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'American Idol' champion Lee DeWyze reframes his career

For Lee DeWyze, being attached to the "American Idol" brand hasn't yielded the best luck for a career.

During the show's 2010 season, the Mount Prospect, Ill., native won America over as that earnest paint salesman with a gritty voice and guitar strapped to his back.

But the songwriter's "Idol" triumph was underpinned by heavy criticism of the aging competition — sagging ratings, uninteresting contestants, judge shake-ups — and it didn't get better after the confetti fell on his victory song.

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DeWyze's post-"Idol" debut, 2010's "Live It Up," opened to weak reviews and the lowest first-week sales from any of the series' previous winners. He eventually parted ways with his label, RCA.

But the 27-year-old is looking to reverse some of that luck.

After signing with indie label Vanguard Records last year, the singer is back with a new album, "Frames." Steeped in folk rock (he played the guitar, piano, mandolin, banjo and drums on the album) and none of the pop-rock frills that filled his major-label debut, DeWyze has the record he's been longing to make.

Currently touring to launch "Frames," DeWyze called Pop & Hiss ahead of a gig to talk about the record.

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How long did you work on "Frames" and what has the response been from fans?

I've been working on this record for a year and a half now. I fully believe in the whole record. It feels really gratifying to see people react the way they are. Musically I knew what kind of album I needed to make. But I didn't go in there and say, "I need to make this kind of record." I wasn't [trying] to make a folk-rock anthem record or a pop record. I just wanted to get in the studio and write and record.

There's been a stigma attached to your season. Do you feel you have to reintroduce yourself to audiences?

I think when my first album came out, it was "Oh, he's the singer-songwriter guy." But I think this album is really who I am. We didn't write 100 songs and pick our favorite 13. I wrote maybe 20 songs. I dedicated my time to each. It feels real, and it feels like this album was made not because I had to, but because I wanted to. And that's huge for me. I wanted people to know what it is that I'm really about.

"Live It Up" didn't connect with audiences or critics. What didn't work?

It was the time constraint. Working with a lot of different people in a small window of time — and everyone's got an opinion. Everyone kind of knows better. Sometimes, it's like when you're baking a cake, you don't keep opening the oven. Everyone was great, it's just such a small window. You do 40 songs in a couple of months. It becomes very … disconnected.

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What has going from a major label to a smaller imprint allowed you to accomplish?

When RCA and I parted ways it wasn't "What am I gonna do?" It was like I could breathe for a second. I just started writing. When I approached Vanguard they wanted to sign me based off the music, not because I was on "Idol." They are a music label, they have music integrity. To be on a label like that was even more fuel to my fire.

You've described this album as the one you "always wanted to make." What's different here, compared to your post- "Idol" debut?

When I came off of "American Idol," that was obviously a great experience. I got to make a record. Let's put it this way, I had to make a record when I got off of "Idol." It's not that I'm not proud of that record or I don't appreciate it. I was able to write or co-write on all of those songs, and that's great. I stand behind anything I put my name on. But at the time, to be honest, there were just too many cooks in the kitchen. And for me, I needed the space to be creative.

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Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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