Before auditioning for “American Idol” just over a year ago in his hometown of Chicago, Lee DeWyze was a local musician and daytime paint salesman who admits he “was probably one of the people that was like, ‘American Idol,’ yeah, right, whatever ... ”
He’s singing a different tune after being crowned the ninth season champ of “Idol” on May 26, with a Top 30 single — his cover of U2’s “Beautiful Day” — to go with it and a debut album expected this fall.
“After going through the process, it’s one of the most amazing things in the world for an artist,” DeWyze, 24, acknowledges. “Everyone was so awesome, and I think it helps a lot of people who wouldn’t maybe get a chance to get themselves out there like this. They’ve given me this opportunity, and I wouldn’t be here without them.”
But, he adds, “A lot of people think that, ‘You made it! You did it!’ No, I didn’t. I still have an album to put out, still have a lot to do. (Winning ‘Idol’) was the beginning, not the end.”
DeWyze, of course, has a plenty of “Idol” history to look back on, ranging from star-making victories by Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood and Jordin Sparks to “where are they now” predecessors such as Ruben Studdard, Taylor Hicks, David Cook and last year’s winner Kris Allen. This year’s “Idol” run was also dogged by lower ratings than previous seasons and the specter of acerbic but popular judge Simon Cowell’s departure, which nearly overshadowed DeWyze’s coronation on the season finale.
But DeWyze says he’s not depending on the strength of the “Idol” franchise for his future success.
“People look at it as the instant road to fame or something,” he explains. “In reality, a lot of people, myself included, were doing music before we went on ‘Idol,’ and we were trying hard for a long time. (‘Idol’) really does help artist that are trying to have a strong, credible career, but you still have to make good music.”
Born Leon DeWyze Jr., in Mount Prospect, Ill. — the third of four children born to a postal carrier and his wife — the new “Idol” champ was a bit of a latecomer to music, diving into it at 15 after his father and uncle played Cat Stevens’ “Tea For the Tillerman” album for him. “I listened to that whole album and thought, ‘Man, music’s great,’ ” says DeWyze, who has lyrics from Stevens’ song “Father and Son” tattooed on his arm. “I got really into it, picked up the guitar and everything.”
Music also gave DeWyze a focus that he lacked in his academic studies, which included a stint at Forest View Alternative School in Arlington Heights, Ill., after a fruitless tenure at his hometown high school, an experience he said helped inspire him to pursue his musical dreams.
“When I was younger, a big problem for me was just finding a sense of direction,” notes DeWyze. “At a young age, I didn’t really care too much about things that were happening right there in that moment.
“Going to the alternative school was cool for me because I got a totally different outlook on life and really ... opened my eyes to a lot of things. After I went to that high school, it was really cool to be able to just kind of open up and make a name for myself in the music world.”
Encouraged by the owner of a Chicago record label, DeWyze formed his own band and released two albums, “So I’m Told” in 2007 and “Slumberland” earlier this year, and played around the Chicago area before “Idol” sent him to Los Angeles.
Most of those telling his backstory, however, concentrated on the six years he spent behind the counter at Mount Prospect Paint, a distinction DeWyze is ambivalent about.
“The paint store was made into a whole thing this year, being the average American working guy and all that,” he explains. “Initially I was kind of like, ‘Why do they keep talking about that?’ But then at the same time, that’s what this is about. It’s giving people an opportunity that you would never have had if we wouldn’t have tried out for the show.
“So it’s cool. It’s good. It keeps me grounded, remembering where I came from, and I know what it’s like on the other side.”
DeWyze is also being kept humble by the sheer amount of work he and the other nine “Idol” finalists find themselves doing in preparation for this year’s “American Idols Live!” tour.
When he’s not rehearsing, he’s doing interviews or working on his debut album.
He’s been writing songs with others but has been told to stay mum on exactly who, but it’s clear that the project is what he’s looking forward to more than anything else that’s part of the “Idol” perks package.
“It’s early in the process,” DeWyze says, “but I’m going to make an album I’m proud of. I want to be around 10 years from now; I don’t want to be, ‘Remember that guy?’ I’ll always support the show and what it did for me, but now I can do my own thing and it’s the next step.
“It’s really on a major scale right now. It’s a new stage in my life, and it’s going to be exciting.”
“American Idol Live!” tour 2010 with winner Lee DeWyze, runner-up Crystal Bowersox and the rest of this season’s Top 10 plays at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 1, at the Palace, Lapeer Road at I-75, Auburn Hills. Tickets are $40.50, $50.50 and $70.50. Call 248-377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com.
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