Can someone be a writing veteran before age 30? Willy Mason isn’t known for the tallies in his discography (there aren’t that many), but for the level of wisdom and emotional sophistication in each of his songs. He’s a proper poet, as Chicago saw recently at Old Town School of Folk and as America can discover now that he’s released his latest EP.
By age 19, Willy had already charmed many circles of the indie and folk scenes with his simple baritone voice and frank, piercing lyrics. Now 28, he’s already on his 10th year of touring and life is “picking up speed.” Still glad to be on the road, he gave me a local update in his latest adventure: “Being from the Northeast, I was raised on the belief that cold makes people sharper meaner and more honest. So I feel a kinship with the people of Chicago; whether or not that’s true.” He has played shows with Death Cab, Edward Sharpe, Radiohead (his favorite), and several others, giving him both attention and experience in the big leagues. Landing on UK music charts most likely influenced the decision to release his last two albums on UK labels, most recent is the album Carry On.
For us non-Brits, the new album isn’t available yet unless you want to pay for the oversea shipping, but he did release a four-song EP called Don’t Stop Now, a sampling of Carry On for the US market. Dan Carey (from the M.I.A. and Hot Chip realm) got involved with this newest release, showing that Mason was ready to expand his thematic range. More non-traditional sounds were used for these recordings, like in “Talk Me Down” which opens with shimmering, lo-fi chimes and an almost afro-caribbean rhythm section. I asked him what his recent inspirations were for the album: “Lately I have been inspired by mechanical noises—old belt engines, cold misfiring cars, the electrical hum of appliances. These things represent optimism to me.”
Frequent comparisons to Johnny Cash are due to more than just his low voice. His words from past albums call for compassion towards the homeless and heartbroken. When describing the stories in Carry On, he sent me this: “…I wrote these songs for people like myself—concerned about the world and not willing to satiate their consciences by adopting second-hand ideologies presented as is. This stuff is gonna take a lifetime to come to terms with. In the meantime is the uncertainty. These songs are comforting companions to uncertainty.”
We’ll take that hug, Mr. Mason. Don’t Stop Now is on iTunes and all the usual.
Scott Standley is a contributing music critic to Chicago magazine.
Photograph: Courtesy of the artist