"I’m just trying to open up the flood gates and see what comes out and try my best not to be afraid of it"
On the eve of his support tour where he’ll be playing to sold out audiences around the country with Ben Howard, folk artist Willy Mason sat down with Time Out to talk business, family and free association.
Willy, how did you go from Small Town, USA, to playing in Melbourne, Australia?
I started music pretty young. I grew up in a really small town in the northeast of the US, when I was about 16 I got played on a local radio station and the track ended up getting heard by one of the crew guys from Bright Eyes while they were out on the road. So Conor [Oberst, of Bright Eyes] signed me to his label for my first album… that was almost ten years ago.
Aren’t your parents musical?
Well they’re both songwriters; they haven’t released many albums though. They used have a deal where they’d get paid a weekly salary to write songs for [publisher] Famous Music. They used to have rehearsals around the house so it as a pretty cool place to grow up in. A lot of really good music going on.
And apart from your parents, who were you biggest musical influences growing up?
Tommy Hooker was a big one; Johnny Cash, Dylan. Radiohead and Kurt Cobain. When I signed with Connor’s label I got really into Rilo Kiley and Bright Eyes.
On your latest record, Carry On (2012), you decided to work with [producer] Dan Carey of Hot Chip and MIA fame. He doesn’t seem a natural choice for you – what did he bring to the table?
I first met him through a mutual friend and hadn’t really heard any of the stuff he’d worked on. I got to know him and hung out with him in the studio for a while – we weren’t even planning on working on anything for a while but we did. We just got to be fast friends and I could see that we approach music in the same way. When I listened back to what he’d done, it was ultimately his sense of rhythm that drew me to working with him professionally. Even in his less dancey stuff there’s always a really strong backbeat. Also I wanted to work with a collaborator on this record because the songs are a lot more open ended than stuff I’d done before. I didn’t really have a plan for them – so that’s why I teamed up with him.
We did notice a warmer, more melodic shift in your latest stuff…
Yeah I took some chances on these melodies that I haven’t taken before. Especially from the first album where I could hardly sing more than four notes.
What’s next for you?
Well, after I leave Australia I’m going to play a whole bunch of festivals over the [northern] summer. I’ve got a handful of song ideas but I’ve got to work out when I’ll have some time for writing. I have a hard time writing on tour, I need to switch into a different gear. Right now, in my writing, I’m going for abstract association in lyrics and melodies. I’m just trying to open up the flood gates and see what comes out and try my best not to be afraid of it.