'Dead' Man Singing: Lee DeWyze Writes 'Blackbird Song' for His Favorite Series
The "American Idol" season nine winner's tune featured in an episode of AMC's "The Walking Dead" is included on the new soundtrack.
During the early days of The Walking Dead, Lee DeWyze had no interest in watching the popular zombie-studded AMC program. "Everyone was talking about it, but there were so many vampire and werewolf series, and they were all cheesy. They were all bad," the season-nine champ opined to THR. "But then my wife had her appendix out, and we were sitting on the couch, and I said, 'Let's start watching it.' And she said, 'I don't know; it's scary.' We hit play, and it became a marathon. We were obsessed. It became our favorite show."
It wasn't just the drama that interested DeWyze. "I thought the music was really good. A lot of it was this folkie kind of underground, darker music and I was really drawn to it."
After a few seasons, DeWyze had an idea to write a song for the series. "I said out loud, 'I want a song in the show.' I grabbed my guitar and started writing. My wife said, 'Are you writing that for The Walking Dead?' I said yes, and she asked, 'Do they know that?' I laughed. 'No.' "
DeWyze wrote the song in his living room and completed it over two evenings. He was mainly inspired by three of the series' characters. "As a viewer, Daryl, Glenn and Hershel are the three I relate to the most. I definitely relate to a Daryl type." As much as DeWyze wanted to have a song placed in The Walking Dead, he also wanted to write a song that people who didn't watch the series would enjoy.
"I had no idea if the song would go into the show. I thought it could end up in the abyss with all of the other music I've never released. But I was really adamant about getting this one out there." During a rehearsal for a show in Nashville, DeWyze started playing the song for his band. "My violin player, Paul Cartwright, had never heard the song. He told me to keep playing, and then he started doing his fiddle and violin thing, and I thought it was amazing. Then my whole band joined in, and I wasn't feeling it." DeWyze asked everyone except Cartwright to stop playing. "My manager, Brett Radin, said we needed to record it."
DeWyze went into the studio with Cartwright and an engineer to cut "Blackbird Song" in two hours, taking on the role of producer. "I picked the mics and changed the levels. I didn't want it to sound overproduced. We could have made it sound clean and slick, but that's not what the song is about."
The next step was for DeWyze to have a conversation with Fred Jasper, vice president TV/film licensing at the Welk Music Group. Jasper gave the Idol winner a reality check, telling him that The Walking Dead was "a number one show." DeWyze insisted that the song go to the series anyway. "Fred said, 'Let's go,' and he's very good at what he does. He knows the right avenues to take, and he asked the show to check out the song. A couple of days went by and their response was, 'We love it. We'll get back to you.' " A week later, DeWyze was asked to sign a confidentiality agreement about the episode that would include his "Blackbird Song." That legal paper meant he couldn't post any news about his song on social media until the episode aired. As frustrating as that was for DeWyze, it did result in his Twitter feed blowing up as soon as "Blackbird Song" was heard on The Walking Dead. "I've never seen that many people tweet so quickly about a song," he says. "People are still talking to me about it. If I look at my Twitter feed right now, the last tweet is about that song."
When a song is placed in a series, it might be heard for anywhere from a few seconds to a minute or two at the most. DeWyze's song was played at the beginning of the episode as well as the end, for a total of about four minutes of airtime. "It was so amazing to be involved with such a creative group of people," DeWyze says of The Walking Dead production staff. "I love that show and everything about it."
After being played on the series, "Blackbird Song" became available on digital platforms and has sold 31,000 copies to date, according to Nielsen SoundScan. The track was featured on The Walking Dead -- AMC Original Soundtrack, Vol. 2, released on March 25.
The Walking Dead is just the latest TV placement for a DeWyze song. His single "Fight," included on his latest album, Frames, was heard in an episode of The CW's Hart of Dixie. The same network's Reign went for another DeWyze tune, "Don't Be Afraid." ABC's Nashville included "Fire Away" in an episode, featuring DeWyze's own vocals. And his song "The Ride" was licensed by NASCAR.
All this usage is validation for DeWyze's original goal. "Writing is why I got into music in the first place," he says. "I didn't get into music or go on Idol for fame. People don't associate American Idol with songwriting. Breaking down those barriers has been so crucial. My career is getting to that next step, showing people who I am."
While "Blackbird Song" is selling well, DeWyze also has a single in play from his Frames album. "Fight," which has charted on Billboard's Adult Top 40 survey, was one of the earliest songs written for the album, and there's a new video for the track that is building views on YouTube. "I wanted to make something that no one has seen before. My manager and I found these dolls made by a woman who has a shop on Sunset Blvd., [who goes by the name] Leesasaur. She crocheted dolls specifically for the video."
DeWyze wanted the lead character in the animated video to look like him, so he asked her to make a doll wearing a vest and tie. Then he brought in a friend, Andrew Golden, a graphic artist who has done work for Nickelodeon. The two of them wrote a script and created a storyboard. Golden was in charge of special effects and DeWyze was the puppeteer, something he had never attempted before. "But I play a lot of video games. I've watched enough animation to know how they're supposed to move and how to bring them to life. It was a fun challenge for me. I wanted it to be whimsical, to put a smile on your face. It has a low-budget feel." After two months, co-directors DeWyze and Golden had filmed so much footage, their biggest problem was deciding what to include and what to leave out.
Despite the success of the "Fight" video, there are no plans to sell replicas of the Lee DeWyze-like doll or the one representing DeWyze's wife, Jonna Walsh. "People have offered crazy amounts of money for that doll, but no, it means too much to me. We might do something in the future, like making little key chains or phone covers." DeWyze already has a phone cover featuring the doll character for his smartphone, but it is the only one in existence at this point.
Between his song for The Walking Dead and his video for "Fight," DeWyze insists, "I feel like I'm driving the ship for the first time in a long time. I feel like I'm in control of what's ahead for me. My music speaks for itself. The Walking Dead has brought attention to my other music. I want to share my music with people and gain new listeners. I've had fans since Idol, and they are the best in the world. But to have some guy in North Carolina who's never heard anything I've done say, 'I heard this song and checked it out, and I love this music and can't wait to see him live,' -- that's such a great experience for me. I never wanted [my career] to be an instant spark. I wanted it to be a slow, steady burn, and now things are moving in the right direction. All I need to do is continue doing what I'm doing and it will speak for itself. I want to write for different artists, different projects and for myself, performing live, working on side projects, being involved with everything music. That's what I love, and that's what I'm going to do."
Watch the video for "Fight" below: