Critics often greet new and promising artists with grandiose statements as to the merits of their work and potential, often to the detriment of the artist. Fortunately when the exceptional Willy Mason emerged, first with the5-track ‘G-Ma’s Basement EP’ and then with debut album ‘Where The Humans Eat’, he remained unfazed by the acclaim showered on him from every quarter, which included being hailed as the new Bob Dylan. Mason’s image as a troubadour touring through the American heartland does invoke the lineage of Dylan and Woody Guthrie, but the man is more concerned with his own talent than bootlegging the past.
Mason has a new record, provisionally titled ‘If The Ocean Gets Rough’, ready for release in March that finds him refining and developing his music and lyrical themes in an inimitable poetic and personal elegance. Whatever the eventual title this is a remarkably coherent album and it is hard to imagine any of the songs being left off or placed in different order. Touring around Iowa playing house concerts with his brother Sam when Clash caught up with him, he speaks in a gravely voice that belies his 22 years, full of rollies and Jack Daniel’s. Mason is thoughtful and considered in all he says; this is a man with no use for unthinking or unmeant words.
“This album is a little more refined in terms of the song-writing and instrumentation; the whole recording process was a progression for me,” he says when asked on how the latest record compares to his previous work. “I feel I’ve stepped into a whole new era of creation. Whilst recording it I learned a couple of new tricks and had a couple to use from playing on the road too. I’m psyched about it, the songs are playing out very well, which is important… means that they have life and have meaning to people other than me. Every track on the record is strong and equal in my eyes. I recorded 30 songs for this record so the group of songs that made the cut matter hugely to me. The night I wrote ‘Save Myself’ I felt like I had a record rather than a collection of songs, I slotted the rest around that and the album naturally took shape.”
Mason’s music primarily concerns his native land of America, a land he loves and perhaps wishes to re-define given the confusion afflicting the American identity in recent years. Certainly his formative years forged his own identity as a man and as an artist. “I grew up in Martha’s Vineyard off Cape Cod. There is a local community of 14,000 people that swells to over 200,000 during the summer. That dynamic influenced me a lot. Feeling the sharp contrast between a local community and the service it needs to provide to outsiders in order to survive. In the winter it is a lonely, quiet and often stark place so everyone comes together because otherwise it can be pretty rough. Lots of house and music parties and drinking around fireplaces.”
“In the summer the realisation that we rely on tourists hit hard and this got me thinking a lot about community and how in situations like that the economic side cannot be ignored. Before the tourism developed the main ways of life were farming and fishing and that got me thinking about the way people sustain themselves and the sort of sacrifices that people will make to be their own boss and not be subservient, People are trying to resist and preserve the community but are in a weak position due to the economic dependence. I feel the sense of community is still very strong with my generation. I’ve held on to my Grandma’s house through my record deal and it’s still my home. I was back there for Thanksgiving in November and that was important for me: being with my family.”
Asked for his thoughts on the contemporary music scene Mason expresses interest and admiration for Guided By Voices and The Books. His real passions are from a different era though; both his parents performed as folk singers as he grew up and played the Everly Brothers, The Band and Tom Waits. “Those records and Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, John Lee Hooker, Miles Davis, Dr John, and old show tunes like Gershwin have mattered to me ever since I first heard them. I’m mainly into music from before 1960. I think there was a change around then due to the advance of technology and the media. Music and other art became targeted at so many different people that it became less rooted in a specific culture or style.”
His thinking on such matters is not from a Luddite instinct however: Mason is no technophobe. “YouTube and MySpace are tools with huge potential. At first technologies can be detrimental – when digital music came out it sounded shit at first. These empowering media outlets can have an effect in terms of bringing the world together. At the moment I see it only as potential for when they have matured though.”
I feel the sense of community is still very strong with my generation. I’ve held on to my Grandma’s house through my record deal and it’s still my home.
Mason’s last tour of the UK culminated in many people’s highlight of Glastonbury 2005, playing on the newly-named John Peel stage as the sun set, and unsurprisingly the man is keen to return, albeit on his own terms. “I’m coming over to tour the UK in January and am planning to set up some house concerts. I like to tour like that as I’ll be able to meet people and see more of the country too. The whole idea of touring with so all the possibilities it allows is an amazing situation to be in: meeting people, seeing places and having the chance to be paid too… I want to play with the concept so it’s the best experience. There’s no point in staying in a tour bus’s bubble; you may as well stay home if that’s your attitude to travel. I’ll be back around March time to play more organised venues too.”
Asked if he thrives on the communal life when touring Mason replies: “It’s great to play with other musicians… my brother Sam is always on at me to hang out more. Other people constantly inspire me. It is great to pick up books and strike up conversations with anyone. That’s how I learn from people.”
“I guess I have a tendency to be alone. I need to go off by myself to move on creatively and get a fresh start. There’s a book called Becoming The Crane written by a friend of mine in which the characters are of a race of people that over their lives have a series of changes through which they become more like a particular animal. During that time of change they cannot bear to be around other people and they have to go off and face the metamorphosis alone. That’s how I feel.”