Pithy earworms are the connective tissue from The Lumineers to Billy Joel.
Wesley Schultz grew up listening tothe piano-pop maestro and even now, four albums and more than 15 years into a career in The Lumineers, he cites the influence of “a true master of writing incredibly dense songs that were also short.”
Schultz, lead singer, guitarist and pianist in the duo along with Jeremiah Fraites (or “Jer,” as Schultz references him) on drums, piano and percussion, is preparing the Friday release of the group’s “Brightside.” It’s a compact production – nine songs, 30 minutes, much storytelling – stocked with the rootsy pop flavors first experienced on their 2012 breakout single, “Ho Hey,” as well as follow-up hits “Stubborn Love” and “Ophelia.”
“The idea that Billy Joel brought a level of gravitas and depth to what he was doing, even though it was disguised as pop – (Bob) Dylan and The Beatles also did that – there was an appeal to bring this element to the songs that made me feel like, I can play this for my 4-year-old son but the songs are also sophisticated,” Schultz tells USA TODAY by phone from New York.
The songs “A.M. Radio,” “Big Shot” and the title track have been making the rounds on rock radio since fall. Schultz reveals stories behind some of the notable tracks and lyrics on “Brightside.”
Question: Where did that line ‘I don’t know where we are, but it will be OK’ come from on ‘Where We Are’?
Wesley Schultz: The poet in Jer came out in this album. Normally, 99% of the time I’m writing the lyrics, but he’ll have these gems. He sent me that line and there’s a power to it, a directness and it got my wheels turning. We had this hook and it evolved into this metaphor for a car accident I had been in 10 years prior, (where) you’re driving down the road and everything is smooth and an accident happens very quickly and then you spend years picking up the pieces of it. It feels like collectively we’ve been in that car crash the past couple of years and it felt like a way more interesting to talk about (the pandemic).
Q: At just over four minutes, ‘Birthday’ spotlights background vocals reminiscent of The Beatles. Was that an intentional reference?
Schultz: Even the bass is McCartney-esque! It’s like when you hear comics who start wading into waters they shouldn’t be with a radioactive topic. With music, it felt a little wrong to sing about ‘Birthday’ with that hook (because of The Beatles song of the same name). But Jer sent me this voice memo (starts singing the chorus), “It’s alright, it’s alright, it’s alright/it’s your birthday, dear.” When we started playing it live, there’s this reality that there are still weddings, there are still babies born and birthdays happening throughout this pandemic. Do we choose to celebrate them? Does that feel absurd? It brought up the feeling of the absurdity of the times.
Q: ‘Big Shot’ is such an introspective piano ballad that sounds as if it’s about someone specific. Is it?
Schultz: That was written about a self-reflection. A lot of people stand up on stage and get an award and hold a trophy and they say they’re so humbled and it’s b.s. What is humbling is what just happened (with the pandemic). For us, not being able to tour and having our crew and bandmates in a holding pattern, this is humbling.
Looking back, I had become burned out. We had toured for 10+ years and it all began to blend together. I think I took a lot of things for granted and I was struck by how little I had taken stock of. There’s a feeling of fragility, like getting a bad health diagnosis where your world turns on a dime. The song is about realizing how I had gotten a little bit ahead of myself.
Q: ‘Rollercoaster’ has such a melancholy feel. Was the line ‘everyone was only dying to live’ specific to what we’ve all been living through?
Schultz: That song is probably the most on-the-nose of all the songs on the album as far as lyrically referencing the pandemic in some direct ways. At the risk of sounding cliché, this the most divided I’ve seen our country and the song is these vague vignettes with the feeling of developing some level of empathy for what you consider the ‘other side’ instead of easily vilifying each other. Part of it is almost like a lullaby during sad times.
Q: On ‘Reprise,’ you bring it back to the opening track, ‘Brightside.’ It’s musically upbeat with that foot-stomping, jangly chorus, so was the intention to end on an optimistic note?
Schultz: Someone described (‘Reprise’) as a Rorschach test. If you want to see it as positive, that’s in your head – I saw ‘the lights’ (in the lyrics) as someone dying, but then it could also be a guy in a Cadillac driving in the sun: ‘I’m waiting on the sun/waiting on the sun tonight.’ I think the song felt like it tied the record together. It felt playful to us, like a swagger. It made us smile, it made us feel good.