Willard Grant Conspiracy – Going gentle into that good light
It is the century’s final winter solstice — the beginning of the solar calendar, the darkest day of the year, the point from which daylight begins to unspool itself in lengthening threads each 24-hour period until a midsummer night’s eve, when the cycle folds back in on itself.
“We played up in Slovenia up in a place called Piran, a 14th-century [township] right on the edge of the Adriatic. We played in a gorgeous old theater that had just been renovated. It’s right on the waterfront. Just seeing the light in the sky there — it was like walking into a renaissance painting or something. I mean, your heart just moves. There’s nothing like that.”
This is Robert Fisher of the Boston band Willard Grant Conspiracy, just days home from a European tour in support of WGC’s fourth studio recording, Everything’s Fine (released in February on Slow River/Rykodisc). We’re talking by phone — Fisher from his dwelling in Jamaica Plain (a “nice sort of bedroom community part of the city; lots of trees”), me from my new Middle Tennessee digs, a tiny attic apartment in an old farmhouse. I’ve been here less than two weeks and I’m snowed in and unsettled, not yet truly home.
“You know that moment when you get a record that you didn’t expect to be anything — and it’s so special that it becomes important to you immediately? That feeling that all of us as music fans get. There are very few things that feel better than that. About a year and a half ago, I bought the Doc Watson, the Vanguard record, the one that was self-made. I put that on and it felt like the top of my head just opened up. I heard ‘St. James Hospital’ and it was like, ‘Oh my God!’ It was like I’d been dancing around the source of something, and there it was. That’s a really remarkable feeling.
“That’s why [WGC co-founder] Paul [Austin] and I write and play music. We’re fans first. We know how that makes us feel, and we get that feeling sometimes in our own music, in the making of it. And then people talk to us after shows and tell me they get that feeling from our music, and that brings me joy.”
In keeping with a man who cites the Baptist Church and Flannery O’Connor and AA as influences, Fisher speaks of music as a vehicle for liberation and healing. He calls initial listenings to Richard Buckner’s Bloomed a “revelation,” and the Walkabouts’ Satisfied Mind, an album of covers, an “epiphany.”
Fisher has long favored spiritual imagery in his own songs. Everything’s Fine opens with “Notes From The Waiting Room”, a song about death and the afterlife of both the leaver and the left, inspired in part by childhood conversations Fisher had with his maternal grandfather. Marshaling up a bit of a drawl on the shimmering closer, “Massachusetts”, he sings, “I say salvation is in the smallest things/That life has to deliver.” The delivery is so simple, it reads from the shadows as absolute truth.
As the season cycle shows us year after year, the experience of darkness can lead way to a greater capacity for experiencing beauty. And light. Qualities that are found in abundance, both weighed and measured, in the music of the Willard Grant Conspiracy. But more on this later.
Formed in 1995 by Fisher and Austin, WGC began almost by accident. Or perhaps the players just all finally lined up as they were meant to, particularly given the enduring and at this point “ego-less” musical partnership of the key members. The two men met in 1982, and while they’d played noisy rock music together in a clutch of bands, none had borne fruit until the 1996 release of WGC’s 3 AM Sunday @ Fortune Otto’s.
With co-writers Fisher and Austin at the core on vocals and guitar, respectively, Fortune Otto’s is a stunning but humble assemblage of musician friends. The liner notes read: “Anyone who tells you they played on this, probably did.” This relaxed but structured aesthetic prevails right up until today. (The band’s name comes from the street location at which that record was made.)
“I guess it’s sort of a mutual respect society,” Fisher says. “[Paul and I] allow one another a lot of room. For better or worse, we sort of understand our roles. And we’re always open to redefining our roles; that’s happened a few times. But I think we know what each other does well, and sort of gravitate toward those things and let each other do that.
“When you’ve known someone that long, you know all their warts, and they know yours. It’s not always easy. There’ve been times when we’ve needed a break. But I think that ultimately, we decide that the thing we do together is much better than the thing we do apart. And that makes it work.”
Following Fortune Otto’s in succession were Flying Low, three limited issue live recordings, and 1999’s heralded sprawler, Mojave. Both studio projects were released first in Europe on Glitterhouse Records, as with Everything’s Fine.