As Willy Mason turned 24 in November of 2008, he was in an enviable position for a young singer-songwriter. Although his first two albums, 2004's Where the Humans Eat and 2007's If the Ocean Gets Rough, had won admiring reviews in his native U.S., they had won a lot more than that in England. There, both releases hit the Top 40 albums chart, and they yielded four Top 60 singles in all. Mason had the wind at his back, but he made a most unusual choice at that point: He put the brakes on his career, stopped touring and moved back to Martha's Vineyard, the Massachusetts island where he had grown up.
"It was a tough decision," Mason tells the Scene, "but I felt like it was something I had to do. I knew that where I needed to be was at home. It was a sense of responsibility not just to my family but to my songwriting and to my career in the long run. Songwriters need to be moved by things to write moving songs, so you have to stay engaged with the world in ways that allow you to be moved. The way I was touring wasn't giving me a lot of material to work with. But the decision felt like it was going against the grain, and I definitely wrestled with it beforehand and since. Was it the right thing to do?"
It was, if the evidence on his newly released four-song EP Don't Stop Now can be trusted. The four songs are part of an 11-track LP, Carry On, that has already been released in Europe and Australia and on Spotify (the U.S. distribution is still being worked out). The songwriting has deepened to match Mason's incongruous, old man's baritone; in place of his former, youthful explosions of verbiage, now there are whittled-down, slightly twisted aphorisms. "When the road goes on, you sail," he sings on the EP's title track. "When it cracks and burns, you bail."
The music is still best described as Americana, even though Mason recorded Carry On with M.I.A.'s British producer Dan Carey. For Mason, however, Carey provided microchip beats that sounded not like machine guns but like junkyard scraps banged on by a crowbar, as on a Tom Waits record. With this percussion and Mason's vocals slathered in echo and occupying the foreground, the guitars and keys could be very minimalist. The results resemble a mist-swathed nighttime in the industrial part of town.
"The sound suits the subject matter," Mason says. "The songs had a lot to do with searching, trying to see through a fog. A lot of it had to do with my situation, trying to make sense of what had just happened to me in the music business, trying to make sense of becoming an adult in a small town, trying to make sense of everything else. I stopped touring right around the time the kids I grew up with got out of college. A lot of them came home with the same look on their faces that I had on mine."
Did he find the answer he was looking for? "When I signed my first record deal," Mason replies, "I thought I had found the answer to everything, but it was only a very small piece of the answer. I finally realized that learning takes time, and it takes a lot of mistakes. The answers are spread thin across time."
When he moved back to Martha's Vineyard, Mason co-hosted a community-radio news program about farming and fishing and worked diligently on his songwriting, building up enough of a catalog to carry him through a couple albums. Perhaps most importantly, he reconnected with his parents, both of whom were Americana artists themselves. Mason's dad wrote and recorded a country/folk album for Columbia that was never released and later gave guitar lessons, which is how he met Willy's mom.
"She went on to write very, very good songs," says Mason. "Her melodies are unusual in a blues and ragtime way, but they make complete sense when you hear them. They switch back and forth between melancholy and joyful, even within verses, in way that moves you every time, and the lyrics always complement the melody. My parents had a band for a while with Phil Lee as their drummer — first in San Francisco and then in New York."
As a grade-schooler, Mason used to love his parents' music parties. As a teenager, of course, he had to rebel against that, and he formed a series of hard-rock bands in which he tried to scream like Kurt Cobain. But by the time he was 16, he started singing more in his speaking voice — that mesmerizing, melancholy baritone. That enabled him to focus more on his lyrics, and he began playing the acoustic guitar more.
"It was kind of inevitable I'd drift back," says Mason. "In a sense I never stopped being that little kid in the living room listening in on those parties my parents were having. I was 10 years old in my pajamas and they were loose and drinking but never sloppy. It just felt like everyone in the room was genuinely having a good time — you could tell by the sounds they were making. Those were some of the best experiences I've ever had. Part of me wants to re-create that everywhere I go."
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