Warning: Obscene language in video
Years ago, struggling Seattle singer Michael Wansley wrote a song called “If you give up your dreams, you die.” Suffice it to say the song never really went anywhere. But he never gave up. Years later, the dream has come true thanks to his song stealing turn on Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ number one hit “Thrift Shop.” And it only took about an hour for it all to happen.
“It feels kind of surreal to me. Who’s interested in an old fart that just sings all the time?” Wansley laughs about the stroke of luck that’s suddenly making the 51-year-old a hugely popular international pop star thanks to the signature “I’m gonna pop some tags” hook from the song.
Wansley, who goes by the stage name Wanz, has been singing and playing around town since the 80’s. But with two boys to help raise, somewhere along the line he realized he better get a “real job.” For the last 12 years, he’s been working as a software test engineer in downtown Seattle during the day, and singing on smaller recordings and playing smaller gigs whenever he could.
“You know, I was helping to raise a family and wasn’t getting any younger, and nobody was liking what I was cooking,” he says. So he went back to school and focused on his career. At one point, he even thought about giving up music altogether. The turning point came on the eve of his granddaughter’s first birthday.
“I mean I wasn’t making enough money to buy her a present and so I figured I’d write a song and was having writer’s block and couldn’t write. I decided if I couldn’t do that then I was done.”
But inspiration struck. Wanz says he woke up in the middle of the night with a lyric in his head, wrote a song and presented it to her the next day. She loved it (he says she still listens to it almost seven years later), and he decided to keep trying to make something happen with music.
It was that dedication that ultimately led him to Macklemore and Lewis. A guy he knows on the local music scene heard the duo was looking for someone who sounds like rapper Nate Dogg and thought of Wanz and hooked them up.
Wanz admits even though he’d heard of Macklemore, he’d never heard his music. But after just a ten minute talk, they were in the studio cutting the track.
“He told me what the idea of the song was, played the beat and said these words ‘I’m going to pop some tags and blah blah’ and where they were supposed to go. I sang him a line, he liked it, we made a couple of adjustments and in to the booth we went,” he says.
It didn’t seem like much at the time. Wanz recorded his vocals and was in bed an hour later. And even though it was fun, he figured it was the last he’d hear about it. After all, he’d been paid a few bucks many other times to sing on a song that went nowhere. Boy was he wrong.
Wanz got his first inkling something was up when he was sitting in his office checking out the “Thrift Shop” video on YouTube (just the second one he’d ever even appeared in.)
“I keep hitting refresh and and every time I hit refresh the numbers kept going up. And the next day they were way bigger than they were the day before, and on the third day they were way bigger than they had been the day before,” he says.
The song has over 87 million views as of this writing.
The song kept getting more popular, and somewhere last fall Macklemore absolutely blew up. His album “The Heist” made it to the top of the iTunes charts, the calls from Ellen, Letterman and the like started pouring in as his tour sold out.
To Macklemore’s credit, he brought Wanz along for the ride. Wanz gets top billing on the CD and video, and Macklemore invited the singer to join him on tour, playing for packed houses in theaters Wanz had always dreamed of . He says he was brought to tears when he got actually perform at San Francisco’s legendary Fillmore.
But just because he was suddenly propelled into the spotlight doesn’t mean he’s suddenly getting rich. And in the midst of all his new found attention, Wanz was faced with a heart wrenching decision. “My boss called and said ‘When are you coming back to work?'”
It wasn’t an easy choice. Give up the safety and security of the software job, or chase the dream he’s harbored since he was a kid. He admits it was terrifying.
“At my age, when is this going to happen again? One of my sons told me that, and more than a few friends told me that. So I walked away from my nice, secure full-time job that took me almost 12 years to get.”
Wanz is trying to make the most of it. He’s racing around the clock to finish his own six-song EP before he heads to Australia for the next leg of Macklemore’s world tour. It’s all pretty daunting.
“It’s all dream come true stuff. I never expected any of it to happen. That makes it really hard to know what to do and how to handle it, it’s like drinking from a firehose,” he laughs.
Luckily, he’s not alone. Even though he’s old enough to be Macklemore’s dad, he’s leaning on the 29-year-old and his crew to help navigate the uncharted waters.
“It’s not his first rodeo. This is just the one that has been successful. So being that I’ve never been in this position before, I’ve tried to be smart enough to pay attention and to watch what’s going on and to learn.”
Considering how big “Thrift Shop” has gotten, the lessons aren’t likely to stop coming any time soon. And Wanz plans to cherish every moment of it.
“The cool thing is we’ve become a family and galvanized around the music. Everyone appreciates what a gift it is.”
It’s a gift you can’t buy at the local thrift shop, that’s for sure. But it is pretty awesome.