Willy Mason is sitting on a barstool in a London pub, smoking a cigarette and considering the last decade. He takes a pull on his beer and thinks about what all the buzz — tours with Radiohead, collaborations with the Chemical Brothers and duets with KT Tunstall and Rosanne Cash — has really meant to the young bard now closing in on 30.
“I was like a mascot for innocence,” he says. “And looking at the world, people loved having me around so they could look at their world with those eyes, because their world wasn’t really like that any more.”
A lot has happened since Willy Mason’s five-song ep G-Ma’s Basement made its way to Conor Oberst, known as Bright Eyes, who signed him to his Team Love Records. Where The Humans Eat was released in 2004 and suddenly Mr. Mason became the new Holden Caulfield, making an impact with songs like Oxygen and Hard Hand To Hold, and gaining acclaim for his old soul alienation, which somehow maintained wonder in the face of ennui.
Willy Mason’s father Michael Mason and mother Jemima James are both talented musicians who once found themselves entangled in an unforgiving music business, and the dazzle of “the big time” mostly gave the younger Mason pause. He played the Glastonbury Festival, the crown jewel of Britain’s festival circuit, and then came home.
For a time he quit the business but then recorded If the Ocean Gets Rough in 2007, again for Virgin Records. He began touring everywhere with everyone from Death Cab for Cutie to Beth Orton, but once again found himself everywhere and nowhere all at once. He started asking himself “for what?” and quit the business again.
“That was a mask that was too heavy to stay behind,” he admits of the ill-fitting persona he’d outgrown. Having always bucked the system, right down to cancelling a tour with Tunstall in the UK on the verge of an album release, Mr. Mason’s chaotic relationship with “the business” came to an end. His label was sold and his A&R man let go. Thankfully, the man who signed Mr. Mason engineered a buy-out of his contract, so Willy was not just free, but paid for his trouble.
“I took my Dad out to dinner to celebrate. He was a little bit nervous, because he didn’t know what was gonna happen...I was, Sweet! I don’t need these suckers. But he knew I was young and wild.”
Mr. Mason dropped out, returned to his family’s compound on the Vineyard, played a little, but mostly “bummed around, did some work on the house, got involved in some community projects and working with this generation of college kids who were coming back, something to use their degrees rather than just physical labor.”
He also tried his hand at a music label, which didn’t work, did a radio show with Tom Osmers called The Fish and Farm Report, and began writing in an attempt to explore what was inside. It was during a “potluck [music jam]” that he realized his sense of displacement was as much because he was denying his soul spot as it was about the music business.
“I was singing in a lot of wooden buildings without sound systems, and there’s a frequency when the building is resonating with your voice,” he explains of his lost years. “I was up at the Grange Hall, and we decided to do [Merle Haggard’s] The Way I Am — and we actually got an involuntary yelp. That was the moment when I started taking my voice more seriously.”
Indeed, the boy who viewed his place as “being a journalist behind enemy lines” began to realize music was given to him to make his way through the world. He left the Island and moved to Los Angeles where he lived in a warehouse with kindred spirits. Again, serendipity kicked in.
He sang on Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan’s albums and toured with the Felice Brothers which led to a tour with AA Bondy. Eventually, the trail led to Dan Carey, known for his work with M.I.A., Hot Chip, Santigold, Franz Ferdinand and Kyle Minogue.
“It was an act of faith for both of us,” Mr. Mason admits. “We met and talked. His studio has all these instruments in it, and it felt like the right kind of place.”
Integrating rhythms, drum boxes, an almost reggae undertow in places, and more techno aspects, the collaboration centered on Mr. Mason’s voice as much as his lyrics. “My voice had changed in many ways — it had deepened, taken on texture. Plus the physical stillness I’d imposed on myself gave me a direct connection to reservoirs [of emotion] I didn’t have when I’d made [his prior albums].”
The new album Carry On feels like the work of a man emerging from youth. Not jaded, but aware. And the haunted depth in Mr. Mason’s voice suggests he’s come by his adult voice through hard won experience. If Show Me The Way To Go Home boasts a sinister emptiness and What Is This? offers a techno echo of lament, this is tempered by the high spirited hoedown of I Got Gold and the syncopated self-reliance of Pickup Truck.
“When I wrote Shadows in the Dark, all these songs I’d written started to come together as an album,” he explains. “I felt like the way things had gone on the last two records was weighing on me, like I still had something to prove, and I wanted to go back and do everything the right way.
“I needed to put the kid songwriter thing to bed, too. You know, it was like you wanna clean up your room before you’re going to be away for a long time. When that first song came down the mic and I heard my voice, I didn’t know where it was gonna go, but that feeling of possibility is so potent.”
Recorded in five days in South London, Carry On maintains his acoustic songwriter sensibility, but it also expands Mr. Mason’s worldview.
The song Carry On is a gently sobering look at stoicism from a bar, while If This Is The End offers the notion that even seeming finality can open the door to another beginning.
Mr. Mason has found a seriousness about his music and the business that he’s finally comfortable with. Confessing, “I was always serious, but also thought it was ridiculous every time I was on TV or something,” Mr. Mason has, well, grown up.
“This is me,” he offers. “I’m not joking around any more. This is all I have — and I can’t afford to be joking around any more. I want to push myself as a writer and a musician to see how far I can go.
“I’m learning to communicate with people, not view every connection as temporary. If the relationships can maintain...”
Managed by the UK group who’s also involved with Mumford & Sons, Mr. Mason is releasing his album on Communion, the event/music collective co-founded by Mumford’s Ben Lovett, Kevin Jones of Bear’s Den and producer Ian Grimble. Mr. Mason will tour with Mumford & Sons on their American tour.
“People get so excited around successful performers,” Mr. Mason says. “You can light up a room just walking into it, which is nice. But trying to live up to that? As just a regular human being, that takes practice... I’m still clumsy and learning, and I can keep learning and improving... Stepping back and learning how to do things better? That’s a start.”
To watch Willy Mason perform a song from the new album, visit: Willy Mason Performs If It's the End
Willy Mason performs with Ryan Montbleau, Christian McNeill and Alex Karalekas on Monday, August 19, beginning at 9:30 p.m. at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center, 79 Beach Road, Vineyard Haven. Tickets are $25. Visit mvfilmsociety.com.