September 22, 2008

Behind Serenade Walks a Songwriter

By Brian Mansfield

Let him Serenade you: In the tradition of Dashboard Confessional and Five for Fighting, Secondhand Serenade disguises a singer/songwriter with a project name. That's to get people to "focus more on the music than the person," says John Vesely, 26, whose emotional, piano-driven ballad Fall for You is No. 7 on USA TODAY's top 40 airplay chart. "With those singer/songwriter, here's-my-name things, attention circulates around that person and who they are, not what the music's saying."

The origin of the name: "I write my songs about somebody, and go out and play them for thousands of people," says Vesely, a native of Menlo Park, Calif. "The person I wrote it for obviously gets the firsthand serenade. When I play it for fans, it's a secondhand serenade."

Art reflects life: For a guy who doesn't want people to focus on him, Vesely writes songs that are intimately personal, even confessional. Take the single, which is about a last-ditch effort to save a faltering relationship. "Fall for You sounds like it'd be a sappy love song, but it's very sad, bittersweet," Vesely says. "It's about a relationship deteriorating to a breaking point." (Opening lyrics: "The best thing 'bout tonight's that we're not fighting/Could it be that we have been this way before?") The song mirrors Vesely's real-life relationship with his wife -- the original recipient of the firsthand serenades. The two separated last year. "Right now, because of how much I travel, it's a difficult situation," he says. "It's not what she asked for. I didn't do this when we met."

The Story so far: Vesely self-released his first Serenade album, Awake, in 2005. When Secondhand Serenade became MySpace's most popular unsigned act (with Vesely earning as much as $20,000 a month), record labels began calling. Vesely ultimately signed with Glassnote Records ("They gave me a lot of power"). Glassnote reissued Awake in 2007 and released Serenade's sophomore set, the darker and more fully arranged A Twist in My Story, in February. The album has sold more than 100,000 units, currently moving about 5,000 a week.

Beginner's luck: Originally a bass player, Vesely writes most of his songs on guitar. He began learning piano last year as a way to broaden his writing perspectives. "Fall for You was the first song I wrote on piano, and, to tell you the truth, I think it was the first song I played on piano."

Thirdhand serenade: Lucy Walsh, daughter of Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh, sang Fall for You on MTV's Rock the Cradle in April. "That's how I met Lucy, and now we're great friends," Vesely says. Walsh sings Fall for You with Vesely on a forthcoming deluxe edition of Twist in my Story, out in February. The new package also will include a cover of Coldplay's Fix You.

The long haul: Secondhand Serenade headlines large clubs and small theaters and will co-headline a six-week tour with Cute Is What We Aim For beginning Oct. 31 in Allentown, Pa. After each show, Vesely stays until every fan who wants an autograph has one. That became problematic at a recent sold-out show in Salt Lake City, which drew a crowd of 3,000-plus. "I was out there for, like, 2 1/2 hours, and they had to get everybody out eventually," he says. "But I stayed for as long as I could. That's really important to me."


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