Although the name Stelth Ulvang probably isn’t familiar, his performance with celebrated Denver, Colorado-based folk rockers The Lumineers probably is. The band’s self-title debut album, released in mid-2012 peaked at number two on the Billboard charts in early 2013 and has been certified platinum in the U.S. As a result they were nominated for both Billboard Music Awards and Grammy Awards.
Ulvang released his first proper solo album, and as always the in infinite cosmos, on February 19 and has a pair of Southwest Ohio tour dates where he’ll road test his skillful, multi-layered rock tunes. Ghettoblaster caught up with him to discuss the LP, and the delicate balance between songwriting and showmanship.
The new LP is your second solo record?
It is actually my first. I put out a couple little EPs here and there. I was in another band called Dovekins and put out records with them, but this will be the first record that are solely my songs.
Your solo material is pretty piano centric.
This album is about 50/50 piano songs versus guitar songs.
What is it about writing on those instruments that lends itself to the stories you are telling?
A lot of the music I was listening to before was piano-inspired. I like the formalness and grandeur of pianos in a lot of music going back to Elton John or Jerry Lee Lewis or Leon Russell. The transfer of physical energy that is being moved into an instrument is powerful. The same can be said about a guitar. I’ve always liked that about the piano – that everything you are playing is something you can feel as you are doing it.
There is also a 16-piece orchestra on half of the record, which felt fitting to the music as it was written in an older Quincy Jones kind of way. I’ve always liked those big, powerful Hollywood strings that supplement pop songs, although my songs aren’t as pop as they could be and the strings aren’t filling up the Hollywood Bowl…it was my small attempt while recording in a little studio in Portland.
Did you write the compositions for the orchestra?
I didn’t. I wrote the songs in New Zealand in 2012, and contacted a friend of mine who I’d met while I was living in Hawaii. I really wanted him to collaborate with me and he’d been going to school for composition. So I gave him a few of my ideas and he pulled the compositions together and wrote them for an orchestra that I could afford.
In your live shows you are communicating in an aggressive, almost Jerry Lee Lewis like kind of way. How important is it to be a showman as well as a songwriter?
I think it is pretty valuable. There are two-sides of the spectrum, maybe more. And ideally we’d like to be in the middle of the two, although I know a lot of musicians that just want to be songwriters. Touring makes them sick. I love travelling and I love touring. I love being on stage way more than I like being in the studio.
I value stage space as well. And movement. From an audience perspective, I like looking at a stage that doesn’t just sit two-dimensional on a grid or axis. There is movement upwards and forwards and into the crowd and behind the crowd. I love explosive movement within a band.
Can you recall a time when you were on stage and really noticed that connection that comes with showmanship, between performer and audience?
I grew up doing theater. There is the idea of breaking the fourth wall between the audience and the crowd. In theater, you don’t often do that, but as musicians we do when we engage or talk to the crowd. I think it is really incredible when musicians push that even further.
Two things stick out to me, the first is that made for TV, theater version of Peter Pan where they had her on the cables flying around. I’m also reminded of Imagine Dragons who do a very similar thing with cables. They can afford that kind of thing, where as a solo artist I can’t, but they are able to fly the singer over the crowd with a giant drum. It is jaw-dropping to see. That’s the kind of stuff that happens with Tommy Lee and Lady Gaga or Katy Perry. But that is a defining thing for them as entertainers and provides some incredibly entertaining moments.
Ideally, we’d all like to find that balance; where we can give someone that experience, but also have lyricism and songs and music that comes from the heart.
Is storytelling a part of your show?
Yes. I’m not yet as good at it as I’d like to be yet. I spend a lot of time in bands were I don’t speak. So in my shows it is up to me to do that. I don’t want to have a shtick that’s not me, but I would like to have an honest flow of the thoughts that I’m thinking on stage. Sometimes you see a band and just want them to shut up and play. Maybe I can figure out that balance on this tour. I have 30-some shows coming up to practice. By the time I’m in Dayton, perhaps my banter will be on lock.
You are actually playing two shows in the area. Was there someone that encouraged you to visit Southwestern, Ohio?
I have a friend who has played violin with me that played at Taffy’s and swore by it. There is something really valuable about playing in communities where people are encouraged to come out to any music. Often littler towns get overlooked. That is inspiring.
Additionally, Ricky Terrell from Starving In the Belly of the Whale wrote me and said he’d help me set up a show in Dayton, which I didn’t originally have in mind. It was all the convincing I needed.
Stelth Ulvang performs on Wednesday, March 11 at The Canal Public House, 308 East 1st Street, Dayton, and Thursday, March 12 at Taffy’s, 123 East Main Street, Eaton. Also on the bill are Starving in the Belly of the Whale, Denny Cottle, David Payne and Michael Tomlinson. Doors are at 7:00pm and tickets are $7 in advance and $10 at the door. For more information, visit www.stelthulvang.com.