Why Wesley Schultz Still Hasn’t Earned It
Lumineers frontman shares how deepest fear became strongest motivator.
Posted Nov 14, 2019
“And if the sun don’t shine on me today;
And if the subways flood and bridges break;
Will you just lay down and dig your grave?
Or will you rail against the dying day?”
From “Life in the City” by The Lumineers
We live in a judgmental and defensive society. Our first and seemingly natural reaction to people or ideas that differ from the mainstream is to criticize and ridicule them. And often, when we are on the receiving end of that criticism, our first impulse is to get defensive and to discredit the feedback. In both instances, there is a rejection and a failure to listen. In my conversation with Wesley Schultz, a founding member of The Lumineers, he described how he evolved from fearing critical feedback to actively courting alternative perspectives as the cornerstone of his professional development.
Growing up, Schultz feared being self-unaware. “Maybe my greatest fear is to lose all self-awareness and to think that the world sees me in one way and I think I’m behaving an entirely different way,” Schultz told me. “That’s always been a scary prospect – the room is horrified by your behavior or laughing at you and you don’t realize it.”
His first experience with this feeling came in a seemingly innocuous mistake as a child. “There was some gathering where there was a buffet and I took so many pieces of steak…and my dad told me, ‘Do you know how many more people are waiting on the line to get a piece of steak? You need to go put some of that back,’” Schultz recalled. “And I think that was a formative experience because it didn’t even register to me — being aware of other people and their needs. I was kind of oblivious.”
It’s one thing to be a bit over-eager with food, but it’s another to be unaware when your efforts do not match your career ambitions. Schultz explained an instance in which his mother pointed out this blind spot in a different arena -- his professional ambitions.
“I was always writing poetry … and I had started playing guitar. And my mom at one point said, ‘What do you want to do with this?’ And I said, ‘I’m going to be a professional musician,’” Schultz explained. “And she said, ‘Well if you’re going to be professional, that’s a full-time job. People who have a full-time job work 40 hours a week. How many hours did you play last week?’ I probably played for a couple of hours in total. And I just walked away kind of tail between my legs.”
Rather than rejecting his parents’ feedback, he decided that hey were showing him a path to grow by addressing the discrepancy between what he was experiencing and what they were observing. “I took that and I realized that she was right,” he said. “And it made me want to live up to whatever my dreams were. It was a good lesson – a compassionate one.”
Unfortunately, when Schultz began to more directly pursue his dream of becoming a professional musician as an adult, he found that not everyone around him was as supportive and constructive. Rather he often experienced judgment and belittlement for choosing a nontraditional path.
“I worked all these side jobs – I worked at a Starbucks, I worked at a butcher in my little hometown,” he said. “And people would come into these places that knew me as a kid and they would look at me like I was crazy…But those are the same people who would be at the shows and say I knew that kid when,” Schultz described. “It’s not their fault…we live in a weird society in the sense that it will tell you to stop doing the thing that you’re doing until you succeed. And then it will praise you overly so. People just have to put themselves out on the line and sort of be a strange part of society until you make it and then they’re happy for you. I don’t resent it, I just think it’s a funny thing…but it can also make you tough. It gives you some grit.”
In addition to the lessons of his parents, one of the things that helped Schultz weather this storm of judgment was his relationship with his brother-in-law.
“I have a brother-in-law, Jon, who’s a Green Beret. I’ll call him for advice, because he’d been through a lot of adversity,” Schultz explained. “We were in the car…I was the awkward 24-25 year old, still living at home. I think everyone was a little worried and he was just really nice about it. We started talking and he said, ‘What do you want to do with this? What are your goals?’ And I told him what I want to do…I want to bring people together and to have a cathartic experience. I think if I’m a part of that every night and on records, I think me doing this is a positive. And that’s my ambition. He heard that whole thing…and said, ‘I believe in you and what I think you’re going to do is going to be great.’ And that’s all I needed at the time. I just needed someone to pull for me and feel understood.”
As Schultz and The Lumineers achieved professional success, he soon found that the artists that he emulated echoed his family’s approach to constructive feedback. Not only did artists such as Bruce Springsteen and Bono accept feedback, they actively encouraged the assumption that they could not get too comfortable with success. In essence, they were saying that they wake up every morning as Schultz once did -- feeling like a kid who had big dreams but hadn’t done what it takes to earn it yet.
“And I just met a guy who plays with Bruce Springsteen and he said, ‘Bruce says this thing to me every night. He walks up to me and says, ‘You haven’t earned it. I haven’t earned it. He hasn’t earned it.’ And then we walk out on stage,’” Schultz said. “And when I met Bono he said essentially the same thing… So from the start of things all the way to the top – everyone has this prove it and earn it mentality. And that was instilled in me through my mom – through the comment of practicing.”
Having learned the value of accepting criticism from his parents, Schultz continues to embrace criticism in his perpetual desire to improve. “A lot of artists say they never read reviews. I read the reviews…And this person reviewed a show we played and just destroyed us -- particularly me.” he recalled. “I was so caught off guard because I thought the show was good. But when I read it … I realized that a lot of what she was saying was true. And that day I met with my tour manager and I made all of these changes with her help… to make the show more of a show, and not me looking down at my shoes. And I made all of these decisions based on criticisms that I was ashamed to admit even bothered me. I feel like we’ve gotten way better live as a group. I think it was a lesson in how criticism can be good depending on how you digest it…You shouldn’t be above improving.”
And with their new album, III, Schultz and The Lumineers are continuing to earn it. Schultz is pushing the boundaries as an artist both with the intensity of the material as well as an accompanying short film to accentuate the message of the album. And just as he found that his family was ultimately empathic towards his struggles, Schultz is paying it forward by trying to have empathy and understanding for his sister, who struggled with addiction and homelessness.
“There are moments on this album where I’m expressing anger… I’m trying to understand you but I’m angry at you. But I love you. But I hate you. That’s what it feels like to love an addict,” Schultz said. “To tell stories in a true way … I don’t think you can tell someone’s side of the story unless you’re trying to get in their heads and their motivations and experiences… It can’t just be from some myopic or narcissistic perspective where it’s just about you. And with the film, we wanted to give the people who are going to listen to this music something special, something extra to tell the story in a really full way.
“It’s like we’re trying harder than ever.”