Interview: Lifehouse’s Jason Wade
The LA rock band’s frontman and songwriter reflects on their meteoric rise, musical evolution and keeping the creative spark alive
os Angeles-based Lifehouse are an alternative rock band who broke through in 2000 with the international hit single Hanging By A Moment. Taken from their debut album No Name Face, the song spent 20 weeks in the Top Ten and won Hot 100 Single Of The Year in the Billboard Music Awards. Since then, the band has released five more albums, sold over 15 million records worldwide and spun off more hit singles like You And Me, First Time, and Whatever It Takes. Lifehouse is one of the most played artists in the history of Hot AC radio with 1.5 million spins and over 1.4 billion Pandora plays.
Songwriting caught up with the Lifehouse’s lead vocalist, guitarist and principle songwriter, Jason Wade, to talk about his rapid ascent with the band, how his songwriting process has evolved over the subsequent 15 years and reveals a new found interest in film music…
How did the Lifehouse story begin?
“It’s really simple, I just started writing songs in my bedroom. I moved to California with my mum when I was 15 years old, started playing guitar and I went through a kind of rough teenage period with my parents splitting up, so music to me was just an outlet, it was almost like therapy. I spent a lot of time isolated in my room, I started writing all these songs and I met a producer who took me under his wing and we made a couple of demos together. Then all of a sudden I ended up shopping a deal for Dreamworks, so I was 17 or 18 years old and had a record deal. I made my first record that came out when I was 19 and Hanging By A Moment just blew up on the charts. So it wasn’t something I was persuing really – songwriting was a kind of necessity, as a sort of therapy, I guess.”
Who was the producer who discovered you?
“His name was Ron Aniello, I met him through a friend of mine called Kendall Payne – she was signed to Capitol when she was really young, 15 or 16 years old, so she made the connection and Ron really liked a couple of my songs. Actually, a lot of my songs were incomplete, I didn’t really know how to fully craft a song. I’d have a verse and a chorus, but he taught me how to write a bridge and how to complete a song in the studio. We had an amazing journey, we did the whole record at his house and it was just a very homegrown, organic beginning for me.”
Were you playing as a Lifehouse or a solo artist at that point?
“The label wanted me to be a solo artist, but I was always more comfortable in a band. So I brought in all of my friends and they’d play on some of the tracks, then sometimes we were so young and inexperienced we’d have to hire a session drummer and session bass player here and there. But I definitely wanted it to be a band. The bass player, who started the band with me, quit in 2004, and when we let go of our original drummer, that’s when Rick Woolstenhulme joined the band right after the first record was completed and he’s been with me every since. ”
How were you writing songs and then making that work as a band?
“This was ’97 or ’98, before ProTools and all that, so you had to come up with a song, be able to perform it and the band had to know all their parts, because studio time was so expensive – it’s not like it is now where you can record on a laptop. So I would spend hours just getting the song ready to record and then Ron would make sure the band was ready to go in and record live. It was kind of the last gasp of the old music production where you’re on two-inch tape and everything’s really exciting – you’re lucky to be in a studio because it was so expensive to get that time, so when you’re a kid there’s that amazing energy. It’s not like now, everybody can kind of make a record on their phone!”
Has your songwriting approach changed as well?
“Back then I would primarily write on acoustic guitar, and my process has evolved throughout the years – obviously I have my own studio now and so I spend a lot more time using modern textures to come up with fresh ideas. I feel like when you write on acoustic guitar for 15 years, there’s an amount of chords that you keep coming back to, so you become redundant and start to repeat yourself. I’ve written a lot more recently on the piano actually. I’m not that great at it, I don’t consider it a first instrument, but there’s a beauty in that because you can come up with different phrasings that’ll spark a different melody and just do something different that you would write with an acoustic guitar in your hands.”
Is it that child-like naivety that you’re trying to tap into, by writing on an unfamiliar instrument?
“Absolutely. I feel like the biggest that we’ve had to overcome as a band, come like seven or eight years along the road when you start to become a little bit predictable. People expect a sound from you and it becomes a little boring. You want to stretch, you want to get better and you want to come up with songs that are a little bit outside of your genre. That’s the biggest hurdle: to come up with that original spark that you had at the beginning when everything is new. I feel like, when you start to go in the studio and become predictable and start to manipulate the sound because it’s exactly what people expect of you, that’s when the joy and the passion start to get lost.”
Who were your musical heroes when you were just starting out?
“When I got signed to Dreamworks, our A&R guy turned me on to an artist named Elliot Smith, who was a really big influence on my songwriting early on, which in turn led me on to his influences which were The Beatles and Paul Simon. So I was kind of into everything, I never grew up listening to much music – my parents didn’t really listen to that much to great classic music. So I got turned on to Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Elton John all at the same time. It was an amazing time of discovery around like 16-17 years old and that’s when I was going in, writing songs and making our first album, so those were really eye-opening teenage years.”
What’s inspired you with this latest album?
“A little of everything. Over the last five or six years, I’ve really been inspired by film music. There’s an actual song on this record called Hourglass that I wrote with our manager/producer [Jude Cole] and James Newton Howard, who’s one of my all-time favourite composers, and to watch him work and make a beautiful string arrangement for this ballad was really inspiring. I have over 350 soundtracks on my phone and I can’t get enough of it. When you hear a piece of music that doesn’t have a lyric and it transcends it – you don’t have to understand what it means, it just makes you feel a certain way – I think that’s so powerful.”
What sort of film music has particularly influenced you?
“Thomas Newman is one of my favourites. The whole American Beauty soundtrack, I think it’s stunning, it just takes me to a place. There are some pieces of music on there that are just unbelievable.”
What has been keeping you busy between the last few albums? Have you been taking a break from music and the album-tour-album-tour cycle?
“I never really took a break from music. I think, if anything, all of us needed a break from touring. Ever since the first record came out, it was: put a record out, tour for two or three years, go back and then repeat, and we did that for 13 years solid. So we were just burnt out. We were getting into our mid-30s and all of our 20s were on a tour bus. After our last album came out, we just realised we needed a break so we took two years and everyone went and did their own thing. I just locked myself back in the studio and was adamant about trying to go back to the beginning and get inspired again. I needed to find that spark that we all had at the beginning.
”About a year and a half into the process, I came up with a batch of songs that I was really excited about and I got the band back together to help me finish the demoes that I’d already created. I think I wrote over 65-70 songs, so I never took a break from music, but I was home doing normal things, having a normal schedule and sleeping in my own bed. I think we needed that just to recharge.”
When you were in that zone, were you locking yourself away on your own or collaborating? What was your typical day like?
“It was me and one of my best friends who was our guitar tech and now he plays in the band and he actually co-produced the last record, his name’s Winnie Murgia. He’s like a muse, everytime he’s around I get good songs. I asked him to learn ProTools just so we could hang out and make music together and he ended up becoming a wizard at it, so it was just me and him for the first year and a half. He also plays every instrument, so I’d make a bed track of a rhythm and a guitar part or a piano part, then he’d layer a bunch of beautiful atmospheric sounds over the track. It was almost like a stream of consciousness, like free-painting.”
Have you found the album has come out as a collection of very different songs, or did you notice that it’s gelled into one cohesive theme of some sort?
“It’s like a collage of everything that we’ve recorded and almost an confluence of all our different styles coming together. I think we realised, when we were picking the songs, that the record wasn’t going to have just one theme – we allowed ourselves the freedom to make an album that had peaks and valleys, and contrast, and went all over the place, which is kind of refreshing. When you’re known for a certain sound, it’s easy to just give the fans what they want, but I don’t think that really is what they want because you’re not having fun anymore.”
What’s next for Lifehouse, are you back out there touring?
“Yeah, we’re actually out with Nickelback for two and a half months, then we’re planning on trying to make it over to Europe, and after that we’re going to do a headlining run in the States, so we’re going to be busy for a good year and a half. We worked so hard, and put so much time into this album in particular that all of us are laser-focused trying to make it happen.”
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Lifehouse’s new album, Out Of The Wasteland is out now, featuring the singles Hurricane, Flight and Wish. Watch the video for Hurricane below and for more on the band, visit: www.lifehousemusic.com