A Muse's Muse Interview with San Francisco-based performing songwriter, Austin Willacy
conducted by: Jodi Krangle
Question: What are your earliest musical memories and influences? How do you think they've shaped the musician you are today?
My earliest musical memories are like little mini-movies. I took this music and movement class with my brother when I was very young, 3 or 4 yrs. old, and we moved around to music and balanced sticks on our heads and stuff. We had an advantage with the stick thing because we both had little afros and the stick nestled in there very comfortably.
The next mini-movie is of taking recorder lessons with this tall strawberry blond man named David (I think). I had a brown and white recorder and my dad played, too, so we played a few duets. I loved the way the parts fit together.
The last musical snapshot is of listening to 8-track tapes of Stevie Wonder in my family's buick regal on long road trips to Jackson, Mississippi. It was about a 13 hour drive from Cleveland, Ohio (where I grew up) and my brother and I slept as much of the way as possible. But Stevie Wonder's Musiquarium and Johnny "Guitar" Watson were playing a lot as I drifted in and out of sleep.
I think that the music and movement class didn't influence me all that much, but playing the recorder led me to the clarinet and saxophone as an elementary and junior high schooler. I think that playing these instruments did two things. One, they got me pretty firmly rooted in a sense of tonality. Unlike fretless instruments or trombone, once you're in tune, if you finger the note and blow, the note will come out. I think that helped me out when I started singing. The other way in which they helped me was that both clarinet and sax (sax particularly) have a rather human vocal timbre. I really got into that and the funk, soul and r&b music in which I heard them (sax more than clarinet) played.
My dad's a huge blues fan. I grew up hearing blues all the time. Johnny "Guitar" Watson is one of many bluesmen I grew up hearing and humming along with, but he's the one we had the 8-track of. Stevie Wonder has such a versatile, powerful voice that I can't help but be inspired and intimidated when I hear him sing. I love a lot of his music, from the early motown music through the jungle fever soundtrack. Over the years I've sung a number of his tunes in a number of different contexts.
As a songwriter, the fact that he wrote about social and political issues, and did it so powerfully, had a big effect on me. It raised the bar for me in terms of the type of lyrical content that I expected of myself once I started writing. I felt that I had to push myself to write about my thoughts, feelings and experiences in a different way so that I didn't get bogged down in "oohbabywannarubyouallnightlongcomedancewithme" land.
Question: So what got you writing songs in the first place? I mean, there's a big leap from listening to great songwriters to wanting to be one, right? :) Was it just a natural progression from the instruments you were playing? The singing? Or was there a specific reason you started - and then continued?
I'm a very communicative person by nature. I love to read and learn new words. My conversation skills in French and Spanish are dull from lack of regular use, but I can understand both languages reasonably well. I had a problem writing poetry in high school; I was just too embarrassed, but there was this woman that I was totally into my sophomore year of college and there were things that I needed to tell her that were in that delicate and beautiful place that exists only when words are set to a melody.
It felt so good to have what I needed to say out of me, but I also loved the process of getting there. I didn't play any instruments at the time, so it took me a while to get up to ramming speed on the writing front, but even back then, I was definitely hooked.
I was listening to lots of great, and rather eclectic music and that lead me to approach my own writing from a comparative standpoint. I was listening to Peter Gabriel and Tom Waits and Bob Marley and The Beatles and Stevie Wonder and Prince and Patty Larkin and Sting and trying to find a voice for myself that I would want to listen to.
Question: So how long have you been writing now? And which song do you consider to be your most successful? Why?
Hmmmm! I've been writing for 11 years, but the first two years i wrote one or two songs a year. The year after I graduated from college I did research with a professor in education and I tutored freshman English. Over the course of that year I decided to move out west and give music a real go.
I decided that I needed to really hone my songwriting skills and that my first step was to rid my songs of the analytical language that I had been using for the entirety of my academic career. I bought a little journal and started writing about experiences and feelings. Whenever I found myself relying on analysis, or gratuitously big words (college essay style), I reworked the section until I found a more heartfelt way to express it. I did this 4 or 5 days a week, mostly at lunch.
Eventually, I reached a point where I felt my lyrical sensibilities were in a place that allowed me to feel my way through them so that the melody could just come out of me.
I've said a lot and not explicitly answered your question and I think that's because I'm having a hard time. At least to me, many of my songs are pretty different from each other. When I write, I try to indulge the aspects of the feeling that allow the song to have its own personality. To make this easier for myself, I'll limit myself to the 12 songs that are on 'american pi'. From my standpoint as a writer, I guess I think that "away" is one of my most successful songs. It encapsulates a lot of who I am musically, lyrically and vocally. It starts off wistful with a latin pulse and gradually opens up into a rockin' bluesy bridge before it recedes. It's about the disappointment of not being seen as who you are. It's about reluctantly accepting that you somehow can't turn your back on something that's not good ultimately good for you. I say "you" because I believe that many other people can relate to those feelings.
I really enjoy playing and singing the song. It was the first song I wrote on guitar and audiences respond well to it, so it resonates well with me on those fronts as well.
Question: How do you deal with the dreaded Writer's Block? Do you believe it exists?
I believe writer's block exists in the same way that puberty exists. We are constantly going through internal changes as our external environment continues to evolve ever more rapidly. Sometimes, the internal and the external don't align themselves in a way that is conducive to writing the same way that sometimes your favorite meal doesn't taste as good as you expect it too.
Writer's block is a figment of our society's imagination. There are movies and tv shows that address it as a central theme, so to that end, it most certainly exists. We have given it life by talking about it, dreading it and calling some of our experiences by that name. However, I think that writer's block is really more a function of evolution. The more songs I write, the further I try to push myself. I believe this has to do with the fact that my internal critic has had the benefit of time to review what I've done in the past. My internal critic makes sure I don't keep doing things I don't like in other songs I've written and keeps me on track. It sort of functions as a songwriting superego. Depending upon how this is read people might say "He has a super ego indeed!"
If I haven't written anything for a while, I say "Oh my God! I've lost it! I can't write anymore!" Then I sit down and write a song. If I'm particularly far up the creek, I'll write lyrics as soon as I wake up. It serves the dual purpose of preserving some of the dreaminess in the lyrics and sneaking past my critic. By habit, my critic wakes up at least 10 - 15 minutes after I do. Once I've gotten the skeletal version of what I'm trying to express out of me I let the critic become involved in the shaping and refining of it until I've got something we're both happy with.
Question: Ok. We've talked about your *inner* critic. What about an *outer* critic? How do you deal with criticism? When does it help you and when does it hinder you? And who do you think your best (and most helpful) critics are?
Thus far I've been extremely fortunate in that somehow I've managed to get pretty favorable reviews; however, most critics can't resist the opportunity to throw in a coupla barbs, even in the midst of a favorable review. That never ceases to catch me by surprise.
As the songwriter, no one is more attuned to what I perceive to be the strengths and weaknesses of my material than I am. Think of my perception as a circle of strengths and a circle of weaknesses with me right in the middle of both of them. The closer a criticism lands to the middle of either circle, particularly the circle of weaknesses, the more it stings.
If someone criticzes something I consider to be a strength in my music, it's easier to chalk it up to differences in taste than if someone criticizes something I consider to be a weakness.
I think that songwriters are inherently opinionated. All artists are. We have to be. In order to write a song, sculpt or choreograph you need to start with a vision or a feeling and remain true to it. It's an entirely subjective process. If I feel that I have adhered to my vision and honored the muse, criticism doesn't faze me much. However, if I feel like I lost sight of my vision and fell short of the mark, criticism serves as a painful reminder of the fact that I didn't listen to myself hard enough.
Criticism is feedback; it's information. I take it in and evaluate it. If I feel it has merit, I incorporate it into my standards. If I feel it is baseless, I let it go. To that end, I think almost all criticism can be helpful. Obviously, the criticism should be from someone who has listened to the music. As a songwriter, I offer my voice and my vision. Any other person is free to offer his or hers.
The two times at which I find myself more sensitive to criticism are right after I play a song for someone (the very first time I play it for someone other than me) and right after I play a recorded version of the song for someone (the very first time I play it for someone other than me and whoever else helped record/mix it). I'm more vulnerable then.
Some of my closest friends are songwriters with whom I share many influences. I find that these people are able to relate to my songs as pieces of my person and as pieces of music. Their critique really helps keep me on track.
Question: Do you have a specific goal in mind for your career? When you started out, was that direction the same one you're currently headed in or has that direction and goal changed over time? In short, what new perspectives have you gained with maturity that you may have missed earlier?
That's a tough one. I don't know that I do have a specific goal in mind for my career. Since I'm not at a law firm, it's not the sort of situation where I can say "I wanna make partner by 35 or else I'm going into private practice." As a songwriter, I want to continue to refine my craft and experiment with elements of many different kinds of music. As a singer, I want to unlock new parts of my voice so that I can express myself more fully. I want to record many more albums. I want to collaborate with other talented singers, songwriters, instrumentalists, engineers and producers.
I know that what I'm looking for has evolved over time. I was in a band that got signed to a major label. Shortly after we inked the deal it became clear that they wanted us to be something different from what we were. It's not that they were asking us to be something that was no part of us, but rather that they were asking us to be only one part of ourselves.
We did demos of 30 - 40 tunes while they tried to figure out how to market us. The way they wanted to market us didn't coincide with our vision or our actuality, but because it was an incredible opportunity to get our music out there we were all willing to bend in the wind to varying degrees. However, the extent to which we were willing to bend and how fast we got there created some tension in the group that sapped our creative energy for a while. It was a drag. We were in a holding pattern for three years and the CD we recorded for that label was never released. That experience has led me to a place where I feel that I want to work with people who are able to see my many facets as a bonus and not a liability.
I am looking for a good manager. I am looking for a capable booking agency and I am looking for a record label. In all of these cases, I want to work with people I can trust who believe in me and the music I'm making. I don't feel a need to be famous. I like being able to blend into the background sometimes, but from a financial standpoint, I would like to reach a point at which all of my income is derived from my music. I would like to build my own house at some point. I love to travel for pleasure. If I achieve a certain amount of success as a songwriter/performer I hope to be able to do these things and save a little money. I don't exactly have a 401k.
I acknowledge that some of the things I'm looking for may be a long time coming, if ever, but if I don't look for them, I'll never find them.
Question: What do you think of the new technologies available to songwriters and musicians these days? Has it helped or hindered you? Are you worried about the future of copyright? What do you consider your greatest musical success to date and why?
I think the new technologies available to songwriters and musicians are incredible. I think they have both helped and hindered me.
Almost every new technology is dangerous in some way when it's brand new and unregulated. When the automobile replaced horse power no one was worrying about drunk drivers. When the personal computer became a permanent fixture at the home and workplace it took a while before we started being told to worry about computer piracy and viruses that would wipe out our companies' mainframes. Like cars and computers, mp3 technology is a significant step forward in our neverending quest for more stuff faster and cheaper. The trouble is that like a lot of intellectual property, bootleg mp3's and/or unlicensed mp3 trading is largely unenforcable, Napster's plight aside.
Ultimately, I think that mp3's could provide a huge benefit to all recording artists. It allows your potential audience to access your music almost instantly and for them to convert it into a form that can travel with them wherever they go (mp3 players, mini-discs, cds, cassettes). The two problems I see as the biggest impediments to this unilateral benefit are as follows: 1. How in the hell do you find the new music that you want to hear when there are millions of songs available?; and 2. How shall the people who wrote and recorded the music be compensated? Recording is not free.
If we can't find the music that we like, then mp3's are a significantly less useful means of getting the word out. If people who would like my music and buy my music can't find it, what good does it do either of us? I've been a featured artist on a number of music websites. I feel really good about that. It's nice to be acknowledged as somehow distinct from the other music on some of the sites if only because of the sheer volume of music there is out there.
I do worry about the future of copyright as it pertains to music and here's why...The government is too entrenched in bureaucracy to respond to the questions that our burgeoning techno-boom raises in a timely manner. Also, musician's needs are not usually a hot-button issue for any politicians on the campaign trail. As a result, we end up desperately needing some laws to be drafted and put into effect that address our current situation, but because technology always outpaces government the laws that will be effectuated will most likely be out of date by the time they're enforceable. And that's only if we're able to generate enough heat to get this issue on the boiler plate.
The one thing that will keep this issue in the collective consciousness is the major labels. They're totally freakin' out! Two years ago mp3's were an idea. Now they're an actuality that has changed the face of the music business. Because they're such large companies, their ability to keep pace with technology is compromised. Right now they're playing catch up, but they've got lots of money to spend to see that justice is done. I'm fascinated, and potentially horrified to see how this all plays out.
Question: What's in the future for you, Austin? Do you have any gigs coming up? Working on a new CD? Championing any particular causes? Where can people hear your music?
The unpredictable future, eh? I had 3 gigs last week, one with my band and two with the House Jacks at the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley. I'm performing with the House Jacks again. This Wednesday I have a gig at El Rio, a club in the Mission district, to benefit BAWAR (Bay Area Women Against Rape). Next Friday (4/13) I have a gig at a place called the Skylight Café. I'll be going to Germany and Japan with the House Jacks and London with my girlfriend.
I plan to start working on a new CD in the next month or so. Many of the people who played on 'american pi' will be playing on the (as yet untitled) CD. I'm really looking forward to that. I really dig figuring out the right way to let the songs' personalities express themselves and it looks like some really gifted people will be working with me.
People who are interested in keeping up with me and checking out my music can go to http://www.amazon.com/, http://www.wherehouse.com/, http://www.apgrecords.com/, http://www.cdbaby.com/, http://www.mp3.com/, or just do a search for "Austin Willacy" and see what comes up. They're lots of mp3's of my music out there, so it shouldn't be too hard to track me down and I don't have the most common name in the world. Also, there's an email list that's accessible via my website, http://www.austinwillacy.com/. For anyone who's intrigued and finds that they like what they hear, please get on the email list so I can keep you up on what's goin' down.
Born in Washington D.C. and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Austin Willacy received a degree in Psychology from Dartmouth College and then moved to San Francisco to refine his songwriting and pursue a career in music. After recording four CD's with NACA favorites and former Tommy Boy/Warner Bros. recording artists, The House Jacks, he released "American Pi" his solo debut on APG Records. Willacy has toured extensively throughout the US and Europe with The House Jacks, performing with Ray Charles, James Brown, The Neville Brothers, The Temptations, The Pointer Sisters, LL Cool J and Run DMC, and Crosby, Stills and Nash.
Watch for Austin's song, Them, to appear in an upcoming Radio Muse show!