Willy Mason – Nature’s way
“I feel like I should say thank you when I finish my interviews,” says the always polite postmodern troubadour Willy Mason, voice creaking a bit like a rusty hinge. “Because they’re almost like therapy sessions.”
Since being tagged as yet another new Bob Dylan by the British press, Mason has grown used to the psychic probing engendered by his songs about moral relativity, emotional numbness, and the abdication of the Baby Boomers’ responsibility, especially to their kids. Lines such as, “When the old religion is the new greed,” and “When the vultures copyright the word free” (from “Save Myself” on his new Astralwerks disc If The Ocean Gets Rough) speak volumes about his view of today’s avaricious justifications.
That he comes from Martha’s Vineyard, largely a summer resort island for old money and the highly nouveau riche, stands in stark contrast to Mason’s life. His parents moved there when their musical dreams derailed, leading to poverty so acute they had one lightbulb they took room-to-room. “It gave me the sensation the ground was shaking,” he says. “There wasn’t firm ground to stand on. It felt so strong, I had to write about it.”
Mason’s songs captured the disorientation and inertia so well that he caught the ear of Bright Eyes leader Conor Oberst when Mason was 16. Oberst called him onstage in Burlington, Vermont, to sing “Oxygen”. Post-high school couch-surfing through Manhattan led to a deal with Team Love Records, which issued Mason’s 2004 debut Where The Humans Eat. A champion at the BBC turned Mason into a sensation in England.
“My first headlining gig, I went out after to sell CDs, and the crowd just picked me up and carried me along like a rip tide,” he recalls with a laugh. “England is like this virtual-reality training ground. I’m sent in with a guitar to try and survive the world of celebrity, then I come home to recuperate and figure out what just happened.”
Long on metaphors rooted in nature, If The Ocean Gets Rough is an examination on protecting one’s hope from a bankruptcy of the soul. “A lot of the grownups around us hadn’t seemed to accept their adulthood,” Mason says. “It was like they couldn’t find what they thought they wanted from being young, so they didn’t accept their responsibilities. So when there was nothing for me in the schools or adults to grasp onto, the island gave me another kind of substance; it drove me into the woods and to the ocean.
“Nature has that stability the humans have lost along the way. It knows its place in the world, how things work…because of that, it was the one place that made sense.”
“Riptide”, “When The River Moves On”, the title track and “When The Leaves Have Fallen” have heavy grounding in the physicality and force that is an island of bucolic pastures and woods, craggy ocean fronts and faded beach towns. The strength of the natural elements provide the resolve, an apt juxtaposition to the washout and alienation of “We Can Be Strong” (which features harmonies from Rosanne Cash) and the hollowness of “The World That I Wanted,” along with the beneath-the-surface hypocrisy of “Simple Town”.
Mason is a man at peace in the world, yet grappling with callousness, indifference and greed. Rather than turn toward nihilism, he brings a sweeping, at times bulky, folkie buskiness to the cheerfully optionless “Gotta Keep Walking” and the refugee’s stoicism in “End Of The Race”.
With churning and choppy beats wrapped in Nina Violet’s plaintive violin, If The Ocean Gets Rough is more dense than the sketches that marked Mason’s previous work. His clear-eyed vision of such cluttered emotional plains lends an austere elegance to the recordings. There’s nothing flashy or shiny, just unburnished lives reflected by the raw-boned nature of the playing, with acoustic guitars and bass lines echoing on the largely organic arrangements.
It’s not the breezy, feel-good hit of the summer for certain. Grave enough to compel and command one’s ear as the coming-of-age view from just about anywhere, Mason looks for a truth his peers can cling to. Economically realized, he doesn’t seek grand revelations, but rather the heart of the matter.
As for the New Dylan comparisons, he’s philosophical, neither buying in nor marginalizing others’ opinions. “There’s a lack of writers who are describing life as it is,” he suggests. “It’s a style of reporting almost more than inventing or creating [lyrics]. My parents were completely honest about the disappointments and how they felt, so when you’re not too proud to wear those things on your sleeve, you can relax about them.
“When you’re not ashamed, you’re able write about whatever’s going on. Once you get used to it, it’s easy; I don’t think twice about it.”