“I think of this record as the third and final chapter to a particular narrative that started with Where the Humans Eat,” says Willy Mason. “It’s a narrative that’s loosely based on me, on my character through performance, and I think that by completing this album, I’m sort of closing the door on that and opening up a whole new world of possibilities.”
Mason was just 19 when his first album was released, a record that showed us a young man with a tremendous, broad-oaked voice, a great songwriting talent, and a peculiar wisdom beyond his years. Three years later, in 2007, he returned with If the Ocean Gets Rough, an album that only underlined his ability to capture the spirit of a time and a place and a generation.
Some extensive touring later, Mason returned home to Martha’s Vineyard with the intention of re-rooting himself in his community. “I felt like I wanted, needed to get stuck in somewhere,” he explains, “to keep up with what was going on with the people my age. That was around the time that most of the kids I grew up with were coming home from college, so I thought it was my journalistic responsibility to stay abreast of that situation. I didn’t want to get too far from that, because I felt like it was important for my writing.”
In the two years that followed, Mason kept himself busy: writing songs of course, but also playing in friends’ bands, promoting shows and teaching music classes, as well as a little shell-fishing, and hosting a radio talk show called The Fish & Farm Report. “I got to learn a lot,” he says. “The diversity and the range of experiences gave me a chance to learn a lot more about music – I got to further my musicianship, and I also felt I got to help out a lot with stuff going outside of my own career. I came to see playing shows and entertainment as a fundamental part of society, and I’m just playing my role.”
All the while of course, Mason was accumulating a clutch of new songs that would come make his third album. He wrote what he thought to be the final track and headed out on the road touring alone at first, and then with the Felice Brothers. “I just started picking up more and more gigs,” he recalls, “and finally found my way to London, and to Dan Carey.”
Dan Carey, a producer renowned for his work with artists as diverse as Franz Ferdinad, MIA and Hot Chip, was introduced to Mason through a mutual friend. Mason was intrigued by Carey’s use of rhythm and bass, and Carey, in turn, was excited by the idea of using drumboxes on Mason’s songs. “It didn’t make sense to me,” Mason admits, “it scared me, but I was open to trying it.”
And so Mason decamped to Streatham, south London, and settled down to making his album. “Dan was a musical collaborator, and so he had a big influence on the sound,” he explains. “Most of the songs would start with him building up a rhythm, and he would build that rhythm through a series of contraptions — vintage drum machines going through guitar amplifiers spaced all over the room with different delays on them, so it would create sounds coming from all different directions. And then me and my brother would play along, and see where it went from there. It was surprisingly natural — he was able to make the beats sound so human, and so it felt like the tracks were laid and I could kind of let go a bit more.”
Letting go is perhaps the greatest theme of this record. It’s there in the rhythms — hints of dub and reggae infusing Mason’s characteristic folk structures, and in his voice too, which swings from gravel-deep to something higher, flightier and more fragile. And of course it’s also there packed tight in these songs’ lyrics; songs about love and lost connections, and even a song in part inspired by the anxiety of midterm exams.
And there are songs, of course, that take the temperature of the times: Show Me the Way to Go Home, for instance, was written in the wake of reading Barack Obama’s autobiography, and carries a mood that is also carried elsewhere on the album, capturing all the hope and disillusionment of a new presidency.
One of the album’s most arresting numbers, Carry On, is also one of its simplest; guitar, low strings, and Mason’s port wine voice singing a sad, slow lullaby. “Beside my bed there is a lamp, and in that lamp there is a lonely moth,” it opens. “He’s got one night, he’s got one life, and one thing on his mind, and that’s the fire.”
It’s Mason’s favourite lyric on the album. “Of course for the moth it’s their instinct to come out for the moon’s sake,” he explains, “so the lightbulb is like an artificial stand-in for the moon that is detrimental to their health. And people have similar distractions on their search for whatever it is that we’re programmed to go for.”
The song’s simplicity, Mason attributes to “listening to a lot of classic country at that time”, admiring their simple chord progressions, as well as how direct the singing and the ideas stand. “They’re simple songs,” he says, “but you can tell a lot of art goes into making them that simple.”
Mason wrote the album’s closing track, the warm, rich, welcoming If It’s the End “when I started to realize that I’d been out of the music business long enough that people didn’t know who I was anymore, so I had to move ahead as a new beginning.”
But there were other influences here too — the death of a friend, as well as a broader, bolder sense of something changed: “Around that time I think a lot of people felt like the wind had gone out of their sails,” Mason recalls. “All this hope about a new president, all these hopeful changes, it seemed like everything came to a stop. It felt like maybe we’d missed our chance this go around. And that was a heavy feeling.”
But there is a hope rising anew. “If it’s the end, then it’s not the only end,” runs the song’s refrain, and it’s a sentiment that seems to fire this record.“I think the album itself is about growing up and trying to find one’s place,” Mason says, “about making peace with the past, accepting it as part of one’s identity and moving forward. And thinking back I’ve had that same heavy feeling many times through my life, so I figured keep pushing, and see what happens this go round.”