In advance of his upcoming third album, singer-songwriter Willy Mason will release Don’t Stop Now, a new EP, on January 14. The record is the Massachusetts folkie’s first for Communion Records, the British label co-founded by Mumford and Sons keyboardist Ben Lovett. We spoke with Mason about his songwriting heroes, hooking up with Communion, co-writing with Moses and more.
How’d you get hooked up with Communion Records?
I first heard about Communion when I was making the rounds as a support act. There were stories floating around about their legendary nights in small pubs in England where guitars would be passed around and the beer taps were at the mercy of the patrons. I thought that sounded like my kind of gig.
What do you think of the Mumford and Sons phenomenon?
Honest and inspirational songwriting plus good live shows and production plus effort to do things in a interesting way (i.e. train tours and gigs off the beaten path) equals an ecstatic and devoted following.
What’s the best gig you’ve played in recent years, and why?
The best gig I remember recently was in Montreal with A.A.Bondy. It was one of those gigs where you can feel the songs affecting people in a positive way — an intimate sensation. When that starts to happen you can feel your edges blur and shake as the song becomes more powerful and starts to overcome you. That’s when things get really good.
How would you describe the new EP?
I heard my new music described recently in print as being like a sanded piece of Oak. I think that’s a pretty good one. Maybe I’d add to that by saying it’s like a piece of Oak in a small wood stove surrounded by a mean and desolate Winter. Which is to say the EP is sonically warm and pleasing with a prominent and relaxed male vocal singing about dark things in an optimistic way.
Who are your songwriting heroes?
My mom, Jemima James, and my dad, Michael Mason. I’m not kidding or bragging when I say they are the best songwriters I know. I’m going to record an EP of their songs in Nashville in January so you can see what I’m talking about. Also my friend and sometimes collaborator Nina Violet who I’m trying to get to come on the road with me. She’s got a new song about how to work a sewing machine that makes you think about your universe and how delicately and desperately you’re trying to stitch it together. Maybe I just read too much into it. I’ve got a lot of respect for Tom Waits. He’s given himself limitations that actually let him stray further than most of us. But my real songwriting hero doesn’t necessarily exist though I’ve got a clear picture of him. He’s sitting at an upright piano in a small apartment on Tin Pan Alley with a cigarette burning in the ashtray and a pencil in his ear. He’s a deep water explorer working for a paycheck.
When did you start writing songs? Were they good right away, or did that come later?
I started writing early — I think I was 11 or so. I used to go for lyrical cleverness and trickery. Double meanings and playing on words. It was fun but it took a long time to start to get from there to where I wanted, which was to make medicine for people.
What was the first song you ever wrote?
My first songs were all about people leaving or changing. The first one I can remember was from when I was 11 or 12. It had a verse and a catchy chorus. I wrote it with a friend in my grandmother’s basement. It was called “Remember You.”
What percentage of songs that you start do you finish?
I try really hard to finish everything. Even if I know it’s going to be bad; it’s a good habit to get into, good practice. That said . . . probably about 75.
What’s a song on your album you’re particularly proud of and why?
“Carry On.” It has three verses and each one twists and produces a conclusion of it’s own, and all three tie into the one Big Idea that I’m trying to get across. This is my favorite format for writing. I’ve only pulled it off really once before on my first album Where The Humans Eat with the song “Hard Hand To Hold.”
What’s a lyric or verse from the album you’re a fan of?
Beside my bed there is a lamp and in that lamp there is a lonely moth
He’s got one night he’s got one life and one thing on his mind and that’s the fire
He doesn’t care from where it comes he only knows he’s got to run
Toward the brightest promise in his eyes
Now he’s circling to the ground, his wings are burned he’s falling down
I just watch and wonder how we carry on
Is it easier, or harder to write songs, the more you write?
Easier. Songwriting is a lot like pushups that way.
Are there any words you love or hate?
“Awesome” is usually annoying from other people but I say it all the time. “Home” is a good one to sing, there’s a lot of it in this record. Every word has power if it is used with intention, but gets a bad rep if thrown around willy-nilly.
The most annoying thing about songwriting is….
Trying to live up to your songs in interviews.
What’s a song of yours that’s really touched people?
“Oxygen” is a big one. I’ve had teachers write me to tell me they play it to their classes. Or parents say they’ve played it to their newborn babies. It’s a song about wanting to be a good person and help the world. It’s nice that a lot of people relate to that kind of thing. “We Can Be Strong” is another. It seems to help people who are discouraged or at the end of their rope. And “Fear No Pain” – I just got a letter about someone who listened to it over and over before a dangerous surgery.
Do you ever do any other kinds of writing?
I have at times but never too seriously. I like writing letters. I do like words but I usually need some kind of restraint. Songwriting provides that; it forces you to work within a structure. Without that I tend to spiral around and around and not really say anything at all.
If you could co-write with anyone living or dead, who would it be?
Moses. Or Hafiz.
Who do you consider an underrated songwriter?
Whoever it was that wrote the sound track to (the original) Mario Bros.
What do you consider to be the perfect song?
The Sanskrit Om. It is the simplest and most complex song I know. It transcends language and conveys its power to whomever sings it.