Willie J Healey’s first album, ‘People And Their Dogs’, was released in 2017. What began as a discography of soft melodies and gentle lyrics turned into eccentrics on ‘666 Kill’, his leftfield EP about “weird things like planes going missing and an obsession with death”. Wanting a solution to the long period of time between inception and the final product, he recorded the EP entirely in his garage-based home studio.
Moving from tracks like the ones we heard on ‘666 Kill’ to the much softer ‘Songs For Joanna’, Willie J Healey’s music is truly versatile. In his music, you’ll find storytelling, witticisms, mellow sounds and a brilliant sense of humour. After his widely lauded debut album, he’s releasing his second record, ‘Twin Heavy’. We caught up with Willie on boxing, his music videos, growing up and what to expect from ‘Twin Heavy’.
When you were growing up, who introduced you to music? Who are your biggest influences, musically or otherwise?
I’ve got two older sisters and, like most people, they’ve always loved music. I think I’m quite lucky in a sense because I was the youngest so I was exposed to lots of music that was cooler than the age I was. If you’ve got older siblings or older friends, it somehow fast tracks you to stuff. I was listening to my sisters’ slow R&B and pop/hip-hop – Nelly and people like that. I always loved that stuff and from an early age we’d listen to Dr. Dre’s ‘2001’ and what are classic albums now. My dad would always be banging 70s classic albums all the time. Neil Young, Van Morrison, Pink Floyd – all of the classics. My mum and dad introduced me to listening to music. I’d say Neil Young is my hero. I don’t really know if he influences me in the sense that there’s even a trace of his music in mine but I always find myself listening to Neil Young when I don’t know what else to do. I always end up back at the Neil Young bus stop.
You were in over 40 boxing matches, which is amazing. How did it shape the way you approach music now and when did you decide you wanted to make the switch to music?
I started boxing when I was ten and stopped when I was 17. Things got more and more serious and it just got to the point for me where I’d started doing music from when I was about 13, and music was my secret little hobby that I’d do at home. I’d write some songs because my dad said I should try to, but it was never something I saw myself doing.
I’d say I can’t really apply any of the physical skills of boxing to music but the commitment that it asks of you and the life lessons like trying your best or practicing until you can achieve something, were really drilled into me from the age of ten. I like to think I’ve carried on that attitude through, it’s very rare that I feel like giving up on stuff. If it’s something I want to do then I’ll keep going until the wheels fall off. And not just that, but I was very shy when I was young. I didn’t talk to anyone and if I didn’t know an answer I’d just burst into tears, I wasn’t very confident. As soon as I started boxing I was exposed to people from all different walks of life. People who had been bullied, people who just got out of jail, people from Oxford University, scientists.
All of a sudden my universe was wide open. It’s just something that will always stay with me, and I’m really thankful for having the opportunity to do it. I definitely wouldn’t want to do it now though. Until recently, I’d shy away from telling anyone because I felt like it was a bit of a tangent from my music. There’s a big thing in boxing that you kind of don’t really talk about it because you don’t want to seem like a show off. But the further away I’m getting from when I last did it, the more proud I am of boxing, and I guess I’m getting more nostalgic about it.
What do you love about making music?
I’ve got some friends who haven’t found their thing in life, a way to express themselves. I think that’s quite common – for me it’s the ability to express a feeling that I have or can’t talk about and music can be so vague that somehow you can channel it into a guitar part or a lyric. Ultimately, for me, it’s an expression of getting how you feel into something and it’s almost like meditation or something. It’s like “if I get this into a song then it’s out of my head and I don’t have to worry about it”. And I just love playing. I’ve always been a bit of an attention seeker and it comes down to loving the attention of being on stage and making people happy. Ultimately, I love making myself happy. I really love being able to get frustration out into music. If you’re feeling really unhappy, put it into a song. There’s something medicinal about music.
You’ve been compared to lots of artists, especially in the early stages of your career, such as Deerhunter, Lou Reed and Kurt Vile. Is that a head fuck?
I know some people don’t like being compared to other artists, and I’ve even had friends be like “why do people always say you sound like so and so?” but I feel quite lucky in a sense that I’ve always really liked the artists people have compared me to. I’ve always seen it as a compliment. I think it might be a thing that comes with time. The more you release, the more people see you as your own artist. Especially with my first album, it’s quite eclectic, and I think that really lends itself to people saying it sounds like this or that. I think the more I’ve put out, the more prominent my personality has come across and I’ve figured out what I like. It’s just a case of time and being consistent.
You’ve gone from really dark themes on ‘666 Kill’ to tracks like ‘Songs for Joanna’ which are a bit softer. What do you prefer singing about?
I definitely prefer playing upbeat songs. ‘666 Kill’ was like an abyss of doom in my mind. I found that when I wrote those songs, I felt a certain way, I loved writing them because I was getting a lot out of it. But then, a year down the line when you’re feeling really happy and then you get on stage and you’re singing about the devil and death, it does get to the point where you feel a bit insincere about singing this. It depends what mood you’re in, I definitely wouldn’t want to make it my mission to always sing miserable songs. As long as it feels honest when you’re singing, then I’m happy to do it. My relationship with that EP has changed. I really love it for what it was but I feel a detachment from it now.
Your music videos have this great sense of humour. Where did the ideas for ‘Fashun’ come from?
The way I really love doing things, if I can… labels never seem to want you to do it because it’s a bit of a risk. If they say “Here’s x amount for a video”, they want to know what they’re getting for their money. But I really like just being like who knows what the hell we’re going to film, let’s just go and have fun. Which is obviously really irresponsible but we were lucky to have that with ‘Fashun’ where we filmed some of it in lockdown. Lockdown meant that we couldn’t plan what we were going to do, we couldn’t film anywhere amazing, it was just in a studio and it was so fun. Going into it, me and Joe Wheatley, the director, had just sent each other bullet points like “OK, terrible fashion shoot, air guitar”. They were just ridiculous. I get on really well with Joe and I feel really comfortable around him and it’s nice to be able to say “I know this idea is really stupid but what do you reckon?” That video was just that on turbo mode. “And then we do this! And then we do this view of you topless!” Hell yeah!
How did you feel when your relationship with Columbia Records ended? How different has it been to work with the team at Yala!?
It was quite a complicated couple of months for me. Everything ended with Columbia and I changed management all at once. I remember with Columbia, I was not the main attraction, as you can imagine with so many major artists. It was a bit of a conveyor belt and I think I was lost in that along the way. I wasn’t angry and I felt like I got a lot out of the Columbia situation. I’m really grateful for them putting out my first album and giving me the opportunities to do the things I did.
It’s a shame that it ended but it’s maybe for the best as it’s not really where I belonged musically. And Yala! really saved the day. I was a bit directionless at that point – I had lots of music that I was really excited about but had no real plans in terms of how to put it out. It’s really just the opposite of Columbia. It’s on a much smaller scale. It’s not ten board meetings about what trousers you’re going to wear in this video. That works for some people, but it never really worked for me. Yala! are so chilled about some things and put their foot down when they really need to. So far it’s been such a cool experience and lots of opportunities have come from it. It’s so refreshing to just pick up my phone and call Felix [White] or Mo [Khokar]. They’re just real people to me, and someone like Felix who has been on my side of the desk and is a legend in his own right, is really valuable I think.
‘True Stereo’ is quite different to the tracks we heard on ‘People And Their Dogs’, and your EP, ‘666 Kill’. What direction do you see your sound heading in?
There are times where I think “yeah I’m gonna go for this” or I want my release to have a certain sound but I always end up changing my mind. I’m not really sure. I will say that this is the first time I’ve ever really collaborated with a producer in a big way, and I hope to do more than that. I’ve formed a really strong relationship with Loren Humphrey who’s produced the album . I’d like to do stuff that’s more spur of the moment, including recording live with friends. Who knows what I’ll end up doing? The more musicians that have become my friends, the moment I realise that I don’t have to play everything myself. I’m good at one thing but Mike Monaghan who plays the drums, is an amazing drummer. I think when I realised that, I understood the sky really is the limit – I can have all of these amazing musicians playing my song and writing parts for it and collaborating with them and that’s something I’d like to do more of, and I’m sure it would shape the way my music sounds massively.
Your next album, ‘Twin Heavy’, comes out on August 7. What can we expect to hear?
In relation to things I’ve released so far, they’re definitely the most cohesive songs I’ve put out, and it has its own identity. It sounds like it’s from a certain era, and has a real throwback feel, but somehow to me it’s very relevant to today’s market and music. I just hope that when people hear it they’ll find one or two tracks that resonate with them. There’s a bit of everything on there. There are some more heartfelt moments and some moments where I’m just having fun. I already feel like it’s a success because I got it recorded and out of my head, and I just hope people enjoy it as much as I enjoyed making it.
‘Twin Heavy by Willy J Healy is out on August 7 on Yala! records.