Hotly tipped British singer songwriter Will Varley is touring in the USA right now, promoting his brand new album “Spirit Of Minnie”, a very fine piece of work indeed.
His fans include Frank Turner, Billy Bragg and Valerie June. Will spoke to editor Simon Redley during a lengthy train ride, about the new album and the finest (and worst) moments of a 15-year career.
UK folk/acoustic singer songwriter Will Varley has sold out solo shows in London at prestigious venues such as Scala, Bush Hall and Union Chapel. He has appeared at the Royal Albert Hall and Alexandra Palace opening for his mate Frank Turner, who he has also toured the USA with.
He was asked by Billy Bragg, The Proclaimers and Valerie June to support them on tour too. He has released five studio albums, and his music videos attract hundreds of thousands of views.
On his most recent headline tour in February, and on the very day his fifth studio album was released, Will stepped on to the stage at the Shepherds Bush Empire in London to rousing applause and proceeded to mesmerise his fans.
Now, as we speak, he is on a train. Travelling from Glasgow back home to Kent, after appearing as part of Celtic Connections last night, and needs to get back in time for a rehearsal for his tour.
Our conversation is interspersed with interruptions. First of all, a loud Tannoy announcement naming all the damn places this train stops at, and then later in the journey, he has to show his ticket to the guard, followed by a few more PA announcements as the journey progresses. But we persevere.
A lot to cover, and having had a pre-release copy of the new record, I am very enthusiastic about this opportunity to speak with Will; also having previously tipped this artist for big things as part of Music Republic Magazine’s “Best of 2017” roundup; naming Will as “Artist Most Likely To Break Through In 2018”. Having heard this new album, we very much stand by that prediction. Oh yes indeed. It’s a bit good!
So, let’s deal with “Spirit Of Minne” first then. The inspiration for the title track came from an interesting cab ride which Will took when he was in the States, between tours. He takes up the story:
“That song is about a night out I had in Minneapolis after a long tour, waiting for another tour to star. I was there for three or four days and it was freezing cold; you couldn’t be outside for longer than 30 seconds without freezing.
“I got into this taxi, and the driver told me the story of The Spirit of Minnie; this apparition which appears between sky scrapers, basically. He was quite a spiritual chap and he spun this yarn, and I wrote the song about that”.
This record is different to all of his others, in as much as this is the first one with a full band. Produced by the talented Cameron McVey, who Will calls “an incredible chap”, and who has worked with Massive Attack, Portishead, Neneh Cherry, All Saints, Sugababes and others. Recorded in a couple of different London studios. Released on the Xtra Mile Recordings label, follow up to 2016’s acclaimed “Kingsdown Sundown”.
“All Those Stars” opens this album, and Robert Zimmerman’s influence is palpable. “Screenplay” puts me in mind of McCartney in his Beatles days. “Breaking The Bread” is gorgeous; in delivery and song writing craftsmanship and maybe in Will’s previous comfort zone in style. That one, says 30-year-old Will, is the most personal song on the album, “about me and my family, about getting married”. He was wed about five months ago.
“Let It Slide” is based in the town Will grew up in, and he writes about friends and various “shenanigans over the years”…… “so that feels very personal as well”. Another nod to Dylan, and a lovely gravelly vocal delivery.
“Statues” has a slight David Gray vibe to it. The title track features a lyric I have not heard before in a song; “cigarette smoke and condensation”. “The Postman” paints a melancholic picture . “Insect” closes proceedings on a moody cinematic tip; a strong closing statement.
Only nine cuts in total, but of the 43 minutes of music, huge emphasis on quality and being himself at all times. Not about quantity. No fillers here folks. Billed as his fifth studio album, but he released one in 2009 too, a selection of bedroom recordings as a teenager. Plus one EP so far.
Will has been widely tipped as “one to watch” for a good while now, with lots of live exposure as a support act and in his own right. Here and in the USA. Is this the record to do the job and make that breakthrough?
“I don’t see it in terms of one big breakthrough and I think it is quite rare for that to happen. The way I’ve done things over the last 15 years; it’s very gradual, very organic growth and hopefully this record will grow things a little bit more. Would be lovely if the audience grew significantly, but equally, I am quite happy bubbling along”.
So is being “almost famous” frustrating at all? “I think it suits me, really. Fame is about context. I played in Glasgow last night, and about four people came up to me today walking through Glasgow train station to get this train I am on now, to tell me it was a great show.
“So I was slightly famous in Glasgow train station. Any other train station in the country and I wouldn’t be! It’s all kind of context. Definitely don’t feel like I am chasing some kind of bigger picture. Quite happy where it is really.
“I’m chasing the songs. Interested in the song writing and the lyrics, and finding new ways of doing that. That’s the only thing that really interests me”. To embellish that point, when asked if he had to give up singing or song writing, Will doesn’t hesitate to hypothetically give singing the elbow.
As I am asking him what he would see as big success, Will breaks off to show his ticket to the guard. He comes back to me to repeat the question. I do. “I remember the first time someone bought a ticket to one of my shows, and it was just one ticket in Kingston, and the rest were given to people. An acoustic showcase. That felt unbelievable to me that someone had paid to come and see me play. That felt like huge success compared to playing the open mikes.
“Now, doing Shepherds Bush Empire is mind-blowing to me. So again, success depends on the context of where you are standing. Yeah, that was the Grey Horse in Kingston, around 2004 or 2005 and I was about 14”.
After 15 years of schlepping around with his guitar doing gigs here, there and everywhere as a solo performer, what drives Will Varley to keep going? “I was sat on the train coming here to Glasgow yesterday, working on a song, and that for me is the bit that drives me. For as long as I still find that process (song writing) interesting, I’ll carry on doing it”.
The best moments of his career to-date: Touring with Frank Turner in America and opening for Frank at The Royal Albert Hall (Teenage Cancer Trust event) and playing to 9,000 people at Alexander Palace in London on the Frank Turner bill.
As a huge contrast to his sell-out shows at respected venues in London, and performing to audiences of 1,000+ across America, Will’s “worst moment” is indelibly etched in his memory; a solo gig in Burnham-on-Sea in Somerset about four years ago.
“There were five people there. One of them was the barman and four of them were playing pool. At one point, one of the guys playing pool, wandered over to the bar and asked the barman to put the stereo back on, as ‘this guy is ruining our night’.
“I think it was his birthday. I did 45 minutes, and then went and sat at the bar, ordered a pint of Guinness and the barman said, ‘so, a five minute break and then another 45 minutes?’ I sunk my pint and did another 45 minutes. I needed the £50 to pay for the B&B. It was definitely a low point. The guys were still playing pool at the end. No applause, no response”.
But after 15 years, he is still out there, still plying his trade and making records. But he has considering calling it a day, for sure. “Yeah, there has been times when I have considered if what I am doing is the right thing. Been doing it for 15 years, but for the first 12 or 13 years, I had no concept of it being a career. It has scared a lot of people, especially my parents and the people that are close to me, you know.
“In those early days it was quite scary, and obviously the longer you do it, scrape a living doing it; the less employable you become. So if it doesn’t work out, it can be quite difficult to sort your life out. So I feel very lucky that I am able to make a living out of it now”. Will used to turn up at open mike nights if he and his wife ran out of cash, sing a few songs and hope to sell a few CDs to go home and “put money on the meter”.
He predicts the demise of CDs in the next five years or so, and how much of a blow that will be for struggling independent musicians. “I think CDs have been very important to this whole thing working for me, being able to sell those. Once CDs have ended, the power is all in these major labels and the independent artists will find it much harder to go out and make a little bit of crust.
“I play gigs now and kids come over and say, I haven’t got a CD player, never owned one and never owned a CD. Cars don’t have CD players any more, computers don’t have CD players any more. I’d say we have got about five years maximum, before they are no longer viable to sell”.
He co-founded the collective Smugglers Records in Deal, Kent with friends and has some of their roster as support on some of his gigs. From the humble beginnings at the back of a pub to busking-led adventures across Europe; the ethos of Smugglers Records existed before the label did. Now in their eight year, they have released more than 20 records, put on six sold out Smugglers Festivals, curated stages at other festivals, arranged tours and have now opened a Record Shop in Deal.
Will undertook a tour of a very different knid, when he rambled the south coast, stopping off along the way to play gigs in support of two of his previous releases. His second tour covering 500 miles with just a guitar and tent. Walking about 20 miles each day and then a gig at night.
He fancies doing that across America at some point, but acknowledges how tricky that could be, because here we have a superb network of footpaths. But there, the roads are designed for cars and not pedestrians. Other than some of the trails. A few days before this interview, Will took his driving test and passed on second attempt.
His main influences: Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Leonard Cohen, Billy Bragg and John Otway. “The first time I decided I would play music was at a John Otway gig. I saw him play in Kingston when I was about nine, and I thought, I want to do that. He is a huge influence on me and an inspiration”.
Will’s “wish list” and ambitions for his career, are simple. “I would like to tour on the scale that someone like Frank (Turner) does. I think that’d be a pretty cool place to end up and that is certainly not to say I expect to get there. It would be magic to be at that level. After doing this for a long time, you realise what really matters. What matters to me is about being able to connect on a big enough scale, night in, night out”.
When anyone asks Will what kind of music he writes and performs, his answer is not what one may expect. “Kind of the whole point of making music is somehow, weirdly; and we don’t really know how or why, but it somehow kind of transgresses labels, names and words. Which is the beauty of it, I suppose.
“So, it is a difficult one, but I suppose, folk singer is what I started at, the road I started out on. But this new record with the band is slightly different so…I don’t know”.
Another string to his bow is that of author. He wrote his first book, political fiction novel “Sketch Of A Last Day”, and says he has another one on the go.
Straight after his headline UK tour in February, to dovetail the release of this new album, Will jetted off for an American tour as special guest to Skinny Lister, before headline shows in the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and Switzerland.
He has various UK festival appearances beginning in May at Derbyshire’s fabulous Bearded Theory Festival, and the new Tex Fest in Market Harborough, Leicestershire in July.
A born storyteller, a fearless troubador; someone who literally treads his own path and for whom fame and fortune are utterly irrelevant. It is all about the music, the craft of song writing and forming a connection with every last one in his audience, on an emotional level. Night after night. Nothing more, nothing less.
Will Varley: Perhaps one of the very last traders of the lost art.
By Simon Redley
Black & white head shot photo: Brett Walker