A little more than a decade ago, suburban fans watched as Mount Prospect singer-songwriter Lee DeWyze hopped a rocket ship ride to becoming a national name on season nine of “American Idol.”
And a little more than a year ago, COVID-19 caused him to hit the pause button on that career halfway through the writing of a new album.
“There was a good chunk of time that I wasn’t really feeling creative,” DeWyze said. “In the writing process I wait for creativity to come in like a wave, and it just wasn’t happening.”
When that wave crashed back in earlier this year, DeWyze tapped into that uncertainty-packed downtime to finish his “Ghost Stories” LP, which he released last Friday. This week, DeWyze returns to celebrate his new indie-folk tunes with his hometown crowd at Evanston SPACE.
“It’s interesting, several of the songs wouldn’t be on here had it not played out the way it did,” he said. “So there was this weird silver lining in it for me where having that break in the album really allowed me to pour some of the emotions and some of the things from the past however long into these songs. There was just more in the junk drawer. … I just needed a minute to think it through, figure it all out.”
DeWyze’s challenge with the new album was a product of the pandemic and his growth as an artist — to be more honest. He said in the past he’s held back some from leaning into songs that were too personal, but over the last year his mindset has made a shift.
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“We’ve heard a lot over the past year or so (that) it’s OK to not be OK,” he said. “I truly believe that, and I think it’s more normal than anything for me. I guess I just felt like some of the walls or barriers that were up, over the years I’ve become more vulnerable in my writing. And I think a lot of people experienced this thing, and I want to write about it.”
DeWyze has made no secret about how musicians he explored in his childhood have influenced his music, and with “Ghost Stories” he hones in on the heart of why: honest storytelling.
“The records I grew up listening to — the Cat Stevens, the Paul Simon — you listen to the record and you felt like you’d be on this musical experience, this journey that you were on,” he said. “‘Ghost Stories’ was put together that way. Absolutely intentionally. I wanted a story-driven album that you can really listen to front to back.”
In it, he shares an emotional release with his fans after the events of the last year while doing justice in an homage to various musical heroes. Certain tracks from “Ghost Stories” feel plucked straight from the Stevens/Simon era; the rich harmonies buoyed by tinkling fingerplay on “Castles” and “Weeds” are a direct descendant of some of Simon & Garfunkel’s biggest hits. “Parade” and “We Were Alive” evoke more modern vibes from Ben Harper, Joshua Radin and other contemporary singer-songwriters. The title track “Ghost Stories” and late-album “Victims of the Night” embrace the folk renaissance of the last decade. And all carry that cohesive throughline of DeWyze’s gentle but emotionally charged vocals.
“You can really take someone somewhere with music. To me, music from that era, the reason those songs are so timeless, the reason they’re so special is because they felt honest. They felt real. They felt like something you can touch,” he said. “So for me I wanted my songs to sound how they felt.”
DeWyze will be sharing his new music with fans Friday, Aug. 20, at Evanston SPACE, less than a week into his first tour in a year and a half, which brings a whole new set of feelings into play. But at the forefront, DeWyze said he’s focusing on gratitude.
“You really appreciate it in a different way, so there’s a lot of emotions being back out on the road,” he said. “But I think mainly, the fans have been so supportive with me through this time that for me it’s going to be nice to get out there and play for them.”