Interview: Will Varley

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Photo Credit: Ben Morse

It’s been a hell of a year for “rambling singer-songwriter” Will Varley who has played at The Royal Albert Hall for the Teenage Cancer Trust, headlined his own tour, released an EP, and spent a summer supporting The Proclaimers across the UK as well as festivals including Bestival. At the end of October he released his latest album Postcards from Ursa Minor, before heading out on tour with Frank Turner who named him as “one of the best singer-songwriters in the UK”. I caught up with him before one of those shows from that tour.

Tonight is your second night in Manchester, how did last night go?

Great. Manchester is one of my favourite places to play. There are certain places that have an absolute undying love of live music, and Manchester is one of those places. I’ve never had a shit gig here. It’s just part of the culture of the city; it’s going to watch acts. There are cities and towns in this country that don’t have that; it’s not in-built in the same way. Manchester, Nottingham, Bristol, it’s just so ingrained in what people do.

How’s the tour been going in general?

It’s amazing – it’s just great to do things on this scale. If I never do tours like this again it will have been amazing just to have done this once. The response to music so far has been good, I think, you never really can tell. There’s been good feedback on social networks, people have come and bought CD’s at the end of the night, and those kind of things indicate that it’s going well.

How long have you been playing music?

Forever or at least my version of forever. I’m 28 now and I’ve been playing music for about 25 years. We used to live in Brixton and there was a piano in the front room, and I just used to piddle about on it. I started playing guitar when I was about 13, because you can lug it around, you can’t really impress women with a piano on your back. About the same age that I started playing guitar I started going out to open mics, and started a journey that I’m still on. It feels very much the same thing, I still see people that I used to play with when I was 14.

The thing about London is, there are lots of different communities, an infinite number of them. And that can be quite alienating when you don’t know anyone. So when I really started to feel like I was part of a community of musicians was when I left London and I moved to Kent and I met up with Cocos Lovers and we started a record label together called Smugglers Records. That was the beginning of meetings lots of people and taking gigs a little bit more seriously than I had done in the past. It used to be: go and get pissed up the end of the road and see if there’s a guy with a cigar and a hat who says “I’m going to make you a star boy”, which there never was.

Tell me more about the record label you started?

We started Smugglers basically because we couldn’t get a record deal. I’d sent a few demos off, and bits and pieces, and by the time we started Smugglers I’d given up on being “successful” as a musician and decided that what I wanted to do was just to play music on my own terms, and not give two tits whether anyone else cares or not. That was kind of the birth of Smugglers Records, this quite anarchic sense of let’s do this because we want to do it. Let’s put on a gig because we want to get these musicians in town, and let’s put an album out because we want to put an album out. It’s not necessarily about who’s going to come to the gig, and who’s going to listen to the album.

And from there you started the festival?

That’s right, Smugglers Festival. We started that one or two years after the label. It was great, it was all the friends that we’d met on this wonderful anarchic journey, we thought let’s get everyone in the same place in a field and get drunk. It still goes on every year, and it’s a wonderful meeting of people. The thing about music is everyone’s always travelling. There are bands that you see, I might go for a drink with them in Bristol because we’re there on the same night, and then I might not see them for 6 months and then suddenly we’re both in Scotland for the same show. Smugglers is really nice because it gets everyone in the same place for three days, and we all just hang out in quite a grounded way which is really nice.

After the release of your last album, you did a walking tour

That was in between these two albums. I basically walked from Penzance to Deal in Kent along the South coast which is about 500 miles. Played 27 shows in 31 days, a guitar on the back, sleeping on people’s floors, and that was that. It was unbelievable, a really amazing experience. It was hard, the walk itself was hard, and turning up after having walked 20 miles with rubbish on your back, and then arriving at a pub with someone saying “Great nice to meet you, you’re on in 10 minutes”. That was pretty backbreaking in a way, but we did it. We had some great shows, and met some amazing people.

When you drive into a town in a beaten up van there’s a certain response. When you walk into someone’s town or village on your feet with a guitar on your back and saying “I’ve walked here from somewhere that’s 200 miles away” then there’s a very different reaction. People are just instantly “Come in, sit down, have some tea, have some cake, do you want a bath?” They were so welcoming. We were fundraising as well for Bowel Cancer UK and the generosity as we walked, I did it with a guy called Nick Marks, who’s an amazing singer-songwriter and good friend of mine. It was a great month, I’ll never done it again.

Tell me about your latest album

The process of an album to me is quite boring in that I don’t sit down and say “Right I’m going to make an album about this, and this is how it’s going to work as a whole piece of work.” What I do is I just write songs, through the year. I’ve just released the latest album, I’ve already got a couple of songs towards the next album, and once I’ve filled up my pouch of songs, then I got and put my hand somewhere and say “I need to make an album, can anyone help?” I wrote the songs, and then Charlie who runs Xtra Mile go in touch with Tristan Ivemy who produced Frank Turner’s England Keep My Bones and other stuff. So we hung out for a while, and recorded the album in a studio in North London while eating lots of Bolognese pizza.

What do you feel are the major themes of the album?

Themes are kind of incidental, because I didn’t write it as a piece. Looking back at it though, it certainly addresses time, how time changes depending where you’re perceiving it from which is something which interests me quite a lot. The idea that something can feel like it’s an hour long, when it’s only three minutes, and then something else can feel like its seconds long, and it’s been two years. And also, space in all its sense, including the great ether and the whole of the universe.

You’ve been playing music for a long time, how do you feel your song-writing has changed over that time?

I don’t know. I hope I’m a better songwriter than when I was 8, maybe I’m not. I think you’re definitely more pure as a songwriter when you’re less experienced at it. When I was writing songs when I was a child, I was thinking about how people might perceive the songs or whether people were going to understand what I was saying, I was writing them for me. I hope that over time my songs have become more useful to people than they were when I was a child, maybe I’m not, and maybe I’m going backwards. Maybe we’re at our most wise when we’re born.

How has your performance changed over time?

It’s always changing, as the nature of the gigs changes you have to change what you do. When I first started out it was very intense; it was all about the end of the world, and war, suicide bombers. It was incredibly dark, with no real light, and people got really bored watching me [laughs]. There’s only so far that you can go with that, if you go 3 songs without interacting with the crowd people just turn off. They don’t want to connect with you anymore, especially when you’re a 14 year old and people just think “shut up and relax”.

I started adding a few jokes in here and there, and trying to find some light to put with the dark. My light and dark is very obvious, when it’s dark it’s obviously dark. What I’d like to do more and more over time is for that light and dark, not to be quite so black and white. That you’re darkness and you’re light come in the same line, and that’s what I’d like to head towards but it’s much more difficult to do.