It’s been a whopping nine years since Willy Mason last released an album – 2012’s majestic ‘Carry On’ – but this summer sees the return of the gruffly voiced folk singer who made the mid-2000s a lovelier place with his 2004 debut ‘Where The Humans Eat’ and its 2007 follow-up ‘If The Ocean Gets Rough’. ‘Already Dead’ is the Massachusetts artist’s most experimental album to date, but what we really want to know is where the hell he’s been for the past decade.
So we jumped on a video call for an exclusive chat ahead of the new record’s release this Friday (August 6,) as well as talking about Mason’s work on his pal’s podcast, playing old-timey classics in his local dive bar band and his upcoming UK tour, which is currently set for November.
Willy! It’s been almost a decade since the last album. Did you mean to leave it that long or did life just get in the way?
“I mean, that wasn’t really part of the plan, but things do tend to move kind of quickly, I guess. I’ve just just been working on things as they come along… I don’t know what to tell you!”
Was there a moment where you considered giving up music?
“Yes – in terms of being a professional and in the way that I was doing it; releasing albums and touring and stuff. Definitely at times it felt like it wasn’t the best way to do what I wanted to do. I try and find answers through music and hope that other people can find answers there too. I find the best way to do that is to be experiencing things with other people and life in the music business can be kind of a bubble.”
Speaking of experiencing things with other people – in 2019 you worked on a podcast about a similar theme…
“That was an amazing project, which my friend Kyana Gordon put together, called Out Here. The whole idea behind it is that listening is an important and sometimes revolutionary act. So we travelled around the States and went to people’s houses and listened to what they had to say for about an hour. Kyana was the interviewer and I was running the tape recorder and doing the driving.”
How did you end up getting involved?
“It started when we realised we were both big fans of [American author and broadcaster] Studs Turkel, who did a similar thing. The idea behind it was finding people who were community leaders, and that can mean all kinds of different things; we talked to Baba Blair Anderson in Detroit, who was one of the original Black Panthers, and with community members of the Jicarilla Apache Reservation. There was a thread of looking out for each other and love.
“That was such a powerful, moving experience – especially with everything that followed and the isolation that everyone was feeling in this last year. Those voices sustained me through all of that and made me feel like I was not alone. We really have a lot of power as a global community if we can just find ways to strengthen the threads that are already there.”
Did that experience have a bearing on the new album?
“It gave me the confidence to challenge myself. For this album, I took a lot of chances coming from the background I came from and being so ‘the singer-songwriter guy’. It feels like a departure and a bit of a gamble – or not a safe bet – for me.”
Had you been working on any projects that you considered to be ‘albums’ over the past decade?
“I certainly have been doing some experimenting in the years in-between. I’ve been recording at home, recording with other people… I haven’t forced myself to try to make an album or anything like that, but there’s some stuff kicking around. I always keep writing and I was doing a lot of music teaching for a while there. I got into teaching guitar and music theory and that really took me on a whole other track and got me really excited about music in a different way.”
A lot of the songs for ‘Already Dead’ were written in just one month – why was that month so creative for you?
“I think the biggest thing was that there was this girl I decided I wanted to make a mixtape for, and to do that I had to set up a bunch of equipment because I wanted to dub some vinyl. So I started dusting things off and plugging things in and I got carried away and started making music to put onto the mixtape. It started with interludes in-between the songs and then it just kind of went from there. So the first iteration of this album was actually on a tape.”
‘Already Dead’ is an intense, loaded title – what does it refer to?
“For me, it’s positive. I lost a few friends of mine and I felt like I had reached a low. I just got to the point where things were getting so bad around me that I started thinking, ‘Why is it that I keep going in spite of all this and when a lot of people choose not to keep going?.’ That’s when that line came into my head, “You can’t you can’t kill me / I’m already dead”, which comes from a song on the album [‘Youth On A Spit’]. I guess it’s about embracing the darkness and daring to carry it forward with light.”
Does the process of songwriting help you make your mind up about things like that? Or does the song come after you’ve decided what your standpoint is?
“A lot of times I’ll find out what I really think and feel through writing a song. In a lot of ways, the lyrics on this album are more intentional than some of [my precious] ones in the sense that I was writing lyrics separately from the music. Usually in the past I wrote a song with a guitar and the words and the melody came out together.”
You released a stand-alone single ‘Take It Off’ last summer – was that a gift for fans in the midst of a terrible year?
“I guess so. All during last year I was feeling so urgent about getting stuff out to the point that I almost dropped the whole album – some friends talked me out of that! A bit of planning and preparation can go a long way in terms of accomplishing your goal.”
Pre-pandemic, you were playing with your local dive bar house band…
“The Edbury All-Stars! Before everything shut down I was playing down The Ritz [in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts] at least once a week. I would throw in some crowd pleasers, like ‘Under The Boardwalk’ [by ’60s soulsters The Drifters]. It was a lot of fun and I got way better at the guitar doing that.”
What was the last show you played?
“Back in the early fall I went over to the elder housing and played outside of people’s windows. We were playing originals and cover tunes and some old folk songs. Somebody requested Elvis Presley, so we played some Elvis for them. You know, just keeping people’s spirits up.”
The first run of shows in support of the new album are in the UK…
“I do have a strong connection with the UK. I’m just excited to touch down, play out in the countryside and get to those roadside service areas. There’s some really good ones up north. And I love Sunday roasts.”
– Willy Mason’s ‘Already Dead’ is out on August 6 via Cooking Vinyl