental stress going on. Not in a bad way ... (but) there's a lot to think about. You want to win, you want to get as far as you can. It's stressful. That's the name of the game. But going back home and being able to play for everybody was just the most amazing thing. I've been told by so many people, "Man, it just seems so different than when you're on 'Idol.'" For me, I play to a live audience. That's my thing. I really get into it when there's a live audience in front of me, and when I can build up to a song, and build a set and do all those things, which I'll be able to do now. But seeing all the people come out and support me was so huge, because it wasn't all me. It was a mixture of a lot of things. There's a lot of people to thank. Seeing all the fans and support really allowed me to get a good grip on how intense the situation is and how seriously impacted people can be by music. They all showed up, and it was the most surreal experience. I was scheduled to play three or four songs, and I ended playing nine or 10 ... How do you not? They were all there for me, and I didn't want to leave them empty handed.


How does it feel to have fans buying your pre-'Idol' music?
As far as anything I did before the show, that was a stage in my life that I'm obviously proud of, and I've learned a lot from my past experiences through music. It's cool to hear things like that obviously, but I'm really looking forward to the new album I'm going to be making now. It's nice to know fans have reached out and found interest in other things that I've done. This has given me a platform to really, on a major scale, make an unbelievable album. That's really what I'm looking forward to right now. I've got an album I get to make, and I get to take time on it. The show is interesting, because you go each week and you have a song ... I'm the kind of person, when I'm on stage, I like to build up to something, but we get a minute and a half (on the show). That's the game, that was the challenging part of it all. I'm just excited to get on the big stage and really put on a performance without time limits, without judging. Going through the process that I did really helped ... those are the scariest conditions you can be under, being judged by people on national television.

Will some of your original songs that you wrote before 'Idol' be on your first label album?
We're going to be getting into the studio and working on some stuff. I'm definitely going to get a chance to write and put some of that on the album. Whatever we choose to do with any music I already have, there's a lot of stuff that goes into these kinds of things. We'll see ... I'm really looking forward to the next step and making new music. It's a new stage of my life, and it's going to be exciting.

How big of a role did the alternative high school you attended in Chicago play in you deciding to pursue a music career?
You go through different phases of your life. When I was younger, a big problem for me was finding a sense of direction ... I've always wanted to be a musician, I've always wanted to be making music. At a young age, I didn't really care too much about the things that were happening right there at that moment. If I could go back, I probably wouldn't change much. But, at the same time, I made decisions when I was younger that you wouldn't make when you're older, when you've been through things and had experience. Going to the alternative school was cool for me, because I got a totally different outlook on life, and it just made me realize that things aren't always as bad as they seem, and there's always an answer. Whatever the solution is, if you can't do it, you do the best you can. It made me realize that there's a lot more out there than just whatever problems I had in my life ... there's other ways of looking at things. Going to the other school really opened my eyes to that. If it wasn't for the other experiences I went through, I wouldn't be here. It's all about taking risks and being willing to put yourself out there. That was a big thing for me when I was younger ... being afraid to just be myself. After going to that high school, it was really cool just to be able to open up and make a name for myself in the music world.

What have you missed about Chicago while you've been in Los Angeles for the show?
Food, man! The food in Chicago is the best. The thing about Chicago that I love so much is that everybody is trying to do something. There's so much going on. I'm not a big club scene guy, but I love going down to the city, because there's always so many different things to do. You can go see a great show, you can go to the lake, you can go to one of your favorite bars and hang out with friends, go to a game ... The music scene, and the art district area of Chicago, is just amazing.

What artists inspire you?
As far as new albums, I listen to a lot of different things. Everything from Sufjan Stevens to Kings of Leon to Ben Harper. I love Soundgarden, I love Rage Against the Machine, Simon & Garfunkel. I have a pretty wide range of musical tastes. I actually, for the first time, sat down and listened to Kris (Allen)'s album. I really dug it ... It was inspiring to me, because he got to do a lot of the things he wanted to do on his album. I want to get the chance to do the same thing.

What would be your dream collaboration?
I mentioned Sufjan Stevens. His lyrics are so good, and he so gets it. I'd love to write with him. He's amazing. I'd be really willing to work with anybody that wants to work with me, because they've been there and done that. I don't necessarily have the experience as far as putting out an album. I haven't put out an album on a major label yet. Now I'm going to get to do that. There's a good list of people that I've been told I'm going to be getting a chance to work with, and I'm just stoked about it, because I think it's going to come out really, really well. I can't wait to make an album that represents me and put it out there and tour (with) it.

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