Sorry, Drake: Wanz is taking the phrase “Started From the Bottom” to a whole new level. A few months ago, the 51-year-old was a software engineer and single dad living outside of Seattle and coming off a bad breakup. Now he’s sitting pretty at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart and touring the world, thanks to the catchy hook of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “Thrift Shop,” which he sings. It’s probably the most unlikely story behind the already unlikely hit, which Macklemore and Lewis released independently on their album The Heist last year. Now, thanks in part to a hilarious video, which Wanz also appears in, the song’s been topping the Hot 100 for three weeks. It’s been a whirlwind turn of events for Wanz, but here, in between packing for an Australian tour, he finds time to talk with XXL about his new life, leaving his day job of 13 years, and his long, long road to No. 1. —Alex Gale (@apexdujeous)
XXL: How has your life changed since the song came out?
Wanz: Man. Well, I no longer have a full-time, permanent software-testing engineering job. That’s the biggest thing, but other than that the biggest change is just trying to understand what it means to get all the details involved in living this dream that I’ve had since I was a kid. Since I was a kid I’ve dreamed, “Oh God, I’d like to have the number-one song in the country.” And now I’m singing on it—and doing interviews like this. I was on the local news station yesterday, and I’m just getting a lot of props from friends on Twitter and Facebook. [I’m] trying to manage my time effectively and trying to move forward and put things in perspective. All this stuff is happening now but I didn’t see it a year ago. So in a year from now everything is going to be different.
How long have you been doing music for?
I’ve been singing since I was five years old. I was always the kid that would sing for anyone, anywhere and at anytime. Doing church choir, school choir all through secondary school, then I went to college and studied music education. I was in choral groups and found out more about jazz in college. I also discovered playing in bars, playing in lofts, and taught myself how to play bass guitar. So I was in rock bands. We would go to Seattle, playing in rock bands, in funk bands for a little while, but I didn’t make it. I fronted a punk-rock band for a little while but that didn’t generate any fire and I kinda started losing hope on everything as I was getting older. Last year I was asked to audition for the Seattle opera and then I was accepted into the chorus for Porgy & Bess and did that last summer. After that it was like, I’m just gonna make music for myself in my own little room because I can’t see anybody in the business being attracted to a 50 year old. So I was just making music for myself. And I got a phone call one night in July, late June, and answered it, and it was a buddy of mine that I had been recording hooks for. He said Ryan Lewis had called him and he said they were looking for a guy that could sing like Nate Dogg. The next thing you know I’m standing in a room with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. They were showing me the lyrics to “Thrift Shop.” 45 minutes later, it was done.
That was the first time you met them?
Had you heard about them before?
Yeah, I had heard about them. I live about 10 miles north of Seattle and hadn’t really been immersed in the hip-hop scene in Seattle. I was aware of it—Blue Scholars and Astrophysics and Grinch and some of these other cats. It’s not like I lived in breathed the scene, I was too busy managing my teenage son that lives with me, just kinda working on my own stuff and trying to keep my own head on straight. I came out of a bad, really emotional break-up. It took me five years to get over that. I was just minding my own business and I picked up the phone and all of a sudden all of this stuff started happening. The session, and then they’re asking me to be in the video. Then the video dropped and all of a sudden these numbers started changing. As the numbers kept growing, I went back and did all the research on Macklemore and downloaded Language of My World and all this stuff. I started getting real hip to him. He was the first rapper that I’d ever heard that would be so bold and so honest as to say a line, “We’ve taken their 40 acres, now I’m taking their 16 bars.” And that’s the line that hooked me, that got me to everything else, like “Other Side” and “Wings” and everything.
How long had you been a software engineer for?
I’d been in that trade for about 13 years. I used to drive delivery truck around, delivering haircare products and that wasn’t making enough money to pay the bills, and a friend of mine suggested that I get into software. I accepted a contract to test Microsoft and did testing from 2000 to 2010.
What did it feel like to leave your job?
Well, we’re in Boise, Idaho, and Macklemore comes up to me and says, “We really like what you’ve brought to the tour and we’d like to ask if you’d continue the tour with us.” And I was kinda hoping that was going to happen because I’d never been on tour before. So I’m doing Portland and Seattle and Vancouver, Spokane, and now we’re in Boise. So I asked my boss about it; he says, “You’ll have to submit to get some more time off.” Because I was burning up my paid vacation time being out. I was just gonna do 10 dates and call it a day. That was the end of it but they asked me to continue. So I put in the submission and I didn’t get an answer until Monday. They didn’t know that Sunday night before we had played a sold-out show at the Fillmore in San Francisco. That’s like a mecca for musicians. I’ve known about that place since I was literally 10. Legendary. And here I was, I walked into the venue and just looked around in the venue and broke down into tears because of the weight of what it meant to play there. Because all the stuff was becoming real that I’d dreamed of all my life and the weight of it was like too much. I broke down. Here I am crying and [fellow Macklemore-affiliated singer] Ray Dalton is like, “Dude, it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay.” Well, Monday morning I get a call from Human Resources and they’re asking, “When can we expect you back?” At my age, an opportunity like this is probably never going to happen again, so I gotta walk away from the job. And so I left that job, and I’ve been hanging out here ever since and touring when they asked me to, and now I’m trying to make my own lane.
Congratulations. But was that kind of scary at the same time? You had a kid, a job, maybe a 401k and pension.
Dude, it’s frightening because you’re talking to a guy [who] had done some little stuff, put it up on YouTube and really hadn’t garnered very much attention except the people who were my close friends. So all of this is really scary. It’s really scary to leave a full-time job with benefits and the whole nine. It’s really scary to come back from tour and the tour money is okay but it’s not enough to live on and you don’t know when rent’s gonna be paid and all that other stuff, but friends have been holding me up. And Macklemore, being the man that he is, he saw all this happening, we met and talked and negotiated a deal. None of us expected “Thrift Shop” to be as big as it is. And so none of us went into it straight business, you know, “I’m gonna get a percentage of this.” None of that was ever spoken so we figured out something that was fair and I thank them for it and I’m still very blessed to be in this position because now I’ve got the ability to take a breath and say, “Okay, what’s next?” That’s what’s leading me now. What’s next? Getting my own stuff together because “Thrift Shop” won’t be forever. Macklemore’s not gonna be the toast of the town forever and I’ll be back out where I lived before. It’s like while I got the light on me I better do this.
How are you arranging it in terms of your kid and leaving him at home? Is that difficult to work out?
It started out to be but he’s more responsible than he knew he was. He’s doing fine. He’s graduated from high school and he’s trying to find a full-time job and he’s doing the same thing people do. He has his interest in music and every once in a while he’ll show me a beat and maybe that’s a career for him. He doesn’t know yet and that’s fine. I’m just giving him the stage to find out, “Where’s your lane? What are you gonna do?” And that’s the example that I’m setting for him. Being away from his mother and having to go through child support and all that other stuff made me think of the fathers out there who choose to not be a part of their kid’s life and the kids grow up and they suffer for it. Most of the cats in the game, that’s what they talk about. I don’t understand that because all I ever wanted to do was be an example for my kid. Because a mom can’t be a man and a guy does not learn how to be a man except from his father. So I’m trying to be the best example for him and show him like, “You know what? It may be raining today but that doesn’t mean it’s gonna be raining tomorrow. So you have to take today. Learn from it and apply it tomorrow and keep moving forward. Don’t let life get you down because one hour is not like the next or like the last.” I’m very philosophical about all this stuff. It’s the stuff that keeps me sane. I have to understand what life really is, and all life is, is trying. Most people think it’s about the result but no, no, no, no. Life for me is about trying. If I can’t try, I don’t know whether I’ll fail or succeed. I gotta try.
You said you’re making this a long-term thing for yourself—how are you going about that?
Well, while on tour, I met my publicist. and when I got back here there were people that I’ve known for awhile, they’re pulling me towards a studio and helping me out to get my EP together, get my single done. And a guy that I recorded with 20 years ago, his wife is a lawyer and I’m kinda connected with her. I’m just trying to get my business together. There’s no second chances in this business really. I’m just trying to get things together and organized. Put my best foot forward and see what people think. If the people like it, great. If they don’t like it, you know what? I’ve been back there before. I know what it looks like. It’s not going to kill me. It’ll be disappointing but nobody can take away the memories that have already happened.
Do you have any details on that EP that you’re working on?
Yes, the EP is gonna be six songs. Songs that I’ve been working on over the past two, three years. The lead single is gonna be “Tell Me One More Time” and the EP’s gonna be titled Wander, which is a song that got me out of the dregs. “Pick up my feet and hit the ground / Got to swim or else I drown.” That’s the emphasis of that tune. What I’ve found is that a lot of the songs that I’ve been writing over the last year or so have inspired our people to keep going in their lives and I think that’s what my role is going to be. I’m going to be the guy who teaches people to believe in themselves. To not let what others think of them get them down. They have the responsibility and the power to live how they’d like to live, regardless of what other people think of them. And you know what’s really nice? That’s a vibe that Macklemore and I totally, totally were together on. That’s one of the things that’s bonded us. We look at life and the things that life throws at us in the same manner.
Are you going to put it out yourself?
There’s no label. It’d be really nice if someone would come calling: “You sound like Nate Dogg. Has Drake called you yet?” You know, I’m still waiting on that call and if he calls great. If he doesn’t, great. I’m gonna put it out myself. It’s more poppy than it is hip-hop, but there’s hip-hop elements to it I really love. I go all the way to “The Message. “A child is born with no state of mind/Blind to the ways of mankind.” That’s the clothes I’m cut from. But I really like the beats of today. There are a lot of producers like Swizz Beatz that I really like. So I’m trying to take the elements of those and combine them with pop sensibilities because I grew up listening to the radio—John Denver and the Fifth Dimension and The Temptations and Stevie Wonder, all played all in a row. I’m kind of a crooner. There’s no Teddy Pendagrass anymore. There’s no Barry White in the game today. And so I’m kinda putting myself out there as that kinda guy. I go everywhere from from pop to hip-hop to jazz to classical, rock to soul. I can do it all. Just go onto to Twitter and type in #thebookofwanz. One of friends encouraged me. I’m always coming up with little phrases. Some of them my dad inspired, some of them are things I’ve heard over the years, but most of them I thought up on my own. It’s my perspective. So I started putting those things out and it’s amazing [how] the kids have gone to that and taken it and retweeted. It’s kinda taken a life of its own. I don’t think I’m any different from anyone else. Life happens to everybody. It’s how we handle life that matters.