Willie J Healey: “When I was dropped I remember thinking, ‘You idiots – I’m the next Paul McCartney’”
Willie J Healey’s 2017 debut album came out via major label Columbia Records (home of Adele, Tyler, The Creator, Arcade Fire) and was inspired by people walking their dogs in the park opposite his flat. It was swiftly followed by the Elliott Smith influenced ‘666 Kill’ EP –released via former Maccabee Felix White’s YALA! Records and with songs about “planes going missing and an obsession with death”.
Album two, ‘Twin Heavy’ is out this August and sees Willie continue to surprise as he blends humour, excitement and sentiment with a free-wheeling psychedelic recklessness. We interrupted his lockdown of recording demos and painting fish, (“they’re very easy to paint,” apparently) to talk us through getting dropped, always wanting to surprise, making a record that sounds like “a ’70s orgy”, and if getting punched in the face is really more painful than playing a bad gig.
What kind of departure does ‘Twin Heavy’ mark?
“I’m always trying to grow. I don’t like the thought of something coming out and someone saying ‘that sounds like your last one’. Sonically, it’s of much higher quality thanks to my producer Loren Humphreys (The Last Shadow Puppets, Florence + The Machine, Tame Impala) who had a crazy attention to detail. It’s definitely the most concise thing I’ve done. There’s a maturity to it that hasn’t been showcased before and it will surprise people. I understand that it won’t be for everyone, but it’ll really mean something to the people that it resonates with. Change is not something I fear.”
What were you inspired by?
“There are lots of George Harrison references but I’m a massive Neil Young fan, so that’s always there. Generally, there’s a very wide spectrum of things from that ’70s era which is what Loren specialises in. We took that rough and ready Iggy Pop stuff alongside the more concise Beatles albums, brought it all together and had this ’70s orgy. We didn’t set out to make something that was a throwback though. I’m obviously not George Harrison and I’m not Neil Young, so it doesn’t matter how much I would want to sound like them, I never do. It was meant to be new and we’ve managed to do that.”
What did you want to say on ‘Twin Heavy’?
“There are a lot of songs about love and being frustrated. When I listen back to it now, it’s quite nostalgic. With past releases, I would watch sci-fi films and write about them. This time though, I’ve written about what I’m feeling. Hopefully people will relate to them more because there’s nothing better than putting a song on when you’re feeling blue or like you want to have a good time, and having it aide that experience for you.”
And what about the darker stuff? There are lines like “when you sleep, you die a little,” from ‘Heavy Traffic’ across the album.
“There’s something really nice about something that sounds very soft and lovely, but if you dig a little deeper, there’s plenty of dirt. I’ve always enjoyed doing things like that. I wonder if it’s me trying to inject a bit of edge into some of the songs but it’s the want to be unfiltered. There’s a selfish part of me that enjoys getting the morbid, darker stuff out. Live, it feels even more powerful when you can look someone in the eye and see their reaction to it.”
Did being dropped by your last label ever make you want to quit music?
“It would take an awful lot for me to want to quit something that I love. If anything, it put a fire in my belly. It made me want to prove them wrong. At the time, I felt like they’d made a really big mistake because I was feeling hurt but I remember thinking, ‘You idiots, I’m the next Paul McCartney. I’m going to make you sorry you dropped me’ – but I understand it now. It was a minor fork in the road, but a good lesson in life.”
Is that what inspired ‘FASHUN’ and lines like “you’re going to be a star”?
“When I was writing that song, it was just a joke. It’s me making fun of the people that say that stuff and people that don’t understand how it really works. I started working in a greengrocer, I’d be serving people and my songs would come on BBC 6 Music. They’re great life moments. I was originally singing “I’m going to be a big star“, but I got a bit nervous in front of the band in New York ‘cos I didn’t really know them and I was worried they might think I’m being serious. I changed the lyrics to take the heat off.”
Do you worry about taking yourself too seriously?
“I really cringe when it feel like someone’s up their own arse. Like, come on, you’ve got a great opportunity here to say something, make someone laugh, or make someone feel angry. I don’t think that should be taken lightly by any means. I feel like I can say whatever I want in my music and if everyone did that, they would probably have a great time. I’m just trying to have fun with things really.”
So you spent years as a boxer. Does that discipline you as a musician?
“It impacts everything I do. I started when I was 10. I was unconfident and too shy to talk to people. Boxing taught me so much about different walks of life, different cultures and the coming together of different types of people. Because of that, I feel very comfortable around myself. Without boxing, I don’t think I’d be able to get up onstage and have as much fun as I do. It taught me how to lose and how to win. It might not show up directly in my music, but it’s a way of life that I respect and have got a lot from.”
What’s more difficult – losing a fight or playing a bad show?
“Losing a fight. The idea of someone punching you in the face in front of a crowd of cheering people is terrifying. Luckily I haven’t had that at any shows yet.”
So your confidence now is at an all-time high?
“Absolutely. I feel like I’ve learnt a lot about music and myself over the past couple of years. I feel very comfortable within myself at the minute and I’m really confident in the songs I’ve been writing. Sometimes the anxiety of feeling uneasy or not feeling like you know where you belong is a great thing for art. But being happy is a really good thing as well. I’m just less worried about things. I’ve realised there are so many things out of my control after you’ve recorded your music, so you have to care less even if you want something to do really well. I’ve put a lot of myself into this album and I’m afraid of that anymore.”
Do you have something to prove with this album?
“I have a lot to prove. In the past, I’ve felt very confident in my music and I’ve been unsatisfied with the amount of people that have heard it. I’m very hungry and I want to prove to people that I have a lot to offer. I have no plans on slowing down anytime soon, if things are on my terms.”
Willie J Healey releases ‘Twin Heavy’ on August 7.