When following an obsession is even better than following a dream: Interview with musician Will Wells (of Hamilton, Imagine Dragons, Logic, and more) (Part 2 of 2)
(This post originally appeared on Creative Teacup in April 2016. Since then Will Wells has gone on to do even more…including serving as executive producer and co-writer of the debut album from Anthony Ramos and co-producing the Grammy, Golden Globe, and Oscar nominated song “Stand Up”, for the Harriet Tubman biopic, performed by Cynthia Erivo.)
You can read part 1 of this story here.
I found Will on a place you probably don’t expect to find too many musicians — LinkedIn. But then again, Will is not like most people.
And that is exactly why I wanted to interview him. Our interview is scheduled for a Wednesday morning in New York City, but Tuesday night I decide to observe him in his creative element — in a recording session with the band Broken Luxury.
We meet outside the Richard Rogers Theater, where Hamilton: An American Musical, a project Will worked on not too long ago, is currently playing to sold out crowds (and a few months later wins 11 Tony’s). Will just finished saying hello to his old friends backstage; he is based in LA. We were originally supposed to do this interview on the phone, but somehow, we both ended up in New York City in the same week.
After a whirlwind backstage at the Richard Rogers we set off to the recording studio.
The first thing I notice (and love) is that Will walks as fast as I do. I remember some old friends who hated going to theme parks with me because I walked too fast. It hurt my feelings at the time.
But now, here in New York City, I speed walk next to Will; we also speed talk. If anyone noticed us they would have assumed we were old college friends, catching up.
Except the names that come out of Will’s mouth are not like names I usually hear fall out of my friend’s mouths.
He tells me about what it was like listening to Lin’s first Hamilton demos in 2011 (one of Will’s jobs for Hamilton, as given by orchestrator Alex Lacamoire, was to transcribe some of the first versions of the music), about the single he co-wrote for Pentatonix, about what the fans of Imagine Dragons are like (he just finished a world tour with them), and about his earlier recording session with Anthony Ramos (Laurens and Phillip in Hamilton).
I get lost in the names, to be honest. I recognize almost all of them, but quickly they swirl together and catalyze the bigger questions that percolate in my mind as we walk: Who is this guy? Where does all this energy come from? How did he get here at such a young age, working with all these exceptional artists?
What captures me most about Will in this moment is that when he drops names it’s nothing like “name dropping.”
Where others have pride in the fact that they might know or work with recognizable names, a “yep whatever no big deal, but yeah aren’t I cool, don’t you think I’m so cool, really, I’m totally cooler than you” kind of attitude, Will’s tone and demeanor is more “omg have you HEARD this person’s voice or experienced that person’s writing or organizational skills or talents wow I cannot believe I got to work with them in this amazing beautiful world of music aren’t they so much cooler than me and isn’t this so awesome we get to talk about this together?”
Will doesn’t talk about Lin Manuel-Miranda or Alex Lacamoire (i.e. Lin and Lac) with any greater fervor than he does the names I had never heard of, musicians whose music he played for me with such joy later in the evening in the recording studio. Will loves these people not because of what other people know them as, or how they might make him look, but because they simply also love this thing he loves: music.
And so when Will talks to you about the artists he works and has worked with, you don’t feel like you’re talking about celebrities; you feel like you’re talking about people — creative people who dare to do the work they love, who work really hard to master a craft that a lot of people are trying to master.
The street numbers we walk briskly past suddenly feel like markers for the growing number of questions I want to ask Will.
But I hold them close for now, because tonight is not about the interview, but about creative observation. I’m here to see people make a song.
We finally arrive to the studio and Will introduces me to the band members and a few other people hanging out. They are warm and kind and before I know it I feel like they too are my old college friends. We seem to instantly share this special bond that I hypothesize people share when they create together, a simple, secret thought that hangs in the air and behind the eyes: no one in this room thinks this is stupid.
It’s a great feeling.
The session begins and I watch Will work.
Tonight they are working on one song that has been started but isn’t finished.
Zach, the one who sits in front of multiple computer screens and wears big headphones most of the time, plays Will what they have so far.
Will listens to the song with his entire body. Fireworks and gears go off in his head during each playback. He’s enjoying every repetition, but he’s also working, thinking. It’s obvious he loves what is there but he’s also working to find what’s missing, what needs to be added.
I’m sitting on a couch trying to not be in the way. I listen to the lyrics — the song is about time passing. There is a phrase that floors me instantly: “electric unconcealed.”
I sit on the couch with my notebook as Will and the guys continue working on the song for a few hours. Will sings parts that add a beautiful layer to the music, as I daydream about adulthood and all the themes in the lyrics.
I’ll turn 29 at midnight tonight. And if I’m being really honest, I’m still not sure how I feel about it.
I’m grateful to be in New York City, for sure, and I don’t mind getting older. But what’s been pulling at me lately is how many people are no longer here because of the time that has passed. When I look at old pictures lately, all I can think is “in the time that this picture was taken so and so and so and so and so were still alive.” Suddenly four corners did not hold precious memories but hurtful reminders, as if suspending an alternate reality, one where everyone I loved was still alive.
Lately I feel overwhelmed with all the electricity that has disappeared from this world in the past decade of my life, as well as how time’s pace seems to accelerate with every new candle.
It is the part of adulthood no one could have prepared me for. Some people of course tragically experience it much earlier in life.
I was privileged in that way. It wasn’t until I became an adult that my life was bifurcated. There was Before — the time when everyone I’d ever met and loved was alive on this earth. And then, there was After, when chaos was the primary feeling of things, when it felt like almost weekly I would learn of another person I’d met or loved was no longer walking on grass, would no longer grace the air with their laugh.
This is what music does — a simple phrase, “electric unconcealed,” can have you sitting on a couch in an unknown high rise in New York City thinking about life and death a few hours before you turn 29.
I snap back to reality and Will and his colleagues are still working on a particular part of the song — they play it over and over and over and over again. Joshua, the lead singer, keeps working on altering this one melody, linking it up with the part Will added, trying to get it perfect. He’s in another room, alone. We only hear him through a speaker.
After one of his many tries I can hear his frustration. He gets close, messes up, and then curses into the microphone. He apologizes to all of us couch bystanders immediately when he comes back into the room and I can’t help but smile, thinking about the anger that rises up when you’re alone in a room, trying to get a creative project just right, feeling like it’s all on you, like you’re letting everyone down. I like him instantly.
They continue this process of listening, adding, trying again, for hours, all focused on one part of one song; it’s equal parts boring and magical, and it’s the boring that I find most magical.
Because the more I learn about creativity, the more it seems that the really special stuff comes from the “boring,” the painstaking, the cursing from the soundproof room, alone.
I think there is magic to be found in the willingness to listen over and over again, to build, tear down, build again, and listen exactly one million times and try to hear something new, try to get somewhere special even when you have no idea what that means exactly or where in the world you’re going.
That is what I see in this recording studio and I never become bored. Because it’s obvious the people working on this song are the opposite of bored; they teach me that when you’re engaged in the creative art you find most exciting, what other people might find boring you find endlessly interesting. These guys love this music. I love watching people do the art they love.
We are all electric unconcealed, joyous, entertained.
At midnight they sing me Happy Birthday.
The next morning Will meets me at Pret A Manger, this café/deli of sorts I found next to my hotel with these parfaits and this chia pudding thing that I could eat every.single.day.of.my.life. I know I’ve seen other locations of it on various blocks so for a second I’m worried it’s not “hip,” (I usually don’t worry about stuff like this, totally fine with my decidedly ‘not-cool’ nature and interests, but New York does this to me — I always feel so out of my league).
But almost as soon as the thought enters my mind it leaves because OMG DID I MENTION THE PARFAITS?! The one with green apple. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be. (Spoiler alert: I discover soups and sandwiches the next day and basically live at Pret the next time I visit New York.)
Will comes through the glass doors and I can barely distinguish him at first from the bright morning glare. But as he gets closer he recognizes me and we hug good morning and he tells me instantly how much he loves Pret. “There’s a story behind this place” he tells me jovially, and motions that he’ll tell me when he gets back from ordering some breakfast.
He returns and places his coffee on the table and I forget that he hasn’t had any yet — his energy is already double mine after two cups of coffee.
We dive right in like no time has passed since last night; he immediately tells me the story of how Pret was a special place for him and many of the cast and crew of Hamilton — he explains how many of them were obsessed with the place, going often for fuel to survive the grueling week of “tech” (a week or two period in theater where everyone works non-stop to bring all the show’s elements together before the start of previews). Think college exam time multiplied by a thousand. Little sleep. Intensity. Joy over quick delicious food, and a kind of summer-camp camaraderie, except with big stakes and professional pressure.
I hate to admit it but I glow a little inside at Will’s Pret story — maybe I’m not so “uncool” for picking Pret, after all. Turns out my taste in loving the people who brought Hamilton to life has also extended to Pret, and I can’t help but wonder if Anthony or Jasmine or Daveed or Anna-Lee or Morgan ever got the parfait with green apples.
This is what happens after I meet Will — it’s no longer Daveed Diggs or Alex Lacaimore or Jasmine Cephas Jones. It’s Daveed, Lac, Jasmine. This happens without my even realizing it at first; once I do I feel silly. But I realize it happens because of Will. Will does not talk about people like he’s better than you or they’re better than you.
The way our culture usually talks about artists is like what it feels like to get a new magazine in the mail with someone you like on the cover; they’re bigger than life and you’re excited to read about them. But there’s a distance. They are glossy. Successful. You haven’t washed your hair in two days and are really sweaty after walking the half-mile to the mailbox with your dog as you contemplated how terrified you are that you might never accomplish what you hope.
The glossy, edited version has its place and its pleasures, but I think the unedited version is way more exciting, like the feeling you get when you open your mailbox and see a letter hand-addressed to you with actual handwriting, your name in the kind of crooked loopy letters that could only be created by a person; you open it up right there at the mailbox because you can’t wait. Talking to Will and meeting some of the cast and crew of Hamilton made me feel exactly like what it feels like when you open that letter and realize it’s an invitation.
Will invites me into his life across a small table at a Pret, a few blocks from the Richard Rogers.
We start at the beginning, with the creative craft that courses through his veins — music. I ask him when it began: “My mother told me that as a very young child I’d run up to the organ and start slapping the keys.”
But it wasn’t a straight progression from loving music as a child to working in a recording studio and traveling around the world on tour.
Those things almost never happened. They were, I come to find out, actually as improbable as Will and I being in New York City on the same day.
Because music was not Will’s original path — not his original plan.
Athletics first captured Will’s drive: “I was really serious about sports…I thought I was going to be an Olympic athlete.”
If it were anyone else you might think it was just another semi-delusional teenager with unrealistic dreams of grandeur. But when you meet Will, you know that if anyone has what it takes to be an Olympian, it’s him.
Honestly? He probably could have done it.
But in November 2002, thirteen-year-old Will started feeling some pains. They thought it was probably growing pains, exacerbated by all the athletics, but just to be safe his mom took him to the doctor. Will remembers the visit well:
“I told them about all the discomforts, all the places I was experiencing discomfort in my body and one of them was my chest.”
The doctor listens to Will carefully and, “just to be safe,” refers them to a cardiologist where Will gets an EKG (electrocardiogram).
He remembers the day they got the results back: “[the doctors were] like, okay yes great, you are absolutely right, you have growing pains. But we found this.”
“This,” turned out to be a congenital heart defect.
Will asks me if I’ve ever seen any news stories where these young athletes just drop dead in the middle of a game and no one knows why at first. I hold my breath the moment he asks this, knowing exactly what he’s talking about, flashing back to the local news stories I’d seen of young men giving their all on a field and then never walking off.
Will could have been one of those stories.
Will was immediately scheduled for open-heart surgery, which was to take place on July 1st 2003. He remembers the exact date, without my even asking; it’s as if it’s a reflex born of a time he held on to that date as the date he’d be free again — to run, to play sports, to do the things that make his heart beat fast, but this time, without it being in danger of failing.
In the months before surgery Will was not allowed to do anything that would elevate his heart rate — increased blood to his heart could mean heart failure. I sit there and try to imagine how difficult it must have been for Will Wells to try to keep his heart beating slowly.
During the time before his surgery, Will redirects all his energy into music, and does so with nothing less than athletic-level dedication.
While most of his time until then had been directed towards athletics, his heart (no pun intended) was still in music — that kid banging on the organ was still there. He returns to that kid; I can’t help but wonder if that kid saved him.
Since Will can’t play in athletic competitions anymore, he finds singing competitions; he and a friend enter the middle school talent show and win with their rendition of Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful.”
He has his surgery on July 1st and it’s very successful. His doctors tell him he’s one of the fastest recoveries they’ve ever seen. He is walking on the second day. He’s released from the hospital in three days.
He has enjoyed his entrance into music, but he cannot wait to run again. He jumps right back into sports in his Freshman year of high school, but also continues joining every kind of musical club possible. He’s a kind of Troy Bolton for a while, going from athletics to auditions.
Until it becomes too much. Will realizes that “[once] you have to keep dropping the ball on commitments with one or the other… eventually you have to choose.”
“I chose the music.” Will remembers. “And [I’m] so glad I did.”
I ask him how he decided to choose music over athletics, what factored in? It becomes instantly clear that Will had no pro and con list; there was no deep deliberation. Only one thing. One thing that music had more than athletics:
I was just obsessed.
He was obsessed with music. He followed the obsession.
(I can’t help but feel like this answer is still the compass he uses to direct his career today.)
The rest of Will’s high school career is filled with choir and tubas and piano and writing music.
He initially hated piano lessons as a kid, though: “I just wanted to play what I wanted to play. I didn’t want to like play out of these little books…What was more exciting was listening to the song and trying to play it.”
He learned piano by ear.
To show me what he means, he pulls up a piano app on his phone and plays a couple bars of the song that’s currently playing in Pret. He’s not showing off. He’s just excited; he pulls it out before he’s even finished with the sentence, not because he wants me to be impressed, but because, I think, he’s always looking for any excuse to play music.
Within seconds his fingers tap his phone in a way that doesn’t produce a text but a sound identical to the one coming through the speakers overhead.
And because of the pop song he plays we go off on a long tangent about pop music, about Backstreet Boys, and then a whole thing on Tupac; we forget for a little while that we’re still recording.
Eventually we make it back and I ask him about a song he wrote, the song that brought us here.
I found Will when I was looking to learn more about the people who brought Hamilton to life, but what led me to reach out to him for an interview was a song I listened to on his website called “It’s Okay To Not Be Okay.”
By the second line of lyrics, I was already typing out an email to see if he’d be interested in doing an interview for Creative Teacup:
But go on
You have the right to hate the world and hold on
You have the right to be upset that he’s gone
I don’t expect you to let go or move on
’Cause it’s okay to not be okay
Just take your time
I don’t mind if we sit here and don’t say a word
It takes a while to heal
This pain is more real than anything you’ve ever felt before
I cry the first time I hear it, and I know I’m not the only one.
To date the lyric-video has over a quarter of a million views, and over one hundred comments of people expressing their thanks and sharing their stories of loss.
You could say it’s Will’s “It’s Quiet Uptown.”
It was inspired by a friend who unexpectedly lost her brother. Will stayed up until 4am the night he found out, writing and recording the song for his friend; he made the lyric video on a train the next day and uploaded it to YouTube to give his friend easy access to it. But he told her there was no pressure; it was just something he felt like he had to do in this moment, expressing his own feelings as he empathized with her pain.
He forgot about it for a while.
And then he remembered and saw it had 10,000 views.
Will gets his phone out to read me some of the YouTube comments, and he has the same look he gets when he talks about the Imagine Dragons fans who love him on Twitter — one of genuine love and appreciation. He sees the people who interact with his art online as the most treasured of people. He holds his phone with care as he reads their comments, as if their very hearts are encased.
He reads me a couple YouTube comments:
“My ex boyfriend’s good friend just recently died on his birthday two weeks before he was graduating high school. And I know the pain is unbearable for him. He’s going through so much right now and it’s all so sad. This song showed me how to help him get through these hard times. Thank you so much.”
“My cousin just lost her dad, and I really got sad about it. I couldn’t do much, but this song made me understand that I only have to be there for her, nothing else.”
Will thinks again about how close he came to death as a kid. He remembers the fierceness towards art that came after surgery.
After the surgery that was it, music was it — everything.
Once he realized what he’d overcome, the severity he’d skirted, the electricity that was preserved, he couldn’t see a reason not to unleash it.
And unleash it he does. He attends high school from 7am until 10pm every day.
Will was in “every afterschool program” related to music.
And when he wasn’t in a band or vocal practice of some sort, he was writing: “I would sit there and I’d write scores, that’s all I did… I was obsessed with writing music.”
So obsessed, in fact, that when he graduated high school he had a 460-page book full of his compositions.
(If you’ve listened to the Hamilton cast album, you know that part about the federalist papers when Leslie Odom Jr., as Aaron Burr, shouts, “Hamilton wrote, the other 51!” That’s the way I hear “460” the second Will tells me the number. He says it in an even tone, but I hear it with a shout of incredulity, hope, and challenge.)
And while the writing, writing, writing and extra-curricular involvement are huge assets to Will’s early creative development, the real intensity and opportunity was still yet to come.
It is a five-week summer program after his sophomore year that, he says, “changed everything.”
He then tells me one of those stories that gives me chills, that reminds me of the power we can have on each other’s trajectories, and how sometimes a class here or a pamphlet there really can change your life.
In addition to all of the extracurricular activities at school, Will looks for other classes and ways to engage with music outside of school. He finds and takes a couple classes at this placed called “The Music Place” in New Jersey. Because of this he is signed up for some kind of mailing list and gets little pamphlets all the time in the mail.
One of those pamphlets happens to be for Berklee’s Five-Week Summer Performance Program. Tina, his older sister (whom he literally talks about like she’s an actual, real-life superhero) is a successful entrepreneur; she has her own marketing company. One day when she’s home she sees this Berklee pamphlet and asks Will if he wants to go.
Will says yes.
The program is not free. Tina provides Will the opportunity to go. She broke doors that were closed in her own career, and now she opens one for someone else. It’s one of the beautiful things.
For the rest of the conversation Will and I both unknowingly and nonchalantly refer to Tina as “Tina the Superstar,” as if that is simply her given name, the one printed on her drivers license.
(A month later I come back to New York city to cover a film premiere (Dream, Girl). I walk out of the theater and see a woman I recognize from a TV show I like. We strike up a conversation and she introduces me to her friend who joins us. They ask what brings me to New York and when I say I’m in town to cover this film premiere and to see Hamilton, her friend says, “My brother worked on that show!” I stop for a second, look into her eyes, say no way in my head, and then out loud say, “Wait. Are you Tina?! Tina the Superstar?!” She is. Pandemonium, hugs, incredulity at serendipity in New York City, and pictures ensue.)
As Will tells me how Tina’s contribution changed his life, I tell him about something I said once in a speech at a community college scholarship fundraising dinner to potential donors: “Money doesn’t buy happiness, but it does buy opportunity.”
We talk about how money has affected our lives (I won a $110,000 undergraduate and graduate scholarship in 2007 that changed my life), and how scholarships and programs like the one at Berklee change paths, make things like us sitting at a Pret on a Wednesday talking about music in New York City possible.
A Black man and a Latina woman. Both young, scrappy, hungry. Both products of people who believed in us, and money invested in our education.
Both given the privilege to follow our obsessions, at least for today.
There are people who know their privilege and people who don’t. It’s not something you have to ask. It’s something in the eyes, in the tone of their voice when they talk about their opportunities in life.
It’s the difference between gratitude and entitlement.
Will is all gratitude.
He tells me more about the Berklee Five-Week Summer Performance Program, how it changed his life. He describes it as this feeling of recognition, home, and a sense of permission to truly be who he was.
As Will put it, “I discovered that there are people as crazy about music as I was…[I was like] ‘I am not the only one who literally sits up all day and just writes scores!’”
Will explains to me all the technical things he learned at Berklee — things that, to be honest, go completely over my head because I am not a trained musician. But I love listening to him go on about it, all the new words, all that passion as he says things like “harmonic progression.” The technical descriptions are like music to me, a song I’ve never heard before and don’t totally understand but can’t turn off because I can feel the musician’s passion for every note.
Will tells me how Berklee taught him how to analyze song patterns, to be able to explain what is happening and why. He tells me how he learned to listen for certain progressions, analyzing chords. He starts calling out numbers like “2,5,1,” marking the song that’s currently playing in Pret.
I’m reminded of why I quit piano lessons after one week, and quit band class after one semester. This does not come naturally to me. Music as numbers, math, precision. My head spins, but I love it. Because I love being in the presence of someone who cares at the “2,5,1” level. That is my “2,5,1,” the rhythm of a person who loves what they do. It’s my jam.
Will soaks up everything from the Berklee Five-Week Summer Performance Program. He gets to know all the mentors and takes note of the textbooks in the program and buys them to continue studying on his own when he gets home. After the program, he starts, as he put it, “analyzing everything like a madman.”
He found the ability to understand the technicalities of the music empowering: “it changed my writing…I felt like somebody opened Pandora’s box.”
Later, after Will is accepted to attend college at Berklee, he is able to test out of an entire year of school because he had unknowingly purchased and studied the textbooks from that year while still in high school.
Berklee offered him a scholarship, but it didn’t come close to covering everything: “I worked the whole time; there was one point where I had three jobs.”
Berklee was very expensive and Will was the youngest of six kids, on reduced lunch for most of his life, and from a family that provided so much when it came to love and support, but did not have the kind of money to pay that kind of tuition: “they sent me to college with a hug and a kiss and a lot of genuine support.”
Being sent off to college with a hug instead of a check — an experience so many young people in our country can relate to. And some don’t even get the hug.
Will is so grateful for the hug, for the support his family did provide; it’s clear he knows they are his greatest privilege, his parents and siblings — their character and fortitude giving him the strength to do what he needed to do to survive.
Considering he focused in high school from 7am to 10pm, I wonder aloud what his college schedule was like.
It was around the clock, especially when I got into the recording program because the most available studio time is from 12am-6am.
When he wasn’t working or in class, he was in the studio: “I was always in the studio, always in the studio.”
Will became known for his dedication and his energy. People at Berklee knew that guy who was always in the studio, and the one who lit up the stage while conducting.
Will shows me a YouTube video of one such performance, and in that video I learn all I need to know about how he got to where he is today, why when musicians like Wyclef Jean or Alex Lacamoire (i.e. Lac) called Berklee looking for a talented student or alum, Berklee recommended Will.
It’s time for me to finish up this interview with Will and say goodbye to Pret; I only ask people for an hour, and our hour is almost up. I tell Will I’ll only ask him one more question because I want to respect his time. He tells me he actually doesn’t have anything else that day until later. I have nothing else until later either.
Our early breakfast interview goes on well past lunch. We talk for four hours, long enough to outlast both the Pret breakfast and lunch crowd, long enough to see long lines form and then dissipate, stylish New Yorkers grabbing their soups and sandwiches and then heading back out the clear doors, off to somewhere important.
We just sit. And talk, talk, talk.
I could write a book about Will Wells. I have a feeling before his career is over someone will. I feel honored to be taking part in chapter one.
He is, simply, electric unconcealed.
He is theater.
I see it for myself a few months later when he and Imagine Dragons come play a benefit concert in Orlando. The lead singer of Imagine Dragons introduces each of his band members with care, and I notice he gushes the longest about Will. And by now I know, that’s just what happens with Will. You plan to spend an hour and you end up spending four.
The only way I can describe what it was like to see Will and Imagine Dragons play for Orlando is with a line from another musical he worked on with Lin and Lac (Bring it On: The Musical):
“…music so loud that it swallows us whole.”
Will and I continue talking. After college his life becomes a series of stories of a life in chaos, the kind that anyone who pursues an artist’s life knows in their bones. It’s so much uncertainty, and showing up, getting on airplanes and trying to make the best impression and saying “yes, yes, yes” and trying not to crumble at the “no, no, no’s.”
Many of Will’s first jobs, the jobs that lead him to incredibly successful mentors in the music industry, the jobs that led him to Hamilton and Imagine Dragons, come from Berklee.
The pamphlet. Tina The Superstar.
And, most of all, the studio time. The analysis. The buying and reading of college textbooks in high school.
And the people.
Within the first few minutes of meeting Will I learn he has Five Mentors. The next day I learn how important these five people are in his life, and how he met them throughout his work. He spends lots of time with them and talks about them as if they’re family, as if he knows that while only the individual can put in the hours of writing and analysis and studio time, we do not get there alone. While creative inspiration and practice might happen alone, the ability to move it forward in a profession is anything but a solo endeavor.
It requires help. Mentorship. Lots of it.
Will attaches himself to people he admires. Not as a fan, but as an apprentice. He soaks everything up. He listens. He learns. He asks for feedback. He applies it.
Will shows me a journal he kept all during tech with Hamilton, a kind of “Captain’s Log” one of his mentors recommended keeping. There is this section he filled out every day called “Points of Improvement.”
Every day under this heading there is a story, a moment, a thing in Will’s professional life that he noticed and wants to improve. In one entry he recounts some advice Lac gives him and then writes about various ways he can put it into practice and why it’s such vital advice to take.
It’s the opposite of arrogance, personified in journal form.
It’s electric unconcealed, yearning to get brighter, not because it isn’t bright already, but because it knows there’s more to be seen.
Lac becomes a mini topic of conversation between Will and I. As Will explains, Lac is “the king of details…I learned so much from him working on ‘Bring It On.’” What stands out about Lac the most to Will is that he works so hard to make something as good as it can possibly be simply for the “sake of [it] being as good as it can possibly be.”
He is one of the few people I ever called one of my heroes. Lac is my hero.
(I meet Lac on the stage of Hamilton after the show a month later and it feels just like meeting a superhero, except this one leans in to listen when you talk and makes you feel like you matter even though there are actual celebrities milling about that he should be talking to instead of you. He somehow knows “Creative Teacup” and makes you feel like maybe with enough hard work you could be a superhero too.)
Will then opens up a music software program on his computer that he used to help create some of the sounds in Hamilton and reflects on what it was like working with all those involved, how much he respects them, how invigorating it was to watch them work, and how much they all respected each other’s opinions. He talks about a scratch sequence he worked on (one that comes after the line “Immigrants, we get the job done!”) and the way headphones are passed around as each member of the creative team carefully listened and gave their thoughts.
Will describes a kind of “deep appreciation” they all have, “not an egotistical type of community,” he describes, but one where, “it just seems like everyone just loves the art so much that they feel that real reward is the gratefulness to be in the room with the other people. You love their art so much and to get to make something together like that is just in itself cool.”
Will got the Hamilton job, I think, because of the way he performed in his music department assistant role with Lac on Bring it On: The Musical. Will made an impression with his dedication to the work, and Lac started to give Will more opportunities to use some of his technical and musical skills too.
While working for Lac on Bring it On: The Musical Will was also subsequently spending a lot of time around this other guy, Lin-Manuel Miranda. So when Lac told Will that he needed some help on this other project Lin was working on, Will didn’t even have to think: he said yes immediately; he remembers thinking: “I just want to keep working for this man. I want to learn as much as from him as possible because he is a genius. Alex Lacamoire is a genius.”
Will seemed to somehow instinctively know that who you are working with is sometimes more important than what you’re working on.
Eventually Lac gives Will the first thing to work on — he sends him a demo from Lin to transcribe, a demo from a little thing referred to at the time as the “Hamilton Mixtape.”
Will is one of the few people who hear Hamilton long before it is a thing. Before there is hype, expectation. At this point, it’s just a job. An assignment. Possibility. Work to be done.
He remembers listening to the first uncut demo, just Lin’s voice and the beats he made on his computer — it was instantly clear that this was so much more than just another job, another musical assignment.
Will knew in an instant that this was special.
Turns out saying “Yes” to Lac is a smart choice.
It’s funny how many times I have to get Will back to talking about himself. The people I tend to gravitate towards to interview often are the very humble type, but Will takes it to another level — he loves talking about other people as much as I do, except he does it when someone is asking him a question about himself. He loves singing other people’s praises, telling me with pure joy how much he has been inspired by the work ethic of his heroes, collaborators, family, and mentors.
I can’t help but wonder if it is this kind of love and appreciation that factors into all he’s accomplished so far.
As we start to pack up and throw away our empty coffee cups we talk about books that inspire us, and as Will tells me about an idea from one of his favorite books, I start to understand why he roots himself so close to this particular garden of people: “Your brain is like a fertile field and it pays no mind to whether it’s generating positivity or negativity. It’s based on what you put in. So if you plant nightshade, a poison, and you water it, it’s going to grow just a fertile as if you are planting the most beautiful flowers.”
Will is diligent about planting only the best people in his creative world.
It seems to be a good strategy.
But of course — it’s not strategy, really. Not outwardly anyway. His intention is not to cultivate talented people for creative world domination.
It feels so much more like instinct, wisdom, fun — like the way you make friends when you’re a kid. There’s no thought of “networking” or business cards or what you can do for me. It’s all “you seem fun, let’s play.”
No artist I’ve ever talked to “networks.” They hire and get hired by friends, yes, but friends linked not by business cards, but by imagination. An unspoken pact to run as fast as they can on the playground, till the sun sets, till their moms call them in for dinner.
It’s clear to me that Will gives himself permission to move towards the people that fascinate him, the people he admires and respects the most, not as a fan, but as a colleague, as someone ready to work and contribute all that he has.
Will, in other words, is not only an artist. He’s a professional.
In college, he was known for sometimes wearing a suit to class; I can’t help but smile as I wonder to myself if wearing a suit to class is what leads someone to Hamilton opening at The Public Theater one night and then to playing with Imagine Dragons on Good Morning America the next morning; the magic not in the fabric, but in the sheer courage to bring your absolute best every day. To show up, learn, and buy all the books. To find and work with the geniuses in your field. To let your electricity brighten up those around you. And to give your all even when it feels embarrassing — wearing a suit even when everyone else around you is in jeans, hiding their electricity for fear it might make them look stupid.
You can learn more about Will Wells here.
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