Willy Mason performing at the Koko Show

The Itinerant Life and Work of Willy Mason

By Nick Macksood

July 2016

“[Life] has been a reward phase, mostly for stuff I did under the age of 30.
Stuff I did on instinct and not intelligence.” –Iggy Pop

Reading between the lines is a practice that many, if not all, of us learn very early on. When talking with Willy Mason, a washashore songwriter, one might find that exercise useful. In conversation, Mason can at times be distant. Pay attention to the long pauses in between answers and he starts to become less of a reticent artist and more of a self-aware philosopher, akin to his descendants of titanic 19th century psychological and literary renown, William and Henry James.

Mason, who was born outside of New York City but grew up in West Tisbury, attributes his ethereal seriousness to growing up in such a confined space. The move from almost total anonymity to inescapable intimacy that comes with a class size of roughly five was intimidating, to say the least. “You have to define yourself very early on,” Mason tells me, “Socially, it got me thinking about interaction, community and acceptance” in a way that he couldn’t in New York at such an age.

And music, Mason’s profession, has always been a part of his life. Both of Mason’s parents were songwriters; and with the guidance of strong music and arts programs of island schools, Mason took up instruments like the cello and grew into theory courses that would help him define his own work later on.


Where the Humans Eat – Team Love Records 2004

But it was the island’s teen shows at the now defunct Wintertide Coffeehouse that stoked Mason’s interest in the guitar and performing on stage. Not long after, he would form his first band–a failure–and then the next–a success, as far as teen bands go. That group, Keep Thinking, would play throughout high school, eventually opening for the Suicide Kings at the Continental Club in NYC. “It was kind of a novelty. We were probably 13-14 years old… we shouldn’t have even been allowed in the bar.” Truly.

And on that sort of ecstatic high, Mason was swept by music, through high school and past college, opting to satisfy the demand of shows that was consistently growing. Mason had intended to go to college, but chose truck stops instead of classrooms as environments for growth.

However, the absence of a college experience seems to have had no effect on Mason’s grasp of ideas and the development of his art. In many ways, the ten years he spent living and touring out of his van forced him to think about his life and the world in ways that college could not have allowed. “But if you think about it that way, you’ll start to drive yourself crazy…” he perceptively adds. Indeed, Mason’s itinerant young manhood bleeds into his work. Themes of movement, road imagery, or life moving onward and upward are constant, and indicative of ten years on the road. “I’m trying to find the universal in the specific,” Mason notes, “It can be hard to do when you’re living such a weird existence… but I guess everyone’s life is weird in its own way.”

Willy Mason Carry On

Carry On – Polydor 2012

“Oxygen”, the indelible song off his debut album Where the Humans Eat, is perhaps the best example of what we’re getting at in our talk. The chugging guitar notes in the verses are reminiscent of early blues, tones that drew from the sounds of the railroad; the opening words themselves “I want to be,” slip into the plural “We can be.” They hint at a better future, in spite of the world-weariness that most young people feel in their teens, the age “Oxygen” was written in. The chorus: “On and on and on it goes / the world, it just keeps spinning” begs to be heard. Its whimsy cannot be replicated in print; the kind of breathless, yet hopeful anxieties of youth. When you’re 16 you’re invincible. Nothing about the world can keep you from believing that you can still change it, and therein lies the beauty of Mason’s oeuvre: from Where the Humans Eat, to his second album If the Ocean Gets Rough, and his third Carry On.

Each album takes an organic step in developing Mason’s familiar, yet original tone. And with the wealth of experience he’s gained from a lifetime of working and touring with a handful of influential producers and musicians (Dan Carey, Ben Howard, Courtney Barnett for you music nerds), Mason’s career cannot help but blossom into something very personal and unique.

However, the days of nonstop touring are over–or at least on hiatus. “Lately I’ve been experimenting with spending more time on the island. I like to work with the seasons, now, and to have a sense of place,” he adds. But a fourth album in the works, as well as side projects like The Sandwich Police–a trio with his wife, Marciana Jones, and Evan Dando–certainly leave the door open for more national and international dates. For now, Mason can be found Thursdays and Saturdays at the Ritz along with the odd show off island. And–Mason made clear–let it be known that if anyone wants to start a new venue, that he is open for consultation. Evidence, at any rate, that Mason will be around for some time to come.

Willy Mason photographed by Eric Anderson

Willy Mason photographed by Eric Anderson

For more information on Willy Mason:
Website: http://willymasonmusic.com/
FB: https://www.facebook.com/willymasonmusic
Music: https://soundcloud.com/willymason