In 2001, Matt Wessel, a Warren Township High School graduate, was a freshman at Marquette University. At that point, he was already rather remarkable. His family made appearances on CBS for having three sets of twins when he was a child. Both of his parents were diagnosed with cancer, and his father sadly passed away from brain cancer during his junior year of high school.
Wessel turned to music, a family hobby, to translate his feelings about what he and his family experienced. At his first concert in 2001, three Warren Township High School students – Betsey Barnich, Sarah Milewski and Brian Schmidt – were touched by Wessel’s music and had an idea. The Future Business Leaders of America members asked him to perform at a fundraiser for their friend, Kate Pederson, who’d been recently diagnosed with cancer. She lost her battle with cancer in November of 2002.
That fundraiser was the first Concert for Life at St. Paul the Apostle’s in Gurnee. On March 10, Wessel will perform at the 13th annual Concert For Life.
Wessel talked to Shaw Media about why he comes back to perform every year, and the release of his latest album.
What role does music play in your life?
It’s all part-time. It’s very much a hobby and I like it that way. I spend time accompanying a church choir and doing fundraiser shows, typically for some type of charity. I do it because I like to do it and the shows are a way to give back. I’m not a starving musician. I have an MBA in business administration with an emphasis on marketing.
How has your music changed over the years?
A lot of music on the radio is catchy and fun to listen to, but the lyrics tend to be a little empty. This album [It’s Time], when you listen to the lyrics, they have themes and messages people can relate to, even if the words hit them in a different way.
What was it like the first time you were asked to perform at Concert for Life?
[Betsey Barnich, Sarah Milewski, and Brian Schmidt] knew what Kate Pederson was going through, so it was their idea to make an FBLA event. These are people who knew me and we were all friends. I didn’t ever stop to think, maybe what you should do with your music is cancer research fundraisers. They were working at raising awareness for Kate. I think they look back with awe that this has come out of their effort to help their friend.
It was inspiring for me as a musician to be given a venue that really fit my music. My songs are about life, hope, and overcoming adversity. Concert For Life raises money for cancer research and a big portion of the people [at the concert] have been affected by cancer. I’m grateful to Warren and to FBLA for giving me that opportunity. I’m not a Top 40 kind of artist. I have a specific niche. As a 19 -year-old [in 2001], it was only the second time I’d ever performed a concert.
How did Kate Pederson react to the concert?
Kate in 2001 and Kate in 2002 were different people. She looked healthier, more full of life. She smiled a lot and her characteristic sense of humor and sarcasm were back. I think Concert For Life inspired her to fight harder. It’s the power of community and knowing we’re not fighting alone.
What makes Concert For Life a touching experience?
It’s unlike any concert you’ve ever been to because we [the band] don’t just get up there and just play. There’s significant dialogue, telling back story and relating it to what FBLA has done or a story about my life. I try to deliver a decent amount of humor because it’s a pretty emotional afternoon, with people thinking about a sister or a friend or someone they’ve just lost. I try to lighten the mood. It’s a wonderful afternoon of fellowship.
There is a point in the concert when you ask cancer survivors to stand, and FBLA students give them yellow daffodils. What goes through your mind at that point?
I’ve learned not to look at the crowd at that point. It’s during a song called ‘God’s Chosen One,’ sung from the first person point of view of a cancer survivor. It’s about the reality of someone fighting this. If you’ve ever met a cancer survivor, they’re some of the strongest, most determined people you’ll ever meet. Every year, more and more people stand.
If I look into the crowd, I’ll make eye contact with someone I know, or even my mom, who is a cancer survivor. I try to look up while I’m performing to avoid getting choked up. You can’t be in a room with 1,000 people and not be surrounded by people affected by cancer.
How has cancer affected you?
My mom [Patrice Wessel] was diagnosed really early with ovarian cancer. Soon after, in January of 1996, my dad [Tom Wessel] was diagnosed. He started having headaches. It was a brain tumor, [one of the most aggressive brain tumor in humans]. It was the typical roller coaster ride of ‘he’s getting better, he’s driving again,’ and then ‘okay, he just relapsed.’ He lost movement of one side of his body. It was very hard to witness and watch but he remained very positive and worried about who would have the hardest time with his death.
That was the first time I was inspired by a person who had everything to lose. ‘Dad’s Song’ was the only song he heard me play live. It was my first experience writing and recording. That’s how my music became tied to hope, loss and all the battles of cancer.
How does it feel knowing that Concert For Life has raised more than $355,300 since the first show? You keep track of the totals on your website, www.mattwesselmusic.com.
It’s mind boggling and humbling to think about how much we’ve raised. The first concert was $6,000 and it blew me away. You can’t help but react with your mouth hanging open when they announce the total at the end of the show. You can’t help but think, ‘We made 20 grand in three hours.’ I’m amazed at the generosity of our community, and a huge portion of that is the Gurnee community. I tell my wife Katie all the time, my goal is a million.
You just released a new album, ‘It’s Time.’ What are some of the themes?
[Matt and Katie, his wife, lived in Germany for the last year for Katie’s job.] Moving to Germany made me truly feel what unity means for the first time. I was scared to go to Germany for a year and leave my life and family. I ended up feeling comfortable living there and I realized it was because I was with Katie. It gave me the idea that the best thing we can do in life is find a place of mind where we enjoy the path and how we get there. The title song, ‘It’s Time,’ is about knowing it’s time to let go of what’s dragging you down. Those things keep us from being who we are meant to be.
For more information on Matt Wessel and Concert For Life, check out www.mattwesselmusic.com. This friday, we'll feature a video of one of Wessel's songs from his new album.