The highly anticipated album BRIGHTSIDE by American folk-rock group The Lumineers was released in January 2022 and offers up a message of hope in these strange times. We spoke to Wes Schultz, guitarist and lead vocalist for the band, on the eve of their European tour.
Wes says BRIGHTSIDE was unplanned. “My wife had our second child last March and we (he and band mate Jeremiah Fraites) had gone into the studio in February with just the goal of recording one or two songs. We left with five, then followed up with a session a few months later and finished the record. There was something about it that was just off the cuff. We didn’t do a lot of takes, it wasn’t really planned out, it was more like we were just doing it for the fun of it. I think that comes across.”
Wes considers the band’s previous record III more of an ambitious concept album compared to BRIGHTSIDE. “We tried to tell a story then, and this new album is not that at all. It’s more like a couple of kids playing around. The vibe isn’t that everything is okay, it’s more like you’re forging ahead like you would when you were fifteen. Like you have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Maybe we were trying to feel that way.
“Now, there’s a feeling of uncertainty every day that never gets healed. Everyone is carrying that feeling around. The strangest part is that in my lifetime there’s never been something you could say to anyone anywhere and they know what you mean. It’s usually isolated to a specific geographic area where a thing happens. But to have it be a worldwide pandemic … I think there’s something unique and strange about that. To be able to relate to the entire world, in this case, is not the best thing. Unfortunately, we’re all in the boat together.”
Recently Wes watched The Beatles documentary “Get Back” and discovered when it came to writing songs, the band kept banker’s hours. “That’s pretty much how Jer and I write together – kind of workshopping ideas that will form. A lot of the independent writing between us is done in our own time and it’s about just showing up. It’s funny, the more he sends me ideas or I send him ideas, it creates this inertia, because we think the other person is writing so I should be writing. It’s a reminder that this guy’s working hard so I should be working hard, we’re a team here.”
The two musicians used to live, write and tour together, but life happens and now they create separately in new ways. “When we lived together it was cool because I could hear him fiddling around all the time and that would often be how ideas were discovered. I play more when I’m working out something. When I had (Jer playing) around all the time, it was really special. Now he’ll send me stuff – it doesn’t matter if it’s good enough, just send what you’re working on. Then I’ll send him ideas as well. Everyone is built a little differently. Our piano player … we go to a venue and we’ll hear him playing for hours. Other people get on stage and that’s the first time they’ve picked up the instrument that day. It’s an interesting mix.”
Like most kids, Wes’ early musical influences came from his parents, so he listened to whatever was in his dad’s tape deck. “The Cars, Billy Joel, Leonard Cohen. Those are the big ones. Especially watching my dad listen to Billy Joel was influential. I admired my dad, he was my hero. Watching him respond emotionally, that had a big influence on me. It felt like that was a super power, like black magic, to make people feel.
“My dad was a psychologist and I wanted to do that. Psychology lends itself a lot to songwriting, because if you have an interest in people there’s a lot there to sing about. As much as music or musicians inspired me, psychology and the contradictions in people did too.
“There’s something about songwriting, where if something is a caricature, you can smell it a mile away. Like, oh that person doesn’t know what they’re singing about. But if they put in the right line to show you where they’re coming from, you understand. There’s something about it that interested me and became a fascination.”
Wes began writing poetry at a young age but didn’t write songs until his mid-teens. “I was always accidentally training for songwriting. I pulled out these old notebooks of mine from fifth and sixth grade recently and I had all these weird limericks and poems. The big breakthrough for me was realizing I could spend all this time on lyrics, but it didn’t matter at all if it wasn’t married to a melody. If it wasn’t something that was hummable and carried and supported the lyrics, the lyrics didn’t matter.”
He believes there has to be a balance in songwriting and “it took me years to get that concept. We used to cover songs and I’d say ‘I love singing these songs, why don’t I love singing our songs’? Because I sucked at writing melodies! It's a way of being listened to or being heard. You may have the most profound thing to say, but if you’re the wrong messenger it’s going to be lost in the minutia of everything.”
Now Wes listens to music with his own son. “I listen to a lot of Nick Drake and Daniel Rodriguez from Elephant Revival - we’ve become good friends. We did a song of his – a Christmas song. I’ll get obsessed with different things. Joni Mitchell’s Blue record was on repeat for a while. Nick Drake and Daniel Rodriguez are what I listen to the most though.”
Learning to Play
Wes took music lessons growing up and even played trumpet for a while. But that didn’t last long. “The trumpet wasn’t fun to play by yourself. I hated the scales. I had this idea of justice in my head. I knew I was better than the guy in first chair, but the teacher said ‘I can’t put you in first chair because you don’t do the scales’. I was like, this isn’t fair, I’m out of here.”
When he was fifteen he saw a Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds concert at West Point and the musical seed was planted. “I wanted to do that! I took guitar lessons for about six months. You can take guitar lessons for a long time, but once you know enough it’s all user led. You don’t really need someone constantly instructing you, it just depends on your interest in it.
“At first I needed someone to crack the whip, but eventually I loved doing it. I loved playing and writing songs. Then I wanted to learn how to solo, which never worked out. I met a teacher in college (musician Charles Arthur out of Richmond, VA). We barely picked up instruments. We talked about music and he told me his philosophy about it. We were kindred and everything he said resonated with me. Like how do you say the most with the least?
“When we talked about music, he opened up a whole new world on how to think about it. Now every time we get a gold or platinum record, I send him one with his name on it. I wouldn’t be where I am without those conversations. And he says, ‘Shut up, you’re f*cking lying’. He doesn’t want to hear it. But I think he’s secretly tickled by it. It’s kind of eerie to think about if I hadn’t met him I don’t know where I’d be, but it’s true. Some people are like angels in your life and they put you in a direction that you couldn’t have anticipated.”
Making the Decision
Mr. Arthur didn’t just teach Wes to play guitar, he taught him how to devote himself to being a musician. “I remember him saying that if you want to play music then you can play music. If you like it enough and you’re willing to put it first and give up all this other stuff, you can do it. He said ‘I’ve heard your songs and your voice and you’re good enough. It's just going to be a decision you make’. It was really empowering and also sobering. You really have to subtract a lot of things from your life to do this one thing, and if you’re willing to do that, it’s for you.
“I’ve been lucky enough to meet some professional athletes, like Tyson Barrie, a defenseman who used to play for the Avs (Colorado Avalanche) and there’s a lot of traits that overlap in these different fields. Like if you’re just obsessed with something then you tend to get better at it and you go somewhere with it, and if you’re not, you don’t. You must have a reasonable amount of skill and there are other factors, but honestly, if things didn’t break my way, I’d still be playing music, it’d just be different venues. That’s a good feeling.”
Success didn’t come to the band for quite a while. And when it did, it was kind of a shock to the system. “It’s interesting that nothing happened for us for like ten years and then all of a sudden something happened. And the world doesn’t really understand what you’ve done before that. They think you’re twenty-one years old, but I was thirty. And you have to deal with the misunderstanding and go forward. It was easier for me during the years when nothing happened. There was kind of a trauma with success because you think it can all go away just like that.
“We’re coming up on ten years since our first record and that means a lot to me because I spent about five of those years wondering when the other shoe was going to drop. I couldn’t really trust it. Like why didn’t success happen in little increments? It was feast or famine. I feel so happy to still be making music with Jer and for me to feel like we’re doing our best work. We’re lucky that somehow on our fourth record we made our best album. What a great place to be! We should be grateful to the gods, because not everything plays out like that.”
The Upcoming Tour
The Lumineers will be on tour starting February 2022. “A lot of our shows in the U.S. this summer are outdoors so we’re just kind of waiting for the green light. We’re excited about it. I love the Denver Folklore Center. It’s my go-to store and am happy to be part of the newsletter.”
Want to see Wes and The Lumineers in concert this year? See their tour dates and buy BRIGHTSIDE HERE.