An interview with Willy Mason

Since the age of 20, New Yorker Willy Mason has been releasing and touring his brand of folky, blusey goodness to many a receptive ear. The son of folk singers Jemima James and Michael Mason, Willy has garnered praise and fans all over the globe, drawing comparisons to the likes of Bob Dylan. After a 5 year absence, Mason returned with his first album of new material since 2007′s If the Ocean Gets Rough, late last year. I caught up with him to chat influences, touring and recording.

What are you up to today?
Hey, I’m in Brighton right now. Today, we’re just trying to recover really. The band just got over from the states on the Red Eye, so we’re just looking for remedies to cure some jet lag.

I was told that the best way to cure jet lag was to just not sleep. I don’t know if that helps.
It does help. Unfortunately, alcohol does too.

Is that so the hangover takes your mind off the jetlag?
Nah, sometimes you’ve just got to accept the better of two evils.

Haha, I suppose. So, your UK tour starts soon, are you excited? Looking forward to it?
Yeah. We’re just putting the final preparations together now. It’s going to be the biggest band I’ve ever taken on the road I think.

That’s cool. It seems like you went away for a bit. Did you go to try and sort of find yourself?
It ended up being about 5 years between the albums coming out. Some of that was spent on just the in between stuff, like touring, but some of it was just me trying to take my time. I started at this pretty young age and it’s such a young industry and it’s full of amateurs. I wanted to last long enough that I wouldn’t have to be an amateur. So I’m trying to take my time and perfect the art.

It makes sense to do it like that, because so many bands and artists rush to release stuff and then kind of burn out. It makes sense to take a step back and sort of pace yourself.
Yeah, at least with the promotional side of things anyway. I try to stay busy creatively but people don’t tend to hear about creativity unless you go out and blog it.

Your latest record, Carry On, came out last year. How do you feel about? Are you pleased with it?
Yeah, I like it. I’m happy. I’m happy that it was a moment successfully captured.

carryoncover1Beautifully put. Did you approach the recording of this album differently to previous records at all?
I guess so. The main difference was that these set of songs had more room for interpretation than previous songs. They could have gone a lot of different ways, but there’s more space in the songs for musical development. In the past, the songs speak for themselves stylistically but these are bit more like empty vessels. I wanted to get a bit more into the music, because I’d been so heavily focussed on song writing for the last seven or eight years. I wanted to bring in a collaborator, to help with the music, so that become Dan Carey.

How much did Dan change the way you did things?
Well it was a full, physical collaboration, so it was very much fifty-fifty between us. His influences brought out some techniques that I’d never experienced before, so I’d changed the process a lot and I learned a lot that I will be able to use in the future.

How does a Willy Mason song come about? Where do these stories come from?
I usually find things that are moving to me, or that interesting to me. There’s a lot that’s moving to me, I never know what it’s going to be. Some of them are experiences of my own, sometimes somebody will set off a whole imaginary scenario in my mind. But the thing that interests me most are… well, over the last three records one theme that’s been most interesting to me is the theme of identity and human relationships.

It seems to be a lot more personal, or at least more about interaction and dealing with people, than your last albums. Is that intentional, or something you feel like you are developing as a writer?
I think it was sort of a particular time when, for me, I was looking at these relationships. As a result of this album and promoting this album, it’s forced me out into the world a lot more and I’ve taken a lot in while promoting and touring this album, so I imagine that the songs to come and the songs that are coming now will be even more outward looking.

Are you already planning for the next album then? Or are you always just creative anyway, without thinking along the lines of “this is going to be the next album”?
In the past I’ve always just written and then once the cup fills up, I try to sell it, so to speak. Now that I’m touring so much again, I’m thinking that I’m really going to have to knuckle down and focus on putting one together in a shorter period of time, so that I’m sure will be a different experience. I’m kinda looking forward to it.

What do you hope listeners will extract from your sound and do you think it changes within the context it’s listened to?
These songs will probably interrupted lots of different ways. The lyrics are a little bit more impressionist than perhaps some of my other stuff in the past. I just hope that they comfort people and make them feel good and that’s kind of the purpose of the album.

Around the time of the release of your first record, I can remember reading reviews describing you as the “new Bob Dylan.” Did comments like that put any extra pressure on you or were you able to ignore them?
When I was touring that record, people were really moved by it and really excited about it. So there was a lot of pent up hope on it and that felt like a big responsibility. It’s an odd mixture of responsibility, when you have that hope on you. It’s a little bit like falling in love, y’know, you want to live up to the promise but you can’t help but wanting to worry about disappointing. I felt that. I’m still trying to figure it out. It’s one of the weird things about this job.

What are your influences outside of music?
Right now, I’d guess I’d say my biggest influences outside of music are inventors, philosophers and spiritualists.

Interesting. Any in particular?
You know, Ben Franklin, Nikola Tesla, my great, great uncle William James…

It seems you come from quite a studious background. Do enjoy reading and learning?
I do like to read. I like ideas. I like reading but I also like ideas and I think reading is one way of communicating ideas. I’m really excited about multimedia and modern experiments in expressing ideas, whether it’s the performance art of the 60′s or the tape loop experiments. I like graphic novels. Alan Moore is another big influence of mine. He wanders a lot but when he gets going he can be pretty hard to follow. He’ll warp your mind without you even realising. Sometimes my attention span doesn’t afford me the luxury of reading though.

I have the same problem. That’s the brilliance of audio books; you can just sit and have someone tell you a story. Which of your songs are you most proudest of?
On the new record, Carry On and Show Me The Way To Go Home. Shadows In The Dark is good, but I don’t feel like I wrote it perfectly.

Why? What would change about it if you could?
I don’t know really. It’s sort of a lyrical ballad trying to be a pop song. I just don’t know if it’s fully successful. I think that it could be. Most of my best songs I can pull off even in a bar room with a radio shack sound system, so I feel like that is one of its failings, that it’s so fragile. I was trying to do something with it and I took a couple of steps in that direction.

I guess it’s good that you can pick faults and look back and find things to improve on. You can’t ever be too happy with it.
You can’t be, otherwise you’d stop. I got a little bit like that after the first album actually.

Did you?
Yeah, when I released that record it was unbelievable.

I suppose it’s different for the first album, because you’re seeing it all come together for the first time.
It’s amazing. That was my first time in a studio like that. I still remember the first time they played the tape back. Me and my brother didn’t even realise we were recording. They played it back and it just sounded so real.

Surreal I bet. Which song do you wish you had written?
I Don’t Want To Play House by Tammy Wynette. I know she sang it, I don’t know if she wrote it though.

If the world was about to end, what would be the last record you’d listen to and why?
I think I would listen to Trying To Survive by John Lee Hooker.

An appropriate choice. Finally, which of your albums do you think would win in a fight?
(Laughs) That’s a good question. It’s hard to say, y’know. The first one has got a lot of spunk, but the third one has kind of got sheer weight of strength. It’s like the young punk, against the older, experienced pro with a bit more weight around the sides. I don’t know.

We’ll say it’s a draw. We’ll let them live in peace. 

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