Eight years ago, Lee DeWyze came to fame singing other artists’ songs on television as the winner of American Idol Season 9. But now, ironically, his original compositions are all over TV.
DeWyze has racked up an impressive 35 television song placements — more than any other Idol alumnus — on shows such as Elementary, Suits, The Fosters, Nashville, and, most recently, Shameless, which featured “Breakdown,” the lead single from his seventh studio album, Paranoia, in a key scene last month. Not too shabby for a guy who was forced to release a cover of U2’s “Beautiful Day” as his American Idol coronation single.
“When I came off of American Idol — I’ve made this pretty clear over the past few years — it was always about the songwriting for me. It’s what I loved. That’s why I did all of that in the first place. It wasn’t for fame or any of that stuff,” DeWyze tells Yahoo Entertainment. “It was really because I wanted to have music be a career for myself, so right out of the gate, I started writing music — just writing and writing and writing. Then the right things happened, the right things clicked … and I had a song on The Walking Dead.”
DeWyze had broken away from the Idol machine, after releasing one 2010 album on the show’s affiliated label, RCA Records, when he composed a song inspired by The Walking Dead, his favorite TV drama. “I was just in my house. It was dark, of course. I was by myself,” he recalls. “I imagined what it would feel like to be in that scenario, and I was like, ‘Oh, this kind of feels good.’ I kept [writing], and the next thing I know, I had ‘Blackbird Song.’”
It was a long shot, but DeWyze and his manager submitted the song to AMC … and it ended up playing during an entire two -minute scene on The Walking Dead. (“It was like a music video for me,” DeWyze laughs.) “Blackbird Song” was also featured on the show’s official soundtrack, alongside tunes by Portugal., The Man and Sharon Von Etten, and it went on to accrue 12 million YouTube views and 5.8 million Spotify streams. The single was even named one of the top 10 most influential syncs in 2014 from the Musicians Guild of America.
Since then, DeWyze has successfully separated himself from what was, unfortunately, one of the more maligned seasons in American Idol history — and from any lingering Idol–propagated misconceptions that may have hurt his early career. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people come up to me and how much the storyline has changed, where it’s like, ‘Hey man, I’m a huge fan of The Walking Dead. I didn’t even know about [American Idol]!’ It’s really kind of turned that way.”
DeWyze remembers being inspired by Paul Simon’s songs in The Graduate, and he would love to write film scores or full soundtracks like Elliott Smith’s music for Good Will Hunting or Aimee Mann’s Magnolia soundtrack — so he couldn’t be happier to find a new way to reach music fans through visual media. “I look at it the same way some artists might look at radio. At the end of the day, what’s the goal? I want as many people as possible to hear my music.”
Back when DeWyze first appeared on television in 2010, the Chicago Tribune in his hometown dubbed him “The Reluctant Idol,” and he admittedly struggled to come to terms with the fact that American Idol didn’t really showcase his dark, folky aesthetic. “American Idol does not cater towards the singer-songwriter. It just doesn’t, and that’s OK. That’s not what it is,” he shrugs. “I’ll just be blunt and honest: Coming off of that show, I always felt I had to reverse-engineer my career. It’s like someone handing you a Mustang and saying, ‘How does it work?’ and you being like, ‘I gotta take it apart and figure it the f*** out, because I don’t know,’” he chuckles. “I never was prepared for that. At least for me personally, I knew how to write songs, and I sang the way I sang. But to then be thrust into this thing — there was an element of finding myself again.
“As far as people ‘underestimating me’, it’s hard [for me to say that], because, you see, I won,” DeWyze continues. “And because of that, it could sound like, ‘Oh poor you.’ But the truth is, when I came off of the show, it was definitely a tug of war, like, ‘Do I play this character that was just on the show?’… Or do I say, ‘OK guys, I’m really a singer-songwriter; that’s what I do, and check it out’? I wasn’t able to show that on [Idol]. But it’s no one’s fault. … That job was up to me. I wanted my body of work to prove itself. That was really why the focus ever since then has been that.”
And so DeWyze insists he’s not bitter about his time on Idol. “I went on the show, truthfully, for no other reason than I wanted to do this for a living. That is why I did it,” he said. “There’s so many things you could look back on, and say, ‘I would’ve done this,’ but you know what? It’s hard for me to say I would change anything, because I’m pretty happy with what I’m doing.” One of the heaviest and most personal tracks on Paranoia, “Closer,” even touches on his Idol experience. “The opening line is ‘Pick me out of a line,’ so figure it out,” he laughs, adding: “I think a big part of the reason why my music has lent itself to [television] is I think I write in a very honest, direct way that really goes hand in hand with these emotional scenes.”
And, back to the subject of whether people have underestimated him in the past, DeWyze says modestly, “I think there’s always an element of underestimating. … I don’t even know if I knew what my potential was. I just knew I wrote songs and sang, and that’s it. But once I had a better grasp on the industry and how things worked, I kind of was like, ‘I don’t really give a s*** about what people think I’m supposed to do. This is what I do.”
Watch Lee DeWyze’s entire Yahoo Entertainment Facebook Live chat and acoustic mini-concert below.
This article originally ran on Yahoo Music.