How I wrote ‘Ho Hey’ by The Lumineers’ Wesley Schultz
The frontman explains how their breakthrough hit single was inspired by a decidedly uninspiring period spent living in New York City
When singer Wesley Schultz met drummer Jeremiah Fraites in their hometown of Ramsey, New Jersey, neither of them knew that their folk-rock band would be topping charts across the world less than 10 years later. As Wesley told us when we spoke to him a couple of issues ago, the pair didn’t even plan to make music together, initially, yet their reluctant collaboration would ultimately forge one of modern music’s most effective songwriting partnerships.
Their journey would take them from struggling in New York to forming the band in Denver and seeing their breakout single Ho Hey dramatically launch their career. The success of the song drove sales of their self-titled debut album and propelled The Lumineers to fame on both sides of the Atlantic.
Here, Wesley looks back on his lowest ebb that inspired the song’s lyric, before his patience and hard work would finally pay off…
“I was living in New York and Jer was still living in New Jersey. I moved to the city with all these big dreams and wide eyes, but I felt pretty devastated by what I found: a lot of trust fund kids and not a lot of real artists. I wanted to tour and play music, and a lot of these people were like, ‘Oh, I’m in six bands’. And I’m like, ‘Six bands? I’m barely able to keep up with one, and I really care about this!’
“To them, it was almost like a fashion statement to be in a band, more than it was their life. I had to work two or three jobs just to pay the rent. I moved to the city to get better at music but I’m getting better at making espressos and being a bartender! At the same time, I felt I had this higher quest.
“So the song opens: ‘I’ve been trying to do it right/I’ve been living a lonely life’. I felt a bit like a monk to music; I couldn’t even go out and get a beer with someone because I really didn’t have any money. I felt very trapped and I’d gone through a break-up, but my favourite types of songs to write aren’t so literal, so for me, this was as much about my relationship with the city as it was about going through a break-up. I felt like I was in this tornado of chaos all around me, but all I really knew how to do was write songs – which is a line in the song: ‘I don’t know where I went wrong/But I can write a song’. Also, I think I was trying to convince myself to keep doing that, even in the face of the shit I was experiencing. That’s essentially what it was about.
“I remember writing the melody and the lyrics – actually, I was more saying them – to the opening of the song, all at once. I knew 09 that I wanted it to be punctuated by these exclamation points, those shouts of ‘ho’ and ‘hey’, but I never really planned for that to be on the album – it was going to be live thing. We tried recording it over and over, but it took an incredibly long time to get it sounding how it felt live.
“I think Ho Hey was just a throwaway title – a placeholder that never got filled in. But to be honest, I don’t actually care that much about song titles. I know that some people spend a lot of energy on them, but when I name songs, it’s mostly so you can find it!
“I mostly just wrote the song in my apartment in New York, and Jer helped me record. I think I was just saying ‘hey!’ and he added ‘ho!’ so that was his. It was one of those songs that you write really fast, and then you find a way to flush it out a little bit more, but it stays really simple.”