Bringin’ it Backwards: Interview with Billy Raffoul

We had the opportunity to interview Billy Raffoul at the Hard Rock Hotel San Diego!

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Since delivering his darkly thrilling debut single “Driver” in 2017, Billy Raffoul has redefined the limits of the classic singer/songwriter sensibility. Though each of his songs centers on his intricate guitar work, the 24-year-old artist endlessly expands his sound with unexpected textures, mesmerizing tones, elegantly sculpted electronic beats. But at the heart of his music is Raffoul’s unforgettable voice—a soulful and gravelly instrument that draws deep emotional power from every poetically crafted line.

True to its title, Raffoul’s sophomore EP Running Wild is a body of work unbound to any genre or style, drifting from acoustic balladry to beat-driven pop to bluesy folk with grace and ease. Like his debut EP1975, the five-track release was produced mainly by Mike Crossey (Arctic Monkeys, The 1975, Twenty One Pilots), with the two collaborators bringing a purposely free-spirited approach to the entire recording process.

“Some of the songs are completely live and done in one take, with just me in front of the mic; others are stitched together in different ways with nothing live but the vocal,” says the Canada-bred, Nashville-based musician. “Overall there’s no real rules: as long as we get to a place where we love the song, it doesn’t matter which path we take.”

The lead single from Running Wild, “Lovely” came to life through an equally free-flowing set of circumstances. After sketching out the track late one night in a Los Angeles hotel room, Raffoul headed to Interscope’s studio at 1 a.m. and recorded a demo on an acoustic guitar. “I was pretty down when I wrote it, and it turned into a song about a missed opportunity: one of those situations where you’re afraid to say what you feel, and the moment passes you by,” he says. When it came time to record “Lovely” for Running Wild, Raffoul teamed up with Greg Kurstin—a seven-time Grammy Award-winner who’s recently worked with Paul McCartney and Adele. The result: a gorgeously tender track built on cascading guitar tones and delicate beats, with Raffoul capturing the pain of unrequited infatuation in his achingly fragile falsetto.

Another track sparked from a spontaneous burst of creativity, “Mental Health (Can’t Do This By Yourself)” took shape from chords strummed on a ukulele gifted from a local  luthier back home in Ontario. “I was sitting in my bathtub with the ukulele and just sort of figuring out some chords, and I ended up writing a song that turned out to be much heavier than I’d intended,” says Raffoul. But while “Mental Health (Can’t Do This By Yourself)” bravely confesses to certain mental struggles, Raffoul twists the mood with his bright melodies and a message of gentle encouragement for others to open up about their own troubles. “Mental health issues are something that carry a lot of meaning for me and my family, which I think is probably true of almost all families—and I wanted to talk about that for a song on this EP,” says Raffoul.

Elsewhere on Running Wild, Raffoul turns his heartfelt songwriting to matters of romantic love, such as on the gloriously feverish “Bad for You.” Merging its dizzying beats with jagged guitar riffs, the hypnotic and high-energy track features ethereal vocal work from its co-writer, singer/songwriter Julia Michaels. “Julia and I have written so much together and I always love working with her,” Raffoul notes. “She’s so insanely talented and such a melodic genius, and everything always comes together really naturally.” Meanwhile, on “Coffee,” Raffoul offers a sweetly uptempo serenade that reflects on the addictive nature of some forms of love.

To close out Running Wild, Raffoul presents the quietly devastating title track, a song written for a close cousin who suffered a brain aneurysm five years ago. “We grew up a few houses down from each other and we were more like brothers,” Raffoul explains. “When the aneurysm happened he barely made it; he had to learn to walk again and everything. That song came from being so inspired by watching him go through his recovery.” Threaded with Raffoul’s heart-on-sleeve storytelling and stark guitar work, “Running Wild” also provides the EP’s emotional crescendo in a powerful string arrangement from David Campbell—a renowned composer who’s worked with the likes of Beck, The Beach Boys, and Leonard Cohen.

As Raffoul reveals, the undeniably raw feeling that fuels Running Wild stems from a songwriting process that’s intuitive and unforced. “I’m generally much more inspired when I’m not sitting down and telling myself, ‘Okay, time to write a song now,’” says Raffoul. “It’s always best when I just stumble upon it, when I’m just messing around on my guitar or out driving around and letting my mind wander.”

Growing up in the small farming town of Leamington, Ontario, Raffoul first started writing songs at age 10, thanks in no small part to the influence of his father—a musician who’s opened for legendary artists like Joe Cocker. “Music’s kind of like the family business,” says Raffoul. “My dad raised us on the Beatles, and everything just took off from there.”

After landing his first paying gig—playing to long-haul drivers at a local truck stop—Raffoul began playing at nearby bars and clubs at age 16, often driving into Detroit for shows. He eventually connected with a manager, and moved down to Nashville to push forward with his music career. Soon after scoring a deal with Interscope Records, Raffoul got to work on 1975, which arrived in June 2018.

Over the past few years, Raffoul has opened for heavyweight artists like, Kings of Leon, X Ambassadors, NEEDTOBREATHE and Kaleo, captivating crowds with his understated yet intensely passionate stage presence. With his debut album due out soon, he’s looking forward to widening the reach of his live show, a stripped-back performance currently featuring only Raffoul, his guitar, and his drum pedals. “I try to make it as intimate an experience as I can, and interact with people on a really personal level,” Raffoul says. “I’m just up there telling my stories and hoping that people can find their own connection to them, so maybe these songs can help others the way they’ve helped me.”

“Mental health issues are something that carry a lot of meaning for me and my family, which I think is probably true of almost all families—and I wanted to talk about that for a song on this EP.”

— Billy Raffoul

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