Willy Mason: ‘Original Voices’, Oppikoppi & ‘Carry On’

Willy Mason sings and plays finger-picking guitar. He records country on vintage analogue tapes, but enjoys collaborating with The Chemical Brothers and MIA’s producer. He’s a man who loves making music so much he’s adding two extra weeks to his first South African tour, hoping to meet and record with South African musicians – and just play more shows.

Willy Mason photographed by Eric Anderson

Willy Mason photographed by Eric Anderson

Willy Mason was widely hailed as penning lyrics beyond his years on his first album – which was punted by BBC DJs and led to a following in the United Kingdom – and, eventually, gigs at Glastonbury, collaborations with The Chemical Brothers, tours with Radiohead and the hook-up with his latest producer, Dan Carey (Franz Ferdinand, MIA, Hot Chip). Back home, his take on country-based and the idiom of Americana – but with an often contemporary bent – led to tours with Rosanne Cash, Evan Dando, Beth Orton and Mumford and Sons, and a song (“Run”) on the “Walking Dead” soundtrack.

This interview by Evan Milton first appeared in the Cape Argus “Good Weekend” on 2014-08-04.

“It’s been a great ten years,” says Mason, who released his debut album, “Where The Humans Eat” in 2004, when he was just 19. “The first album was just me and my brother, recorded at Old Soul Studio in the Catskill Mountains and the recorded company liked the simple takes we did, so they kinda got that record for free. For the next one, we travelled to Longview Farm in western Massachusetts where my mom was actually a resident chef in the late ‘70s. We recorded with a larger group, bringing strings and timpani in there, and played on a stage where the Rolling Stones used to rehearse; we cut that live, and then toured it as a band. Then, for ‘Carry On’, I decided to take some of the load off my shoulders and worked with Dan Carey as a producer. He has a studio in his house, like a storefront, and we cut the record there; mostly just Dan, myself and my brother Sam – it was a whole different kind of experience, using mechanical drums and building the rhythms and accompaniments from there. Oh, yeah, and in Nashville, before that, we did this live two-track with a all of my parents’ songs that I’ve wanted to record. We’ve recorded in an apartment where blues and jazz musicians used to come and stay. We’ve recorded above the old United Records pressing plant in Nashville.”

“In the past hundred or two hundred years, a lot has changed, but a lot has stayed the same. People are still trying to make sense of the world, and find contentment… My songs give me comfort and there have been occasions where other people say it gives them comfort too.”
– Willy Mason
With song titles like “Hard Hand To Hold”, “Sold My Soul”, “When The River Moves On” and “Restless Fugitive”, Mason is clearly influenced by Americana, and critics often suggest a musical lineage that includes Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and JJ Cale (although newer ears might also name-check Conor Oberst or Jake Bugg).
“What I like about Americana is that it’s rooted in songwriting,” says Mason. “It can be adapted to many different styles or schools that enough people are familiar with so its easy to pick up different musicians and singers – it’s become a kind of common language. All the songs are written on a guitar, so it’s pretty flexible. You could say this about other older styles of music too, but this happens to be the one that I grew up in, and I lean heavily on it. In the past hundred or two hundred years, a lot has changed, but a lot has stayed the same. People are still trying to make sense of the world, and find contentment. I think the styles I grew up in have a way of putting those things into words, in a way they can be understood and shared. My songs give me comfort and there have been occasions where other people say it gives them comfort too.”
“In an age of media managed corporate stars, Willy Mason has a refreshing attitude. It’s also part of the same raw, earnest and honest, but life-loving, energy that underpins all of his musical incarnations. Don’t miss him.”
In Cape Town, Mason shares a stage with “anti-folk” singer-songwriter Sarah Blasko, twice a winner and sixteen times a nominee for Australia’s ARIA award, with Cat Power, the American songstress with the unusual distinction of being nominated for the UK’s BRIT award, and South Africa’s own SAMA-nominated Tailor. Turns out Mason knows both Ms Blasko and Chan “Cat Power” Marshall.
“I shared a bill with Sarah Blasko one time in Australia on a big tour that I was part of – and Cat Power, I spent a week as part of her crew, helping to load equipment and things like that. You’ve got to do all the jobs in this business, do what it takes until you’re in a place to get your music heard.”
I joke that does Mason think Ms Marshall might ever be part of his crew? “No way, man!” he says. “To have her around in any capacity would be a joy, man, but it wouldn’t be gentlemanly to ask her to lug gear or lift anything.”
Asked for any other comments, Mason ventures this: “I’m really looking forward to visiting South Africa and I’m staying on for two weeks after the shows. I haven’t decided exactly where; the plans are open, but I’m just putting it out there: if anybody wants Willy Mason at a house concert; I’m open for business. Collaborations, or recording projects; I’m there and ready.”
In an age of media managed corporate stars, it’s a refreshing attitude. It’s also part of the same raw, earnest and honest, but life-loving, energy that underpins all Mason’s musical incarnations. Cape Town; don’t miss this one.
This interview by Evan Milton first appeared in the Cape Argus “Good Weekend” on 2014-08-04.
 —
Willy Mason (US) plays the Rolling StoneOriginal Voices” with Cat Power (US), Sarah Blasko (Aus) and Tailor (Jhb) on Wednesday 6 August (Baxter Theatre, Main Road, Rondebosch; doors 5.30pm, starts 6.30pm sharp; 021-6857880; tickets R300 from Computicket.com). The international artists also play the annual Oppikoppi Festival (7 to 9 August, outside Northam, Limpopo; line-up, tickets and details from Oppikoppi.co.za). More onWillyMason.com.
Two other Cape Town concerts also feature the Oppikoppi international acts:
  • Wolfmother (Aus), Editors (UK), Tatran (Il) and our own Shadowclub play “One Night In Cape Town” on Thursday 7 August (Good Hope Centre, Cape Town; doors 4pm, show 7pm to midnight; tickets R200-R400 from Plankton.mobi).
  • Aloe Blacc (US) and our own Toya Delazy play (Grand Arena, GrandWest, tickets from R200 from Plankton.mobi)
Willy Mason photographed by Eric Anderson

Willy Mason photographed by Eric Anderson

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