Rock and roll is filled with road-weary travelers, and Willy Mason is the latest edition. This young man achieved success at a rather young age with his debut album, Where the Humans Eat, and he hit the road. His latest album, If The Ocean Gets Rough, is the chronicle of his life over the past few years, and, as you'd expect from someone who spent nearly two years in constant movement, the record is a collection of songs about weariness, movement, and change. It's also a beautifully understated album as well. If it feels a bit homey, it's for good reason; it was recorded with an open-door policy, with anyone who happened to come in the door more than welcome to join him. When I spoke with Mr. Mason, it was shortly after getting off of an airplane and traveling--how appropriate. He sounded tired, he sounded older than his young age would lead you to think, but I'm glad I had the opportunity to speak with him. It's fitting that you're in the midst of traveling right now. Listening to the record, I have to ask: was the album written on the road? I know you've been a bit transient over the last two years.
Yeah, I'd say about half of it, and some of it was written after I got off the road from all that travel. It was still fresh in my mind.Oh, I totally picked up on a travel theme. The songs seem to reflect movement, or they refer to the sea with its constant motion, and, also, they seem to be about seeking rest and respite for a weary traveler. And, from that, it seems like you're seeking community. Is that what led to having open recording sessions?
I was trying to bring more people in, yeah. I was still a little bit fragile from all that time on the road. It gets to you. I came home to get back to where I started; to get some perspective of a different sort, just by spending time with my family. Having them along for the sessions was an extension of that. Having them around, it kept me honest and it kept me on my toes, and ultimately, it made me feel settled a little bit.Do you enjoy spending time on the road? You definitely have over the last few years.
It's ups and downs, yeah. There are a lot of ups; I love to travel and I love to play for people. It depends, too, on how I'm traveling, and what I'm traveling for. A lot of the travel I do for the record label's sake tends to be less enlightening than travel for the sake for exploration. That can be difficult; fast-paced travel can get lonely and boring, but it is work and it keeps me going. When I'm going alone for my own sake, like for house parties, I'm able to get to know a city or a country, and that is really fascinating to me.Was the touring for the last record the first real time you spent on the road?
Pretty much, yeah. I left home when I was 17, and I settled in New York for a bit, sleeping on couches and that turned into more full-on traveling when I got more gigs and got involved with a label. And that cycle of tour kept me pretty busy and pretty much on the road until I came home to get it together for the second record.Was making this record a good experience for you?
Yeah, it was. All in all, I feel like it made me a lot stronger. It brought me back home, and not just in a physical sense. After the first record's success in England, and the amount of attention I got for it, I felt like something had changed, and that disturbed me. But then to come home and make a record--I realized I was still growing; I was still who I was, and reality is still reality. (Laughs) It was a great
release.How did you meet up with Roseanne Cash?
The first time I met Roseanne, we played a show in Virginia. We met there, and we didn't see each other again until I was working on my record in New York. We met up again, and the session fell into place, because she was there and had the time to help me out.How was the experience of working with her?
Oh, it was amazing! It was just her presence, really, that made it special. That song, I'd been singing it live for a while, and on the day of the session, there was just something about it. I felt a million miles away from it; I just wasn't getting it. I was having a hard time singing it, and I was unhappy with the way it was turning out. When she came in to do the harmonies, I didn't have the song finished, so we decided to do it live, and singing it with her in the room...it just...it felt like the song took on its own power, and it became something completely different. Her presence, she made it right.It was meant for her. (Laughs) You also worked with several members of your family. Do you come from a musical background?
Yeah, both my parents were songwriters. They just did stuff on their own. My dad wrote one song in the 60s that ended up getting some radio play in Australia, or so he says, a song called "Girl in a Tree."Had you worked with your family on previous records?
My brother played drums on my last record, but for this one, I had my mom there, too, and my dad as well, and they were more involved. On the first record, I went off by myself and did my thing; on this one, I'd kept in touch with my dad, we'd discuss things about it. Having him there changed it a bit. It made the sessions less mysterious and romantic.You reference the ocean quite a bit.
I grew up on an island, and when I was younger I did a lot of fishing and I spent a lot of time in the ocean and a lot of time close to it. It's what I know, and it was my first experience with nature's power and how to accept your powerlessness in nature. It gives you a certain respect for your place in nature.Spending a year and half on the road, I'm sure when you reflected upon it, you saw how not unlike the sea your life had become.
Yeah, that's so true. You learn, too. You learn how to go with the currents, and how you travel with the current instead of fighting against it. It helps you learn how to keep sane.So how do you keep sane?
I'm not sure! (Laughs) I'm just slowly learning tricks over time. Patience helps. One of the reasons I enjoy traveling is that I think I have the ability to adapt to different situations. I enjoy that, because learning things from spending time in someone else's world, it's great. I'm starting to learn how to hold on to little pieces of what I'm familiar with, to keep a consistency about it.Plus, as this was your first bout with touring, I'm sure you're quite prepared for it now.
Yeah, I'm a lot surer about things now, and I'm ready to take it on. I think it'll be different this time--or, at least, I'll know what to expect.With the success of the first album in England and Europe, do you enjoy the experience of going over there and not being in a hand-to-mouth situation, as you've had a little bit of success and you have a bit more comfort when you tour?
Yeah. I think the best thing about the success is that I have much more of a chance to meet people, and I get to go places I wouldn't be able to go otherwise. I already have a way of connecting with people, thanks to my music, and when I go there, I can actually connect with a place, instead of just going into a city as a visitor. I'm lucky.Plus, I'm sure you can now appreciate the music of Jackson Browne and Bob Seger on a completely new label now.
(Laughs) Yeah, man--they ring a lot stronger now. My favorite's "Take it Easy." (Sings) "Take it easy, don't let the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy." So true. (Laughs) I do my best, you know?If the Ocean Gets Rough is available now on Astralwerks