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‘I find it hard to be the cool guy’: In conversation with Willie J Healey

Infectiously off-beat, Bristol-based musician Willie J Healey discusses the prospect of playing live, his smorgasbord of influences and the sandwich he most identifies with.

By Beatrice Convert, Second Year Modern Languages

Infectiously off-beat, Bristol-based musician Willie J Healey discusses the prospect of playing live, his smorgasbord of influences and the sandwich he most identifies with.

‘Cult of Willie was formed on a full moon…a group of loyal fans collected under a cloudless sky around 3am…formed a stone circle…and birthed the cult of Willie. The deal is they own my soul now…it’s my only way of repaying them.’

Full moons or no full moons, there is little doubt that Willie J Healey’s music magnetically draws people into something special. Ever since the release of his second album Twin Heavy last summer, I have been unashamedly hooked on his quirky sound. With hints of Sergeant Pepper, the Velvet Underground and Bowie, his spicy concoction of songs is nostalgic while remaining distinctively 'Willie'.

Well aware of my ongoing infatuation with his music, my housemate suggested that I just go and get myself an interview with the man. Two days later, an absurd joke became reality when I spotted the iconic green beanie on my road. I knew he lived in Bristol, but I never imagined it could be quite that simple. A friendly chat and a few fan-girl blushes later, a chat with Willie J Healey was in the works.

We nabbed a bench in Victoria square and sat watching the late-afternoon humdrum of the Clifton Village dwellers. Willie was instantly entertained by the passing dogs eagerly yanking their owners across the grass, telling me ‘I love dogs…I bet I love dogs more than you do’. I didn’t try to challenge him, knowing full well he’d chosen the name People and Their Dogs for his first album.

‘My old bedroom used to look out onto a dog walking field, so when I was writing music, I’d always just be watching people walk their dogs.’ Such a simple source of inspiration certainly made for a masterful debut album. Recorded in his garage at his family home in Carteton, Oxfordshire, People and Their Dogs is eccentric, dream-like and heartfelt. From album to album, song to song, nothing Willie creates sounds the same: ‘I think it’s probably a blessing and a curse. I can imagine that some people go to listen to me, and they listen to a certain bit and think that’s what it’s all like, and they don’t like it, when actually there’s probably something they do like in there too. But I just can’t help it.’

So where should new listeners start? After some thought, Willie concludes that the top three songs he would recommend to someone who has never heard of him before would be: ‘Subterraneans’, ‘All Those Things’ and ‘Big Nothing’.

He has succeeded in reviving the old-school approach to playing an album as a carefully constructed unit, rather than a mismatch of songs. ‘We always laugh in the studio, because I never know if people even care what order they're in. It’s much more modern to just listen to singles. I always take time to think about the running order, and I’m always really picky when it comes down to it.’

I always take time to think about the running order, and I’m always really picky when it comes down to it

Whilst rousing all those classic sounds from the past, Willie’s music also manages to maintain a compellingly modern energy: ‘I listen to a lot of old music, and I don’t try to replicate it, but I allow myself to be inspired by it.

‘My family introduced me to all the best stuff, all the stuff I love now. I’ve got two older sisters, so I was exposed to all that early 2000s music, like TLC, Boys to Men and just loads of hip hop and R&B. But then my dad loved Neil Young and Bob Dylan, loads of classic rock… it was always on. Even though my parents don’t play, they’ve always loved music. And then one year they just got me a guitar, just to see what it would do.’

Ditching his original plans to be a boxer, Willie found himself increasingly allured by music-making. ‘All of a sudden it was this secret hobby. It was like a vice.’

Ever since, his instinctive knack for songwriting has captivated a steadily growing audience who find themselves moved by his charismatic sound and earnest lyrics. ‘I really care about lyrics; I’d like to think that you could listen to one of my songs and not just enjoy it sonically, but lyrically too. I write about people, my friends, and my own feelings. Hopefully, there is a lot to relate to in there.’ Pumped with wit, angst, and heartache, it’s true to say that Willie’s albums are an emotional feast.

‘If I was a sandwich, it would have a lot of ingredients, and probably quite a lot of bread. I’d be a chunky sandwich. Saucy and honest.’

With a flair for performance, his music videos are infectiously funny. Leg shakes and hip thrusts galore, Willie shimmies his way through a gaggle of pirouetting ballet dancers, gets food chucked at him on a cricket pitch and embarks on a quest for ‘nonophonic’ sounds, such as a rat’s belly and a forgotten sock. ‘The rustier the pedal, the louder the treble’ he tells the camera earnestly in his video for Would You Be. ‘I’ve had a lot of fun doing them…I’m pretty self-deprecating, I find it hard to be the ‘cool guy’, it’s just not my bag.’ He added, ‘sometimes though, it goes the other way, for example when they come up with ideas like 'can you run and jump into that swamp, naked?’ and I’m like, ‘I’m still an artist, come on, just because I want to make fun of myself!’

With new music on the horizon and a rapidly selling out tour in October, I’m convinced the wonders of Willie J Healey won’t be such a cherished secret for much longer. ‘This album is going to be so much better. I’ve finally started recording all of my funky lockdown ideas. I feel so good about these songs. People are going to really love them.’

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His October tour will be the first time performing his latest album Twin Heavy live, and it’s going to be one to experience. ‘People can expect me to be having the best time ever. I can’t wait to finally play some of these songs.’ He even enthusiastically stressed to me that ‘if people want me to play at their house, I will. I’ve actually played in a house in Bristol once before, and the ceiling collapsed. So if you’re crazy enough to have a band in your house, I would love to do that.’

The lyrics in the album’s opening number ‘Fashun’, ‘You’re gonna be a big star, honey / A real household name’, although steeped in whimsical sarcasm, are not far off my genuine predictions for his future. Watch this space, because Willie J Healey is on the up. Approachable, easy-going and effortlessly cool, do not hesitate to say hi to him if you happen to notice that neon green beanie roaming the streets of Bristol.

Featured image: Willie J Healey

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