Philadelphia, PA indie-pop transplant Payson Lewis meets up with us at Javista Organic Coffee Bar in Hollywood to chat about his adventures in songwriting, his experience on NBC’s The Sing-Off, and bringing back live instrumentation in recorded music.
So you just released a new single called “Bad Influence”.
Payson Lewis: Yeah!
I wanted to asked you a little bit about how the song came about and also to congratulate you for the great traction that it’s getting on Spotify so far.
Payson: Thank you so much! I appreciate it! I’m super excited about the response that the song has been getting. Now let’s see, how the song came about? Well, to be honest I was on a trip in Mexico City, and I was walking around doing the things that you do in Mexico City, drinking lots of tequila and eating lots of tacos. *laughs* Just trying to really immerse myself into the culture. I kept thinking about how all the best things in life are all things that we’re not necessarily supposed to do – things that are a little bad for us. I had this little melody stuck in my head, something that I had been working on, and was kind of just humming it around. Playing with the idea of wanting those bad influences and wanting more of the little bits of bad in your life lent itself to the melody that I had. I went home, sobered up, starting putting words to the song, and that’s how the song came to be.
It’s just like when people say “Oh, don’t eat that. It’s bad for you.” But, it just tastes so good.
Payson: Yeah exactly! I always try to say “Everything in moderation…including moderation.” *laughs* Sometimes you have to go crazy.
A moderated moderation!
Payson: Exactly! You’ve got to let loose once in a while, because that’s what life is all about. The experiences and the moments that you remember are the ones where you’re having fun and get into a little bit of trouble.
Absolutely. I also wanted to ask you what the instrumental influences are for “Bad Influence.” To me, it kind of sounds Billy Joel-esque.
Payson: Wow! First of all, that’s amazing, thank you for saying that. Billy Joel was a huge idol of mine growing up. My brothers listened to him. My parents listened to him. Gosh, what is the inspiration for the music? Well, when my producer Ben Soldate and I were working on this record, we wanted to create a sound that was going to be fun to play live. We wanted there to be a lot of live instrumentation. A lot of stuff on the radio nowadays is all generated in a box – synthesizers, sparse drumbeats, all that stuff. We wanted to have that energy of a live band, so when we tracked the whole record we did it live in studio to try to capture the essence of that energy. The instrumentation throughout the record was pretty much based on a 4 piece band with amazing players – drums, bass, guitar, and piano. After that we layered in some of the more modern elements like synths and programmed drums. It’s definitely a sound that’s rooted in sort of the tried and true, Billy Joel style, full band sound. I’m really glad that that came across.
Yeah! No problem! And going back to your thoughts in regards to modern music being what you said about being generated from a box. Do you see music getting away from that anytime soon? Or do you think it’s going to stay that way for awhile with how the pop music scene is now?
Payson: I mean, it’s so hard to figure out. A lot of these tracks that you hear on the radio and on streaming services are kind of done in that box. But when a lot of these artists go on tour, they go out with a band. There’s something timeless about a live band because they bring that energy, and that’s something you can’t replicate by pushing ‘play.’ Now, whether or not the full band sound comes back across the board in recordings, I don’t think there’s a way to tell. I mean, EDM is its own beast. We all love it. It has it’s time and place for me. But I’m hoping that the full band thing comes back because that’s totally my scene.
Same here. Now, if you had an infinite amount of money, what would you do for a music video for “Bad Influence?”
I mean, you pretty much already had it with your story of how the song came to be!
Payson: God, if I had an infinite amount of money I’m not sure if the first thing that I would do is make a music video. *laughs* But I think if I had an infinite amount of money, I would make a video like how the song was inspired. I’d go all over the world to different cities and experience new things. I would party in the clubs of Barcelona then shoot out to Korea to hang out in Gangnam. Just going out and blowing my budget on traveling to really elaborate locations to experience all of the fun stuff.
I think that’s everyone’s dream. *laughs* You also released another single called “When Love Was Young.” How would you say the songwriting, recording, and promotion process was similar or different to that of “Bad Influence?”
Payson: The writing aspect was completely different. I wrote “When Love Was Young” with a good friend of mine, Selda Sahin. She came over to my house with the intent of writing a song, so it was definitely an official songwriting session. Whereas “Bad Influence” happened a bit more organically and was inspired by life experiences. “When Love Was Young” was inspired by conversation. We were talking about things that were going on in our lives, things that we we’re thinking about, and we linked up on this idea of remembering past love, which ended up inspiring the song. As far as the production, they were produced at the same time with the same band and the same producer, so that element was very similar. And now promotion right?
Yup! Because it’s such a big thing nowadays!
Payson: So big! It’s interesting how much branding goes into each little aspect. “When Love Is Young” kind of had a certain vibe and a look, so all the imagery in the video matched that look. “Bad Influence” had slightly different visual directions in the promotion. Honestly, I’m just trying to build an organic following, and hoping that people share on social media, and their friends hear about it. Hoping to get out to play a bunch of shows soon, and being able to build the live audience. They’re related but still have their little differences.
Going back around to doing shows, if you could choose three artists to go on your own personal world tour with who would they be and what would you name your tour?
Payson: My three favorite artists are Sam Cooke, The Beatles and Prince. They’re all in some way gone, so that one is kind of impossible. It’s an impossible tour. Now let’s see, who am I into now? Bruno Mars I would love to go on tour with, just to experience his swag. *laughs* I’m really into Theo Katzman from Volfpeck. I saw him at the Troubadour a couple months ago, and he just blew me away. And then, maybe LP as a third. Her vocals are so freakin’ incredible, her songwriting is awesome, and I love her energy. I have no idea what that tour would be called except the ‘Why Are These People Touring Together?’ Tour. *laughs*
Going in the same vein of performing in front of an audience, you took part in The Sing-Off on NBC a few years back. How did the opportunity come about and what was your experience like on the show?
Payson: So the opportunity came about when I was in college at USC. I was in an acapella group called The So Cal Vo Cals, and we competed in this thing that was made famous by the Pitch Perfect movies called the International Championship of Collegiate Acapella. A really long, nerdy name for a somewhat nerdy event.
It’s like all the rage now!
Payson: I know! It’s cool now, but it was nerdy when I did it. So my group won that real life competition, the producers of The Sing-Off saw videos of our performances, and they reached out to us to be on the show. When the producers contacted us, it lined up with everybody’s schedules, so we took a chance to be on the show. It was a brand new show at the time so we were like the guinea pigs. It was a really crazy experience performing on national tv to millions of people. So crazy!
In terms of how the show was run, was it was overwhelming? Especially coming from a school setting?
Payson: It was very much a culture shock, because we were going from this academic environment to being on set being wardrobed with hair, makeup, the whole nine yards. It was really cool, like an awakening, and it was really my first experience as a professional musician. I’m really thankful for the experience, and I met a lot of really amazing people that I still keep in touch with to this day.
How would say that performing on a reality show is different than performing for an audience that you put together yourself?
Payson: Oh my gosh, they could not be more different! On a reality show, everything is really well constructed. You’re operating within the bounds of how they want the show to look. The reality show is not necessarily scripted, but they have something they’re going for. They have storylines and you kind of have to fit into a box. With your own solo performance and people coming to see you, you get to write the rules, pick the song order, pick the stories that you tell in between, and pick what you want to share with the audience. On tv, it’s very much aiming toward that middle America sort of vibe to appeal to the masses. At your own show, you get to be way more personal, which is something that I honestly prefer and much more of what I’m going for.
Would you say that you had to share certain aspects of your life or specific information to keep in the vein of the show’s storyline?
Payson: Not super crazy personal stuff, but there would definitely be times when you would feel like they wanted to tell a specific story. They would ask you a question, and if you didn’t answer it in the way that they wanted you to, they would ask you again slightly reworded. Then you would probably answer it the same way the second time. On the third time they ask, you’re like ‘Oh!’ It would go like this: “Are you nervous?” “Nah, I’m not nervous.” “But this is a big thing, aren’t you nervous?” “Nah, I think I’m going to be ok.” “Are you nervous?!” a third time “Oh my gosh, I’m so nervous for this performance!” You can be there all day if you don’t give them what they want. So it’s definitely a part of the experience, *laughs* learning to follow within a narrow window.
I mean, singing competitions been around since Star Search, even before American Idol. Now we have The Voice and The Four, just so many of them now! Do you think reality singing competitions help to jumpstart an artist’s career in a way? Or do you think the over saturation of these types of shows that pretty much do the same thing kind of get in the way?
Payson: I think it’s been a long time since one of those shows made a “superstar.” The days where the winner of American Idol going on to have a career like Kelly Clarkson pretty much ended after Carrie Underwood. I think she was the last big winner who went on to have a huge career. I think what these singing competitions are doing is giving a first step to a lot of people. They’re bringing in people, giving them their first bit of exposure, and giving these people the confidence to continue to chase their dream. I think they definitely help start careers, but maybe not in the typical sense where you go on the show and then your career starts. You go on the show to build yourself up, and give yourself the confidence to go after it yourself once the show is over. At least that’s how it worked for me. We didn’t win, but it definitely gave me the confidence in myself to start pursuing it.
Yeah. Back in ‘the old days’ people were getting record deals, and now getting a record deal is very hard. You have to do the whole social media thing and promo.
Payson: It’s tough, because even if you won and got this record deal, I feel like what always happens is by the time the person who won got their record out, the next season of the show had started already. All the fans that built a connection with them on the season they were on have already started building new connections with the new people that are on the show. You kind of fall behind and you’re not in the spotlight anymore.
So you have your own YouTube channel and you’ve put out a fair amount of well-produced covers.
Payson: Thank you!
If you could make an EP of all covers, which songs would you choose? Maybe like a five song EP.
Payson: Oh my God this is so hard! It’s just so hard to choose because there’s so many great songs. I’ll narrow it down on the songs I’ve done because otherwise I’ll never decide. *laughs* I’m kind of indecisive. I’ll just go based on the ones that I’ve done to build it out. *laughs* I’d probably put the first cover that I ever did on YouTube, which was “Out Of The Woods” by Taylor Swift that I did with my friend Rumer Willis. Just for the sake of it being the first one and kind of a marker, I would want it on there. I did a cover of “Hello” by Adele, which I think every person on the planet did a cover of. *laughs* I did that one, again, with a bunch of friends, Kelley Jakle, Brian Justin Crum, and Joanna Jones. I think that’s my favorite cover I’ve ever done. Definitely “Somebody To Love” by Queen, which is a really important song to me. I’ve known it forever and performed it a million times. I always loved the cover I did of “Bad Blood” by Taylor Swift. It’s one of my favorite ones I ever did because I totally flipped that song. And along those lines I’ll include my cover of “Thriller” by Michael Jackson. I thought it was a cool reinvention of the song that didn’t sound like the original at all. That’s 5 right? That would be my list. So it would be “Out Of The Woods,” “Hello,” “Somebody To Love,” “Thriller,” and “Bad Blood.”
You did it! And would you say that YouTube is a huge power player in how musicians are discovered in this modern era? Even more so than reality singing competitions.
Payson: You know, I feel like they’re really similar now. YouTube for a little while was a huge star maker, and just like the reality competitions it’s become super saturated. It’s almost harder to break through there than elsewhere because there’s just so much content to kind of sift through. With that being said, in the same way it’s like the reality shows. People put out videos and put in the work that it takes to make them. I mean, all of the covers that I put up were more an exercise for myself to work on my craft, my song craft, rather than hoping that any of them would make me famous overnight. I think YouTube has that going for it. It’s almost like it’s own school where it’s teaching artists how to be creative – to create their own voice and sound. It’s giving people the freedom to do that, and a really awesome way to start building an audience and a following.
The School of YouTube!
Payson: Yeah *laughs* It’s 100% the best place to do it yourself, learn from trial and error, and look at the one you just put out and know that the next one will be a little bit better. You learn from it, and you’re not going to make the same mistakes because you’re going to correct all the stuff that you had done the first time.
Would you say that people put a lot more effort into how the video looks and sounds than just doing it fun? Or even like how you said, as a teaching method?
Payson: There’s definitely that fine line of ‘How professional do I want this to look?’ and ‘How impromptu do I want this come across?’ or ‘What’s more important – the song or the visuals?’ I think it depends for every artist. Myself, I am a bit of a perfectionist, so I always try and get things to at least a certain level where I’m like ‘ Yeah, I feel good about putting that out.’ I’ll do a couple of takes of the song instead of putting up the first one. I don’t know if it’s a competition, but it’s definitely a balancing act.
What type of audience do you think your music appeals to?
Payson: I would say that my music appeals to the young at heart. People who are looking for fun, an escape, something that makes them feel good. If they’re older, maybe something that reminds them of their youth. If they’re young, maybe something that makes them feel alive. I think people who are craving and looking to feel life, so definitely the young at heart. I don’t think music has any clear lines of demographic. I think it’s short-sighted to pigeonhole and say ‘Oh, I appeal to this niche,’ because there might be this other person here or this person there that is attracted to it. So it’s more a feeling for me, trying to identify to people who are young at heart.
You’re a little bit more open-minded in terms of the marketing tactic than some other artists.
Payson: Maybe I’m more open-minded or short-sighted, one of the two. *laughs* But I definitely think that music is universal. There are mothers that take their daughters to Ariana Grande concerts because they listen together in the car, and to think that the mother and daughter had the initial same kind of music taste is inaccurate. No matter who you make your music for in the first place, there will always be people outside of that who will find you. I’m sure more people from one kind of genre will pick up on it than another, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t appeal to a lot of people.
And what do you hope that your audience will take away from your music? What is your goal? Your ultimate goal?
Payson: I think it kind of goes along with what I was saying, especially in today’s day in age with so much going on in the world. Music is a great way to have a momentary escape, make yourself feel good, you know. A lot of my music is aimed towards giving a fun and positive energy. Although my next single is probably the most opposite of that, because it’s kind of a reminder of the time we live in. But, the majority of my music is about getting in touch with feeling good, feeling alive, and enjoying this life that we have, because it’s pretty amazing as long as you take the time to appreciate it.
Of course. And would you say that a lot of the issues that are being brought up and how the world is right now has sparked a new aspect of the music industry?
Payson: Absolutely! I think the time that we’re living in has created an amazing explosion of creative energy. People who are using it as a political outlet have had that spark their creativity. People like myself, who are using it as a way to kind of get our minds out of everything that we’re living through right now. It’s an amazing time for art. Art is a reflection of the times, so there’s a lot to shine the mirror on right now in so many aspects in the world, in our own country, and in our own backyard. Now is the time that art is going to thrive, and I’ve happy to making art in this day in age.
And who or what influences you as an artist? This can be in terms of sound or in terms of songwriting.
Payson: You know honestly, on a day-to-day basis in Los Angeles, I’m surrounded by an incredible community of artists that contribute to each other and write songs together. So a lot of my peers I draw some of my inspiration from. As far as well-known people, I’ve always looked up to Paul McCartney and John Lennon, the great songwriters. Max Martin. And for sounds, I mean, I like bands that have bands like The 1975 and Paramore. Then on the other side, I love what Troye Sivan is doing in his sound and what he stands for. Gosh, there’s just so many!
And what one word defines you as an artist?
Payson: It would have to be ‘energy.’ In everything I do, I always try to bring a lot of energy, usually positive energy. I’m a pretty positive guy. *laughs* My live show is very energetic, my recordings are a pretty fiercely energetic sound. I want people to feel the power of the music, and feel the wavelengths deep inside their bones and electrify them. Yeah. Energy. That’s it!
Alright, last question.
Payson: Alright! Let’s do this!
Now, you had mentioned that you were working on your album.
What other big plans should we be expecting from you in the near future?
Payson: A lot coming soon! These are a good ‘a lot’ because I know what these things are. *laughs* So it was not an infinitely funded video, but I just released a video for “Bad Influence,” which I’m really excited about and already getting some really awesome feedback from. I have my 3rd single coming out soon called “Can’t Go Back.” Like I said, it’s sort of a little bit of a darker tune and was inspired by our times. The video for that is going to come shortly after the release, and then the rest of the record will come out. It’s a 6 song EP that’ll be out by the end of the year. Probably closer to the end of summer. Another video will be coming out then. Talking about putting together an acoustic sessions for the record. I’m ready to go back into the studio to put together the next EP and I’ll start doing that in July. Gosh, it’s just so much! I have this whiteboard in my room and it’s just lists and lists of songs, video projects, and live projects that I’m working on.
The vision board!
Payson: *laughs* I’ve got the vision board. But outside of the next record and some videos, the focus is going to be on getting a live following here in L.A. and hopefully a tour or going on to support other artists. Maybe get together a little crew and do a mini tour. Just grinding and trying to make things happen and get the music out there because I’m really proud of it and think that it will appeal to a lot of people. Hopefully make them feel good and give them that positive energy!
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