Tuesday, July 9, 2019

A Very Candid Conversation with Luke Underhill

This blog has covered artists who have history and/or are veterans in the music industry. This is the first entry on an artist who is starting out and shows a lot of promise in the years to come. Luke Underhill is a singer-songwriter who hails from Chicago. In addition to singing, he plays guitar and piano. He plays with a band and other times, plays solely by himself. Luke has already earned comparisons with John Mayer.

This fresh new talent got his start in 2015 with an independent EP called Atlas. He then released his first studio EP, The Left Side (2017), where his fan base on social media started to grow. One of the people listening was hit producer Warren Huart (producer of Aerosmith and The Fray), who helped him make his most recent EP, Illuminations, which was released in April 2019.

From Illuminations, Luke has had his first radio single, “Long Way Home.” In addition, Illuminations has had more than 59K streams on Spotify. Later in 2019, Luke plans to tour behind Illuminations, bringing his music to a bigger audience.

In this candid conversation, we discuss Luke’s beginnings from Atlas to Illuminations. I want to thank Nichole Peters from Jensen Communications for setting up this interview, but most of all I want to thank Luke.

Jeff Cramer: How did you become interested in music?

Luke Underhill: I honestly think my dad, because we didn't have much music playing in our house, but when we would drive together anything would go. My dad had every Bruce Springsteen CD in his car, so I had no other choice but to listen to it.

Thank God I loved it, because if I didn't then we wouldn't have gotten along. But there was something about listening to Bruce Springsteen that really kind of captured all that. I got to see him live—I was probably five or six years old when my dad took me to a concert. When I was there, I remember thinking, “I needed to be on stage.”

JC: So Springsteen started it all for you?

LH: Yeah, I got really into poetry when I was young, and I noticed that Bruce wasn't just this guy who would scream into a microphone. He actually had something to say, and he had a great way of saying it. I mean, he has a lot of pretty obscure tunes and weird ones, but even on those songs I'd sit back and actually listen to the lyrics and the content.

It hit me in a really personal way, so I think that's when I started taking a lot of it seriously.

JC: When did you first start writing music?

LH: I think I wrote my first song when I was thirteen or fourteen. My uncle passed away and I didn't have a person to go to, or to talk about it. I didn't know what to do with my feelings, so I knew a couple of chords on guitar and I just decided to give it a go, and it turned out all right.

JC: From there you would work on what be your first EP, Atlas. 

LH: Oh, Atlas. Yeah, I didn't want to record and put out the songs I was writing—like personal songs—so I tried writing about things I saw, like paintings and movies, or books I've read and stuff, because it was just the easiest way for me to do things.

I think if I wanted to do Atlas over again, I don't think I would change much. I'm really happy with how my first EP turned out.

Luke’s first EP Atlas (2015)

My friends are usually the ones who will bring up Atlas in a kind of jesting way. I don't listen to anything from Atlas anymore. I've kind of moved on from that part of my life. I think I've really matured as a songwriter, as a musician, and as a person since then. I wrote all those songs from Atlas when I was seventeen or eighteen. So I don't hate Atlas; I don't dislike it. It's just like I've moved on from it.

JC: And then from there you would move on to The Left Side.

LH: That was fun. Working with Mikal Blue [producer of Jason Mraz and OneRepublic] at his studio, Revolver Recordings, was a lot of fun.

Luke's second EP, The Left Side(2017)  
JC: In the song, "I'll Be Waiting,” on The Left Side, the narrator has been waiting for this girl since the age of eleven. Is it autobiographical, or is it based on someone else?

LH: I wanted to write about anything but myself. Of course I took different things from my life as inspiration, as kind of fillers. But people really don't believe me when I say this, but I swear it's true . . . I was watching the movie Just Friends with Ryan Reynolds.

JC: Yes, I know that movie.

LH: And I thought it was some crazy situation to be in. Here’s this guy, decades later, who’s still in love with the girl he met when he was a kid. I'm sure I can relate to that and other people could too, so I just kind of tapped into that. It was a young puppy-love thing that never really went away and then turned into actual head-over-heels in love. Writing it was fun.  [To hear “I’ll Be Waiting,” click here.]

JC: Yeah, when I heard the lyrics about the eleven-year-old, I remember I waited too long than I should have to talk to some girls, but I have nothing on the narrator. He’s been waiting since he was eleven.

LH: I thought the line flowed well. I can name a couple of my friends who have waited so long to be with their one true love or the girl they've been infatuated with ever since the fifth grade. So I just had to put the point across that way.

 Working with Mikal Blue on The Left Side helped a lot because I got to meet a lot of cool people. They called me “the rookie,” because I was there and I really didn't really belong there, but I was among all these great musicians and artists.

When I was working on The Left Side, I didn't have any social media.

JC: Oh really?

LH: I absolutely hate social media, but I know how important it is in this business. And so they kind of introduced me to it. My managers were like, “You have to get Instagram. You have to get Twitter. You have to get Facebook.” So just by doing that, people would then follow me. I was not into YouTube, social media, anything like that until they all sat me down and said, “You have to stop being so stubborn and do this because it does matter,” and they could not have been more right.

So I'm still learning. I'm still not great with it. I think all the followers and YouTube content of the subscribers and the views and stuff . . . I'd honestly say was kind of luck at first, a lot of luck. But then we learned the different ways to do things, and from The Left Side, I got fans. I guess they liked the music.

JC: Another tune on The Left Side I want to talk about: “Goodbye, Mary Jane.” Was there a Mary Jane in your life?

LH: Oh yeah. I just wanted to write a song about a summer fling, and I've never really had a summer fling. People  have these seasons in their life and they connect them to different people. I think that's what I really wanted to do: you know, portray that sort of thing.

I feel like everyone has that person. It's like, “Oh man, remember this? Remember that tree we used to hang under? Remember we used to do this, and we'd have fun doing that?” That’s kind of what it is. I took a little inspiration from The Notebook and Grease.

Just trying to catch these different little flings that people have that ended up meaning a lot more to them than they originally would have thought. That’s a very relatable scenario in people’s lives.

 I did some acoustic sessions of the songs on The Left Side, and a lot of people like that other side. I think those are my most watched videos on my YouTube, so stripping everything down was a really good choice.

JC: In "Goodbye, Mary Jane,” I’ve heard the acoustic and studio version and was struck by the differences. [To hear the studio version of “Goodbye, Mary Jane,” click here, and the acoustic version of “Goodbye, Mary Jane,” click here.]

LH: Yeah. For all the stripped-down versions of those songs on The Left Side, I wanted to emulate what people would have heard had they been in my bedroom when I was writing them.

"Goodbye, Mary Jane” was never supposed to be a kind of poppy tune. I wanted it to be slow. I wanted it to show that if you actually listen to the lyrics they're kind of sad, you know?

JC: Yeah.

LH: I got done with the studio version, and I was so happy with it. Then out of nowhere, I checked in with one of my managers and said, “Hey, I want to release the acoustic version of ‘Goodbye Mary Jane.’”

She was like, “Why?” I said, “Because people just don't get it.” I want people to see the actual emotion of what I was trying to portray, because I feel like it would hit them in a completely different way. Why not try to make people think a little bit and see how they like it. I think it's my most watched video on YouTube.

But yeah, the whole point of stripping everything down when I did that is because I wanted to give my fans the impression of what it would have been like to sit in the room with me when I was writing these songs.

JC: You were also getting attention from well-known producer Warren Huart, who produced your latest EP Illuminations.

LH: Yeah. That was a lot of fun. I got a call from my manager one day and she said, “Hey, you have a call with Warren Huart. He is really interested in working with you, and I think he be a good fit.”

So I got a call from him, and right off the bat he was listening to everything I had to say. It was a lot different than any other producer I've worked with. Right off the bat, you kind of have an understanding of what you want, but Warren kept on asking all these questions to get down to what I actually wanted from this EP.

I'd reference a song, and he would write it down and immediately start playing on his computer. When I notice him doing that, it really spoke a lot to me. It wasn’t until after the phone call that I looked him. I didn't realize he worked with some of my favorite artists:  The Fray, Aerosmith, and Augustana.

I was just freaking out and thinking, “He was the one.” I called my manager back and said, “Okay, I have to work with this guy.” There was no one else I wanted to even meet. He understood me, he understood my art, and he obviously knew where I was coming from. Yeah, he was a lot of fun to work with.

Luke’s third EP, Illuminations (2019)

JC: Now let’s talk about a couple of the songs there. Want to start off with "Long Way Home?” 

LH: Yeah, I'll talk about "Long Way Home" first. For the EP, I wanted to write about myself, which is something I didn’t do on the other EPs.

I've always been a dive-into-the-pool kind of guy—I don't like dipping my toe in. So I got together with this guy in Nashville, Andrew Capra, and we just sat down and talked. He said, “Tell me about your life,” and I said, “Oh, there is really nothing much.” But then we started to really get into the nitty-gritty, and I realized that there is nothing better than that feeling of being a kid again with no care in the world.

When you’re a kid, you’re just kind of living your life literally step by step and day by day. Andrew and I decided to write about  riding my bike home from my friend's house when I was a kid. We wanted to expand on that feeling, and the same feeling I had when I moved away from my small hometown in Illinois to Nashville.

So it was expanding on all of that, just really trying to be as personal as we could. Everything that you hear in that song is true, and something that I've lived with. I think that song is about as specific as you can get with writing, but I feel like a lot of people do relate to that. [To hear “Long Way Home,” click here.]

I never wanted to be too detailed or too specific, because I want people to relate to my music. But I feel like that was the best way to get them to relate; you never really realize how people will react to a song or to lyrics. I think people connect the most to “Long Way Home.”

JC: I'll say the "Rooftops" song does give me a feeling of being high up on a rooftop.

LH: I think that song might have been the most changed. I originally brought Warren the demo. My manager did not like it. It was really just a more experimental with a lot of piano. It was about six minutes long, so that wasn’t going to make it. Then Warren was like, “This has the potential to be a success. We just have to trim it down. We have to really fix it.”

And so we did. It was over six minutes, and now it’s three minutes, or something like that. Warren said, “Just let me kind of take my mind and run with this one.” I gave him pretty much everything I wanted in it. I just wanted really triumphant strings and stuff, and I think we nailed it up.

Warren’s favorite band is Queen, and all he ever wants to do is kind of just run with some Brian May [the guitarist for Queen] guitar licks, and that's exactly what I let him do, and he had a ball doing it. I had a blast just sitting there watching him kind of create all this. Yeah, "Rooftops" was fun.

JC: You guys had lucky timing with Bohemian Rhapsody coming out to theaters, making Queen even more popular around this time than they had been in a while.

LH: I didn't think he would actually go through with all of it, turning this into a Queen tune. I didn't think he'd actually do it. With the success of the Bohemian Rhapsody movie, I feel like people may better understand what we were trying to do with it.

Lyrically, that song was just a mess before I met Warren. He sat me down and said, “You need this to go here. You need this, this, this.” Warren and I tightened it up, but lyrically it was just free writing on that one.

Then musically, production-wise, I can't take all the credit. Warren really had fun messing around with it. I think that's what kind of gives it that charming fun part of it. [This author thinks “Rooftops” sounds more Springsteen than Queen. The reader can make their own decision by clicking here.]

JC: We’ve mentioned Springsteen and Queen, but there are obviously other music influences for you besides Springsteen.

LH: Of course. Bruce is my biggest influence because I really had no other choice but to listen to him, and I'm not complaining because he is one of my favorite artists, but my favorite artist of all time is Ben Folds. I don't believe I sound like him. I don't believe I write like him.

I cannot play like him. If I did, then I would have zero problem playing in front of people. In some way, he does inspire. I take away from him a little bit, and also Ben Rector and Billy Joel.

If you really want to dig down deep, a lot of stuff I like to listen to is AC/DC and Guns N’ Roses.

JC: Yes.

LH: I just grew up on that stuff, but I never really paid attention to the people that I grew up listening to. When I'm writing my own stuff, I just want to see where my own heart can take it. But then after I'm done, I'll be like, “Oh yeah, this is definitely a Springsteen tune, or this sounds like whatever.”

I don't think that's something that people should ignore. I feel like they should use that to their advantage and see where it can take them. But Springsteen and Ben Folds are my numbers one and two.

JC: Now I notice you play piano and guitar.

LH: Yes.

JC: Was there any influences on your piano playing?

LH: Piano wise?

JC: Yeah.

LH: Probably oh, I have no idea. I just picked up piano one day because there was a piano in the room, and I felt the need to play piano. I never really had a personal hero. Of course, Ben Folds, Elton John, Billy Joel, but I don't play like them. I play it more like if it sounds pretty, it sounds pretty. I'm not a classically trained pianist.

Performance wise, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Ben Folds . . . I love how crazy they get with all that. I just, It’s not using the piano as a classic instrument, and I’ve always loved that. I like to use it as a percussion instrument. It's a big, thick instrument. It can take a beating. I'm going to beat it up a little bit.

But guitar wise, I grew up watching Angus Young from AC/DC play, and he’s my guitar hero, because I'm a big guitar buff.

JC: So what's the model of guitar that you play?

LH: I have a Gibson Midtown Custom, all black. It's absolutely gorgeous, and you can't beat the sound. But I'd have to say my favorite guitar of all time is just the classic SG.

JC: Actually, I just realized there is one song that I also wanted to ask you about that's on Illuminations. It's "Katie's Song"—the narrator says, ‘I'm a mess because of you.’ Yeah, I'm just curious about that one. [To hear “Katie’s Song,” click here.]

LH: Yes, that one probably came the easiest. Writing that was so easy. I didn't really even have to think at the moment. I was talking to a friend of mine and he kept on asking why I was feeling bad. He said, “There is no reason you should be feeling this way. Everything is going good.”

I wasn’t feeling down because of a woman or with any kind of relationship. It's just in life in general. There is something in me that always said, “This is going good, but you're going to mess it up.” And just the thought of that, like no matter what's going on in my life, it ruins it.

It’s like you're in bed with the one you love. Why are you so upset? When I say I'm a mess because of this person, I'm not blaming on this person. They're doing everything right, but I am doing everything wrong right now. I could always put the blame on them because I have no other person to put it on. It's such a shitty feeling. Sorry for swearing.

JC: It's fine.

LH: It’s such a nasty feeling, and I feel like that song really wasn't for anyone but me. "Katie" doesn't really exist. You just need to get some of that stuff out sometimes and realize that you're not doing anything wrong. Sometimes you just feel like a mess and it's something you can't control. “Katie’s Song” is all about insecurity and just trying to get through the night without completely losing yourself.

JC: Are you planning on touring behind Illuminations?

LH: Yeah. We have a Midwest run coming up probably toward end of July, beginning of August [2019]. I'm kind of planning it right now. I've done a couple of short runs already. I have some different press trips planned from Atlanta to New York City. A lot of stuff coming up. In this genre you can't rush it because you’ll miss too much, and they move on without you if you go too slow. It's a scary process, but I'm having the time of my life getting ready for this tour.

 Right now, "Long Way Home" has been hitting the radio pretty well. That is more than I ever thought it would be doing on the radio. It’s going to take such a long time to kind of see those results. I'm just more than blessed to have a song on the radio.

But it would be nice to be picked up by things like a commercial or TV, movie. I feel like a lot of these songs could fit in well with different scenarios, and that would be more than awesome. But could not be more happy with how "Long Way Home" is doing, and the rest of the album is getting a lot of attention just because of that song.

I never expected "Katie's Song" to be anything more than just a last song of the EP, but that one has about as much play as "Long Way Home.”

JC: You know I listen to Illuminations on Spotify. I didn’t listen to the way you set the album; I listen to it by ranks of Spotify popularity. “Long Way Home” is first, and "Katie's Song” is second, which is a different order than what the song list is on Illuminations.

LH: I didn't expect that. That’s probably the most personal song I'll ever write, and it is my favorite one on the album. It’s really cool to know that people are actually checking that out.

JC: Along with touring, do you plan on continue with any more EPs or songs?

LH: Yeah, absolutely. Right now, I'm itching to get back into the studio because I have so much more in my pocket to get out there. I want to go back to the studio. I want to release some new music. I think it's going to sound a little different, but awesome to me. It's a different feel all around for this next project I'm working on.

 On the next thing I work on, I don't expect it to sound anything like what came before it because that one season in my life and I'm moving onto the next. Atlas was a season before, then I moved on to The Left Side, which was a different season, and that was enough, so on and so forth.

For now I'm focusing on the tour, and that's why I'm itching. I want to get more people hearing the songs. Honestly, if you hear them live, I think you'll like them even more as I do. There’s a little bit different arrangements, and I have some more fun with it. And of course, anyone who loves music knows that you can't beat a live concert.

JC: I love music and I’m a huge concert buff.

LH: Not to toot my own horn, but I think I put on a pretty good show. I mean, I grew up watching people like Bruce Springsteen. I have to bring that authenticity.

JC: You started in 2015 with Atlas, and Illuminations is in 2019. What has been your feelings about it?

LH: I've never been more happy. When I did Atlas, I didn't really expect much to happen at all. I didn't really have any confidence. After I did it I was like, “Okay, I'm done. Whatever.” But after Illuminations, everything was just so bright. The future was just like kind of in my head at that point, and I knew great things were going to come.

Going from Atlas to Illuminations, I couldn't be more proud of myself, because I seriously did not think anything would come after Atlas, but I was okay with it. I knew when I was writing Illuminations that it would be something special and be something big for me.

And now more people know my name. People know my songs. At the last show I played, people were singing along, and that's a dream come true. They never did that when I released Atlas. I just knew that this was different, and I'm glad I was right.

JC: We’ve mentioned Springsteen a lot. The music industry was a lot different back then when he was recording. What would your recommendations be for people who are in a world when we no longer go to Tower Records and stream on Spotify or YouTube?

LH: It’s an uphill battle, and it will never be easy. Making music has become a lot easier with technology, and being able to get it out there has become a lot easier.

There is always going to be a fan base for what you want to do. There is always going to be someone out there who loves what you do, but the hardest part is continuing to do it because there’s a steady stream of people doing it.

 I would say to someone who wants to go into this industry that if it’s truly what you want to do, there should absolutely be nothing holding you back. This is because of all the opportunities that we have now being in this day and age. There should be absolutely nothing stopping you from doing what you love.

I mean, it's going to be hard. Nothing worth fighting for is going to be easy, but it's not work. It's not going to be a huge challenge if you enjoy doing it. Every time I've failed, I gain experience from it.

I think the best advice is to not let anyone tell you no. Don’t let anyone tell you that you're not good enough, because that happened to me a lot, and that is just a bunch of crap. You have to keep pursuing it if it's truly what you're meant to do.

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