Taking Your Call
By Deborah Wagner
If you want to launch a music career in this very tough industry, it used to be about who you knew. However, John Vesely – the solo artist who calls himself Secondhand Serenade – is changing all the rules. Vesely is rocketing his own career towards stardom. He is finding this stardom by getting to know millions of people – not from the record companies, but the people who really count… the fans that love music and the internet.
Born in 1982 in Menlo Park, California, John comes from a musical family. After many years of paying his dues on bass and then guitar in local bands, John decided to go it on his own in 2004.
Secondhand Serenade’s internet popularity and huge fan base made record companies stand up and take notice. After releasing his first album Awake on sites like MySpace and iTunes, record companies were amazed to see John’s sales for CDs, downloads and merchandise were rivaling and beating those of company-backed artists. That’s when they came knocking.
Now with Glassnote Records (a part of Warner Brothers) on his side, John re-released Awake in 2007 and his second album, A Twist in My Story hit the charts in 2008 with rave reviews.
Known for his acoustic guitar, his piano and the raw emotions he pours into his songs, this talented musician tells stories about love and life with his music. Through it all, while riding high on the excitement of his mega-hit “Fall for You,” John credits his fans for his success, and his wife and life for the passion in his music.
When did you first know that you wanted to be a musician?
You know, here’s the deal. It goes through several stages. I started playing my music, rock when I was about twelve years old. I really got into it. I loved it and I played my first shows. But I didn’t take lessons and at that point I wasn’t singing. I just played bass throughout high school and for the longest time I never thought I could be a professional because I never saw myself at that level. So I just kept playing and switched to guitar. After I played guitar in a couple of bands, I also started singing when one of the bands needed a singer too. I figured, hey, I can sing in my car so I guess I can try that out. Eventually, it got to the point when I did an acoustic side project. I got to hear it and got a lot of feedback from people as far as it being really good so I said, you know, maybe I can do something with this. When that project finished up I decided to try something myself and see if anything happens. At that point, I know I would really like to do it for a living, but still wasn’t sold on it.
I know your father was a musician, so do you think your musical passion was passed down from him?
Yes, definitely. Although stylistically not. I mean he was very into jazz and classical music so it was a different world for us. But, I hope that talent passed down and his work ethic was always really hard, so I appreciated that.
I read in your bio that the name Secondhand Serenade actually came because you feel with your music you are serenading your wife and your fans are getting to hear it secondhand. That’s really a great way to come to a name. How does your wife feel about your success with her songs?
At first, the way she saw it as kind of an invasion of privacy. But after a while, it became normal and she got used to it. Now, it’s become a part of our lives.
Since it’s basically you, do you consider Secondhand Serenade and band or a solo project?
It’s a solo project, although I do take a band out on the road sometimes. But when I go into the studio, it’s just me and a producer working off each other. I pretty much play all the instruments except for the drums when we’re in the studio. So, it’s my creative baby. I definitely enjoy taking a band out on the road and we have a great time.
How much do you credit your initial success to your promotion on MySpace and throughout the internet?
Oh, very much so. I mean without having those kind of legs off of MySpace, I’m not sure that I would have ever been noticed in any sort of way. You have to go into all the right places and be in the right circles. That is really difficult when you don’t know where to start. I think MySpace allows you to start with the fans and until a couple of years ago, it was impossible to start with the fans. You could go around and tour the country – but where are they going to come from really? Maybe you could get lucky and get a few fans like that or just start locally and build up some fans locally… but it takes a lot of time and effort. The internet allows you to go across the board and reach the fans in an easier way.
Being called MySpace’s #1 unsigned artist with over 27 million plays and a huge following of friends was quite an accomplishment. How did you do all that without the backing of a label and figure out the right way to work it?
You know I’m not sure that there really is a right way to work it. It’s such a viral environment, an open environment. If you’re working on there, putting in the hours and trying to expose yourself to them, once you get rolling and work hard at that, they kind of do it for you. It’s almost like free promotion. They put your song on their page so all the people who go to their page hear it. They post banners, put it in blogs and bulletins. It’s all kind of wild. Encouraging them to be part of that community is very important too.
After doing your own thing with the first release of Awake, where you amazed when you were approached by the major labels?
I was in awe of what was going on. I had gotten together with a manager and our first point of action was obviously to see if we could shop it to anybody. We did showcases in New York and Los Angeles and pretty much got together with all the majors and a few of the minors. It was a pretty big deal for me being in front of all of those people. That’s a very difficult thing to do, you know, having the President of Virgin and the President of Columbia and guys from Atlantic sitting there in a small grimy bar watching you play. I mean, to get them all in the same [place] is nearly impossible.
With the re-release Awake with them and now the new CD A Twist in My Story on Glassnote – was it a different feel from the first release of Awake?
Yeah, it was definitely a different feel. What we were going for ultimately was bigger this time around. That’s a difficult thing to do – especially if you’re relatively a new artist. But, yes we definitely wanted bigger and with Awake we wanted to set the bearings. As far as A Twist in My Story, we wanted to go full on this time around. We wanted to keep it organic in regards to growth. We were hoping to make it big and that’s kind of where it went with “Fall for You.” So it was a good job done so far.
What was it like working with big producers like Danny Lohner and Butch Walker?
It was pretty intense. I mean I got to live with Danny Lohner for about six months while working with him. I mean that’s an experience in itself. I don’t know how much you know about him, but he was in Nine Inch Nails for years. He’s like one of those rock god types of people, so living with him in Los Angeles was definitely an experience. Same with recording the album, it was more of an experience than an everyday work thing and so it was fun. It was a great time. With Butch Walker it was more straightforward. We didn’t have that much time to do it. I got to know him really well and by the time I did “Your Call” with him we had it down. It was awesome.
Your songs are show emotion and maturity. Besides your wife, where do you turn for your inspiration while writing?
Definitely, a lot of the bands that I tour with, I become very, very close with them and hearing their music is really an inspiration to me. Whether they’re opening or a headliner, wherever they sit on the totem pole, they are all working really hard and it’s an amazing experience to be able to work with them all the time. Also, just the experiences I encounter. I’m going around the world to places I’ve never been before. Then by the fifth time I go there, I know it so well. These are all new experiences. It’s just a bit crazy and it’s definitely inspiring.
Have you ever hit one of those writer’s blocks and if so, what did you do to get through it?
Well, you know ultimately whenever I get to that point, I just put down the pencil and go out and live for a while and don’t worry about writing. A lot of times when I get into the studio, I get a nice little surge. Sometimes when I’m on the road I get one, but I don’t ever try to push it because it always turns out wrong. The songs aren’t good or I can never finish one and it’s just not the right place.
The first single from A Twist in My Story, “Fall for You” has been a huge hit. How surreal is it to hear it on the radio, TV and everywhere else?
It’s been pretty crazy. It’s been wild – definitely surreal. It’s like when you’re a kid and you listen to the radio and hear these songs. It’s like an un-reachable goal because these people were born and engineered to be on the radio and you never consider yourself as being that person. But when it comes down to it, we’re all just normal people. I recently did the Jingle Ball in New York and to be hanging out with people like Natasha Bedingfield and Katy Perry and all these different people who are so great people and such fun to hang around with. You really realize at this point that there is nothing different – except a lot of ambition and a lot of talent.
The second single is also looks like it will be a hit too. I had read in Billboard that you actually re-recorded “Your Call” live with a full band and gospel choir. What was that experience like and how do you feel it added to the song?
It was obviously really exciting to work with Butch again. As far as the recording process, it was really, really easy. I was on tour when he did the full orchestra that was recorded at Abbey Road in England. He kept me updated and sent me video logs and stuff like that. It was so amazing just seeing that process occur surrounding my song, you know.
Do you feel your writing style has changed or progressed between the first CD to the second CD?
Definitely. It’s constantly growing and I’m constantly getting better. If I wasn’t getting better, in my opinion then I’d be shit out of luck. (laughs) I obviously need to be getting better. It’ll change for the next album too. You have to grow as an artist. Not necessarily change your style – I mean there are some artists who just go 180 degrees for their next album, but that’s not what I am going for. It’s more that organic growth within my style. I want it to be synonymous with what I am doing in Secondhand Serenade but new and inspired in a different way or different direction.
Do you have a favorite song on the CD?
You know, I really do like “Your Call” a lot. “Your Call” is definitely a song that’s going to hit close to home for me. I think it’s really well written. I hope that people will see what I see in it.
You’ve been touring with a band a lot this year and I believe the band contains your brother too? Is it fun touring with him?
Yeah, it’s great. He plays keyboards and he’s very, very talented.
What is like sharing the stage with a band? Do you prefer it to solo gigs?
I enjoy both of them for different reasons. When I do it with a band, I still do a lot of songs solo on stage. We throw it into the show. I definitely like doing it solo because it’s very intimate. I’ve played some big shows solo, which is a wild experience. With a band you can also add so much dynamic to it and I really appreciate that, and what comes out.
How would you like people to see your music?
I’d like people to interpret it as being very honest. How I write is not always fluffing things up. It’s sometimes bittersweet and takes it for what it is. I just want people to appreciate it because of the lyrics. I really try to go for dynamics throughout the song – the builds and the swells and the intimate parts and all that is very important so that the song isn’t linear. Aside from the lyrics, you ultimately want people to emote from what’s going on musically in the song. That can’t be achieved if you’re just writing a song linear. For instance, dance music or some pop stuff is very straightforward and linear. That’s perfect for clubs and dancing but what I’m trying to do is to have those emotional swells in my songs.
What is next for you?
I’m going to be working on my next album this summer. Before that, I am going to be heading to Canada, Australia and Asia, then come back here and do a college tour. Then, I’ll get to work on the album.
Are there any misconceptions about you that you would like to clear up?
Misconceptions? You know, I don’t really know what everyone thinks about me but I really want everyone to get that I’m a very average person who loves what I do and I’m always very, very appreciative of my fans. I feel bad when sometimes a fan will write and get mad that they didn’t get to meet me after a show or something. The deal is, I try as often as possible to get out there after the show but it can be difficult. Most of the time it’s like a thousand or two thousand kids so it’s hard when I’m spread thin, but I definitely do go out there and I am here for them. I can’t survive without them.
I had seen you at a show a few months back. I was at the WPST Fest in Jersey with my nieces and you gave a cell phone number and said to call and leave messages. Do you actually listen to these messages?
I definitely listen, every time I come to New York. It’s great because I get together with the guy who runs me now and listen to them. Then I’ll send out messages and do call backs to kids that leave messages. It’s fun. They might be at work or something and I’ll call and say Hi. It’s great. I think it’s a really cool way to stay in touch and really have them feel that they are a part of it, because they are.
That’s great. I know my nieces wondered if you really listened to them.
I definitely do! It’s super fun. Sometimes, if I’m down or worn out from work, it kind of chills me out and grounds me. It can cheer me up a lot too. So, tell them to call.
|#1 © 2008 Bryan Sheffield. Courtesy of Glasstone Records. All rights reserved.|
|#2 © 2008 Bryan Sheffield. Courtesy of Glasstone Records. All rights reserved.|
|#3 © 2008 Ben Fink Shapiro. Courtesy of Glasstone Records. All rights reserved.|
|#4 © 2008 Bryan Sheffield. Courtesy of Glasstone Records. All rights reserved.|
|#5 © 2008 Ben Fink Shapiro. Courtesy of Glasstone Records. All rights reserved.|
|#6 © 2008 Ben Fink Shapiro. Courtesy of Glasstone Records. All rights reserved.|
Copyright ©2009 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: January 4, 2009.