Wesley Schultz, lead singer of the popular Americana band, The Lumineers, remembers standing on a subway platform in New York City giving his co-founding band mate, Jeremiah Fraites, his best sales pitch. It was early in the duo’s career. They were still playing east coast bars and small clubs but they knew, deep down, their music meant something more. They knew it had a spark. But how to turn that spark into flames was still unknown. So, Schultz formed a plan. They would move from New York City to Denver, Colorado. They would forge a new, uncharted way for themselves. It would work. Hopefully.
“At the time,” Schultz says, “it was cost-prohibitive to live in New York. For me, it was a simple decision – we can’t continue to make music here. It wasn’t going to work. At first, Jer was going to stay behind. But I remember talking to him on the subway platform. He was still in college and I was living and working in Brooklyn. So, I gave him my best sales pitch. If it wasn’t Denver, we’d just keep going until we found a spot.”
As luck (and planning) would have it, Schultz and Fraites made it to Denver. And while the area was indeed more manageable from a financial standpoint, the Mile High city provided another very important benefit for the burgeoning band. Unlike New York City, Los Angeles or Seattle, Denver is not located near either the Atlantic or Pacific. Instead, it’s central, smack-dab in the middle of the United States of America. But by being far from each coast, they were, in another way, relatively close to both.
“One night a friend told me – it was like Good Will Hunting,” says Schultz, who grew up in a small town in New Jersey. “He said, ‘If you don’t get out of this town, I’m gonna fuckin’ kill ya.’ Today, Denver is truly a home for me, but we also tour so much. Denver forced us to be on both coasts. It was baptism by fire.”
The Lumineers, which released the band’s third record, III, last year, has come far from its humble beginnings. Schultz, who remembers first paying attention to music in his dad’s car (acts like Billie Joel, Leonard Cohen, The Cars), first fell in love with lyrics. In fact, he remembers writing his first poem in fifth grade. The piece, which was about losing his grandmother, was so good that Schultz’ teacher thought he might have plagiarized it. He’s wanted to communicate artfully ever since then and music has become the vehicle. But it wasn’t always smooth going. At some point, struggling, Schultz needed a creative breakthrough.
“It felt liberating, like an epiphany of sorts,” Schultz says. “I felt so misunderstood. I didn’t understand what the missing link was. Then I realized that the lyrics may be good or they may not be. But no one is going to pay attention until there is a good melody to back them up. My dad’s favorite band may have been Talking Heads and David Byrne used to say, ‘Music hits the body first and the mind second.’ That’s what we’re talking about when we talk about melody.”
Figuring out this key idea, Schultz says it felt like he was “given wings” and he could “finally fly.” He wrote the bright, elastic Lumineers track “Flowers in Your Hair” and the band was off in earnest. For Schultz, music (and playing it live) was where he felt most comfortable, free. He was a talented athlete growing up, but come game time, he was always in his head on the basketball court. On stage, though, it was almost an hypnotic clarity for the artist. He could relax.
“I feel like my mind betrays me when I play basketball,” Schultz says. “Not that I could have turned professional. But I get in my own way. With music, it doesn’t feel that way.”
Schultz remembers practicing one day when he thought his father wasn’t looking. He was fifteen-years-old. His parents had already expressed trepidation at him taking up a life of music. But he remembered that if he could make a meager, honest living one day, he’d be alright. Practicing there at home, though, Schultz’ father took notice from around a corner and, later, told his wife that he thought their son might have a chance. When Schultz’ mother later relayed this story, it buoyed her son to continue on.
“That carried me for a long time,” Schultz says. “It wasn’t my dad saying he thought his son was brilliant, or whatever. It was more like, ‘He works hard and when he puts his mind to something, I think he can do it.’”
In the fruitful years since, Schultz and Fraites have released Billboard chart-topping songs and albums, refined their skills as songwriters and musicians and played to a combined bazillion people. But the band perhaps took its biggest risk with their most recent LP, III. The album, which centered on the realities of addiction – their causes and consequences – was a personal offering in an often impersonal, digital world. Yet, the record ended up being, in many ways, quite universal.
“I feel very surprised by how it was received,” Schultz says. “I thought a lot of people wouldn’t get it. Turns out a lot of people are dealing with addiction in their own families and friend circles. I think it’s more universal than we thought.”
Schultz talks about a person close to him who he has tried to help, along with other family members, for years. He remembers taking more than 100 trips to the Emergency Room for this person in 2019, alone. Addiction is draining, deadly and depressing on the daily. But talking about it can often be the only way through for many people. And, in Schultz’ case, that meant singing about it, too.
“There is so much fear and shame in the world,” Schultz says. “But being open causes other people to be open.”
Today, as he balances a successful career and difficult personal choices, melody and lyric, creative and personal isolation and a connectedness with fans during quarantine, he is also devoting his energy to other battles. Schultz, who worked for years in restaurants as an up-and-coming songwriter, is continuously striving to raise money for musicians, venues and local eateries – those things that make cities worth living in – so that the things that sustained him as a young person can continue to thrive and do so for up and coming artists.
“I was talking with Jer,” Schultz says. “And said, ‘Imagine if our first album came out in April 2020.’ You’re thinking the world is just about to finally catch up with your music and then everything stops. It’s frightening. Venues and bars are where we got everything started. It’s where culture begins and develops. It’s where we dreamed of playing in front of people.”
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