Probably best known as co-founder of the Lumineers, Wesley Schultz has released a solo album of some considerable quality. It’s a record of covers but to leave the story there would leave so much unsaid. Featuring versions of songs originally written by Wesley’s early, and continuing, inspirations, it shows this super artist at the peak of his powers as he brings new approach and nuance to songs by artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Sheryl Crow, Jim Croce, Derek & The Dominoes and Warren Zevon.
Wesley’s theory on this record was that if he couldn’t bring something new to these songs he wouldn’t record them and I was lucky to get to chat with him about the release. I feel privileged to have spoken to someone so articulate in his understanding of music. When you read Wesley’s answers to my questions and realise how beautifully structured they are, you’ll realise why he writes such incredible lyrics. I hope this acts as a gateway to this record, but I also hope it acts as a gateway to this artist.
EP: ‘Vignettes’ is a collection of covers of some of your early influences, how did you go about track selection from such a rich vein of music, given the artists that you covered?
WS: It was kind of a hotch-potch in a way. ‘My City Of Ruins’, which opens the record, is something I’ve covered for a great many years. I was playing that at bars, so it feels like ten years, might be eight. We had a lot of protests in Denver and I played at an event where I played that song, before I knew I was going to make the solo record, and it seemed to really resonate today as much as it did when I played at bars and coffee shops and house shows.
I think the common thread through the choice of a lot of these songs really has a lot to do with me being in awe of the songwriting, being in awe of the lyrics and the melodies and how someone made something feel so eternal. I’d never really heard ‘Downtown Train’, I’d never heard any versions of it, and then Simon ( producer Simon Felice) showed me that. We had probably seven or eight songs that we knew we were going to record at some point and he showed me that one. It passed the test for me.
I was blown away by it in the same way as when I first heard ‘Bell Bottom Blues’, so it was kinda like there wasn’t a formula for choosing the songs other than when you sit down and you get to play it, does it haunt you? Does it feel like if your friend rolled up to your house and sat on your couch and played that song for you and somehow you’d never heard it…would it devastate you? Would it blow you away? That was what we were going for.
Including songs like ‘ If It Makes You Happy’ where I feel like Sheryl Crow is sometimes (pausing to find the right words) …you can overlook how good the songwriting is sometimes because the presentation is punchy so you don’t necessarily realise how good the songwriting is on the first listen because the sound washes over you. So part of it was that idea. I kept thinking that if somehow somebody had never heard these songs and they were presented this way would they resonate. You don’t have to have heard these songs before to get it. That’s the hope.
EP: it’s interesting that you say that as it takes me naturally into my next question which is, listening to the songs, you’ve managed a completely different take on them, sometimes giving them more depth I think. I guess what I’m asking is how difficult is it for your version not to be overly influenced by the artists that originally inspired you. Did you go out of your way to be different? For instance, with the Sheryl Crow song it feels like a completely new song?
WS: Certainly that’s a good example, in her version of that song she goes up a whole octave in the chorus and in the way I did it it’s sitting back and staying in the same octave for the chorus. I think for me there is nothing worse than, when I hear a cover, that it sounds like a poor imitation of the original so it almost felt that it was in everybody’s best interests that the song is either reinvented or you just don’t bother, unless your a wedding band. If you look at the songs that we’ve covered with The Lumineers, like ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ as an example. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that version we did but it’s a Tom Petty cover and it doesn’t really sound much like the original, and I think that’s on purpose in the same way that the ‘Vignettes’ approach is purposefully trying a new way to express that song. It just feels tired otherwise. It’s also very intimidating to try to recreate something so perfect, it’s just going to sound plastic.
For me it’s almost like it made no sense to try to imitate so much as try to find our own feel for it, our own take on it. It seemed like the only way to go. Actually, in the recording process, there were a couple of songs that didn’t make it, they didn’t work. One of those was a Billy Joel song, we tried to do ‘ She’s Always A Woman To Me’. That was an example of a song that to me just sounded like bad karaoke. You know, like…this song is so good but what I’m doing to it is not adding anything to it, so out of respect for the song I’m going to have to move on. That was our compass with it.
One of our friend’s girlfriend listened to this album and she hadn’t heard most of these songs and they were both laughing because this is probably the first introduction to a lot of these songs and then she’ll go listen to the original which is kind of strangely out of order but in a way I wanted that to be ok, for this to stand on its own and if anything be testament to the original writing.
There’s a great Leonard Cohen covers album, a live show album, which is I think called ‘I’m Your Man’, which if you go back and listen there’s people who do such good, incredible covers of his songs and it sets the bar super high. Martha Wainwright does ‘Tower of Song’, and I think it stands up on its own just as much as Leonard Cohen’s version. I’ve always been a lover of covers but I love certain types, ones that have their own version…you can almost play them back to back and they’re unrecognisable.
EP: I guess the fact these singers influenced you in the first place will come across in the respect you pay to covering the originals. I think it’s interesting that you say it could act as a gateway to some of these songs and the artists that influenced you. It’s almost payback to the people that made you the writer you are today, people like Warren Zevon, who for a lot of people only sang ‘Werewolves of London’. It’s great that you’ve picked songs outside the usual remit…
WS: Warren Zevon is a great example. I really fell in love with the Felice Brothers in 2008 and Simon Felice is producing this. He’s become a good friend and has produced our band’s last two records with The Lumineers. There’s ‘Ballad Of Lou the Welterweight’ on this album, hidden gems. I feel like it’s a thank you, it’s a love letter to these songwriters and these songs.
As you probably know, interviewing artists, it’s so much about oneself and inward looking and borderline narcissistic so what’s really beautiful about doing a covers record is sort of turning that back outwards and expressing gratitude for something someone else has done and that feels good. It feels like a healthy thing to do because all these songs, and songs like these, taught me how to write music.
I don’t know if there’s an exception but most people begin by learning other people’s music and you become a student of lyrics, for me, or melody and lyrics and that’s the only way to do that. I remember sitting in a bar playing music and every time I played one of my own songs I would feel weighed down, the writing wasn’t there yet but if I played a covers song, a good one, like a Bob Dylan song or a Bruce Springsteen song, all of a sudden it felt like I was levitating and I’ll never forget that feeling, that comparison. What’s the difference? Well the difference is that these guys wrote incredible music and I didn’t so I’m enjoying the rollercoaster of singing their songs in front of these people. These types of songs made me want to strive to write something like that. It’s a beautiful thing to express that feeling of awe for someone else’s work.
ES: You described ‘Vignettes’ as a love letter to these songs and artists that influenced you. Did you have any communication with the artists that you covered or any reaction from them?
WS: Yes, I got a couple of responses. I got a nice note from Chris Martin, he wrote me a little note back. I had some really kind words from Sheryl Crow where she said she cried hearing my version and Tom Waits, joking, saying it was nice to hear someone who could actually sing, singing his song. I heard from Ian Felice about the ‘Ballad of Lou the Welterweight’ song, he said we really loved it and we crushed it.
I was really touched by anyone responding, they didn’t have to, but I think the Sheryl Crow one was the most surprising because I did a subdued, sad version of the song. It almost sounds triumphant when you listen to it, her version, and I didn’t know if she’d like it but I felt like I was trying to expose what was underneath all the layers and show kind of how deep the song really was and it was such a…I don’t know the right word, but it was a very surprising and gratifying moment when she told me she’d cried listening back to it because if someone covered my song and it made me cry…I could only imagine, it’s never happened but when one day when it does it will be a special moment because she’s so familiar with the song so to make her see it in a new light that’s what I was trying to do with the audience so if I can make her see it in a new light, I know that a lot of other people will as well, so it was a cool reaction.
EP: It almost completely vindicates what you wanted to do doesn’t it because, as you say, you’ve taken words that Sheryl Crow is very familiar with and given them new meaning, another side. It must make you feel great.
WS: Yes, and when you’re doing that, in the moment, when you’re recording that there is a little bit of doubt because you don’t know how it will be received by that person who wrote it but yeah, it was a vindicating feeling just to have someone be surprised by their own words, I guess. To cry there must still be be a lot of emotion around that. Thinking of the moment she must have been writing that where it sounded like a lonesome cry of a song and it was turned into this happier, more confident and triumphant, like I was saying earlier, sounding hook and chorus and song.
A lot of my friends who don’t normally text me about specifics anymore, they just see how I’m doing; they were like “I didn’t realise how good the lyrics were” in ‘If It Makes You Happy’ and that makes me feel good. It was like exposing something that was already there and it made me proud to have done it that way. What was cool was that her version worked obviously beautifully for her so it’s a versatile song I think.
EP: With ‘Vignettes’ coming out and Jeremiah’s solo album ‘Piano, Piano’ coming out soon, are these examples of lockdown projects you’d always wanted to do, or is this a hiatus for The Lumineers?
WS: The projects are pretty different. Jer’s ‘Piano, Piano’ is gorgeous, but there’s not enough room on a Lumineers album for that music as a whole. There are moments of it but I’ve been urging him, encouraging him to make this solo album for a few years now.
But, The Lumineers are working on a new record, we’re well into a new record together, working on one, so…in my case I feel like I need all my best ideas for the band, as does Jer, but those are different ideas, you know. Those are more like classically orientated sounding pieces and mine are more singer-songwriter that sort of collide with Jer’s brain and that becomes the sound of The Lumineers so the reason I did the covers album was that it wouldn’t interfere with anything we’re doing as a band. So it was a labour of love that was totally not destructive to me and him and what we’re doing. That’s our most important project.
I’ve said this a couple of times but I definitely get frustrated with bands when someone goes off and does a solo record and you wish it could have been done differently. You know Mick and Keith ( Jagger & Richard) could just make all the songs together and they’re gonna be better than if one of them had to go off and do a solo record. It’s like they were supposed to work together, that’s a beautiful partnership so actually I think it made this new record we’re working on even better because we’ve got some creative energy flowing.
EP: With Christmas coming, do you have a favourite Christmas song, because I know you have a weakness for ‘Pretty Paper’?
WS: I think ‘Pretty Paper’ is probably my favourite. I just did an interview for a Willie Nelson podcast. I was raised on that album ‘Pretty Paper’ as a kid and it’s not until recently I realised that Willie even wrote that. I thought that was a standard Christmas song. And then I learned about the backstory of it; I would say that one. In fact that whole album I have a very soft spot in my heart for.
I just got it on vinyl because I lost it in my move but it’s going to be something I raise my son listening to. It holds a lot of memories for me and, unlike a lot of other artists when they approach Christmas music, I think Willie gave all of those songs, but especially his own song ‘Pretty Paper’, a lot of heart. Sometimes those songs can feel very tongue in cheek or without substance but even when he’s singing ‘Rudolf The Red Nosed Reindeer’, I believe him. I feel like he has this ability to give you the song in a real way and almost no one else can and if you haven’t heard that I would recommend anybody to listen to that album because it’s like a breath of fresh air when you compare it to some other Christmas songs and albums that sound plastic, made of false material almost.
EP: I guess like ‘Vignettes’, he’s taken songs and given them new meaning with his interpretation, almost making a Christmas song that can last all year in the case of ‘Pretty Paper’.
I can’t thank you enough for your time. It’s been a great honour to chat with you and appreciate how invested you are in the music. Good luck with the record.
‘Vignettes’ is out now and can be bought, streamed and downloaded here.