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Person To Watch: Will Wells
SJ’s musical whiz kid is living the dream, one awesome gig at a time
By Kate Morgan

Will Wells Promo 2Will Wells’ success story begins on a budget, with a trip to the Berlin Mart.

“I was just a kid. We went there, and my mom bought me a black acoustic guitar,” Wells remembers. “It was the first instrument I ever owned, but I think it really opened up the world for me.”

Today Wells, 27, jet-sets between L.A. and New York, writing, playing and producing music alongside A-list artists – that is, when he’s not traveling the world on arena tours with hugely famous bands. He wrote much of a cappella group Pentatonix’s Billboard Hot 100 hit “Can’t Sleep Love,” and his name appears every night in the playbill of the Broadway smash and cultural phenomenon “Hamilton.”

In short, everything’s coming up Wells. Still, the Sicklerville native says he works hard to stay humble and credits his success to his South Jersey upbringing and the values instilled in him by his family, community and many mentors.

By middle school, Wells was writing lyrics and composing melodies. In high school, he was a self-professed “marching band nerd,” toting around a tuba on his compact frame. Music was at the center of his life – you name it, he played it – but still he struggled with feelings of angst and isolation, unsure, he says, how to channel a veritable fountain of creativity.

Wells, the youngest of six, says it was his eldest sister Tina who really opened the door in the summer before his senior year at Timber Creek High School.

“We got a pamphlet about Berklee [College of Music, the prestigious Boston institution] in the mail,” he says. “They were advertising their five-week summer program. I come from humble means, and that program’s tuition alone is $5,000. My parents didn’t have that. But Tina looked out for me. She’s an entrepreneur, and her business was doing well. She drove me up there, and everything changed.”

“I discovered there were human beings in the world who were as passionate about music as I was,” Wells continues. “I came home looking at everything in a new way, and I knew Berklee was where I needed to be.”

In college, Wells set about making himself memorable – learning to produce, engineer and conduct musicians, and doing it all in style.

“When I was conducting, I danced all funny onstage, and I always wore a tux. That was my thing,” he says. “I made it my goal to never let a teacher see me not dressed at my best, so I became known as the guy who always walked around ‘suited and booted.’ I was just this little eager kid in a suit, but it meant people remembered me.”

After graduation, the opportunities just kept rolling in. A college mentor introduced him to Alex Lacamoire, a fellow Berklee alumnus and orchestrator who was then working in L.A. on “Bring It On: The Musical” and looking for an intern.

“Alex emailed me back and said, ‘Listen, I’m going to be honest, I think you’re overqualified and this might not be the right fit,’” Wells says. “I said, ‘Please, please let me do the job.’ I went out to L.A. and was working with Alex and this guy Lin-Manuel Miranda, who was one of the lyricists on the show.”

After the opening of Bring It On, Lacamoire approached Wells about another project Miranda was working on – a mixtape of raps about the life of founding father Alexander Hamilton.

“At the time, it wasn’t a musical – it was never meant to be a musical,” Wells says. “But they needed to make sheet music for the songs. So Lin sent me the original demos for songs like “Right Hand Man” and “My Shot,” and I turned his raps into notated sheet music. From the first time I heard that music, I loved it so much.”

“I grew up on Tupac and Eminem, and I was always drawn to their rhyme schemes. This was the closest thing I’d ever heard to that, that was also talking about something relevant from an educational point of view,” Wells continues. “I thought, ‘If this mixtape ever comes out, it’s going to change the game for the way kids learn about history.’ I told Alex and Lin, ‘If this ever turns into something, call me. I will drop everything I’m doing to come work on it.’”

The call came almost five years later. Wells, who in the meantime had been working with Barbra Streisand, Ariana Grande, Quincy Jones and Wu-Tang Clan, plus touring North America with LMFAO, came back to New York to work as the electronic music producer on the wildly successful Tony Award-winning musical and its Grammy-winning, platinum-selling cast recording.

“As far as I know, I’m the first person on Broadway to ever do this job,” Wells says. “It’s the first time there’s been a person assigned specifically to making sure that the drum samples, certain loops and scratches, things that are particular to the sonic language of hip-hop, were maintained with a high level of integrity. Nobody’s ever had to do it before because hip-hop has never been used in such an integrated way on Broadway.”

In the year and a half since Hamilton made its debut, Wells hasn’t enjoyed his downtime – mostly because he hasn’t gotten any. The day after opening night at New York City’s Public Theater, Wells was on “Good Morning America” and “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon,” playing keyboards and guitar with Imagine Dragons to promote their newest album, “Smoke + Mirrors.”

Within a few months, Wells had an invitation to accompany the band on a whirlwind tour, playing arenas throughout Australia, Asia and Europe. It was an incredible opportunity, but it also meant putting some other projects on hold.

“I was running an operation in L.A.,” he says. “I had a studio at one of the most prestigious studio complexes in the country. I was a tenant there with neighbors such as John Mayer; Ed Cherney, who mixed The Rolling Stones; Ken Callait, who produced ‘Rumours’ for Fleetwood Mac; I was in good company, and business was great. Some would say I had a lot to lose. But when I got this call, my first impulse was I want to see the world.”

With his newfound fame-by-association, Wells said, came something he wasn’t expecting: fans.

“The morning I found out I got the gig, I wake up to this tweet from an Imagine Dragons mega-fan, that says, ‘Hey guys, we found him,’” Wells says. “So I replied and said, ‘I didn’t know anybody was looking.’ All of a sudden, every hour, I had probably another hundred followers. When they say it happens overnight – it really happens overnight. I was watching my social media blow up. In the next three to four months, I gained like four or five thousand followers. So I thought, ‘OK, so now I have this new fan base, and I have the opportunity to share something positive with somebody who’s listening and maybe looking up to me.’”

IMG_9639-2024That responsibility to spread positivity is one Wells has long been dedicated to. Whenever he finds himself back in South Jersey, he makes it a point to visit his alma mater, Timber Creek High School, to lecture and play music with students. He says it’s become more and more important to him as school funding for arts programs has decreased. At this year’s graduation, the school board gave him the 2016 Outstanding Community Educator Award.

“We could make a petition and go to the board of education, and I’m all about that,” Wells says. “But let’s talk about who this is really affecting. So while we’re fighting that fight for them, let’s fill those gaps now. That’s why I started going back regularly. So if they’re going to be losing these opportunities to be doing something every day that makes them better, at least let me come around every couple of months and drop some knowledge about things I’m learning in the real world.”

Wells’ positivity has also extended far beyond South Jersey. A few months ago, he headed to Finland as part of a government-sponsored program to aid refugees. He played music in community centers at events designed to help recently arrived refugees assimilate into their new neighborhoods.

“When I looked around the room, I saw smiles on so many faces of people who had so many reasons to not be smiling,” he says. “I feel like I’ve been given a gift, and the fact that I used that gift to put a smile on the face of someone who was kicked out of their country unwillingly and has been dealing with so much means a lot to me. That alone is enough for me to keep doing this.”

September 2016
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