WILLIE J HEALEY
The logistical process of releasing music is much slower in practice than it appears to the outsider. By the time Willie J Healey released his debut album ‘People and Their Dogs’ several months after it was already completed, the young singer-songwriter already had a second album of demos in the bag. And while such a lengthy gestation period is to some extent the nature of the beast, there had to be a better way. And Healey found the solution entirely by chance.
Sat in his bedroom in the Oxfordshire town of Carterton, Healey set himself an experiment: to rapidly put together a body of work from his first idea to completion without overthinking any part of the process. Subconsciously attracted to the phrase ‘666 Kill’ like a reverse exorcism, he constructed an ominous lyrical sketch of his own death at the hands of the devil. This unlikely muse possessed his creativity to the extent that he rushed downstairs to his garage-based studio and single-handedly recorded the vocals and all of the instrumentation in a single session.
“I’m not some kind of devil worshipper or anything like that,” he laughs. “I was trying to touch on different ideas I had: weird things like planes going missing and an obsession with death, which sounds depressing but at the time I found it really interesting. We all have weird little things that run across our minds and we generally don’t say them out loud. For good reason! But it felt like an exciting process to write in that style and not put a filter on it.”
Emboldened by the freedom and sheer pace of ‘666 Kill’ Healey completed six songs within a week, almost all of which he recorded himself purely to maintain that initial momentum. The violent gothic imagery of that initial track continued to echo throughout the other songs, such as the existential bullet-in-the-head that features in ‘Lovelawn’ to the metaphorical grim reaper that lurks ominously in ‘Learn Toulouse’.
“In the past I’d think of writing lyrics like that only to be scared of what my friends and family might think,” he admits. “I remember playing some friends these songs when I finished and they were like, ‘Are you ok?’ That’s what I wanted: for it to be shocking but also sweet. Some of my favourite songs sound like nice love songs, but when you actually listen to the lyrics they’re so much darker.”
A fortnight later, Healey revisited his little experiment and was pleasantly surprised at what he had created. “Not over-thinking things,” he concludes, resulted in what could be his “most glorious moment in terms of art.” From the menacing country-folk of the title track to the beautifully bleak contrast of ‘Lovelawn’ and the relatively uplifting closer ‘When You’re Lonely’, it echoes the low-fi introspection of Elliott Smith with the rawness of early Neil Young.
A notable detour is the hypnotic repetition that underpins ‘Guitar Music’, ironically named given that it was the first song that Healey ever wrote on keys and features no guitar aside from some bass. The original intention was for its denouement to explode in a blaze of guitar-driven noise, but his regular collaborator Tom Greenhalf improvised an extended screeching sax solo to take it in a far more unpredictable direction.
These six tracks are now set to be released as the ‘666 Kill’ EP which will be issued via new music champions Yala! Records. Healey’s previous deal with Columbia had come to end (“We weren’t made for each other, so it was beneficial for both parties”), so he sent the EP to Yala! co-founder and former Maccabees guitarist Felix White who was eager to release it. “I never felt like I belonged in the major label world, so it’s refreshing to have a small team of people who really get what I’m trying to do.”
Rewind to Christmas 20XX: the Healey family would traditional gather for a seasonal singalong and the teenaged Willie decided that he wanted to join in. His Xmas gift that year was a cheap guitar and he was soon learning classic favourites by the likes of Nirvana and Oasis.
The problem was, he chuckles, that he wasn’t so adept at learning other band’s songs. “So I started writing songs because I found it easier. I was a bit of an attention seeker and realised I could get people to listen to me, look at me and laugh with me more than they otherwise would.”
Healey developed his skills via the old school method of open mic nights, acoustic shows and local support gigs. Being able to record at home on his MacBook amplified his abilities, and a couple of EPs released on small indie labels attracted the attention of Columbia, who hoped he’d emerge as the next Ed Sheeran.
But as comparisons with everyone from Deerhunter, Kurt Vile and Mac DeMarco to Chris Isaak and Lou Reed emerged, it was clear that he was instead destined to be the one and only Willie J Healey. It was a great experience with some ups and downs, but his goal was more simple and remains unchanged – to be able to write songs that he likes and then share them with audiences.
So everything is now in place for Willie J Healey to live up to his limitless potential. “I try not to be too aware of trends, so I can focus on writing the best song I can regardless of whether I think it will be cool or not.” He notes how the great albums of the ‘70s feel out of time in contrast to the booming drums and slick production that places many ‘80s records firmly within their era. “A timeless classic will never go out of fashion.”