Singer, songwriter, guitarist
At a time when his peers were graduating from college and planning their careers, singer-songwriter Willy Mason was touring overseas and working on material for his second album. His debut effort, Where the Humans Eat, racked up impressive sales in Britain with its rootsy rock, politically motivated songs, and accomplished guitar playing, prompting some critics to hail him as the next Bob Dylan, the American folk-rock legend. "These comparisons are thrown around so fast," Mason sighed in an interview with Boston Herald writer Daniel Gewertz. "I take the craft of writing songs seriously. But if I took the hype seriously, it would make me insane."
Mason was born in New York in 1984, but his parents moved to West Tisbury, Massachusetts, when he was in elementary school. West Tisbury is a town on the island of Martha's Vineyard, located off the Massachusetts coastline, and it was a rural, isolated place for much of the year after the summer tourists and vacation home owners had left for the winter. Both of Mason's parents were musicians and songwriters who had once toiled for a music publishing company; father Michael Mason was a folk artist, while Mason's mother Jemima James—a descendant of nineteenth-century American novelist Henry James—was a blues musician. Not surprisingly, Mason grew up in a home that housed a vast collection of vinyl records, but those split into two homes after Mason's parents divorced.
Mason and his friends in West Tisbury sensed early on the distance between themselves and teens on the mainland; even television programs seemed to present a world whose culture and values were alien to them. Mason was awakened to a new form of political protest music—different from that of his parents' generation—at the age of 14, when he discovered the Los Angeles-based rock-funk outfit Rage Against the Machine. He was inspired to start writing his own songs, and the first one he ever wrote, "Oxygen," became the biggest hit from his debut album. Its lyrics described a host of ills he saw in contemporary American society, wondering, "Do you remember the forgotten America/ Justice equality freedom to every race?" and "I want to hold up my head with dignity/Proud of a life where to give means more than to take."
In 2003 Mason graduated from Martha's Vineyard Regional High School and moved to New York City, an eye-opening experience that proved to him just how sheltered he had been on the island. While roaming the streets he met urban residents from all walks of life and ethnic backgrounds. He even spent 30 hours in a jail cell after police officers stopped him in Times Square, thinking his guitar was a weapon, then finding a contraband substance in the case. "Our Town," another track off his full-length debut album, recounts the lessons he learned in that Midtown Manhattan holding pen.
Mason recorded what he considered his best songs in a studio in the Catskill Mountains area of New York state during the spring of 2004, with help from his brother Sam on drums. Those tracks appeared on an untitled five-song EP later dubbed Willy Mason, and "Oxygen" began receiving airplay on a radio station back on Martha's Vineyard. When a friend of Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes was vacationing there and heard the song, word of Mason's talent was passed along to Oberst, who made contact with Mason and then invited him to come backstage at the next Bright Eyes gig. Mason showed up, sang for the Nebraska native whose star was quickly rising on the indie scene, then kept drinking and woke up on a tour bus two states away. When they arrived in Vermont for the next show, Oberst invited him onstage to sing "Oxygen" in front of 600 people. "I can hardly remember it because I was so nervous, but that was the first gig I ever played," Mason recalled in an interview with Nick Hasted for the London Independent. "I was so elated. Everything that was bad that had happened, everything I felt I had done wrong felt justified then."
Signed to Oberst's label, Team Love, Mason opened some dates for singer-songwriter Beth Orton in the U.K., then released his five demo tracks plus several more songs on his full-length debut, Where the Humans Eat. Its title track made reference to his mother's two cats, and the record also included another track from his five-song EP, "Hard Hand to Hold," which Hasted termed a work that "ushers you into the fear and hostility New York's homeless suffer and provoke." Milena Selkirk of Interview magazine called Mason's debut "a stripped-down magnum opus of folk songs arranged over a bed of bouncing blues riffs and shuffling, down-home percussion." The record was released in Britain in February of 2005, and soon climbed to number 38 on the U.K. album charts. The British press made a fuss over him, hailing him as the next Dylan. At the very least he was a singer-songwriter from the United States whose lyrics dovetailed with a soured national mood in Britain after the country had become mired in an unpopular U.S.-led war in Iraq, by then nearing its second anniversary.
The breathless praise and comparisons to Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and even novelist J.D. Salinger of Catcher in the Rye fame continued as Mason opened for Radiohead on some 2006 tour dates, but he found the media attention mostly disconcerting, he explained to Guardian journalist Laura Barton, because it was based on songs he had written ages ago. "The music business was almost like a drug, because what it did was it gave me a really false sense of accomplishment," he told Barton. "At the same time that drug debilitated me and prevented me from doing anything at all. And so in a way it became an addictive cycle." To heal himself, Mason returned to his parents' home, built himself a small cabin on the property, and recorded his follow-up, If the Ocean Gets Rough. Released in early 2007, it featured a far more lush production, with bass, mandolin, and viola, in some cases played by Mason's older relatives or other longtime musician associates of his family. Rosanne Cash and KT Tunstall guest-starred on the track "We Can Be Strong," which went to number 52 on the U.K. singles chart. The song chronicles his experiences in returning to his family home after his fame-and-fortune experiences. "With that song I came home feeling all ‘woe is me’," he told London Independent journalist Alex Hannaford. "But I soon realised I was having the same experience as about half my friends who had just come home from college. We were all just trying to figure out what path to take."
For the Record …
Born on November 21, 1984, in New York state; son of Michael Mason (a musician) and Jemima James (a musician).
Recorded songs for an untitled demo EP, May 2004; signed to Team Love records, 2004; opened for Beth Orton on U.K. tour, September 2004; debut LP, Where the Humans Eat, released by Astralwerks/Virgin, November 2004.
Addresses: Record company—Virgin Records, 30 West 21st St., 11th Fl., New York, NY 10010.
"Oxygen," EMI/Virgin, 2005.
"So Long," EMI, 2005.
"Save Myself," EMI/Virgin, 2007.
(With Rosanne Cash and KT Tunstall) "We Can Be Strong," EMI/Virgin, 2007.
Where the Humans Eat, Astralwerks/Virgin, 2004.
If the Ocean Gets Rough, Virgin, 2007.
Willy Mason, G-Ma's Basement, 2004.
Hard Hand to Hold, EMI, 2004.
Hard to Lie Down, Virgin, 2005.
Boston Herald, June 3, 2006, p. 29.
Guardian (London, England), February 15, 2005, p. 14; March 13, 2007, p. 23.
Independent (London, England), November 12, 2004, p. 16; May 11, 2007.
Interview, December 2004, p. 74.