Prior to a March 19 tour stop at Sacramento’s Ace of Spades club, The Current’s Mark Lewis was given the chance to sit down opposite John Vesely who you may know better as the one man band Secondhand Serenade. Vesely is an extremely popular musician who’s accomplished yet grounded and passionate. During the interview, he touches on beginning his career, his current venture involving PledgeMusic and his ongoing tour with YouTube sensations Boyce Avenue. Click here for a full review.
The Current: Thanks a lot John for taking the time to sit down and speak with us – I know you’re set to take the stage in a half hour or so.
Secondhand Serenade: My pleasure – thank you for the opportunity.
With three studio albums under your belt and a passionate fan base that follow your every tweet, describe to our readers how you began making music and what it was like when you didn’t have a room of people singing along with you during your entire set each night.
In the beginning when I recorded “Awake” before it was re-released, I spent a lot of time – like four or five hours a day on the computer pushing it. I wasn’t just being like abrasive but I wanted to get my music out there and just allow people to hear it and let them know that it’s out there. It really all started picking with MySpace which an amazing vehicle for “Awake” because the site had a lot of tools on it that other social networking sites don’t have anymore. For instance, tacking a song onto your page then letting people click on the player which would take them to a band’s page. Me, Colbie Caillat, Hollywood Undead and a lot of these huge artists were found through just doing well on MySpace and the reason for that is because MySpace had lots of things that you could customize like banners, songs and links. It was great. I had a really a cool time getting my career started. Now I’ve kind of come full circle because I’m about to embark on that exact same journey in a sense. I just recently left my label and I’m about to really do the exact same thing as I did early in my career with MySpace only this time on a much bigger scale.
Are you referring to PledgeMusic?
Explain a little about PledgeMusic and what it was like leaving your record label after quite a few years.
PledgeMusic is really cool. You need to have a fan base and well; you need to have a loyal fan base which I’ve been able to grow over the years. My fan base is like a really, really powerful one and if you have that – you can kind of cut the record label out of the equation. I was having issues with my label – just a few differences and like it was just kind of time for me to move on. I talked to a few other labels and I was kind of in this place in my life and I just decided after hearing about PledgeMusic, I decided to go that route. My manager knew the guy that created it. I was like I’m just gonna try this out. Let’s make a record and then if we want to sign a deal after it’s done, we can do that. If we don’t then we don’t have to. So we put it up on PledgeMusic and after like 35 days – we had raised the full budget for to make the next record! The fans have been fantastic and they’re continuing to pledge because on top of the record budget, you need money for a public relations firm, money for this and that, music videos and radio representative teams. It’s really expensive and that’s one of the reasons why, you know, people work with labels but then you have to recoup all that money they invest in you. They [record labels] always tack on more promotional costs and they say that they’re doing this and that for you. There’s no real way of auditing it so it’s kind of crazy. You get stuck in this contract agreement and the label owns the record instead of you. I’m a huge believer that it belongs to the artist and to the fans – not like some dude in a suit. I think that this [PledgeMusic] is the future. Successful musicians are going to gravitate to it because it’s going to be a lot easier not having an A&R guy breathing down your neck saying ‘We need another song! We need another song!’ If the artist feels that it’s good enough – then it’s good enough and that’s how it should be. It shouldn’t be up to some guy that’s like hearing it from a third person’s perspective and just assuming that people are going to like it or not. I mean it’s just about your artistic integrity. Right now I’m trying to get that back.
The PledgeMusic concept is so interesting – you had signed guitar picks, personal guitar lessons and other stuff that fans could pledge money for and get. Did you actually give someone personal guitar lessons over Skype?
Yeah. I haven’t done it yet, but yeah there are a few people that ordered that so that should be very interesting.
That is so cool.[Laughs] I teach “Vulnerable” to kids who are so stoked because it’s [“Vulnerable”] played in a really weird tuning. Nobody ever knows how to play that song. So we’ll touch on some of my little secrets during the lessons. We also put signed broken guitars on PledgeMusic that people bought. We had like guitars that broke on the road and I was like ‘Hey you guys want a f***ing broken guitar, I’ll sign it for you!’ One of the guitars that I’ve broken on the road is hanging up at the Hard Rock Café in Lisbon. It’s pretty cool memorabilia for a kid to have you know. I mean it’s like a $6000 guitar but the neck was cracked so some pretty cool stuff that fans can pledge and get on there. I’m also going to Universal Studios with a few groups of kids. That’s gonna be really fun! I mean the idea is to give. Bring the artist even closer to the fans by offering things that they otherwise would never get a chance to own and in exchange they become like executive producers on the record. It’s a really inspiring thing and it shows in that it makes fans love my music that much more now that they’re a part of it. Three or four years ago, I would have said that like kids aren’t loving music like they used to but this past year I see radio changing and kids are starting to appreciate it a lot more again and getting out to more shows as well. All these shows [on his current tour opening for Boyce Avenue] have completely sold-out. It’s pretty nuts especially during a time when live music shows aren’t always selling-out.
After the success of “Awake,” which you wrote, produced and recorded yourself – you signed with Glassnote Records who re-released the album. Did your relationship with Glassnote begin on a somewhat shaky note?
My relationship with the label was great. It was amazing. Glassnote’s a great label. After some time I just felt that we were veering apart. The label was turning into much more of an indie type of record label. I’m an acoustic-pop-rock act. I didn’t really fit into the direction the label was going and they had their hands full with so many artists at that time. When “A Twist In My Story” came out, I was their only artist. They started the label kind of like surrounding me. I was the only artist on the label and so of course they were going to work the crap out of it [“A Twist In My Story”] and they did and we had a huge hit. As time went on, priorities shifted and there were a lot more things they had their hands on and it was just a lot harder. It’s just like what happens with every label. Sometimes it’s harder to get that attention after a period of time. If everything doesn’t happen quickly and at their pace – then you often times just get lost in the shuffle. The way I’m doing it now – I’m gonna be the one telling everyone what to do, I’m gonna be the one deciding if we need another three months on the radio to make it kick and that’s what it’s gonna be like going forward. There’s nobody more enthusiastic about it than me because it’s my music! I really feel this is the way to go.
Lyrically speaking – your lyrics kind of read like a really well-structured diary. I hate to use the word diary, but have you always felt compelled to write songs that are extremely personal knowing that they’re going to be listened to and dissected by millions of people?
Absolutely. What I’ve gotten out of it is something really great in that I’ve just been able to see so many people who have been affected by my lyrics. There’s no greater benefit of being a musician then to have people’s lives changed because of your music. It’s a big part of what makes me want to get more personal with my fans because that’s how it started and that’s what made it special in the first place. I wanna make it special again. Now I’m going in a little bit of a different direction. I’m kind of got like this whole positive take on my life now and I think the new record is gonna make people feel really good. I think that’s something that’s become so important to me now. I think it’s gonna be really important to them as well.
How does 2010’s “Hear Me Now” fit into your trio of studio albums?
“Hear Me Now” was a [Pauses] – I love that record. I think it’s a great record. I think that it was too rock for a record that wouldn’t ever be played on rock radio. I think that while I was recording it – I may not have been in the best state of mind. Maybe you can hear that, maybe you can’t but for some reason or another it didn’t do as well as “A Twist In My Story” but then again – I still see kids swearing by that album and some of those songs are my favorites like “Hear Me Now” – the title track. It’s one of my favorite songs that I’ve ever done. My drummer Tom and I produced that song by ourselves in my dining room. It’s pretty great stuff and I’m very proud of it.
You also worked with some pretty big name producers on that album as well.
Yeah I worked with Aaron Johnson, who I might actually work with a little bit on this next record also. I worked with Butch Walker and Danny Lohner on “A Twist In My Story.” They were all fantastic. I actually lived with him [Johnson] for like seven months. It was crazy living with a dude that was in Nine Inch Nails for seven months. A lot of weird s*** happened.
You’ve said in past interviews that that you’ve always wanted to be a lifelong musician. Is that still the case?
That’s definitely still the case! What I really want to do is and you can quote me on this and I’ll treat it a lot more seriously than like a New Year’s Resolution. I really wanna have this next record do very well and I want to make it do very well without record labels and with only my fans. I also want to create a label of my own if the album does well and be able to do this kind of stuff with other upcoming artists. I’m really thinking kind of differently and as far as the role that a label plays – it’d be great to work with artists and kind of like let them take the reins and act as more of a guide for them rather than a tyrant. It’s not that I think record labels are all necessarily tyrants but they definitely call all the shots except for the creativity aspect. I think that giving the power back to the artist is a really, really important thing.
What do you think of “The Voice” phenomena?
Oh, I think it’s cool. Last year, I toured with Meg & Dia – they were the support for our Canadian tour and then I tour with Automatic Level all the time and Juliet Sonnet earlier this year. It’s so funny because I’m like every year the artists that I’ve toured with are going on “The Voice” now apparently. I think that it’s a lot cooler that the judges are musicians and not executives. “American Idol” is awesome but it’s like what? They have Steven Tyler who’s one of the greatest singers and vocalists of all time but he’s not current, you know? With “The Voice,” you’re taking all these artists that are all on the charts right now and they’re picking you instead of vice versa which is really, really cool.
I got to sit down with Dia and talk to her about her experience and she basically echoed that same sentiment in that it’s not the “American Idol” shindig where you have to do a Coke commercial and promote this and that.
Yeah, exactly! The Ford Focus and all that s***!
She was saying that Blake was there to help coach her all along the way and she was able to make her own album and now she’s doing her own thing.
That’s crazy. That’s awesome. I’m like [Pauses] – I’m really happy for her. Julia’s doing well too so we’ll see how that that whole thing goes.
What’s been your favorite moment of this tour opening for Boyce Avenue that will be wrapping soon?
I forget what city it was, I think it was Denver, and we just got out after the show and it was like everybody from all the bands got to hang out together for the first time. It was cool because it always takes a few weeks to really warm up to everyone and we came back and a spontaneous party just erupted and there was jumping and dancing. Literally everybody was just like jumping – lights were going… it was crazy. Bob was crowd surfing in the bus and it was just like this fun, memorable moment. [Laughs] The bus driver was just standing outside thinking like ‘Oookay what’s going on?’ Other than that – every single show has been sold-out and the fans have been great. Salt Lake City, Columbus, was amazing… all of the shows.
You talked about an upcoming record earlier – is there anything else in the pipeline for Secondhand Serenade?
I’m working on the next record right now. I’ll be going to Asia next month to tour a bit. I’m putting everything into this next album like I said. You’re gonna see a lot of touring from me, you’re gonna see a lot of new music – a lot of cool music. I’m all about coming up with ideas and now it’s my job to. I’m really excited about just getting out there and just starting something new!
Thank you John!
My pleasure man.
A special thanks to The Current’s Cintia Lopez for helping transcribe the extensive interview which was edited for space and syntax.