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Woke Up Smiling: In conversation with Willie J Healey

As he sets to take his third record, Bunny, on the road, Bristol’s wonky pop darling takes the time to talk Epigram through his midnight rituals, meeting David Gilmour and talking to Jamie T about his Dad being strip searched at Finsbury Park.

By Jake Paterson, Music Editor

Dipping into the honey pot of low-slung, sensual funk on your third record might seem like a laid-back decision for an artist resting on their laurels after teenage hedonism, but for Willie J. Healey this new territory has sent him into the stratosphere. Support tours with Florence + the Machine and Arctic Monkeys this year alone has meant increasing his audiences by factors of ten.

“I’ve always wanted to play on the bigger stages,” he says whilst at the same time acknowledging that grassroots venues are “the best”, suggesting that “we’d all be venue-less and twiddling our thumbs without them.” His debut record, People and Their Dogs, thrived off of the tiny venue intimacy where the band could get away with making a few mistakes as it wouldn’t be heard over the crowd screaming along to the likes of ‘Subterraneans’. How does he adapt to the vast new expanses?

“I now play with five amps instead of two”, he nonchalantly suggests, highlighting that cranking out the noise is one sure-fired way of getting there.

The new tunes that will play through the amps are inviting and have a demo feel to them in the sense that Healey seems to have prioritised feeling and only the essential pathways to arrive at that feeling. It’s easy to picture that a song like ‘Woke Up Smiling’ came about literally with Healey rolling out of bed on a sunny morning and sitting in front of his laptop. There’s an earnest and feel-good pure feeling to the tracks that’s hard to pin down to any one source of inspiration.

On the single artwork for ‘Thank You’ is a tape player and a series of tapes placed precariously on top of it. Hoping this was a way in to hear more about his influences, I popped the question. “Ah well, the tapes belong to Loren Humphrey (who produced and plays drums on the forthcoming album). I can’t remember what’s on the tapes, but I do know he has a cool tape-player in his kitchen – we’d get up at 3:00am every night and pick a tape to listen to … Like a weird middle of the night ritual.”

Whatever ceremony was taking place whilst some Sly and the Family Stone was kicking in the background, we absolutely want in.

Willie J. Healey | Hollie Fernando / Black Arts PR

‘Thank You’ can be seen literally as a letter to Jamie T (who features on the track) as the indie icon leant Healey a drum machine to finish off Bunny. The friendship that came out of this period of time culminated in them being on the same bill for Jamie’s headline of Finsbury Park a few weeks ago. “My Dad was strip searched whilst trying to get into the festival” Healey joked, whilst also suggesting that “it’s never cool to kiss and tell” when I ask if he met any heroes at some of the big shows recently, “though I did recently meet David Gilmour and Rowan Atkinson.”

So, has anything about the Willie J. Healey we know and love changed with this new admiration? Far from it. “I mean, I’m still me. Living life and enjoying making stuff. I guess my latest releases have been funky, that’s probably the main change.”

The last time Epigram spoke to Healey we asked what sandwich he would be if he had to be one, to which he said he’d “have a lot of ingredients, and probably quite a lot of bread. I’d be a chunky sandwich. Saucy and honest.”

I ask if that’s changed at all. “Nah – still chunky, still saucy.”

Featured Image: Hollie Fernando / Black Arts PR

'Bunny' is out 25 August. Willie J. Healey plays SWX on 22 November.