American singer-songwriter whose lyrical talents have captured hearts and souls. Willy’s newest album, ‘When the Ocean gets Rough’ is available from www.grandmas-basement.com, as is his first, critically acclaimed ‘Where the Humans Eat’, and various fantastic EPs from across the ages. We caught up with Willy for a chat about life.
If the ocean gets rough…what would you rather be: a sea dwelling plant that’s spent it’s whole life attached to a rock, but has security; or a fish that could spend its life roaming free- but in a rough ocean would risk it’s life?
(Laughs) That’s deep. I don’t know, depends on the day. I guess I‘d be down to be a plant
I dunno, it’s like… no that’s a lie really. I gotta be a fish, that’s like...woaah.
It doesn’t necessarily have to be a fish; it could be any kind of sea animal, if you’re generally opposed to fish…
One of those floaty things…anemone?
I don’t know about a jellyfish, they have no backbone, no spine.
And they don’t taste very nice.
Taste? You’ve tried jellyfish?
Yeah, we went to China recently, Polly’s a vegetarian so she escaped it all, but I didn’t want to cause offence…so ate some weird stuff…ducks head, pig’s ear…
Mmmmm….! Yeah I think a fish, just a little fish maybe.
Swim around, see things.
You could just kind of get to know your neighbourhood.
The sea’s a pretty big neighbourhood
Yeh but I imagine they congregate around
You could have a shoal. Safety in numbers.
Know what’s good to eat…what’s good to not get eaten by. Have you seen Finding Nemo?
Yeh of course
I suppose it just comes down to whether a plant has feelings.
Also if the ocean’s getting rough, if you’re a fish you can swim away
Yeh, swim away to a calm part or hide in the rocks. All of the ocean can’t be rough at the same time. Did you ever see that programme the Deep Blue…they sent down a little robot camera to the deepest parts.
Where the pressures really high?
Yeah, where no human could go to.
Did they find creatures with like green eyes and big teeth and stuff?
It was amazing, like something out of a sci-fi.
The aforementioned album, ‘If the Ocean Gets Rough’, was recorded at Long View Farm, amongst pool games, horse riding and cooking. Do you think that kind of creative environment is better for making music than the conventional studio?
Not necessarily. It can be a distraction, especially if you’re paying for all of it. It causes anxiety. I think the best place to record is just somewhere you feel comfortable.
I’ve heard you recorded ‘Where the Humans Eat’ in a friend’s living room…
Yeah, in a home studio. That was very comfortable.
You hear about a lot of bands gong back to places they like, like Led Zeppelin- the Stones had this little recording truck, and Zeppelin used it once and liked it so much they went back pretty much all the time. Like you said it was somewhere they felt really comfortable.
Yeh that’s all it takes really.
I’ve always found you quite reminiscent of Johnny Cash, were you influenced by him at all?
Mhmmm. Especially the record ‘Live at Folsom Prison’. Just amazed me that he treated the audience so well, and he was so straight with them.
Like your house party tour, it’s so important to have that personal connection with the audience- I’m guessing you think so too- because there are so many commercial bands these days that are just really quite detached…
Yeh, I mean in the business of making music, if you don’t have a personal connection with people, then the only connection that’s left is the celebrity, idolisation, stuff like that. And some people really like that, but I think it makes most people go insane pretty quickly.
From the audience’s point of view, I think it’s a lot better. It makes you feel a lot more and part of it, rather than just seeing someone on TV occasionally.
Yeh it makes sense. I mean, it is down to the audience.
Was the home tour quite difficult to undertake?
Parts of it were tricky. The hardest things were trying it to book it with the label wanting me to do lots of press, so I had to figure out how to get back to London from like...Derry. And another thing was I was at a different house every night pretty much, and most of the house parties were pretty big parties…so I’d wake up with an awful hangover and drive for like five hours to go do press with the label then go do another show.
So is this tour a little less hectic then?
More coffee: less whiskey.
Who else has influenced you over the course of your life in making music and general creative stuff?
The biggest ones would be…Kurt Cobain, Mum and Dad, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, John Lee Hooker, Bob Dylan.
I know your mum wrote some of your songs… Were your parents musicians and was that infiltrated into your childhood?
Yeh, when I was younger and they were still together, they used to play a lot. I’d play shows with my mum. And when I was younger than that she’d have parties where everybody would sing. And when she’d play gigs she’d have party for all of the band and everyone after a recording session. So I was round a lot of musicians and music whilst growing up.
That must have been a really interesting childhood.
Yeh it was really cool. I mean I didn’t really appreciate it back then…
It was just your mum’s friends to you.
We moved in with my grandma into the town where I lived when I was about eight, from New York. So like even though everything my parents were doing was really cool they were still strangers in the town, so sometimes I just wished we could be normal. But that changed when I got older and grew to appreciate it.
It really stays with you, if people make comments about your family.
You can end up resenting them.
Or wanting to protect them even more… It shouldn’t matter what other people say but it’s difficult if you’re around them everyday, living in the same place. Your childhood sounds pretty good though.
Brian Oberst released your first album on his own label, Team Love. Have you ever thought about collaborating with Bright Eyes in anyway?
Well we’ve played songs together…late at night, at parties. That’s always fun.
Is there anyone else on the music scene that you’d like to collaborate with?
Anybody. I mean you never know how you’re going to connect with someone.
You joined up with KT Tunstall right?
Yep, and also the Chemical Brothers.
The Magic Numbers did a song with them too. I think if you get the mix right, there’s no telling what can happen. Could you do a joint tour with Bright Eyes?
We did one in The States where I was supporting them.
You see us people from Norwich miss all of that. We’ve got a bit of a running theme on the environment, what’s your whole take on that issue?
Well, I mean, I think that human beings in general are being a very inefficient part of the eco system right now. It feels to me like maybe nature will have to stand up for itself pretty soon and start pushing us around a little bit.
Supposedly we’re headed for another ice age, so that’s kind of coming our way…
Yeah, to me it’s kind of scary but its also kind of comforting. Because if we truly were the masters of the world right now, like at the level of sophistication that our minds have, it would be terrifying. Worse than the idea of an ice age, for me. Have you seen Children of Men?
Where humans become infertile?
Yeh, like there’s all these movies, I’ve been reading ‘V for Vendetta’ right now, all these things about super fascist, totalitarian governments, and it seems like that’s the predominant view of the future. But I think even if that does happen for a while, nature won’t let it carry on.
I think the feeling of oppression has pretty much always been there…books like 1984, feudal systems…right throughout history. I think we have the ability to sort it all out, just no one wants to because we don’t want to give up our consumer lives. No ones willing to make any changes.
I think at this point it’s hard to imagine anyone making any big changes.
It’s suddenly become the ‘in thing’ for governments to talk about…though I’m not sure about in America…
The other thing is that its just natural, in America that the majority of people wouldn’t buy a smaller car just to save the environment because that’s just not part of their culture, their way of thinking. But now, gas prices have got so expensive, it’s like we’ve gotta save money, buy a smaller car.
Do you think events like George Bush pulling out of Kyoto are a bad stereotype of the US way of thinking?
That particular incident of him not signing that, to be honest with you I don’t think a lot of American people even know what the Kyoto agreement is. I think if people were more aware of the global vibe of it, like how the nations are getting along right now. It’s hard to say, I mean it’s such a big country that you can’t sum it up. We’re all through one mouth.
My take on the pulling out was a real sense of reluctance to form any sort of unity, I mean America is a huge superpower, and an act like that does unite a lot of countries for a similar cause....I don’t think it’s a fair representation of everyone in the US. I mean you just can’t stereotype because everyone is so individual, but that’s what I got from that decision. But then it’s the governments ruling that matters in a country, to a point.
And we elected him, probably...So I mean it is our responsibility.
Do you think it would have been any different if Al Gore had got in, instead of George Bush- the perception here seems to be that it would be...?
In my view, having George Bush as president has sort of brought things to light…its almost like the final straw for a lot of people, that’s sort of shaken them out of complacency, or ignorance, or innocence. If Al Gore had been president it would have been a lot easier for everybody, better for the world. A lot less people would be dead right now. But you know it could have just been a more gradual thing, instead of now it feels like almost anything could happen.
What do you think can be done to take action, to do your part?
It just comes down to studying your own life and living deliberately. Usually it’s not that difficult to change elements of how you live and it can also be quite fun to be creative with your own life. I think some people become so extreme and so obsessed with it that they actually sacrifice a lot of what they have to offer because they’re being so strict with themselves.
Like plane travel- there’s this whole thing promoting local holidays- which is good in a way to reduce pointless trips. It does make a carbon footprint, but if you don’t travel then no ones going to learn anything at all. And if you preach to people they’re not going to listen either. You can’t just forbid people to travel.
I think things like flying in aeroplanes is kind of like almost beside the point, its easy to fixate on them, I mean it does make a huge difference, but I think people need examples of a way where they can actually live and be a part of the system.
Its really small things like not leaving your phone charger plugged in saves huge amounts of energy. I think people need to focus on small things like that rather than preaching to people who maybe can’t do anything about it, or something like going on a plane. If everyone in the world just cut back a bit, that difference would probably be enough.
It makes a big difference. I mean at my grandmas old house that we’re living in I’ve been researching alternate building methods, its just fun stuff really. If you’ve got your own garden you’re going to have nicer lawn, better food. It’s fun to do.
Grow your own vegetables. Especially if you have kids you can integrate it into the family life. And save money.
Yeh, I think it comes down to really enjoying yourself, like truly enjoying yourself. Not waking up with a hangover every morning.
Drinking’s too expensive too, and it tastes bad.
Yeah and it gets old after a while too.
Pretty much the only drink I like the actual taste of is Jack Daniels. Never found another one that actually tastes good.
I like Jack Daniels too.
Cups of tea, that’s the way forward. ▪
Interview- Ali Hewson & Polly O'Shea; Words- Ali Hewson