Willy Mason: A breath of fresh air

Willy Mason's first song, 'Oxygen', has become an anthem for a lost generation. Nick Hasted finds him ready to preach
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

If you're feeling bad about America after last week's election, Willy Mason is one reason to change your mind. The 19-year-old New Englander has already won praise from across his nation's musical board, from the alternative icon Bright Eyes to country's Rosanne Cash. His debut EP, Hard Hand to Hold, starts to show you why.

The title song ushers you into the fear and hostility New York's homeless suffer and provoke, while other songs explore insanity and awful family strain. Sung in a slightly worn but upright voice, with simple acoustic backing, they present people in need of healing. Where the Humans Eat, his upcoming album, takes this further, describing a generation in flight from nameless fears, searching for the founding ideals of a "forgotten America".

Some of Mason's songs are already anthems to his fans. With fellow travellers such as Bright Eyes, he offers far more hope for the future than the windy if well-meaning efforts of Springsteen and company. But, even at 19, he's seen what such ideals can cost. Mason grew up cut off from mainstream America, on the Massachusetts island of Martha's Vineyard. Marooned from the mainland, he learned how to be an outsider. "We make a world with what we have on the island," he explains. "On the mainland, you're so dependent getting food and entertainment, you have to rely on what's offered. I realised I could find everything I needed in myself. It gave me freedom from the modern world."

Mason's parents, middle-aged when they had him (his father is now 67), and musicians themselves, also schooled him in strange values for a modern teenager. Their house was stuffed with old records and books. "It got to the point where, when my Dad rented out the basement, he built apartment walls out of all the records," Mason laughs. "I had all kinds of resources that dated back to the 1950s or earlier. It let me see culture in a wider perspective. It helped me detach myself from the present situation." Mark Twain, Native American speeches, Gandhi, Biblical prophets, and blues were as much a part of Mason's youth as Nirvana. Alan Lomax's recordings of early 20th-century American folk music, alongside the living traditions of Martha's Vineyard, completed a non-MTV education. "Lomax showed me music as just part of people's lives, not necessarily a career," he says. "Growing up, too, music was a casual thing. Everyone joined in, with spoons or the back of a hand."

But Mason wasn't totally lost in a time-warp. Rage Against the Machine's politicised anger, heard when he was 14, made him investigate his country's faults. He and his friends already felt alienated from the crude America television showed awaited them "off-island". "There was this feeling that we had to figure out a way to form our own identity, outside of the mainstream culture," he remembers, "because it felt so artificial." A final influence helped age Mason far beyond his years. He witnessed his parents' desperate struggle to scrape a life as artistic outsiders, culminating in his Dad's mental breakdown.

Deeply unhappy, he started to write. His first song, "Oxygen", bypassed self-pity to demand a sea-change in his country, led by his own generation. It was an anthem to generosity of spirit, a hymn to a better, buried America, "stronger than bombs" and "cooler than TV". "It just came out," he says. "It was like a weight off my shoulders. When I write songs, I'm mostly singing to myself. I need them as much as anybody. I was just writing them to get through high school. And then it turned out a lot of other people had those sentiments, and wanted to hear them."

Does he feel he's living at a hard time - that there's a big responsibility on his generation ? "Yes. There definitely is. I think there always is, on every generation. But we've been made really aware of it. It's an opportunity for us as well as a burden, though." Bright Eyes, aka Conor Oberst, the Nebraskan singer with perhaps America's most fervent young underground following, brought Mason to the world. On a rare mainland trip to a New Hampshire Bright Eyes gig, Mason, still at school, sang to Oberst backstage. Too many drinks and two states later, he awoke on the tour-bus, in Vermont. "At the show that night," he remembers, "Conor called me on stage and had me sing "Oxygen" for 600 kids. I can hardly remember it because I was so nervous, but that was the first gig I ever played. I was so elated. Everything that was bad that had happened, everything I felt I had done wrong felt justified then."

Emboldened, Mason left his island sanctuary for good on leaving school last year, and moved to New York. Though he stayed with comfortable college students, he also sought out the America he had been shielded from. "I was hanging out on street-corners," he remembers, "trying to meet people from totally different backgrounds, homeless people and drug dealers. I went out with an open mind and was very naive and innocent. I got by not on street-smarts but on trust, on having faith in everyone. I got burnt a couple times. But for the most part, I found people from all backgrounds appreciated that."

New York's music scene also fell to Mason's disarming, deliberate innocence. "I reached out as much as I could, put all my cards on the table, and said, 'Take 'em if you want, boo me off stage, but this is who I am'. That directness I think really drew people in."

Eventually, Mason got a first-hand taste of America on the margins, when five cops mistook his guitar for a machine-gun and threw him in a cell for 30 hours. His cellmates were freestyle rapping, and a rendition of "Oxygen" was soon required. "It's the most stage-fright I've ever had," he laughs. "At the same time it was a really valuable chance to hang out with people I'd only met before when they were hustling me. I was very out of place. But I tried to keep my ears open. And show respect to everyone. And learn what I could. It was an amazing experience when I was singing. It was what I wanted. I want to try and reach out, and understand everyone."

That may sound arrogant, or pious: it's more like a leap of faith, begun from the tough experience Mason has sought out. He wants America to change, but he isn't looking for a revolution. He just wants his polarised country to start listening. "Fear is huge in America right now," he says. "But music is such a powerful force. For people of my age it's almost the last place to find heroes... When you're at a concert, you've got a whole crowd of people that are looking for something, and they've got someone who's willing to speak out to them honestly. Music can make you stand up for things, and be stronger."

'Hard Hand to Hold' is out on November 22 on Virgin. 'Where the Humans Eat' is out in the New Year