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Willie J Healey operates within his own lane. This is a musician who can write about any topic that grabs his attention: from wry observationals and the innocence of young love, through to gothic visitations from the devil and alien abductions. He’s unconstrained by genre, moving at will between scrappy garage-rock, evocative Americana and sumptuous psychedelia. And it’s all his own work, the product of obsessively writing song after song in his studio/garage/bedroom.
As an unconventional musician, it’s little surprise that he’s an unorthodox character too. On social media, he comes across as easy-going and carefree. In person, he’s unguarded, considered and immediately friendly. It’s unfathomable to imagine him being angry, but he’s adamant that he’ll do anything to protect his creative integrity, much like his hero Neil Young. He’s a curious mix between a young man with the world at his feet and an old soul.
As such, it makes perfect sense that he puts a contemporary filter on timeless ‘70s-flavoured sounds. It’s all there in his forthcoming EP ‘Hello Good Morning’ and his new album that will follow next year. It continues his relationship with new music champions YALA! Records, who released his previous EP ‘666 Kill’ in 2018.
Willie’s story both starts and continues in the sleeping working class town of Carterton. “I call it the armpit of Oxfordshire,” he jokes, “but it’s my armpit and I love it.” Music wasn’t his immediate calling. Instead, his father encouraged him to try his hand at boxing. As Willie deadpans, “As a young ginger unconfident child, we thought it wasn’t such a bad idea for me to do something that might build my confidence.”
Boxing evolved into the first long-term obsession of his life. He trained Monday to Friday from the ages of ten to seventeen, competing in 42 amateur bout. “Boxing used to scare the hell out of me the whole time,” he admits. “For a lot of boxers it’s scary. It’s like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. It was an obsession and I loved the routine of it as well.”
The turning point came when a careers advisor suggested – for surely the first time in history – that music could be a better option. “For me music was a break from boxing. It was my little secret.”
Willie hung up his gloves and embarked upon a music diploma. Giving up his long-term training schedule was scary because he suddenly had so much free time. His approach to music was “self-taught, trundling along, swinging in the dark and working it out.” He completed the course, and then joined his dad as an “appalling” plasterer’s assistant until an opportunity in music arose.
Although he briefly lost sight of that goal, he got there in the end. A self-released EP resulted in him signing a deal with Columbia. He made ‘People and Their Dogs’, an album that he’s immensely proud of. It also helped him fulfill another dream when he had the opportunity to mix it at the Wilco Loft in Chicago.
The end of that deal was “sobering and insignificant.” He carried on doing what he was going to do regardless – writing at home in the garage. Unsure of his next step, Willie challenged himself to write and record an EP within a week. Lacking the finances to call on a full backing band, he played almost every instrument himself. The result was the gothic-tinged Americana of the ‘666 Kill’ EP, which was released by Felix White’s YALA! Records.
As new songs progressed, Willie delved further into his own experiences. But escaping the garage was also important. He’d relax in a local cafe, wait next to morning commuters at the train station and sit alone in the cinema – all with a notepad in hand to document any interesting details or snippets of conversation that he overheard. “I turned into a creep for a while,” he smiles self-deprecatingly. “People must’ve thought I was writing a to-do list.”
Willie soon demoed a wealth of material and was then introduced to Loren Humphrey – at various points drummer for The Last Shadow Puppets, Florence + The Machine, Tame Impala and Lana Del Rey as well as a producer. Loren landed in London, fresh from a world tour, and spent a couple of days staying at the Healey family home as the duo worked on pre-production.
He made an immediate impression on Willie and you feel that they share an unlikely bromance. The pair stood out in the village: Loren looking like “he’d stepped out of a time machine from a ‘70s episode of Top of the Pops” and towering over Willie, whose style is more American tradesman than suave superstar.
They then headed to the Echo Zoo studio in Eastbourne with a hectic plan of recording fifteen songs in nine days. Recording live to tape was an indulgence, but one which enabled them to embrace a particular mindset. For example, the slow motion agony of waiting for a tape to rewind left Willie with the anticipation that he had to get the next take right. It fitted Loren’s purist approach, while Willie was happy to focus on playing rather than having to do everything himself.
Those sessions yielded both the album and the ‘Hello Good Morning’ EP. Lead track ‘Songs For Johanna’ takes Willie’s pop nous to new heights, as if YALA! labelmates The Magic Gang teamed up with Elvis Costello. It’s a snappy tale of age-old teen dilemmas: love triangles, confused sexual identity and unrequited passions.
The idea, says Willie, came from his ability to tap back into that angst. “There’s so much confusion and all these emotions. Friends and family tell you that it’s all insignificant, but you don’t know that until you’re through it. Everything will pass.”
The rest of the EP also pulsates with his freewheeling, out-of-time approach. Inspired by John Lennon’s ‘Gimme Some Truth’, ‘Polyphonic Love’ is a bluesy/grunge hybrid – a simple plea to simplify life and leave the creativity to Willie. It’s followed by his purest love song to date, the Tame Impala meets ELO slow jam ‘For You’ and the rousing orchestration of the Brian Wilson-flavoured ‘Thousand Reasons’.
It tees Willie up to finally make the impact that his prodigious talents deserve. But what does he consider success to be?
“With boxing the goal was clear – I want to win. But with music, how do you define winning? If you never play a gig but sit at home each night playing guitar and it makes you happy, in my book you’ve won.”
He cites his high profile fans (and now friends) – including Laurie Vincent of Slaves, Orlando Weeks, Jamie T and Gaz Coombes – as inspirations. “It blows my mind because I love them all as artists. I can see why they’re all in the position they are and I want to be like that. But I’m flattered when anyone knows and likes my music. We get some hip kids at the shows and that’s cool. And we get some not-so-hip kids too, and that’s great. Everyone’s welcome.”