Digital Cover Story: Diplo Returns to Country ‘Persona’ with Second Thomas Wesley Chapter ‘Swamp Savant’

Diplo admits that he didn’t quite know what he was doing with his 2020 foray into country music, Thomas Wesley, Chapter 1: Snake Oil. Perhaps an experiment at first for the DJ and producer, Diplo, who goes by his real name Thomas Wesley as his country “persona,” shamelessly stepped into a genre he possibly didn’t belong. But he did it anyway.

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Moving between DJ-ing and working on his electronic project, Major Lazer, and outside production and collaborations, following his 2004 debut, Florida, Wesley released his first country album, Diplo Presents Thomas Wesley, Chapter 1: Snake Oil more than 15 years later, featuring Thomas Rhett, Morgan Wallen, Noah Cyrus, and Orville Peck, among others guesting on album.

“I didn’t really know what I was doing,” Wesley tells American Songwriter of Snake Oil. “But I know that this [country] is a genre that could really do without my help. I was writing all these records in dance or pop, but I was also going more into country, and writing country songs, so this was a great way to release it.”

Within three years, Wesley had assembled another batch of songs for this second installment, Diplo Presents Thomas Wesley, Chapter 2: Swamp Savant. A nod to Wesley’s Mississippi roots and sage-like approach to songwriting, Swamp Savant with another all-star cast of collaborators, blending Diplo’s pop-electronic sensibilities with more Americana instrumentation, from the banjo and synth-sprinkled “Sad in the Summer,” featuring Lily Rose, through the murkier “Use Me (Brutal Hearts)” featuring Dove Cameron and Sturgill Simpson (under the moniker Johnny Blue Skies), and the moody “Never Die,” featuring Morgan Wade

“That’s an outlaw song, which I love because she’s a woman,” says Wesley of “Never Die” with Wade. “It’s a heartbreak song, but it’s also about being a badass, which she is.”

The more uptempo run of “Lonely Long” exposes Wesley’s more poignantly storytelling— Rain falls down like a soldier’s cry / Your father didn’t know you, all mum could do was try / But the world’s your home … so welcome home — delivered by Parker McCollum.

Well, I’m running out of changes / So I’m changing my place / Hope to find me someone better / Hope to find my saving grace sings Paul Cauthen through his gravelly baritone on the bare-boned, outlaw-ridden “Rain on My Mind.” Written with Cauthen in Nashville, the song was one of a handful of songs the two worked on together in the studio.

“I wrote that acoustically with Paul, and he just came after a show, super hungover, so his voice sounds like that,” says Wesley. “Then I had him come to LA to do the bridge and added Sierra [Ferrell] for a little duet. I wanted a sort of old-school, John Prine feel to it. I love that song.”

He continued, “I wanted them on the album because they’ve become my closest friends in country music over the last three years. I’m not sure what genre of country that [‘Rain on My Mind’] fits into. It’s more like a campfire song where everybody is hearing the song and joining in, and by the end of it there’s a whole choir singing.”

On the second half of the 20-track album, Wesley relists Snake Oil tracks, including “Heartless” with Morgan Wallen, his Jonas Brothers collaboration “Lonely,” “Horizon,” featuring Leon Bridges, and “Dance with Me,” featuring Rhett and Young Thug, along with a remix of Lil Nas X’s 2018 hit “Old Town Road.” 

Mixing dance and country, and sampling outside the peripherals of both is something innate for Wesley. “I love the idea of sampling,” said Wesley, who has written songs for Beyoncé, Justin Bieber, Shakira, Usher, Ellie Goulding, Snoop Dogg, among others, all sparked by his 2007 co-write of M.I.A.’s 2007 hit “Paper Planes,” featured on her album, Kala, and in the film Slumdog Millionaire.

“I did ‘Paper Planes,’ and sampled The Clash [‘Straight to Hell,’ 1982], because I thought M.I.A. was this sort of punk anarchist, so it was essential to sample them. It was more about ‘How do I want to build the attitude of the song?’”

He adds, “It feels really backward to be doing country music and sampling old dance records. It’s almost like this spaghetti western feel that’s mutated into this. I love the idea that I’m a vehicle for country right now, but I’m doing it through so many different styles I grew up with—I’m influenced by not just dance but also hip-hop and rock.”

He delivers something heavier on the rocker “Wasted,” featuring Kodak Black and Koe Wetzel. “That started with Kodak Black and no music,” says Wesley, who fleshed the song out more with Wetzel’s band. It was just this blues sound that he [Black] beat on his chest, and I love the hook. I just sat on it for a while, and I knew that it was going to be a great rock song.”

For Wesley, venturing into country was part experiment and the perfect outlet for the songs he was writing. “I want them to go through the whole body of work,” said Wesley of his prerequisite before venturing into his Thomas Wesley country space for a third round.

Diplo (Photo: Aidan Cullen)

“In country music, it really takes word of mouth and people going ‘Have you heard this?’” he says. “Morgan Wallen [‘Heartless’] was a weird thing that’s never happened before. It broke every record. I’m used to making a hip-hop record that blows up at number one or two and then goes away in three weeks. It’s the same thing in dance and pop, but [country] doesn’t work like that, so I want to let it marinate for three to five months.”

He added, “The last time [ with Snake Oil], I was surprised. We ended up with almost a billion streams, and the album went gold. It took a long time, but this is actually the biggest record I’ve had. People don’t even know I’m doing country, and it was one of the biggest things that I made.”

Growing his “country family” along the way, Wesley is working through the uphill battle of making country more comfortable in pop and dance. “It’s not that easy to navigate,” he says. “There’s a couple of bigger stars that I’m still working on collaborations with, but it’s very treacherous. You have to walk on eggshells, because it’s gotta be country, and it’s not going to pop radio, but that’s kind of my goal with the album.”

More concerned with “making great songs,” Wesley does understand label pressure to deliver something within the shifting spectrum of the traditional essence of country. “I have to arrange songs and find a way to make country happy,” he says. “I’ve just always been reactive. I want to mutate. I always want to change, but the [country] genre hasn’t changed a lot. It’s gotten stronger in its rules. It’s different because there are a lot of new artists doing country. There’s a lot more African American country artists and a lot of gay artists who are telling new stories, and everybody loves it.”

With each chapter as Thomas Wesley, Diplo is determined to take country somewhere it has never been before.

“Everybody loves to experiment, but they don’t want to be the first one to do it,” says Wesley. “So I’m the guy that’s on the periphery, just finding the ones who are down to do something different, and then we fucking go for it.”

Main Photo by Thomas Falcone / Sacks & Co.

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