Throughout its long and storied history, the pages of Cherwell have been graced by every Oxford institution under the sun. Far too often have our headlines been grabbed by ‘Bodleian this’ or ‘Christ Church that’ etc, etc. Yet, until now, we hadn’t heard from Oxford’s greatest institution: Willie J Healey.
And, with three (yes, three) sold out shows at the Jericho ahead of him and a cult (yes, an actual cult) of fans behind him, the buzz-garnering singer-songwriter is a veritable Oxford institution. Ahead of the third of those shows, we spoke about navigating an album cycle amid a pandemic, his bromance with Joe Talbot of IDLES, and what we can expect next from Carterton’s musical phenom.
We met upstairs at the Jericho Tavern, Willie having taken some time out from watching the football at a pub down the road. Donning a tiny beanie, a different colour of which he’s worn at each tour date so far, and with a feather earring dangling from his left ear, he bears all the hallmarks of an indie songsmith – albeit, one who doesn’t take themselves too painfully seriously. We sat in a venue which has featured along the upward trajectories of many Oxford musical greats, with stories of Radiohead and Supergrass having been mythologised to no end. However, when asked about his favourite memories of the place, Willie’s response is characterised by a certain irreverence.
“You know what, I don’t really have that many. I haven’t seen that many bands here, I haven’t played here that much. And It’s got a tiny green room, the smallest I’ve ever seen.” Despite his green room grievances, he’s quick to recognise the special place it holds in the scene’s collective consciousness. “It’s one of those places that’s obviously legendary due to the acts that it’s had here, but that was a bit before my time.”
Willie spent much of his time coming up in Oxford playing at other local venues, such as The Port Mahon or The Cellar (sadly now defunct). However, the ravenous reception of the two Jericho crowds he’s played to in the last twenty-four hours are sure to stick in his mind: “I think, actually, this will be my memory of The Jericho”.
That ravenous reception has come as somewhat of a surprise. Willie’s latest album, the masterful Twin Heavy, was released in August of last year – a time when the idea of live music seemed to have entered the twilight zone. Putting out such a summery, lushly arranged body of work during the great lost summer of 2020 would surely have been viewed as a tragedy by many artists. Yet, Willie has no regrets.
“I think there seems to be a lot of music that’s kind of been lost from that period, but I feel like, for whatever reason, that album has fought its way through. And, on a personal level, we couldn’t play – nobody could, obviously – so the thought of putting some music out was really exciting and the thought of sitting on it for another year was really not exciting.”
With sold-out rooms across the country now screaming Willie’s lyrics “more than ever”, it seems that Twin Heavy’s unorthodox release may have been to its benefit. “Having played these shows and the songs having the reception they’ve had, it feels like people have had a chance to live with them. And, I can only speak for myself, but if someone was putting something out, I was listening to it because I didn’t have anything else to do. So, it could have been a blessing in a way – that we put it out in this window of time where everything had kind of stopped.”
Pandemics aside, Twin Heavy sounds like an album that would have found an audience in any era. With Beatlesque harmony and maximalist production, it possesses the best kind of universal appeal. This marks a striking departure from the oft-angular nature of Healey’s past work. A departure, he says, which came about organically in the studio. “I hadn’t thought about production really when I was writing the songs, it just worked out that way.”
Having been dropped by industry goliath Columbia Records in the wake of 2017’s fantastically eclectic People and Their Dogs, Willie became involved with the independent Yala! Records. Through this, he was introduced to producer Loren Humphreys and his penchant for rich, velvety sonics.
“I hadn’t really worked that much with producers before. I’d always ended up doing things myself or with my band, self produced.” In fact, Willie and his band had already tracked Twin Heavy in a local studio called Shonk, which is just off of Iffley Road. However, over the course of 9 days in the studio with Loren, the record became a different beast. “I’ve learnt from previous experiences that you never know what’s gonna happen with the next album. Are you gonna have a budget or not? So, I thought ‘I wanna do it all’ – in terms of production and it being a lot slicker, having 13 guitars playing at once, doing all of that stuff. It definitely felt like a full send.”
Having ‘sent it’ in the studio, the next thing for Willie to tackle was his live set – which, unfortunately, could not feature 13 guitar players. “It was quite daunting in a way”, he says. “A lot of the songs we hadn’t played since recording, and we recorded the album 2 years ago.” Recreating an album of such joyful excess with a four-man band, taking into account the shoddy sound of Britain’s back-alley venues, is an unenviable task.
“Fashun for example, there’s piano on that recording, there’s acoustic guitar, there’s like three electric guitars and backing singers – all this stuff.” However, it came naturally in the end. “What we’ve tried to do is to be a caricature of those recordings. You know, you get an energy from it when you listen to it so, we just match that.”
Whatever they’re doing, it seems to be working. Willie’s intoxicating live presence has earned him not only an ever-growing fan base, but an almost terrifyingly committed one. Calling themselves the ‘Cult of Willie’, their online presence is awe-inspiring. However, Willie’s demeanour changes when questioned on his part-time calling as a cult leader.
“Well, I can’t tell you too much because I don’t know if you’re in the cult”, he says gravely, while gesturing nervously at my tape recorder. “But what I will say is: there is a cult. They keep me grounded.” He then shifts out of his, admittedly convincing, menacing drawl. “But on a serious level, the cult are amazing. The amount of love that’s in that group, of not just me and my music, but general musical love, really kind of moves me.”
As wholesome as this sounds, when asked if the responsibilities of cult-leadership ever feel overwhelming, his voice once again fills with concern – this time of a less affected nature. “I actually feel like I don’t have that much control over them, and maybe one day they’ll be the death of me. But, that’s fine. That’s what a cult is. We’re here to tear shit up.”
With Willie’s core fanbase going strong, he also seems to be gaining another high-profile supporter with every month that passes. Most recently, since his relocation to Bristol a year and a half ago, he’s formed a rapport with Joe Talbot – frontman of the incendiary post-punk group Idles. “We’re just musicians sitting around. If someone wants to go for a bike ride at half eleven in the morning there usually aren’t that many people who aren’t at work, so me and Joe have bonded massively. Sometimes in life you meet people and you think, ‘I think I needed to meet you!’. I feel like that about all of the IDLES guys.”
When asked if he can see that relationship developing into a creative one, Willie seems genuinely hopeful. “I’d love to do some music with them. If they ever get off tour! We’ve been laughing because I’ve been on this tour and Joe’s out in America – IDLES are smashing it out there – and we were on Facetime the other day like ‘aw, I don’t see you anymore’. But yeah, we’ll have to get back on our bike rides and write some tunes.”
Willie spoke of his respect for the work ethic and prolific output of IDLES, being one of Britain’s most rapidly rising acts. In this respect, the Oxford musician should take all the pointers he can get. Having played a run of sold out shows across the country, it seems a certainty that he’ll be going on to bigger and better things. And, with the artistic shift presented by Twin Heavy, it’s clear he possesses the tools for mainstream success. So, musically, what’s next?
“My approach usually is to go with what feels natural. I wouldn’t wanna bank on anything. I wouldn’t wanna write based on an idea of grandeur. But, I have a new bunch of songs and they sound a certain way and I’m hoping to work with Loren again. I wanna smash it! I unashamedly wanna take the world over. I don’t know how long it’ll take, but I feel really confident. And, I feel like the music and the recordings have grown. They’ve moved on. They’re quite funky, even, in a way. I think I’ve been writing better than ever before – which is not me being arrogant, because I don’t know if people will like them – but I feel very proud and I’m excited at the prospect of putting out music based on what I’ve got.”
Based on Willie’s performance at Saturday night’s Jericho show, we should all feel very excited too. Despite the four-man band, his songs were far from caricatures of the recordings. With the sort of interplay you’d expect to hear in jazz and a devilishly funky sense of groove, Twin Heavy’s best tracks took on a new life. There was a sense that not only had the crowd had a chance to live with the album, but so had the songwriter.
Crooning its title track, backed by immaculately balanced keys and soaring slide guitar, was an artist fully in control of his powers.
Tracks from People and Their Dogs brought a visceral edge to the proceedings. Love Her was a highlight, unleashing a sonic battering that the Jericho Tavern could hardly contain. Imbued with a swagger that could only have come from wearing a silly hat and pulling it off, Willie led the crowd through cathartic cries of ‘I did my best but it’s not enough.’
Although he and his band would certainly have been better suited to a bigger stage, the set did not suffer as a result. However, utilising the small venue to its apex does beg the question: what heights will he be able to reach in larger ones? Many, I’m sure. And I’m in no doubt – we’ll soon be living in a world where ‘Willie’ is the word on everyone’s lips.
Image credit: H Fernando