Surrounding an Idea: Willy Mason, October 17 at Codfish Hollow Barn PDF Print E-mail
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Friday, 04 October 2013 05:49

Willy Mason

An online comment on the American Songwriter review of Willy Mason’s Carry on disputed the gushing praise heaped on the album, complaining that “the percussion sounds to me like it’s straight from a drum-machine loop.”

There’s a simple reason for that: It was.

The singer/songwriter will be performing October 17 at Maquoketa’s Codfish Hollow Barn as part of the Communion Tour with Rubblebucket, Roadkill Ghost Choir, and others. In a phone interview last week, Mason explained that the drum-machine idea came from producer Dan Carey. “He had that, and I had the songs, and we went in and we started working with that rhythm, and things just unfolded from there pretty quickly,” he said. “I was actually skeptical at first, but I thought it would be worth a try. ...

“I just thought that it would be too rigid, or that it wouldn’t be necessary. I didn’t realize how much of a personality electricity has. ...

“One thing that I liked about it was how unyielding it is, which in the past I would have thought of as a problem. And in most cases [it] would be musically.

“But in this case, because it was so consistent, it did a couple of things. One, it allowed me to be completely free with the rhythm of my voice and my singing, without worrying about throwing anybody off-time or anything. It gave me freedom by being so damned consistent.

“The other thing is I think in the repetitive quality of it, it has that effect of bringing out details. ... When you listen to something over and over and over again that’s exactly the same, your ear starts to pick out more details and even starts to hallucinate sometimes. ... I thought I was afforded a level of subtlety that always felt washed out before by other things.”

Those qualities, he said, made it a good fit for the songs, which are far more indirect than on his past albums and required a different musical approach.

During a two-year break from the road – which translated into a five-year gap between 2007’s If the Ocean Gets Rough and the UK release of Carry on – Mason’s writing style changed, he said: “I guess it’s because I was pushing farther to try to write about things that weren’t easy, and that I hadn’t written about before. So I guess this is as best as I could do. ... Certain stars, when you’re looking right at them, they disappear. ...

“The songs to me seemed a bit more fragile. I’ve had tunes that I’ve written before that you could play on one string on an out-of-tune guitar with a terrible mic, and the idea of the song would still get across. These songs didn’t feel that way, so I thought it would be a good chance to push further musically.”

He said he knew he had an album once he finished “Shadows in the Dark.” “A lot of the songs have sort of allusive meanings,” he said. “A lot of them hint at things but don’t quite spell them out exactly. My instinct was that after I’d written that song, it was hinting from enough different angles that I sort of had the idea surrounded.” (When I asked what that central idea was, he said cheekily: “I can’t tell you that.”)

The album, as the previously mentioned American Songwriter review noted, is “a complete package that is as airtight as it is simple, as gorgeous as it rugged, the sort of record that burrows deep into your brain and doesn’t let go.”

The review compared Carry on to “a young Leonard Cohen covering Mickey Newbury,” and Mason since his career started 11 years ago (at age 17) has drawn favorable comparisons to Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash – all of which refer to both his songwriting chops and his distinctive style of singing.

Coming out of rock bands, he said, “I realized there was a lot of affectation [in his singing voice] that I picked up from all kinds of places. And I realized that all my favorite singers [including Ray Charles, George Jones, Merle Haggard, Hank Williams, John Lee Hooker, and Cash] sang as if they were speaking; it seemed like they were speaking directly to you, even though there was melody in their voice. ... It was still a direct conversation. I wanted to emulate that.”

So walking to and from work, he would alternate between singing a line and speaking a line from something he’d written, in an effort to lose that “accent.” In singing, he said, he would try “to match the tone and match the enunciation and even match the phrasing” of his speaking voice. “It freed me up to blur the line a bit more between singing and speaking.”

Rap, talking blues, and gospel speakers also informed that process, he said: “It was a search for the most natural way of doing things. It was more of a letting go than of a learning. It was letting go of constraints on my voice until it became as natural as speaking.”

Willy Mason will perform as part of the Communion Tour on Thursday, October 17, at Codfish Hollow Barn (5013 288th Avenue, Maquoketa, Iowa; Doors open at 7 p.m., and tickets are $12 in advance and $15 at the door. For more information, visit

For more information on Willy Mason, visit

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