Blake Lewis is an ‘80s baby. And with the release of his sophomore album, Heartbreak on Vinyl, the influences of David Bowie, Prince and Depeche Mode shine bright. Compared against his 2007 debut, A.D.D. (Audio Day Dream), one can only wonder what magical music moments were squandered or deferred, due to industry pressures to cash-in on the American Idol juggernaut.
After an abrupt departure from Arista Records, Blake Lewis found a welcome home at Tommy Boy Entertainment. Coincidentally, it appears, at least sonically, that he feels more comfortable in his “artistic” skin. After long last, Heartbreak on Vinyl reminds the world why Mr. Lewis is the musical “rebel” that we have grown to love.
Upon review of Heartbreak on Vinyl, Blake Lewis managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry—reflecting on his mother’s influence, a memorable performance for First Lady Michelle Obama, and Paul van Dyk's “Words,” his favorite vinyl record.
According to your press release, the title of your sophomore album, Heartbreak on Vinyl, was inspired by the various changes that have taken place in the record industry. Since you are a deejay, I’m curious to know the first vinyl record you ever owned?
Oh, wow! [laughing] I had my first vinyl at the age of five. My parents were always purchasing them. It was probably Duran Duran or Michael Jackson or The Police — since those were the first ones that I got when I was a kid. Oh, and Fraggle Rock… [laughing]
Now, that’s a throwback! [laughing]
Oh, yeah. And Disney records, for sure! But, gosh, I don't know. I was really into breakbeat, so it probably was Paul van Dyk's “Words” or “Forbidden Fruit.” I was really into trance and breaks when trance started getting popular, so it could have been BT’s “Blue Skies,” too. It was like '95 or '96. But I remember bumping “Words” all the time.
Your mother was in a rock band. What influence did she have on your musical tastes?
I was influenced by her playing guitar and singing in the house all the time and going to her shows. She was playing a show every weekend, and my first concert was seeing my mom playing in front of a bunch of people. If we'd go camping, she was singing by the campfire. She’s a great singer, but she's a very good guitar player, too. A very good finger picker – like her mostly bluegrass style. I grew up with country in the house, and classic rock. My taste was completely different from my parents so it was really an eclectic household. I grew up with tons of Buffy Sainte-Marie, old blues. And then my dad was a fan of classic rock and big rock. Lots of guitar-driven stuff. But I'm totally a synth-head. So it was really eclectic. I went to my parents when I was ten and said I wanted to learn piano. And then I just went from there. My lessons in piano got me into synthesizers and keyboards. I built my own studio for $30,000 when I was eighteen. I've been doing music professionally ever since.
Heartbreak on Vinyl is heavily influenced by '80s electro pop. And you have noted your love for Bowie, Prince and Depeche Mode in the past. What kind of musical elements did you experiment with on this album that you didn’t on the first?
Well, this is a more synth-based record. There’s a lot of heavy keyboards and bass lines driving this record. I guess it's influenced by the '80s because I'm just an '80s kid and I love '80s music. That comes naturally. I don't like trying to set out unless I find that right keyboard patch that I like to mess around with and get the right sound. And usually a lot of PolySyncs end up in my music, so it gives it that kind of '80s feel.
As you were preparing this album, you gave your fans a chance to follow you online as you worked in the studio. In one clip, I saw you working with Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins. Walk me through that experience.
I've always wanted to work with him. And in the studio, I was like a sponge—soaking up everything that I could learn. Working with Rodney was cool. We were just jamming out in the studio. I had my new pedals and was beatboxing and he was trying some bass lines. We were just jamming out, and so that was really fun. This record was a little different because I wrote the songs and A&R’d the whole record. Most of these people on this record are friends of mine, now or prior to making the record with me. I got my vocals done and I made original remixes. I sent my vocals to Sweden and London to these producers that inspired me and I heard on MySpace and through some friends. There's so many different elements on this project, because I worked with all these great people. It's always a pleasure, when you're vibing out with friends.
Since you were able to work with a lot of people that you really know and love, is there a particular experience that shines bright from the recording experience?
When I did “Freak” with Jesse Rogg, it was cool because literally we did that track in an hour. It was crazy. When the inspiration strikes — we did that bass line and we were just in it — when you're in the zone, it goes really fast. We had already written a song that day, and I said, “Hey, let's just jam out.” I brought him some drum samples and he had the new Moog Voyager and I was just jamming out on out that. He was twisting knobs and that's how “Freak” was born. That was really special because I just came together quick. Another record, “Our Rapture of Love” – that's my baby. I produced it. It's all me. That was a cool experience because I woke up from a dream and I wrote that song. I just ran into the vocal booth and started singing this melody and then hatched out all the keyboard parts and threw some loops together, and my good friend J. Olson did some programming on it. I was really inspired writing “Heartbreak on Vinyl,” too. I was walking into Virgin Records in Union Square and it was closing down. It was sad to me because that's all I've gone to: indie record stores. I buy most of my music in Seattle from Easy Street, which I quote in the third line of that song. I support my local, independent musicians and record stores. I worked at one. That's where I got all my records and all my vinyl. Not that I'm against these huge, big businesses, but you know the small, local stores are closing down because of digital medium.
What's your take on deejays transitioning from vinyl to Macs and mixing that way?
It's tough. It's quality control. And there's so much music getting made every day in tracks that aren't going to come out on vinyl. Unless you have a vinyl maker now, you can't really take stuff off the Internet and put it on vinyl, to be the biggest purist, if you want. I think it's fine. I think it's great. I don't buy full-length and play them in my house, and when I do give parties I'll bring some records out – especially my older stuff. I haven't bought any new club records on vinyl because when I spin, I use Serato or Ableton. It's easier for me because I don't have to focus. As far as my mixing skills are concerned, I'd rather worry about singing and beatboxing. Deejaying allows me to open up a party and get started and then I can do my thing. Then we can go back into spinning records and I can make standouts on my sets. Bring in something different. I don't just deejay when I deejay. Working with computers allows me to really dig into the track and edit it and do my excerpts and all that. So the vinyl's fun for that old-school style. I still bust out a couple, and I usually have five to ten pieces of vinyl with me.
Beyond the demise of vinyl, you have also called this album your version of [Maroon5’s] Songs About Jane, since it was also inspired by a break-up. What's the greatest lesson you learned in the game of love?
Whoa, that's a good one! [laughing] It takes compromise, definitely. You have to compromise. Each time you're in love it's different. I don't think there's a certain type of love. It changes every time – just like we change all the time. The biggest lesson is just to communicate and really be totally truthful and open.
“Sad Song” served as a lead single for this particular album. What led you to introduce Heartbreak on Vinyl with this particular song?
Actually, it was really more the record company. They really loved the first song that I sent them, but I didn't think it should be the first single. I don't know, though, that's the thing. I can never read radio. I haven't had my big success at radio. I don't know what they're going to dig on my music. I hear different things. All the music guys that I listen to are from Europe anyway, so I don't know much about American radio as far as what's going to work in my music. It's tough for me. I'm proud of all my music. So as long as my music's out there, I don't really care which ones go single.
Is there a particular track you are anxious to see spun in the clubs?
Oh, yeah. I tested a bunch of my songs before the record came out. “Binary Love,” “Love or Torture (Please Don't Stop),” “Freak.” And then remixes. “Left My Baby For You” – I played the other day, which was pretty cool. I had a huge CD release party in Seattle, in a club, and spun a couple of my jams. It was cool to see people vibing out, dancing to my music.
I really enjoyed your first album, [A.D.D. (Audio Day Dream)]. Two of my favorite tracks are “Without You” and “End of the World.” For one, or both, walk me through the songwriting process?
Well, “End of the World” is one of my favorite songs. I wrote that with Sam Watters. We were at Henson Studios, in Hollywood, and I had three rooms booked. Both of those songs were happening at the same time — actually, the same day. I think both of them were finished the same day. That record was really fast to make. [David] Ryan [Harris] was working on “Without You,” and then my friend Jordan Omley worked on the voice stage. But Sam and I wrote it upstairs, in the studio in their little conference room. We went up there with my laptop. He started singing this melody and then I sang the pre-chorus melody and then we both did the chorus. And then the bridge. And then I just had this visual. I actually had Michael Jackson's “Liberian Girl” music video in my head – not the song, but the music video. For some reason, I had this picture of a director shooting a scene of the story. So it was like, “First act I wake to find the hope to see you simply staring back at me.” It was just visual. That whole song became so visual, instantly, for Sam and I. We wrote it, and then that day Jordan came in from the jam. I've known Jordan for about twelve years now. He was a rapper when I was a beatbox singer in Seattle. He's an amazing arranger and producer and songwriter. He and I spent all day just doing that whole vocal. I come from the a cappella land, so doing harmonies and counter melodies is like my favorite thing. He and I worked really hard on those songs. That's a big chorus. It's got this Prince-kind of “Purple Rain” feel to it.
Like Prince, your music is hard to categorize. And during your American Idol stint, Paula Abdul labeled you as “the contemporary rebel.” Do you think that title still stands?
I've just been me, and I do what I do. I'm not really good with authority — I always question it. I don’t necessarily disrespect it, but I always question it. I bend the rules, I don't break them, I should say. I question the rules, like, “Who made these rules?” Maybe I don't like the guy who made these rules. “Why do I have to follow these rules? Just forty-five miles an hour?” So as far as that, I've always been rebellious. I'm an only child. I've always done my own thing, my solo show. I've been doing this on my own for years. When I was on American Idol, I did it my own way and I told producers to leave me alone. And we butted heads, but at the end it worked out. They left me alone as soon as they saw the results. As soon as they got their ratings, they were happy.
You recently made headlines about teaching Michelle Obama how to beatbox at the 2009 Congressional Clubs' First Lady's Luncheon. What memories do you have of your encounter with the First Lady?
I got to meet her beforehand, but I didn't really get to see her after the show. But beforehand, we just talked about her kids and education. I really respect that woman. I was wondering where her kids were and if they were going to come to the event. She said she wouldn't take them out of school unless they were sick, and I was thinking, “God, I respect that.” She’s very strong for education and I am as well. It was really fun and an amazing experience. The ladies of Congress, half of them didn't know what beatboxing was. So it was a very interesting demographic. Almost a perfect one: a room full of ladies and me [laughing]. You'd think that'd be the best!
So it was pretty fun. I was a little nervous. It was the first time I've ever really been nervous. I don't really get nervous, but performing for the First Lady kind of gives you the right to be.
For more information on Blake Lewis, visit his official website.