Willie J Healey Loves What He Does But Would Rather Keep it to Himself
Written by Serena Ferrari
Photographed by Lucasz Geida
Illustrated by Peter Hopkins
Willie J Healey arrives at the Pottery Cafe in Fulham wearing a smile so innocent it manages to dull my nerves. I ask him if he’d like a drink, maybe a coffee, to which he replies quietly, “a tea would be nice.” As I wait for our teas to brew at the counter, I notice plastic wrapped cookies to the side of the cash register. On complete instinct, I purchase the dinosaur cookie iced in heavy green with purple candy for eyeballs. I slide it over to Will as I sit down, wondering if that was a very weird thing to do, to buy him a cookie clearly intended for a child.
I had first heard of Willie J Healey in early 2017 when his E.P HD Malibu was taking off. His lyrics are melodious secrets that float over driving guitar instrumentation and the combination of the two offers an honesty about real emotions, in that they are rarely just about one feeling. When I listen to one song in particular on the E.P called “Subterraneans”, my stomach cramps with nostalgia. The weeping slide guitar recalls a time that has been outgrown, but still thought of fondly. Will informs me that there are actually two versions of the song, one that is rawer, and I quickly interrupt him to confirm that’s the one I mean. His eyes bulge.
“Everyone says that. I didn’t want to do it again. Someone else was like you need to do it again.” That someone else was his former manager and Label, Columbia, a relationship that proved to be inharmonious when the question emerged of who had jurisdiction over creative decisions. “There were situations where people who were really good at something completely different, like managing money, would be pitching in on video ideas. With Columbia, it was always like, I wonder why Billy from tour managing is telling me which single should be on my album.” It was confusing and misleading for Will who, like many artists, had his own natural instinct for his music.
“I always found, for me, that the more people involved, the more complicated it got. Because I have always really kind have known, when there was a decision to be made. Deep down, with something like that, you kind of know. And ‘Subterraneans’ is one of those where I knew it didn’t need to be done again.”
After his debut album, “People and Their Dogs”, Will parted ways from Columbia, and is now with a label called Yala. He tells me it’s the opposite to Columbia and their majors in the sense that there are only two people, one of which is Felix White of the Maccabees. Will confesses “Weirdly with these two people who seem to really get it and be into it... It has made my life so much easier than when I had 15 people trying to work it.”
When Will was signed to Columbia, he felt forced to adapt himself and his art to the ideas and vision of the label. His music suddenly became a commodity that he no longer had control over and he lost sight of why he started writing music in the first place, admitting “I suppose your ambition grows with you in a way, and you want things that are more complicated. And you forget why you do things, why you really do things.” It seems that separating from a major label afforded Will the space to reflect on what was the true sustenance for him as a musician.
Will was first introduced to music by his father, the only other male in his family. In a household where the men were outnumbered by the women, he and his father formed an unspoken alliance. “Me and my dad, we have this kind of bond. When, say a family argument might start, me and my dad would find each other in the same room, hiding, while all the people who really know what they are talking about sort it out.” It was his father who cultivated Will’s taste for American vintage sound, particularly that of Neil Young, who remains to this day one of Will’s favorite artists, claiming “I feel like there isn’t an equivalent to someone like Neil Young in the U.K. [There is] something really imperfect about him that I really love. When I think of British bands which I also love, like the Beatles. And the Stones . And the Kinks, it’s different. There is something really together about it....tight and really intelligent. But Neil Young’s recordings are terrible and those are my favorites. His voice can be really bad. Or he sounds drunk or something. And so I like that. I like how in the moment that is.”
But music wasn’t always at the forefront of Will’s mind. Between the ages of ten and sixteen, he dedicated most of his time and energy to boxing, and it was boxing, or the lack of, which inspired Will to write his first song. “There was one night I couldn’t go [to boxing], cause I think I was ill or something and I was really upset that I couldn’t go. So I thought ‘well instead of sitting around feeling sorry for myself, I’m going to try to write a song’ and I wrote one.”
But despite Will’s growing urge to write and create songs, he never became intentional, let alone ambitious about it, telling me, “I used to think ‘well music isn’t something I can actually do. Because i’m going to be a boxer and that was what I’ve been doing all this time”. Instead, It was a career advisor who had convinced Will to pursue music. “I was sixteen when I finished school. I had to decide what I wanted to do and I was going to go study sport and do boxing in Manchester when a career advice lady asked me what else I liked. And I said ‘nothing really, I just like boxing’ and she was like ‘there must be something else that you like’ and then I said ‘I love playing guitar’ and she said well ‘why don’t you do that? Cause you don’t seem set on moving to Manchester’, and then that was it. That's what I did. I went and studied music, I quit boxing and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.”
But the process of creating music changes drastically when the word career follows it. Something that began with the purity of self-expression suddenly becomes spoiled by ambition, validation, or worse— expectation. For Will it has been a struggle maintaining personal clarity, but all of his experiences thus far has led him back to a homebase, when he was writing just for himself: “Straight away, you want people to hear the songs but even before I will send it to my friend, even on that level, or before labels and audience and all of that stuff are even involved, it’s like realizing, that it’s your little thing that can be yours for a while and it probably can always be yours, it’s just, I guess, once you show people and they tell you what they think of it, it changes. And it’s nice in a different way, but it’s like a little secret in a way. This is my little thing that I do and it makes me really happy, and it’s really simple on that level.
Will focused his satisfaction to an isolated frame in the creative process— the period from when an idea finds him to when the idea has been fully executed, but remains unpublic.
Essentially, that is the creative process from beginning to end. The creative process does not include the reception of the art, though we often create with that in mind.”It is so easy to fall into that rhythm”, Will confesses. “And definitely, I’ve written things and finished them, and I’m not happy with it, and then you kind of realize, I was skipping a stage. Like I was writing with this in mind, instead of just writing it, almost like a child, just for your pure, immature ambition. I think as you get older you lose that because it is silly or your peers might find it strange, but I would like to keep it childish.”
Keep up with Willie.