It took only 45 minutes to change Michael Wansley’s life. The Seattle-based singer, known by his stage name Wanz, has found himself at the top of the charts with his bass-heavy credit on Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ “Thrift Shop,” which has now enjoyed two weeks at No. 1 on the Hot 100.
Last July, the 51-year-old fielded a call from Street Level Records owner D-Sane who got word that the hip-hop duo was looking for a Nate Dogg sound-alike to guest on their future smash. Wanz, who had heard of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis but never sat with their music, headed to the studio to lay down his catchy refrain at 1 a.m. The session went so smoothly that he was in bed an hour later.
Now, the former software test engineer is taking a shot at solo stardom. Having toured the country with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis over the past few months and performed with them on “The Ellen Show,” Wanz is building his brand on social networking sites and recording a six-track EP that he hopes to release before he joins the pair on their Australian trek next month.
Here, the Lakewood, Wash. native discusses his history with music, rediscovering Macklemore and how he hopes to crack the charts on his own.
What’s your background in music?
Music has always been a part of me. I’ve been singing for as long as I can remember. I was always in church choir, I was always in school choir. I was always singing, always singing every song on the radio. I went to Central Washington University where I was introduced to jazz. At that time, I had only known classical and pop stuff. And then I went and discovered jazz in college and I studied that for seven years and did pretty well at that.
When did things expand beyond jazz and choirs?
When I turned 21, I had a band called Boys Will Be Boys. We did some INXS covers. [Later] I formed another band called Life Ring and was doing primarily originals, playing bass. Then… I got asked to front a band called the Ghetto Monks and saw a little bit of success. That band kind of went its way and fell off. Then it was about five or six years ago, I started investing in writing my own music because I wasn’t hearing what I wanted to hear. I didn’t see it in the clubs. I didn’t see what I was hearing in my head.
How did you get linked with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis?
Through a strange twist, I got connected with a guy named D-Sane who is the owner of Street Level Records and he was doing underground hip-hop here in the North End of Seattle. One of his guys called me and asked me to sing a hook on one of his songs, and everybody dug it. That led to my career in singing hooks. So that same guy calls me on Monday night in July and asks if I’ve heard of a guy named Macklemore and I said I’d heard of him but I wasn’t familiar with the music. He was looking for a guy that sounds like Nate Dogg. For a decade, I’ve been known as the Nate Dogg of North End in Seattle in that little circle of underground hip-hop. He called me back like five minutes later and said they want to bring you in. So 45 minutes later I’m at the studio and meeting Ben and Ryan for the first time and talking about what my history is, Ghetto Monks this and my own originals and what I wanted to do. Ben showed me the hook for ‘Thrift Shop’ and said ‘Sort of like this.’ I sang a line to him and he said yeah, like that. I go in and get levels and 45 minutes later, I’m going home. Pretty quick, quicker than anybody imagined.
How was it shooting the video for “Thrift Shop?”
I went up and filmed and the next day, I did the boat scenes. By this time, I hadn’t heard the whole song. It’s been about six weeks since I recorded the session and I still haven’t heard the song. So Ryan is taking me up to catch a bus on the North End and I was asking him to play the final song and it was the first time I heard it and I loved it and thought it was great. The video dropped and I’m sitting at my desk watching the numbers go up, it got up to about 1,000, 1,500, I just looked out the window and went, uh oh. I came back the next day and it had tripled in size, and I said, uh oh, and started pushing it out to my Facebook people, and the rest, as they say, is history. I got asked to go on tour. I had never been on tour before. Then, I’m on the phone with my boss’ boss and the HR person and they’re saying, are you going to come back? And I said, well, at my age, these kinds of opportunities don’t come along. I don’t think it’s ever going to happen again. So I’ve got to stay out here and do this, because this is a dream come true. Dream come true shit for me.
What was your day job?
I was about a year and a half working at a company that was paying me really good money to be a software test engineer, and that was my career of choice since music wasn’t panning out. I was doing software testing for 13 years, but spent most of that time contracting out of Microsoft. But I finally landed a full-time paying job with a great salary, great benefits… I thought I had arrived, I thought I was done. It was just doing music on the side, doing my own recordings on the side, that was for me.
Are you surprised by the success of ‘Thrift Shop?’
[Laughs] No. When I left the studio after recording, we were all really just happy as clams. I don’t think those guys had ever been at that short of a session that had been done that well. After the video shoot, I actually went back into the catalog because I didn’t really know Macklemore. [It was] after the first video shoot that I went and downloaded “The Language of My World” and listened to “White Privilege” that I actually connected with him. There are a lot of commonalities in his story that I have. I found somebody who had that same passion, because I had never run into anybody like that before. But I never thought “Thrift” was going to be as big as it was, but then again I didn’t know that he had done all of this work.
What’s next for you? Are you talking with labels or looking to go on the road on your own?
My game plan right now is to first and foremost get myself branded so that I have something. I have a six-song EP that I’m working on, it’s at the mixing stage, and I’m trying to get it all done so that I have it on a site where people can buy it by the time we go to Australia in February. I just can’t put all this attention (72 million views for “Thrift” on YouTube) and just sit at home, not when I’ve been dreaming the dreams I’ve had for all my life.
This is a shot that I get. You do what you’re supposed to do, and that is you put the product out there. I’ve been around so many bands, been around music for so long and watched so many people try and think they know what they’re doing and think this, that or the other. Now, it’s my turn. You only get one bite of this apple. At 51 years old, what are the odds that this is ever going to happen again? Pretty slim.