by Max Heinegg
I caught up with perennial Boston Music Awards winner Will Dailey at an unadvertised gig at Toad in Cambridge. Fresh off a tour of France, Will and his trio debuted songs from his forthcoming CD, National Throat, all of which illustrated his skill in taking varied musical genres and uniting them under the banner of honest, emotive songwriting. From the psychedelic “Castle of Pretending” to “Once in a Century Storm,” which is one part Cole Porter and one part romantic anthem, to the rousing, corrosive blues of “Don’t Take Your Eyes Off of Me” and his stellar, falsetto-drenched cover of Prince’s “I Would Die 4 U,” Will’s voice as a writer, his expansive range, vocally and on guitar, and his band’s exceptional musicianship are an indication that one of the city’s best musicians is still evolving.
When I received the CD (sadly sans the Prince cover), I was able to immerse myself in a thoughtfully layered CD that calls to mind a modern Led Zeppelin III in the way that the songs, often quite distinct in instrumentation and theme, are held together by a singular voice and a consummate songwriter.
Noise: National Throat is an intriguing title. What is the story behind it?
Will Dailey: I was reading a book on music and found the John Phillip Souza quote: “Then what of the national throat? Will it not weaken?” where he was decrying the gramophone entering the home in 1906. He was concerned pianos might disappear from our living rooms and that we would be taken over by machines. While the disappearance of the family instrument is an interesting discussion, what struck me the most was that even in 1906, musicians, and those within the music business, were commiserating over what was going to happen to music and the business of music and how that was going to lead to ruin. This was before the Stones, Beatles, and Dylan. Yes, pianos have left the living room and our schools. We can argue for days about what has happened with music and what is happening. The truth is: artists will make art, regardless of what technology is coming or going. We can argue again about the receding sales, the shit sound of MP3s, and the loss of artist development, or we can get busy listening, playing, writing, and recording. I argue the National Throat is strong and will always be strong because musicians make music because they have to. I saw the quote and immediately knew my album title.
Noise: You have stuck to your guns artistically and continued to be prolific, even with a new child (congrats!); what keeps you hungry?
Will: I don’t remember a life when I wasn’t doing this. I’ve never felt a hunger. A hunger implies that it can be satiated. It is just a way of going through life—a way of being that suits me. It takes life to make art. Happiness, sadness, laughter, and delirium are all ingredients. Whatever I can get myself into is only going to fuel the pursuit. A child has made it more valuable and enriching. I find I’m more purposeful in my choices with my career. There is also more sleep now on the road, which is bizarre.
Noise: This album is a testimony to the friends and fans you’ve made in your time in the music scene; what does Pledge Music (where donations fund art and artists can offer different produces and services, like CDs and signed lyrics for various prices) represent to artists and you, as an opportunity or a different artistic model?
Will: I was told it was a bad idea to get off a label, but in the end I had to get off a major label so I could be successful. I began by writing my fans to tell them what was up and what the first step would be. Pledge provided me a platform and followed along on every step after that. It takes money to make a recording and put on shows, and I couldn’t have made this album without everyone involved. It was the best experience I had recording because I wasn’t in that vacuum. Every person who pledged was along for the ride with me.
Noise: You take a lot of pride in being a Boston-based artist; what challenges does the city offer a musician?
Will: I love being from here. (While) it is incumbent upon musicians now to move to Brooklyn, Nashville, or LA, what we don’t count are the corpses of dreams down there that get buried in the success stories. You cannot find in LA what happens at the Lizard Lounge, Toad, Atwoods or the [Rock ’n’ Roll] Rumble. However, in Boston you can’t find the path to a career as easily. You can toil a lot longer here because a chance at the plate where the measure of your abilities is brought to task has never been presented. The best a Boston artist can do is tour. You’ll find out quickly that if you can connect on a larger scale and if you have the stomach for the path, that is this life choice.
Noise: To the new record: the album’s opener, “Sunken Ship,” has been getting a lot of attention lately; it’s a finalist in the International Songwriting Competition (one of 190 out of 20,000). It has a bit of a reggae-inflected, Caribbean vibe, which is new stylistic territory for you.
Will: I love hearing that. When we are recording, those kind of characteristics are the last thing we are thinking of. I showed the song to the band around 1AM and we set up some mics in the live room and that is what came out of the three of us playing through it. No words were spoken and it is one take with Dave Brophy (drums) and Kimon Kirk (bass). I wrote the lyrics while walking my dog. I spoke them into my phone.
Noise: In the song, who is it that thinks he’s “the captain of a sunken ship/sunken in the shallow waters/still thinking you’re still sailing”?
Will: It is tribute to how I felt sitting on the deck of a major label. It came out that way because, as I said before, you know when it makes sense with the content and melody. I could play that song right now as a punk tune for you, but it wouldn’t make sense or drive home the essence. I have no map for getting there, but I feel like I know when the song has arrived. It’s pretty exciting with the way the song is being received because it kicks off the story of getting to this album, making this album, and where I’m going from here on out.
Noise: The album covers so much ground, from melodic rock to blues tunes like “Don’t Take Your Eyes Off of Me”; how do you approach a song in a genre that some would argue is fully explored and still make it your own?
Will: The same way I approach the others: get excellent musicians, capture performances, and be void of rules while knowing all the rules at the same time. I recorded that song for fun as a possible bonus track, but we ended up liking it too much. It’s really just a mantra, but we did it in a take and covered it in dirt. I’m also not a blues artist or guitarist, so hopefully that keeps it fresh. The last thing a guy like me needs to do is the blues. But what started out as a little ditty to a friend turned into a perfect centerpiece for an album about being an artist no matter what the cost and doing it no matter what happens to the world around you.
Noise: It seems the last two songs on the album are (potentially) for your audience; how does the current disposable climate of art stand in contrast to what you’re trying to share and create with yours, or what does your audience mean to you?
Will: It all goes back to the National Throat. I don’t need to worry about the current climate. I need to worry about the song, the recording and the show. I need to pay attention to the fans I have and not the fans I don’t. The fans I have made this album. They are also the reason other people will hear this album. I never know what fans are going to like the most. Fortunately, some ears like the more aggressive tunes, some who like the more introspective ones and some are excited by the different aspects of my writing. It’s made for an enduring career and in the end hopefully I will gain more fans with that approach because I can’t do it without them.
Noise: The album’s closer “We Will Always Be a Band” seems to be both about weathering doubt, and hoping for success—about how art is the work you need to do. How do you feel about still working towards trying to break?
Will: That song is full of truths and delusions at the same time. There is something delusional about being in a band-—yet at the same time, anyone who has been in one, even for a night, has felt that euphoric surge. The feeling endures throughout lifetimes and becomes tales. I feel like the guy in the song is shaming the choices of one who rejected him and, underneath, is afraid of where that euphoric path has taken him. The only choice left is to play it again, louder and insist that you will break. Maybe that break is crashing—hardly able to keep the lights on. Maybe it’s the act of doing it that is the success story.
Will Dailey releases his new CD at the Somerville Theater in Davis Square, on Saturday, June 7th.