Beautiful Thinkers: Tee Wanz, Recording Artist
On topping the charts, touring the world, and returning to normal life
Even if you can’t place it, you’ve probably heard the name Tee Wanz. He sings the hook in Macklemore’s hit single Thrift Shop, which picked up two Grammys in 2014 after topping the charts for six consecutive weeks. To date, the video has garnered 1.2 billion views.
But the story of its background singer begins, and ends, in a humbler place. It’s a story about getting everything you ever dreamed of, touring the world, and then going back to regular life. And the moral of all is: when creative opportunity calls, you answer — even if it’s 11:30 at night on a random Tuesday.
Tell me the about the night you got a phone call from a producer asking you to do a hook for the then unknown artist, Macklemore.
I’m lying in bed watching Nightline, surfing Facebook, and my phone rings. It’s the producer. He asked me what I was doing. I told him, and then he asked me if I’d ever heard of Macklemore. I said, “No. Should I have?” Ryan Lewis’s producer had called him looking for a singer who sounded like Nate Dogg.
An hour later, I was walking into their little hole-in-the-wall studio shaking hands with Ben [Haggerty, Macklemore’s real name] and Ryan. They didn’t know me, and I didn’t know them. We shared small talk for about 15 minutes. Then Ryan played the music while Ben explained the concept of the song. He had the words on a small notepad that he read to me. The first melody that came out of my mouth was the one that you hear on the record. It took 45 minutes in all from the time they put me in the booth to the time they cut me a check.
What did you think of the song when you first heard it?
I thought it was cute. But I didn’t think anything about it after I was done. A month later, Ryan called to ask if I’d like to be in the video. When I got to the shoot, I don’t know anybody because they were all Capitol Hill cats, and I’m from the North End. Plus, I’m 20 years older than everybody. I kind of freaked out that they wanted to film just me singing the hook. I forgot the words. It’s comedic now. We finished the video, but nothing really happened until October when the video dropped. I remember sitting at my desk at my day job watching the numbers go up and thinking, “Oh my God, oh my God, what is happening?”
I contacted the manager to ask if I could be a part of the tour. They said sure. After the fourth day on tour, Ben pulled me aside and asked if I’d like to join the tour permanently. I really didn’t know what that meant at the time, but I knew I wanted to at least finish the western leg of the tour.
The last night of the western tour, we were in San Francisco at The Fillmore. I used to lay on my floor in my bedroom when I was nine years old on Saturday nights listening to live broadcasts on AM radio from The Fillmore. That was Mecca. Before Rolling Stone, you heard about stuff that was happening in music at The Fillmore. When we were there for soundcheck, I started crying. To be in the room where all the people I grew up listening to had played was overwhelming. That’s when everything became real for me. I was 51 years old, and I’d been dreaming about that moment since I was six.
Were Ryan and Ben aware of what was happening?
They understood the machine. They’d been working together for four years to make this happen. I was a piece that was brought in, just for sprinkles. I didn’t think it was a big deal. The next day I was depositing my first tour check, my boss called. I asked him if I could stay out for another three or four days. He said, “We were hoping you’d come back tomorrow.” And I said, “You know what? An opportunity like this for someone my age is probably never going to come along again, so I gotta stay out here.”
I walked away from 85K a year with no safety net. I had a 401K, but I had no savings, no checking account, no backup plan. Nothing. And the rest is history. I spent two-and-a-half years touring the world, and at the end of touring I can honestly say that every single thing I had ever dreamed of happened. Every single thing came true.
What was it like being out on the road with Macklemore?
I watched Ben, and I watched what it was doing to him. In the first four or five months of performing, it was interesting to watch the change. The person that I had met six months before was not the person I was touring with. This stuff changes you. You become a little more reclusive mostly for physical reasons because it takes a toll.
The schedule for him was relentless. When I was sitting in the stands watching the crew put the show together, he was doing radio interviews, appearances and having his picture taken all day long. Then he’d go onstage to perform for an hour or so, and afterward he’d have people to see, more pictures to be taken, and then all of a sudden, it’s one o’clock in the morning. The next day it would start all over for him at 7 a.m.
I know you took some of the pressure off Ben by engaging the fans. What was that like?
It was interesting to watch. I had never seen the level of devotion to an artist that he generated. I would go out and talk to the kids in line at each city. Some had been in line for 10 sometimes 20 hours waiting for this show. I was reminded what it was like to be a fan.
Why were they so devoted?
How did Kurt Cobain become a cult hero? He spoke to a whole generation of kids. When Kurt was coming up, he was the displaced child, latchkey kid whose parents were dysfunctional. Ben was a middle-class kid who got into trouble and experimented with dope which took him to some dark places. The journey out of those dark places is debilitating for some. But for him, it was empowering because he could transform it into the stories he tells in his lyrics. Google the lyrics to a song called Other Side. That’s the epitome of it.
I will never forget watching him tell the story of his sobriety in front of 11,000 people at Red Rocks. It was 20 degrees. It was so powerful to see this guy on a stage talking to everyone. You could hear a pin drop on carpet, it was so quiet. And then he went into the song, and I started crying because I am in recovery too, and there are so many who couldn’t do what he just did. There are so many who never got the opportunity.
When did he finally get sober?
Well, he’s been in and out. On tour, he relapsed twice over the two-and-a-half years. It’s not easy. Being sober is not easy. That’s a two-hour conversation right there.
What was your journey to getting sober?
For me, drinking was the oil that greased the skids for socializing. In the early 80s, when I was in college in a rural part of the state, there were not many people of color. Minorities made up less than 1% of the population of the county. In order to fit in on a college campus, you go to parties. I wasn’t really that much into smoking dope. So, drinking was my thing.
By the time ’83, ’84, and ’85 went by I was drinking like a fish. I drank every day. And I drank to get loaded. So when I moved to Seattle, it became about extending the college lifestyle. I’d go to clubs every night and hang out and then go to after parties. I did this because I liked these people I wanted to advance my career. At a certain point, it got to where alcohol took me to a place where I no longer recognized who I was. I made bad decisions. That experience scared me from ever drinking again. I had a good sponsor. Relapse isn’t a part of my story.
That must’ve prepared you well for going on the road.
It did. Parts of the tour were grueling, and parts were lonely. Keep in mind I was in my 50s and everybody else was in their late 20s or early 30s. Everybody. These are people I met simply because of one song and one record and one artist. Everybody besides me who was in the entourage was either a friend of Ben’s or a friend of a friend of Ben’s.
When did you leave the tour?
I left the tour in 2015. Thrift Shop was released in 2012. Ben had three other hits plus two hits after that, which meant I was low man on the totem pole as far as songs go. It will always be his most recognizable song because it was his first one, but it didn’t make sense to be schlepping this old guy around to do one song. To be perfectly honest, I could tell when he had disdain for the song. Every performance of that song for me was awesome. It was my five minutes of fame. But when you’re the guy that’s gotta be on stage, and you don’t like the song that’s hard. So I opted to leave the tour in the middle of 2015. I got a job at Tableau Software, and I’ve been here ever since.
What was it like to go back to a normal life?
It’s created a dilemma about what to do next. How do you take a guy who sang on arguably one of the most popular songs ever and package him as a solo artist when he totally doesn’t fit the demographic that made that song? People in the music business aren’t looking for someone to develop. They’re looking for someone who is already developed, and the only thing they have to do is put in the chamber of the gun and fire the bullet.
It’s been crippling me for the past three years. I used to be able to sit down and get three words from somebody and write a song about it and be happy with it. Now I’m lucky if I can write three songs that I’ll listen to more than once because I really don’t know who my audience is. The debilitating thing for me was this was a flash in the pan, which is what I tried desperately tried not to be. But that’s exactly where I ended up. I ended up exactly where I started.
I’ve gotten to the point where I frame in the sense of the first time you go to Disneyland. There’s all that anticipation. While you’re there, it’s magical. and you never want it to end. But then you realize it has to come to an end. Next thing you know you’re walking out of the gates that you were so excited to enter and all you can think about is all the fun you had. Then all of a sudden, you’re in the car looking out the back window as you leave. You go back to your life remembering how much fun you had. That’s what it’s like.
Would you change anything if you had to do it over again?
Yep, two things. I would’ve gotten a lawyer sooner and negotiated a better deal. And I would’ve put out more music by myself and not worried about having someone help me put out music. There’s no such thing as an old pop star. That broke my heart because ever since I was six years old, all I’ve heard is: “You’re going to be famous. You’re so talented.”
Was there anything Macklemore did or didn’t do to bring you along?
The Macklemore machine did what they needed to do for Macklemore. It wasn’t about me. It was about building the brand Macklemore. You have to understand that as a side player. It’s not about you, no matter how popular the song gets. That’s the formula.
Were you friends?
I thought so. Because we had so much in common. Not only recovery. Can’t Hold Us was my story too. Only mine spanned 30 years. His spanned six. When you come from the same place, you have those things in common. But the only times I saw him were before the show or on stage.
What was the biggest surprise you had being on the world tour?
The most shocking moment for me personally was the night of the Grammys. I spotted Ed Sheeran and went over to say hi to him. And he says, “Wanz, do you know Taylor [Swift]?” I said, “Nice to meet you, Taylor.” And she says, “I know, I’ve read about you.” Yeah. That’s kind of a thing. It was surreal.
Last Tuesday marked six years from the day Thrift Shop was uploaded to YouTube. What’s next for you?
To figure out what’s going to make me happy. Because when you get everything you’ve ever wanted, what do you do then? Not many people have that problem.