With a big hearty laugh and an individualistic take on what it means to him to be a singer/artist in this current musical climate, William Johnson (known by his moniker WILLS) is an artist who is certainly setting out his stall as a name to watch.
Originally from the Bronx NYC, WILLS’ current eponymous debut ep shows lashings of promise, lashings of cultured skill and a distinctive vocal as his four track debut of sorts does what all debuts should do and that is have you hankering for a follow-up project even before you have finished listening to the current instalment.
For me I will be making music no matter what, whether I have ten fans or I have ten thousand fans.
The multi-instrumentalist producer (though he may not agree with that “honestly I do not play any instrument well”) – and of course vocalist delivers a type of nouveau rich R&B sound while he delivers emotive lyrics on the top of tight beats. Tracks to make you wish for more of the slightly gritty almost lo-fi vibe eeriness of ‘Woes VS Whoas’ which has clocked in over 150,000 plays on Spotify.
He’s an immediately engaging guy even over the phone, despite it probably being a little early for him – approx 10ish when I phone him up in Minnesota (where he now lives). WILL’s got his coffee and speaks with all the enthusiasm and warmth of someone who is speaking to a friend and that is evidently a product of his early years.
My mum raised me to value; education, value music but of course also value just being a human being who treats people with respect and dignity.
The son of Bruce Johnson, an outstanding artist in his own right who released a bevy of brilliantly experimental tracks on should read ‘the Strata East Label’ of the legendary Gill Scott Heron, was probably a blessing and a curse. For some artists it is hard to step out of the shadow of an illustrious musical parent/s but for WILLS his down to earth pragmatic approach suggests connection rather than fear, WILLS is comfortable.
“My father was not a huge part of my life for a while. As it would happen anyway, my mother was a student of my father and she fell in love with him and they had my sister and I. Things happen in life of course (you cannot avoid that) and my mum ended up raising my sister and I by herself so there was a long time where I had no real connection with my father.” He adds, “It was not until my sophomore year I think that I got close to him. He started teaching me music and a product of that was that we did get to know each other more.”
Elaborating more when describing the impact that his father had on his musical journey, he says, “My father taught me as a musician to be myself – he said music helps you in a way to understand yourself. He would say that you can learn as much technique as you want but at the end of the day (for him) he felt that if you want to be an actual artist who actually makes something, then you have to ‘learn’ yourself so you create music not because of trends and what is ‘popular’ but you create something that is uniquely ‘you’.”
WILLS is in many respects probably a label or manager’s worst nightmare; seemingly forthright, independent, clear on his goals and most importantly seems to have chosen a career in music because he ‘loves music’ rather than a singular and sometimes overpowering aim to be a number one or be famous.
“I think part of the way I think is about keeping myself safe and keeping myself grounded but another part of it however is that the music I do personally for me is bigger than the music industry. The music industry is just a mirror for many things in the world as does anything with a foundation vested in capitalism. It’s not like the music industry is uniquely susceptible to that capitalist mentality. For me this is just how I live my life no matter what.” WILLS adds by qualifying, “of course I can only speak for myself because of course people come into the music industry for different reasons. Some people get into music for their ego, some think it is a good way to make money in truth anything is valid as long as that is their reason. For me when I just think about it myself it is so complicated – my family was into music and so I now hold music as a sacred language. So part of the reason I do music is to check in with myself – you know some of the music might express that I am not doing so well and conversely it might also express that I am doing very well.” It’s this foundation of his music being something that is more than an aim for a number one that allows WILLS to seem content at his distancing from the sometimes welcoming and sometimes vicious animal that is the music industry.
“The whole music industry I have no idea about” he laughs deeply, “I know that seems random but that is just the way it is; who ends up making it and who does not, it is beyond my comprehension and so I leave that to someone else? For me I will be making music no matter what whether I have ten fans or I have ten thousand fans.”
With his individualistic outlook on what music means to him and his place within the musical sphere currently clear to him, his EP produced by Chris Zane who has worked with acts like Bat For Lashes is in turn a body of work that WILLS seems happy with.
“I sometimes find it difficult to talk about my music because I really don’t want to give any ideas to how people interpret my music. I love it when people maybe interpret a song differently and see ‘x’ as opposed to ‘y’ but if you want me to explain, honestly a big part of the project was about me reflecting on where I am at the moment. It is about that conversation with ‘yourself’ in 2016. I think that we are way more similar than we sometimes like to say or think so I hope people can relate to the themes that come up.”
All those bench marks and accolades can only mean something to you if you allow them to mean something – I value ‘me’ and being intact as ‘self’
When discussing his writing process, he says “the themes on the ep were the topics that were on my mind at the time – that’s how I generally write I can’t write about things that are not on my mind. The topics I sang about were real to me they were subjects emotionally connecting and influencing me and so I just wrote about them and then of course refine the tracks through the process”. From the rousing ‘Solid Gold’ right through to its finale with track 4 the beautiful ‘First Time’, asking a love interest to remember the first time of making beautiful love, this is a debut that you can repeat without fear, where you won’t hear a track and suddenly think, ‘oh no that’s actually poor’.
With that WILLS has got to set off – he’s got to make a swift journey over to a friend to make music and “see what happens”. He answers the final question – what do you see for you in the next five years with a simple and not surprising goal?:
“The main thing for me at this point is that I do not want my self-worth and my self-confidence affected by the mechanisms of the music world/business. If you make music to learn yourself then no one can take that from you. All those bench marks and accolades can only mean something to you if you allow them to mean something – I value ‘me’ and being intact as ‘self’ and that is my number one goal to the day I die. If the universe consequently feels that this music I make will be ‘that’ popular music, then so be it but if not, then I am cool with that too”.