My friend Marisa and I had the amazing opportunity to chat with Pacific Northwest native and Grammy award winner, Michael Wansley, aka Wanz.
Wanz was born in Alaska, while his father served in the U.S. Army at Ft. Richardson. One of his first memories of Alaska, was when he was six years old and lived across the street from his elementary school. He remembers a time he was singing a song with classmates when his mom yelled for him to come home. His love for music has stayed with him ever since. He recalled listening to live broadcasts from the Fillmore in San Francisco on AM radio and how he dreamed of playing there someday.
The Wansley family soon moved to Washington and he has lived here for the last 47 years. Growing up, they were one of five black families in central Washington and he used to get into fights at school. However, Wanz will never forget some teachers who helped him throughout his life. Ben Keller, a junior high teacher (who just recently retired) and Mr. Krause, a college choral director, kept his passion for music alive.
Wanz discovered jazz while attending Central Washington University and studied music while obtaining a degree in education. He played in a few bands (Wanz had also self taught himself how to play the piano) and eventually found a job working at Tower Records. He has been working with the music industry ever since.
He began slugging away playing with the Ghetto Monks, played with a cover band and eventually began recording his own music. After many disappointments, he found himself quitting music altogether. From 2005 – 2007, he spent time in self reflection, eventually trying to put himself together again. After playing in band after band, and nothing happening, he was becoming severely depressed. The birth of his granddaughter helped him pick of the pieces of his life. It was during this time in his life where he wrote the words to his own song, Get Lucky.
Over the next few years, Wanz began working in software development and in 2011, while his son was living with him, found chorus work with the Seattle Opera.
Then, it was the year 2012. The year it all changed.
With his son graduating from high school, Wanz was getting ready to take him on a trip to Hawaii. He received a call on behalf of two gentlemen named Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. They were working on a track and needed an additional voice. Wanz met with both of them and got acquainted, sang with them for 45 minutes and went home. He then went to Hawaii with his son. After the trip, he returned home and made a music video for the song he helped lay down the track for.
With 780 million YouTube views and Thrift Shop all over the radio, Wanz joined Macklemore and Ryan Lewis on tour, and had to ask for time off from his software development job to go on the tour. He kept planning to go back to work until one night in San Francisco.
His dream of playing at the Fillmore had come true. Before the show, he stood on the floor at the Fillmore, looking at the stage and the seats. Everyone would be watching him perform. He was so overwhelmed, he cried. He then decided to stay with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis for the rest of the tour. Wanz, a man in his 50’s, who came out of nowhere, was now playing to sold out crowds all over the world. He remembered a child in Paris asking him if he believed in unicorns. Wanz responded with, “I am one!”
And now 2016 is fast approaching. Thrift Shop is not on heavy radio rotation anymore. Wanz had asked if Ryan Lewis would help him produce his own music and they were never able to agree. Wanz is back to testing software and once again back to where he was in 2007, trying to find himself. If he wasn’t a musician, he isn’t sure what he would be. Because of Thrift Shop, he doesn’t know who he is. As a man in his mid-50’s, who could relate to music he writes?
Through all of this, Wanz has learned a lot about the Seattle music industry. Before the grunge scene of the 90’s really took off, everyone was very supportive and collaborative. After grunge took off, nobody worked together anymore.
His biggest challenge as of late has been completing a song. You need to have the song written a certain way, have the right people involved so it receives the right air play. He finds himself rarely sleeping these days, and always asking. Trying to be a 50 year old pop star is like trying to climb Mount Everest without an oxygen tank. Being a 50 year old on tour with 30 year olds who you share nothing in common with – another life lesson.
You can read much more about Wanz’s life story in his new book, #TheBookofWanz, available on Amazon here.