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  • 2:30:28 pm
  • Saturday
  • 25 May 2024

Willy Mason: The Real Deal

After catching the show at the Bowery, Tweed hit the green room to talk with Massachusetts folk singer, Willy Mason.

Bill: On first listen of Where the Humans Eat, I hear a lot of the Carolinas, this sort of folk and country fusion—even a little bit of the Bayou. Then, I look and you’re from Martha’s Vineyard and that was really shocking to me. So, what I want to know is how that sound evolved? How did you get into a country/folk/blues type thing?

Willy: It came from my parents and the local community. When I was growing up, my parents used to hold—on New Years eve and Christmas and stuff—these music parties where they’d bring in all the neighbors, all the family’s and they’d just sit down and jam and sing songs together and bang on some spoons and, you know, whistle into whiskey bottles or whatever. So the thing about the island is, you get a pretty stark view of the mainland when the summertime hits, I mean, the main industry on the island right now is tourism so you get tourists in the summertime. But in the wintertime, it’s such a small place and so isolated with so few music venues and movie theaters and stuff like that, people tend to make their own entertainment. So the way that it comes off sounding is like living room music ‘cause everyone just ends up making it in their living rooms.

Bill: From what I’ve read about you, Martha’s Vineyard seemed like a place you wanted to get away from. It seems like an “I’m gonna pack my guitar up, get the hell outta here and go to New York” type thing. Is that true? Do you feel that musically, Martha’s Vineyard was holding you back? Did you feel like you needed to go out to expand, to do this folk rock thing?

Willy: I felt like it was limiting my experiences because it’s such a small, isolated place and I wanted to—it’s kinda like growing up in a bubble. You can learn a lot from that bubble about self-sufficieny, about community and, um, trying to form your own identity under an unusual circumstance. But at the same time, I wanted to go and see things that I was hearing about on the news and stuff. I wanted to get a sense of my country firsthand. So that made me really eager to hit the road and get the hell outta there and also to form my own identity. So, you know, when you grow up with the same group of people, they still look at you the way they looked at you and they’re great—which isn’t bad. It keeps you honest but you have to get a little freedom from that from time to time. But the other thing about the island is that, you really get, as far as classes in America—you get a weird cross-section of classes on the island. Before tourism became the main industry, farming and fishing were the main industries. But now-a-days there’s a prominent working class that tends to support the summer folks when they come over. So if you move to the island as a fulltime resident, the main industries are carpentry, painting—that sorta stuff. But at the same time, you are living in such an idealistic place—it’s not the same working class as everywhere else. So I definitely have kind of a skewed perspective on that. Its not necessarily reality. But with tourism, the more we allow, the more we adapt to it and we stop being self-sufficient. That’s when we have problems.

Bill: When did you leave the island?

Willy: I left when I graduated high school which would be about 2 years ago now. I have been back a few times since... Basically, half that time, I was living out of a backpack and since then, I have been living out of a van.

Bill: Were you solely in New York?

Willy: I started out mostly in New York and then I started traveling after that. I would try and go back between New York and home for a while.

Bill: Is this something your family was supportive of?

Willy: For the most part—I mean, they were a little bit concerned and doubtful. It would have been a lot easier for them to know I was waking up in a dorm room every day or something like that. It wasn’t totally comfortable for them but they tend to respect my judgment when I really go for something so, in the end, they kinda said “you gotta do whatcha gotta do.”

Bill: So your brother Sam played on the album. Where does he fit in and how does the music process work?

Willy: Well he plays with me when he’s on vacation and shit like that. And otherwise—he councils me. He keeps me looking at things from a down to earth perspective. He helps with art too. He’s an artist. So the album was pretty laid back and we co-produced it—much of a collaboration. Meanwhile, he’s a really good producer and engineer. So I think in the future he may take a more active role.

Bill: So you recorded in the town of Catskill and during the sessions, you made a rule: three takes and that’s it. So I can only imagine you are going for that raw, live feel. Tell us about that a bit.

Willy: Well, I just want to keep myself honest. I’m trying to keep it as direct as possible and show people like where I’m at as honestly as possible because things have been happening so quickly for me like, all of a sudden I was playing gigs for people I didn’t know and shit like that and it was like, blowing my mind. It was just like, all of a sudden someone heard me on the island’s radio station—my friends dad put me on it. Next thing I know, I’m playing New York at the Mercury lounge and shit. Part of that was, well, people are digging this. I don’t feel ready to be showing myself off to people or that I’ve figured out anything, particularly. I’m still trying to figure things out. But I guess if they’re curious, I might as well show them where I’m at now. And just show them everything and not try to hold back and not try to change myself to be more suited. So like, if I keep the takes limited, it keeps me from thinking too hard about that stuff—and like, keeping it straightforward.

Bill: So you’re the primary writer of the songs. You say, you work with your brother, he does some producing and engineering and obviously the drums on the album, but when it comes to writing the actual music, is that you? And the lyrics?

Willy: Yea.

Bill: So now, the lyrics—it seems that everyone keeps talking about the song “Oxygen.” You sing “I wanna speak louder than Ritalin for all the children that think they’ve got a disease/We can be stronger than bombs/we can be richer than industry as long as we know there are things that we don’t really need/ we can speak louder than ignorance ‘cause we speak in silence” and my favorite, “do you remember the forgotten American/ justice, freedom, equality to every race, we just have to get past the lies and hypocrisy.” Now, these sound like social and political criticisms of our nation and we are obviously at a very unique time as a nation. So talk a little bit about where you stand in terms of music that incorporates the social and the political.

Willy: Growing up, I liked listening to a lot of politically motivated —it got me fired up. It had a strong purpose to it.

Bill: For example...

Willy: Like Rage Against the Machine. You know, like back-in-the-day. And I think that music is such a powerful force and such a powerful language to connect to people with so many different ideas that maybe feeling the same thing. It tends to say things really bluntly so it’s a good way for people to come together. But at the same time, I try to be—I have to be very delicate with lyrics that may become political—I mean, every song I have ever written—even Oxygen—was not written for the sake of being political or to try to tell anything politically. For me, when I’m writing music, for it to be honest, the purpose of it is to get things off my chest and express how I am feeling emotionally. So when I am concerned with what’s going on in the world and I am watching too much TV for my own good, this is the shit that is emotionally having an effect on me. This is the shit that is keeping me up at night. This is the shit that’s making me feel that I have to do something. But I try not to write songs with any specific political agenda because then, I think, that’s beyond music.

Bill: So for you, the political comes out through the personal.

Willy: Yea, and anything above that comes out in your actions.

Tim: For me, my favorite part about your stuff is that you’re writing in this folk and this little bit of blues and your lyrics have that indistinguishable vernacular of American Folk music. How much of that is just you listening to and appreciating a lot of that stuff?

Willy: I didn’t listen to a shitload of folk music. What got me sparked were John Lee Hooker’s solo stuff and Johnny cash and Hank Williams and that got me fired up—that I could really relate to these people. We grew up in totally different times and totally different atmospheres but I could feel what they were saying. And my writing came from how the people talk where I am from—because it’s pretty rural. And then traveling out around and almost developing my own sort of vernacular that sorta blended everything that I felt—because I was just talking to so many different people. I felt the connection with the music and it just came through naturally.

Bill: So going back a little—you are from Massachusetts, home of Senator John Kerry. What exactly was your reaction to Election 2004?

Willy: After watching the debates, I was definitely leaning toward Kerry. Internationally, he would have been a lot more delicate than Bush. He probably would have brought a couple things to a smoother resolve. But I try not to get too tied up into any one party or any one—you know, I voted for Kerry and I wanted him to win but I think, in the end, there could be a positive outcome to Bush being elected. And I know that sounds scary as fuck but—what he’s really doing is stirring people up and making people think. And I think any one who wins any fucking election—shits gonna get a lot worse before it gets better. We just have to believe its gonna lead to a better end. For me right now, the most important thing is to set up an environment to live in where I don’t have to rely on things or industries that I don’t have a clean consciousness about supporting. And I don’t know exactly how I am gonna do it yet. It takes trial and error. But that’s my focus.

Bill: So are you finding a positive, sustainable environment on Team Love?

Willy: I mean—I’m getting there, yea. I mean, that’s kinda an on-going thing. I mean, the balance between my career and my personal life. They are definitely facilitating that journey really well with the amount of freedom they leave me.

Bill: I was gonna ask about that—right now, the biggest folk rock singer/lyricist out there Is Conor Oberst. He’s in the process of redefining an era of Indie music. First, if you could, explain how that relationship with Conor and with Team Love came about, how did it foster?

Willy: I met Conor through a mutual friend that heard me on the island radio station when I went on my friend’s Dad’s Sunday night show. So this mutual friend invited me out to North Hampton to see Conor play. We met that night and I played for him backstage. Then we went back to a bar—woke up the next morning on a tour bus in Vermont. That night—got really wasted and Conor called me up on-stage without warning. That was my first gig off island. Then we hung out. I crashed at his place here in New York when I needed a place. We got to be friends.

Bill: So that friendship with him helped bring about the relationship with Team Love?

Willy: Well, I was doing my thing, getting ready to make a record. He was doing his thing, getting ready to get the label started. It just fit together so we went for it. I have a huge amount of respect for him and I look up to him a lot. To tell the truth, before I met Conor, I hadn’t heard his music.

Bill: Wow.


Bill: Well, that being said, where do you think you’re going next?

Willy: I don’t know. Taking a road trip.

Bill: Now, do you still live in your van?

Willy: I do except its broken down in Death Valley right now.

Bill: Yea, I just read that on your webpage. That’s funny—you’re on Conor Oberst’s record label yet you’re living in a van.

Willy: Yea, well, it’s not cash up-front. And the other thing, even if it was, I didn’t go out seeking the music industry to support me, you know. I went out seeking a way to support myself. Ands that’s where the van comes in and that’s everything—I want freedom and that’s the only way I can see to get it.

William Wallace, Tim Rogan
Friday, 21 January 2005

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Tweed Magazine content report:
2024-05-25 14:30:28
Everloving Records, Robb Nansel, Tweed Media, Maura Davis, America, Conor Oberst, Polyvinyl Records, senate, Said Sew Recordings, Tweed Magazine, End report.