Interview: Willy Mason

Willy Mason, the country-folk singer-songwriter from New York, has been going from strength to strength over the last couple of years, supporting many great acts and producing some great music. I managed to have a quick chat with him before his support set for Ben Howard at the Aberdeen Music Hall. I was very nervous, and was scared I was going to go all fan-girl on him (I have loved his music for years), but upon meeting him I realised he is actually very gentle and humble, and that I had nothing to worry about. He offered me a beer (which I took, hoping some alcohol would calm the last of my nerves) and we sat down in his dressing room to begin the interview. I noticed that he seemed very shy, but once we’d been chatting for a while the shyness disappeared.

Are you looking forward to playing Aberdeen?
Yeah, very much. I can’t wait to play tonight.

Have you played in Aberdeen before?
Once I think. It’s been a while.

It’s a nice little city.
Yeah, and it’s a beautiful venue.

Do you enjoy touring outside of the States?
For the most part, yeah.

Do you prefer it?
It depends, you know. There’s something special about playing to people in my own country. But I don’t get to do it that much so I think that’s why.

Do you not?
Not that much. Especially when I first started touring I was over here almost all the time. I was just in Australia...

That must have been great.
It was nice. Warm. With palm trees and stuff. But yeah I do really like getting to travel the world, and get outside and see how other people do things.

Where’s your favourite place that you’ve played?
That’s hard to say. Travelling and touring are sort of two separate things. On tour, what determines the day is really the show. I do a bit of wandering and it’s nice. I like being in the UK: the cities are so beautiful and there’s so much old architecture. It really comes down to the show though, and how the crowd is: if they’re up for it or whatever.

Do you prefer playing festivals or more intimate gigs?
Usually I prefer playing smaller shows. It’s just easier and you feel like everybody is on the same page at the same time... Just the magic of it.

You come from a background of musicians; was being in the music industry always what you wanted to do? Did you ever consider going off in a different direction?
I never planned to go into the music industry, it was kind of an accident. I mean, I grew up making music.

Yeah, your mum, she does blues, folk...?
Yeah, blues, country, that sort of thing. She does a lot of song-writing. I really enjoy playing her songs, and I’ve learned a lot from her. It was always something that we did, but my parents weren’t really in the music business when I was growing up. They did play all the time, though.

Did you ever play with them?
Yeah, one of my first times on stage was backing my mum up on guitar, and I used to do that fairly often back home. But I didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t count on the music business though. In those days it seemed like you had to be either really successful or really poor as a musician. Well, that’s the impression I got. I don’t think that was true.

I recently heard Restless Fugitives from your upcoming album, which has a bit of a different sound; it’s much more chilled out than a lot of your other stuff. Is that what the whole album is going to be like?
I’d say a lot of the album is pretty chilled out.

There’s a bit of reggae in there, too...?
I suppose so, there are also some dub influences. I’ve always been influenced by that kind of stuff. I think there are a lot of common threads between reggae and pop and rock & roll. But I’ve never worked with anyone before who channels the rhythm of it as much as Dan Kerry does, who’s the producer. He does all kinds of stuff but he does a lot of pop stuff so it’s really interesting to see how much reggae has influenced modern pop music.

Did he influence you in the writing, or did it happen naturally a little bit and then he picked up on it and developed that sound?
Yeah, when I wrote that song, and still when I play it on my own it’s a lot more like a country hymn, or something. It’s influenced by gospel dirges, and it has a very different feel to it. But when I got it into the studio and we added drums and bass it just kind of went in that direction.

Is there a band or an artist who you look up to and aspire to be like? Or do you just take things as they come?
I’ve never been good at planning things out as far as my career goes. I recently started playing chess so at the minute I’m trying to develop my chess skills. [laughing]

I read somewhere that you’re a direct descendant of Henry James. Are you much of a reader? If so, what do you like to read?
I go through phases of reading. Growing up I read all the time. Now, I just got into Neil Gaiman, who I never really took seriously because he’s a bestseller. But I read American Gods because it was at an airport and I was desperate for something to read, and I loved it. I love how he ties in mythology, and religions, and pagan religions. I read it when I was driving across America which is perfect because he talks about roadside attractions being the magical, epicentre of American magic.

He’s not American so it’s interesting to see his perspective on another culture.
Yeah, sometimes you have to be a foreigner to see things for what they are. Henry James wrote in England.

Unfortunately, I was led to believe that this would be a short, quick interview so I soon ran out of questions. I apologised for this, making the mistake of turning off my Dictaphone as we continued chatting while he had a cigarette outside. We talked about what we could be if we could be anything, career-wise; he asked me a bit about me, and among other things I told him I’m from Newcastle which led to a conversation about his and his tour buddies’ drunken debauchery there the previous night; we talked about his tour in Australia and he modestly said that the biggest crowd he has ever played to was there (12,000 people, as you do, no big deal). As I left Willy preparing for his set, I was struck by how lovely and down-to-earth he was. It really was a pleasure talking to him.


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