He’s not going to lose any sleep over a 13-year-old fan including it among the search tags and anime tears on her YouTube tribute video about the impact he’s had in her life, but you get the feeling that, at 28, John Vesely, is quite eager to start stretching his career beyond the confinements of “emo.”
“People throw that word around a little too much,” sighs Vesely, who records — now backed by a full band — under the name Secondhand Serenade. “`Emo` started off in the hardcore scene and ventured into the punk-rock scene and then made its way through that, and now that style is not really around that much. … I’m trying to set that term aside and let other people deal with it, not me.”
That might be difficult: Secondhade Serenade was born in the perfect storm of the genre’s bastardization and mid-Aughts marketability, the love-child of acts like Dashboard Confessional (from whom Vesely draws obvious influence) and the internet’s capacity for viral teen angst.
Such a pedigree enabled Vesely to sell his often maudlin, but undeniably catchy, acoustic ballads online to the tune of — at one point — $20,000 a month.
“I sold, like, 7,000 songs on iTunes in, like, the first month,” he recalls. “I was like, this is insane. I’m making more than I did at the job I had at the time. This is nuts. If another month goes by like this I’m quitting my job.”
The next month he sold 7,500 songs (and Neiman Marcus was forced to replace what — judging by the way Vesely dresses — must have been one of its finest personal shoppers).
“`Secondhand Serenade` started getting more viral, more viral, and sometimes I’d sell 14,000 songs, sometimes 23,000 songs, but I started making significant amounts of money,” he says. “That eventually led to me charting on iTunes, and then labels started getting interested, and I figured it was time for the next step.”
In 2006, Vesely signed with upper-tier indie imprint Glassnote Records after reaching the top of MySpace’s Unsigned Artist Chart; two years later, heavy radio rotation of “Fall for You,” the platinum-selling tribute to true love off sophomore album A Twist In My Story (sung to his now ex-wife), won him instant commercial success, which he says quickly went to his head.
“The second you find some sort of success, everything becomes really easy,” he says. “You take for granted that it’s not always going to be so easy.”
This likely explains why Vesely has such specific and strong advice for piano-playing YouTube sensation Greyson Chance, who went from unknown preteen to talk-show guest in a week’s time thanks to a video of what might be dubbed — if the record companies are smart — a very emo performance of Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi” in the very emo setting of a junior-high talent show.
(Likewise, the video for “Fall For You” feature’s Vesely ravishing a piano before moving on to his girl.)
“He’s a talented kid, but the trick is to not use him as a novelty to make a few quick sales and ruin his career,” Vesely says. “He’s really young, significantly younger than even Justin Bieber. But you know, I would honestly tell him, with his age, that he’s got to be more in the Disney realm right now. He would work well there. I don’t know if he wants to go with Hollywood or what, but this kid is, like, 12. That’s dangerous ground. Ideally, what we’re all trying to do is be career artists, not a novelty.”
Emo novelty seems to be exactly what Vesely is running from in “Something More,” the debut single off Hear Me Now, his poppiest, most upbeat album to date, which includes lyrics like: “I’m stuck here in this life I didn’t ask for, there must be something more … I’m paying for my sins and it’s going to rain for years … I fooled everyone and now what will I become? I have to start this over.”
“Whether `emo` has negative or positive connotations, I think it’s kind of a ridiculous statement in itself,” Vesely says. “When you take that word and what it actually means, well, isn’t the root of all music emotional? Were the Beatles emo singing ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’? I mean, I don’t know.” •
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