When we named Willy Moon One To Watch back in April of this year, we knew he was going to have a moment. What we had no way of knowing is that his moment would come so soon. After a rocky start to his young life, the New Zealand native finally seems to be finding his footing, with international recognition and placement in the latest commercial for Apple’s iPod line.
As the world prepares for Mr. Moon’s debut album, due out in Spring 2013 as he confirmed, and his latest single “Yeah Yeah” takes over the airwaves of the world, we caught up with him via Skype last week to talk about what his year had been, and what’s coming for the future.
In the just over half an hour that our chat lasted, we reviewed his tour with Jack White (and how nothing else came of it), why he agreed to be in the Apple ad, the “lazy” Jimmy Ray comparisons that have been thrown around and even tried to help him come up with a title for his debut album.
How would you describe yourself in maybe a sentence or two for somebody that’s first being exposed to Willy Moon?
Um… Use Google?
Well, you know, it’s an obtuse question that deserves an obtuse answer, don’t you think? How can I describe myself in one sentence? My music is a collision of styles and ideas that don’t necessarily fit each other.
I’d say that’s accurate. And those ideas – that collision – after a bit of a rough start with all the moving, it seems like it’s finally working out for you. How would you describe the past year?
It’s been the first time in my life when I’ve actually felt like I’m achieving something and my life has worth. At least, if nothing else has any meaning, I’ve created this artifact with which if people were to ask me “so what did you do for the past few years of your life?” I could just hand them the CD. It’s been fantastic, genuinely.
One of the big things you did this year was get together with Third Man Records and Jack White and release “Railroad Track”. How did that all happen?
You know what? I can’t exactly remember. All I remember was – I think they got in touch with us. Ben Swank, who is one of the people that works with them, I think played a couple of my records to Jack and Jack said he liked them and they got in touch with us and said “We’d be interested in doing a 7″ with you, do you have any songs that you would like to do?”
Jack produces pretty much all of the records that Third Man puts out, so I think the idea originally was that I would send them a demo of a song and then they would say “Yeah, let’s do that. Come up to Nashville and we’ll record it.” I sent them “Railroad Track” and they just liked it, they said “Yeah, let’s do it.”
Other than the exposure – and also a tour – did anything else come out of that? Did you collaborate on a song? Or are you not allowed to say…?
No, we haven’t recorded any music together or anything like that. We did the record and obviously we just did the UK tour.
How was the UK tour with Jack White? Your fan base might be a bit different – but was the reception good?
Yeah, I was actually really pleasantly surprised. You never know what to expect with those things, especially with a following as strong as Jack’s. I was worried before we went on the tour that there wouldn’t be a positive response, but people were really good. They were very receptive to what we were doing; it was a real pleasure.
It was very exciting for me. The White Stripes were massive – I was a really huge fan of their music going back a decade or so, and to get the chance and to just watch Jack and his band play every night on tour was really great. It was fantastic.
2012 has also seen your music appear on the iPod commercial. Is it weird to see your face around, on television or in print ads?
Of course it’s weird, because it’s so – I imagine after a while you would probably get used to that kind of thing but at first it’s definitely weird. It gives you a rush as well. Like when you first hear your records on the radio. You think “wow that’s so cool, all these people listen to my music.” You think of yourself, younger, listening to the radio and hearing new music.
It’s an incredible thing, just the sheer scale of Apple. Everybody knows them for their iPods. The sheer scale of it is enormous, it is massive – beyond comprehension.
It’s nice that it’s actually a company that isn’t – so often with synchronization for advertising it’s something that you have to think about whether you would do it, but I instantly said yes. I was happy to do it because – apart from the fact that I like their products – I’ve made most of music on a MacBook. It kind of made sense.
Do you read music sites and blogs at all?
I do a bit, yes. But just to hear about new music, to hear new stuff.
Then I presume you might have noticed that you’re a bit of a polarizing artist. There are some sites that really love you and some that hate you or think that you’re a gimmick. Is this something that worries you or do you just think “I’m going to do what I do”?
Whenever I see other artists come out who are doing something with identities and playing with stylization and presentation of their music in a very artificial way… – a perfect example of this I think is someone like Lana Del Rey. A lot of people were into her, but that sort of backfired when it came out that who she was was kind of a fabrication. The difference between her and me, I suppose, is that everything about me isn’t a fabrication.
I’m not really bothered. I think most people who think I’m a gimmick – when my record comes out, it’ll just take time, you know what I mean? I hope – and I would imagine – that over time, once my record is out and once they get more of a sense of who I am and the fact that I’m actually real, this will seize to become an issue because people will just like me according to my music. And it’s fine, I don’t have a problem with people not liking my music. It doesn’t really bother me; that’s completely natural.
I’ve read quite a few Jimmy Ray comparisons…
I didn’t know about Jimmy Ray. Somebody mentioned him in an interview with me and I didn’t know who he was so I looked him up. I don’t get that. To me that seems very lazy, but that’s my perspective. I don’t think he had depth to him. I would say that I have more depth to what I do and the music that I’m into and to myself as an artist than he did. I don’t know much about him, but just having looked at him briefly he seems much more of a straight ’50s revival thing, like the Straycats or any of that kind of stuff.
To me, that’s not really what I’m doing. I’m obviously influenced by that stuff, but when I sat down with my album the other day – yeah, there’s ’50s stuff on there, but there’s nothing on there that’s – the most directly ’50s influenced thing on there would probably be “I Wanna Be Your Man”. And even that, apart from the lyrical content and apart from the fact that it’s based on that Bo Diddley, Buddy Holly kind of thing it doesn’t really strike me as being that straightforward.
You mentioned the ’50s throwback that’s present in your music, but you mix it with more modern elements like samples. So out of curiosity, if you could choose to live in any era, which one would it be? Would you choose the ’50s, would you choose now, would you choose somewhere in between?
I would choose either now or in the future. If I could, I would maybe live a couple of hundred years into the future so that I could hopefully travel into space. That’s obviously a hypothetical thing, but, no, I would hate to live in the ’50s. The ’50s were atrocious. Just to pick one thing that was horrible about the ’50s: the racism was atrocious. The way people treated people of different races, the way black people were treated in America – in no way, shape or form would I ever want to live in the ’50s.
There are certain elements that interest me about the ’50s, like the birth of the teenager, and the birth of rebellion through music. It was the first time that young people really shaped their identities through music. Of course, that’s something that’s carried on through successive musical movements, but there’s something very powerful about the way it really changed society in a big way. That’s what interests me about the ’50s.
You present yourself in your physical appearance as someone that’s very rooted in more classical ideas, maybe that harken back to the ’50s, but your music and your ideas seem to be very much future-based or at least in the present. How does that contradiction come about?
I don’t know. In a lot of science-fiction books I used to read as a kid, and in a lot of science-fiction films the people of the future looked like – dressed – like they were from the past. I don’t know. It’s kind of a ridiculous thing to say because a lot of those books and films were made in the past so they’re rooted in that thing; I suppose I didn’t really get that at first.
As a kid I always saw the future through a retro-lens because I was reading these science-fiction books written by people like Philip K. Dick and Isaac Asimov, people who were writing their books in the past. It was a past vision of the future. That kind of stuck with me and it wasn’t until I became an adult that I actually realized that was totally ridiculous. I always imagined the future in a very retro-futuristic way because of that art.
I hate t-shirts and I hate sloppiness of appearance. I always have always attempted to make something of my appearance and to make an effort as human being, it’s such an important thing, to me anyway, to how I feel as a person when I’m interacting with other people. How I feel is tied closely to how I feel I’m being perceived, and the way I dress is a part of that.
It wasn’t necessarily an intentional stylistic tie-in with the musical themes that I was drawing from. I realize now that, after people like yourself have asked me about it, how it all comes together in a way. But it wasn’t how I initially came up with it.
With that futuristic mindset, your first video for “Yeah Yeah” back in April came out and then it got pulled. I’m assuming that was the label? I actually quite liked the video.
I liked the video as well. There was a decision to shoot another music video after the advertising thing. I didn’t realize it had actually been pulled down, I thought the other had just gone up as well.
I suppose we wanted to shoot another video that was more – that was a little bit less… insane? [Laughs]
Well, your music maybe comes off as a bit insane at times – because of the clash of ideas – so I thought it actually fit the music pretty well.
Yeah, I really loved that video as well. It’s just one of those things. The main thing with the re-shooting of the video that we did with Alex [Courtes, director of the video] – the idea was that if we were going to do this I wanted it to be rooted in my ideas and going back. We kind of operated things like the mirrors from the “She Loves Me” video and stuff like that. I’m happy with it, I like it. It’s just one of those things that happens.
The first videos that you have up on YouTube are very black and white and minimal, like the one for “I Wanna Be Your Man” and the newer ones like both “Yeah Yeah” videos and “Railroad Track” got more complex. Is that because you spent more time thinking about your videos? Bigger production budget?
The thing about those two [early videos] is that we literally had no money. For the “I Wanna Be Your Man” video we got a discount for a studio from somebody, and we ended up with a video shot for about £150 [$240]. It was all just shot on a DSLR and everybody worked for free. It was all so simple and so budget because I paid for that myself, and at the time I was working in a camping shop.
I think for the music it actually fits the song. It’s very simple and to the point.
Yeah, I think, to me, those videos are kind of perfect for what they are. I really love the one for “She Loves Me”. The “I Wanna Be Your Man” one, I wanted to do something that was very basic, like a performance video but I wanted to inject a little weirdness into it. Have you seen the film “Eraserhead” by David Lynch?
No, I haven’t.
Well there’s a scene in it with a lady and the radiator – it’s a surreal film – and it’s weird when she comes out of the radiator and sings a little song in the spotlight. It was really creepy and really strange. That was partly what we were trying to do. It makes you feel maybe a little bit wrong, a little uneasy.
Do you think maybe in the future you might get tired of the big budget ones and go back to more simple ones? There’s something very nice and natural about seeing an artist pretty much naked in front of the camera. Do you think your new songs could applied to those situations?
Yeah, definitely. I would ideally, if I had the time, the money, and opportunity to do so, I would like to shoot a video for every single track on my record. One of my great loves in life is cinema and for me to be able to do that is such a pleasure. I really enjoy doing it, it’s something I get great pleasure out of. It’s fun for me.
I like simple ideas. I think often simple ideas are the best ones. I’ve always found myself coming back to the simple, basic ideas after you over-complicate them and over-think them. Then you come back to the original, basic idea and think, “you know what? that was the best.”
There has been a lot of controversy as of late with streaming services like Spotify or YouTube. It made me think of sampling, and how, originally, sampling wasn’t very well received, and then eventually people got used to the idea. I’m just wondering if you had any opinions on whether maybe the same thing will happen with streaming services coming to be accepted.
Technology leads us in so many. Technology informs culture and informs art a lot; they have a symbiotic relationship. The length of songs, on a basic level, has been informed by technology. The length of albums – the way they got progressively longer and longer – that was just due to format. Some people wanted to fill up the format; it’s that simple.
I think the good thing about streaming and digital audio is it frees us from all these physical constraints. We’re still thinking in a kind of CD mentality – in terms of albums and in singles we’re still living in a post-CD world, which is obviously harkening back to a post-record world.
Hopefully, over time, as digital music becomes the norm, people will be able to have the freedom to be able to play with these things and produce, and sort of package their music in more interesting and different ways. I think it’s a liberation, in a way, as long as we can find a way for people to make music for a living, which I think is important. I don’t really care whether people can become multi-multi millionaires, or in some cases even billionaires. I’m not really interested in that, just the fact that people can earn a living out of making music, which I think is such a worthwhile pursuit.
I think a lot of people have undervalued art and artists and people who do creative things because they often think “oh, well it’s just fun. They wake up and get wasted and piss about for five minutes and come up with something and then one day be able to sit around and earn loads of money.” I think it happens because of the way artists and musicians choose present themselves, which is not as people who are actually very, very hard-working and spend a lot of time on these things.
I’ve spent a couple of years making my record, and I know that I would not have been able to do that if I had not been able to spend some time on it. It took me a couple of years because for most of that time I was working multiple jobs to pay my rent.
But coming back around to wrap this up and make it more succinct, I think there is potential to free artists in multiple ways through this digital transfer of music that’s becoming something without boundaries. I just hope we can find a way to value that.
As someone who is starting out, do you personally see it as something positive to get your music out there? What about file-sharing and digital piracy? There are a lot of artists starting out that see it as a more positive thing because they see it as getting their music out there, whereas others are more concerned with being able to pay rent. Where do you stand?
I’m concerned with being able to pay my rent at the end of the month, on a basic level. I think there’s been an interesting shift. I read an article a little while ago about how people making music now are predominantly from the upper classes, rather than what they were maybe twenty or thirty years ago, when they were from the working classes. I think that’s probably largely due to the fact that working class people just looking at music as a career and saying “oh fuck no, I can’t do that! I need to be able to pay rent” because they’re more practical, because they have more practical concerns, you know?
I think on a basic level that is why it’s important for people to pay for music: to open it up to people from all different backgrounds to be able to make music. Otherwise, all you’re going to end up is people from wealthy backgrounds making music, because they’re the only people who can.
That might lead to some bland music at times, because often it’s the hardships that create the experiences and inspiration. I’m assuming your past has influenced your music a lot, but where do you normally find inspiration for your songs?
I find inspiration for my music primarily from other music. The inspiration for my music is from a love of music. It’s from listening to other people’s records and being really amazed and blown away by the emotional expression that can be achieved through music. I’m pretty much purely influenced by music itself.
You’ve also been a big spokesperson for keeping the lengths of songs, saying that everything should be under three minutes. On one of the new songs on your album you teeter over that, by seventeen seconds. Was that a bit of an emotional struggle for you, going against your principles?
It was really, really difficult [laughs], but yeah, it’s the first song on my record. But it works, that’s the thing. On that song, it makes sense for it to go on that long to be able to put all the musical ideas. It never felt like it was too long, otherwise I would have cut it short.
I guess I’m just trying to serve the music the best I possibly can, and try and serve the song. I’m trying to present it in its perfect form according to what it is. A song like “I Wanna Be Your Man” doesn’t want to be any longer because it’s so fast and the verses are so short.
I still believe in brevity though; I still think it’s important. I still think that three minutes should be really the maximum, in terms of what I’m doing for me as an artist, anyway. Everybody else can make their own decisions.
What can we expect from the new album? And when can we expect it?
You can expect it in Spring of next year.
What can you expect from it musically? I suppose, in a way, all of the songs, to me, have their own little musical identity. Looking at the track listing, I can’t think of any two songs on there that share the same things. It’s just an expression of everything that I love in music, and all of the music that I have loved from over my life. It’s me trying to bring those things to live and brings those passions to life that I’ve heard in other artists, and find some way to renew those images.
Does the new album have a name?
No, it doesn’t. I really need to come up with one [laughs]! I just shot the cover of my record yesterday, and I’m going to have to come up with a name for it. I’m actually going to try and do it tonight; I’m going to sit down and try and come up with a name.
It should have a really pompous subtitle. Like Willy Moon: An Experiment in Brevity in Music Today
Yeah, exactly [laughs]. That’s perhaps not such a bad idea, but it may go into the scrap pit. I’m going to try and come up with something really simple, I think that’s what would make sense.
It’s going to be hard, actually. I’ve been thinking about it for the last couple of months, and nothing has really… I just wanted to self-title it, actually.
Well, there’s nothing wrong with that!
It’s a bit boring, that’s what I always felt. I always felt that self-titling albums was a bit lazy, but…
I don’t know. If your name is Jamie Smith it might be, but with a name like Willy Moon…
Yeah, that’s true. Maybe. We’ll see. Maybe when it comes out it’ll be self-titled and you’ll be like “oh, he gave up” [laughs].
Well, I’ll be looking forward to it. I’m assuming it’ll be out on vinyl?
Definitely, I’m going to make sure we press some decent quality vinyl as well.