The name “Willie Wisely” has been music to discerning pop fans’ ears for well over a decade now, but he’ll be the first to admit his albums have thus far failed to penetrate the wider marketplace, despite reams of positive reviews and a fervent fanbase. With his latest release, titled simply Wisely, he hopes to change all that — and was willing to chat with Popdose during part of a 14-hour drive between gigs in order to help further his cause. If you’re somehow unfamiliar with the magic of Wisely’s songs, prepare to be enlightened…
Where are you right now?
I think I’m near Jacksonville, Florida. When I MapQuest for these gigs, I never pay attention — I only know I need to turn in 400 miles. Daytona Beach! There, that’s where I am. Started the morning off in Richmond, Virginia, so today I’ve been doing a good chunk of driving. I’m playing tonight in Melbourne, Florida, which I think is near Tampa.
Sounds like you’re in the thick of promoting the new album.
Yep, yep, lots of touring. This is something like date number 73 since October.
I was working with Andy Dick — I was producing and co-writing an album for him, and it was suggested to me that we approach Oglio, because they have George Lopez and some other big names I don’t know, ’cause I don’t follow comedy, but they’re the go-to label for that sort of stuff. I always knew the president of the label had a pop music heart as well, but really, I was just approaching him on the Andy Dick record; there was a spoken-word album in the can and we were working on the musical project, so I went to them and said “Why don’t you release this?” and they said “Great!”
I was sort of the point man for keeping Andy involved in the promotion of the record, and I got to see what a great label Oglio is — and they got to see that I’m easy to work with. I sent them a rough edit of the video for “Through Any Window” before I sent them the album, actually, and asked them what I should do with it. Mark at Oglio said “Holy shit! What should you do? We should sign you!” We signed up pretty quickly after that. I sent them the rough edit of the album, and it all came together. There were no attorneys involved. (Laughs)
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Andy Dick! There are obviously hidden depths to your career that I didn’t know about.
Yeah, I don’t like to emphasize it, ’cause he’s a friend. A great friend.
When I saw that “Through Any Window” was on this album, I briefly assumed this was a reissue of 2006’s Parador.
Well, the Jenna Fischer video, to me, packed such a wallop, I just had to remix the song and release it just barenaked on this new album. I shamelessly did that, because I love the song, and I knew the great wider world hadn’t heard Parador, and I knew it would help introduce new people to my music. And musically, it made sense — I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t think it fit, but it seemed like the gateway to my next record.
Parador was the first I’d heard from you since She, way back in ’96 — I missed Turbosherbet in ’97 — and for awhile, a number of your older albums were going for pretty insane prices on the used market, but now they’re available for download…
Yeah, all of my albums except for Parlez-Vous Francais? are available from the download shops — I took Parlez-Vous down because it was a record I made while the Willie Wisely Trio was sort of disbanding, and I found all these tracks that we left off that probably would have been better off on, so I want to do a major re-release. I’m taking it away for awhile as I plan all that. It’ll be sort of a deluxe reconfiguration of that album.
It’s kind of neat — I got together that original band back in February, and we actually re-recorded some things, so it’ll be this sort of crazy, over-a-decade-between-sessions finishing of the album. Now that we’re not all drunk and neurotic, we can make sense of what was a great band.
It is. It’s fun to say “I have a rich history, and you probably don’t know about it.” I feel like it sets me apart, ’cause there are a lot of younger artists and older artists you’ve heard about, but I happen to be an older artist who’s still emerging, and that puts me in a unique place, I think. I feel this arc in my career is going to be a slow and steady kind of thing. It’ll build until I’m 80 or 90. The notion of making rock & roll as an octegenarian, and doing it in an artistically credible way, is exciting.
For my next record, I’m definitely considering plans for a late CD release. I’m feeling like a digital release might be the way to start out. Or I might go vinyl, digital, CD. What pisses me off about CDs — to me, mp3s are a substandard item, so the fact that they’re kinda bought, sold, traded and passed around in kind of a casual way doesn’t really piss me off. But what really does piss me off is all those promo copies of CDs being sold on Amazon. I mean, I work so hard on an album, and the day it’s released, there are a couple dozen copies for sale at half the price with the barcode punched out. It’s insulting enough that people chose not to review it, or not to play it on the radio station, but then to turn around and make a buck off of me…
I don’t mean to sound bitter, and I’m very happy with the job Oglio is doing. I don’t want to come off as being at all critical of the label. I’m really not. And what’s even more exciting to me than the digital-retail thing is the social-networking thing. I mean, I’ve got a list of 3,000-plus people who have proactively reached out to me through the Internet — it’s amazing. I tried to get in on that whole folk house concert circuit years ago, thinking they might not mind a Beatles-based guy, and I was soundly rejected. I’m a good performer, but there’s a certain fascism in that crowd, so I thought “fine,” and I e-mailed my list, and I got 70 offers! I strung together my whole fall tour — and I could only make a fraction of those work in terms of routing. Doing this on a one-to-one basis — it’s such a blast, not only feeling the appreciation of people who enjoy your music, but sending your appreciation back to them. It’s a great — oh, it just boggles my mind.
This new album feels to me — as you kind of alluded to in your comment about “Through Any Window” fitting in — like it’s of a piece with Parador, which marked the debut of a new, more…pensive Willie Wisely.
I actually have a record in the can that’s full of the more fruit-striped music, if you will. I haven’t stopped writing it, just stopped emphasizing it. It all involved purchasing a home in Minneapolis, renting it out, moving to Los Angeles, deciding what kind of music I wanted to make, who I wanted to write with…it took awhile. I think it was almost exactly eight years between records. Also during that time, I had a band in Minneapolis called the Conquerors — straight up Kinks, Zombies, kind of ’60s stuff. I was still very busy.
California changed me, though — it’s just that simple. I wanted to choose a mood, and you know, I think I’ve failed at that. When I sequence records, I actually enjoy that feeling of boom, pow, make ’em laugh; boom, pow, make ’em cry. I don’t listen to one-trick pony recording artists, and I don’t intend to be one myself. Whether that makes me more or less marketable, you can pretty much guess.
Yeah. Well, first of all, I fell very deeply in love. I married my wife in ’03, and we started talking about babies shortly thereafter, and there was just no compulsion to write about sleeping with girls anymore. It seemed an insult to this profound bliss that I’d found with this woman. That was another major thing that happened in those eight years, was that I just wanted my music to have this sense of gravity to it that it hadn’t had before. As much as I like that old material — and still play healthy, healthy doses of it in concert, and enjoy the hell out of it — I wanted my music to have more gravity. Sorry, I can’t think of a better word.
Obviously, you were dealing with a pretty significant backlog of material when you started making albums again. How old are the songs on Wisely?
I think the oldest song on there is from 2002, so they were all from a point where I was already established in Los Angeles. When people tell me the album reminds them of America, or a little bit of an Eagles album, and then they find out I live in Laurel Canyon, the whole thing really makes sense. I saw a picture of Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, and Stephen Stills the other day, and it was taken on a hill like a hundred feet from my house. I’ve been told by neighbors who have been there for ages, you know, “Oh, Jimi Hendrix did this over there,” or “Graham Nash used to rent that property” — it’s just a groovy-ass place to be.
And the whole record, besides the tracks we did in Sweden, the whole thing was recorded in Laurel Canyon. The album’s California feel also occurred by dint of me working with my co-producer, Petur Smith — he and I really wanted to make a record that was stripped as much as possible of nostalgia or any sense of showing off. I believe that my ’90s releases were very showy, and I’m not necessarily ashamed of that; I just wanted to see how my songs floated without being showboats.
You know, I think people hear what they want to hear, and thank God for that. I’m tired of answering the question, “What’s that song about?” — I tell the audiences at my shows what the songs are about, but honestly, each of my songs is about four or five different things, so I can change my story every night. You can’t play these songs night after night unless their meanings adapt themselves to your life, and my songs are open to interpretation to me, so I assume they’re going to be that way to everybody else. “Through Any Window” has a darkness to it, but then it’s all about light — blue and green and red — and yeah, the children get on the schoolbus and they’re all sad, but there’s obviously a magnificent love affair that happens somewhere in the chronology of the song.
I don’t know what to say. The song “It’s Gonna Be Beautiful” is about what happens when two people hit the sheets — I don’t know how sad that is. And the last song, “I’ll Be Singing” (download), I wrote to my wife for our wedding. It’s so emotional, it’s almost silly to me. I’ve never even played it live in all the dates I’ve done since the record’s been out. To show that much emotion…you know, I was listening to Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely,” and sort of marveling at how it’s just flat out, you know, “I had a baby girl and I love her.” The song is so simple that for decades I missed that. It’s funny how joy can go unseen, but arch sadness sometimes pokes through much more quickly. People love their artists to be tortured, you know, and that drives me up the wall. It really does. You know, I hope you’re digging Chet Baker because of that distinct tone and that amazing voice. Please don’t love him for falling out of a window, or being able to play with dentures or whatever. Music should be judged for musical reasons, not its backstory or its supposed vibe.
With the new album, it feels like you’re asking — trusting — your audience to follow you somewhere, and stay there for a certain period of time. It isn’t an album that fully reveals itself to you during the first listen.
Oh, absolutely. It’s so understated, that people are often surprised, or a little disappointed. But you know what? If Radiohead is the band for this generation…they’re nothing but understated. All Radiohead albums are third-listen records. Neil Young’s Harvest. The American version of Revolver. I’m excited to see how this album unfolds for people. I didn’t have a lot of expectations for the first few months, but I’m hopeful that it’ll be meaningful for years. It’s got so much understatement built into it that I feel like it’ll be a record for all times — there’ll never be a time when you put it on and it sounds dated, or wrong. Whatever it doesn’t accomplish in ’08, I think it’ll accomplish in 2010.