It’s hard to say what drew me to Will Varley at first. Whether it was the ease in which he captivated the main stage audience at Vancouver’s Folk Music Festival while occupying but a small corner of it, his rebellious locks of hair or that the lyrics he was singing seemed to express the sentiments of every sane human about the state of the world today. I don’t know… maybe it was just that he made people laugh.
He rolled up to our interview with an entourage of Folk Fest volunteers, complete with camera crew all eager to let me know how lovely he is and excited to film the interview.
Luckily, much like his performances, an interview with Will Varley involves quite a lot of laughing. When Will laughs it comes from somewhere deep within and at times toes the line between jovial and maniacal. Perhaps there is something in that paradox that explains what had all of us hanging on every word the singer/songwriter from Kent, England has to say.
I was 13 when I started playing gigs. He says describing the start of his musical career. I went out with a fake ID and…. I didn’t have a beard and that was kind of annoying because that’s what folk singers are supposed to have. And all of the guys…. they’re all really old men in checkered shirts and beards and I used to go out and sing. Like 3 nights a week I’d just go out with this fake ID that said I was 21 on it. And I dunno if they knew… but I looked 13. I probably looked about 10 actually. But I went out and I used to play.
In those early days, Will would mostly busk or play open mics around town.
When I used to busk I would never do very well, he admits. The thing is I would always do my own songs. And if I stand and rock up in Kingston High Street in South London and play my own songs to people to walking past… No one cares you know? There’s another guy with a guitar. It’s quite hard to not be just another guy with a guitar. And so what I would do was reverse busking. I used to pay people a pound to listen to three of my songs. And I did that for years and sometimes they’d buy a CD. And so it would kind of work out, you’d just about be making a profit.
17 years later with 4 full length records, one live album, a political fiction novel, and the creation of arts collective under his belt, Will’s days of reverse busking are long gone. His debut album ‘Advert Soundtracks’ was released in 2011, and very soon after that he embarked on the first of two notorious walking tours.
The first walking tour was basically the idea that we miss so much stuff between traveling. …We get on (the plane) somewhere and we get off somewhere else and we don’t see the land between. And we don’t meet the people in between. And for centuries if you wanted to go somewhere you had to experience the bit in between where you are and where you were going to. And I kind of thought it would be interesting to do a tour that was like that, basically. So we just kind of set out with a guitar and no one really knew who we were or what we were doing, we’d just rock up. And we met so many people… and there’s a kind of magic to that. That’s kind of the original way to talk. It’s how people toured for centuries.
The first tour began at London Bridge and took him south east for 130 miles before arriving back in his hometown. Two years later, after the release of his second studio album, ‘As the Crow Flies’ he did a second walking tour, this time walking a total of 500 miles along England’s South Coast.
We were doing between kind of between 15 and 20 miles a day. Which isn’t that extreme you know – we could have done a lot longer but with the shows on top and with the drinking on top, it felt quite like an intense physical experience. I came back and I was the strongest I’ve ever been. Not very strong but for me, I was like aahhh I’ve got muscles!…He laughs, this time in a decidedly jovial fashion. I’ve just kind of been doing the same thing ever since but without the walking.
That ‘same thing ever since’ has included a tour with the Proclaimers and more recently, with fellow Xtra Mile artist, Frank Turner. Still, Will admits to having aspirations outside of the music industry.
I always liked the idea of farming, he confesses. Like just kind of very simply just growing stuff from the land. I know that sounds pretty pretentious, doesn’t it? We’re so far away from what we are and from like what we consume. I think it would be really nice to reconnect with that stuff. So far away from me going to Tesco’s and it’s just there. You don’t have any idea of the process of it. I’d like to do that… for like a week and then I’d get tired and bored and I’d probably do something else.
Though I’ve only been speaking to Will for a few minutes, it’s difficult to imagine him doing anything other than share stories through music. Much like the massive artists he considers influential, which include fellow Folk Fest alum Billy Bragg, folk superstars Bob Dylan, Neil Young and the legendary Bruce Springsteen, it’s not so much what he does but who he is. He captivates the audience, often lulling them into laughter with an amusing anecdote before singing a song that is sure to tug at heartstrings or have them contemplating their place in the universe. Or laughing. with Will Varley laughing is pretty much a guarantee.
Whether it’s a satirical commentary about popular internet topics like “Talking Cat Blues” or the fluid recollection of an evening out captured by the gem “Seize the Night”, it’s clear that Will is a keen, if not somewhat disillusioned observer. Take the anti-establishment anthem “We Don’t Believe You” for example, in which the song crescendo’s into a revelation.
… and no man has the right
to tell another human being
that their access is denied
to any corner of this planet
or any moment of their lives
One might assume the lines were in response to the global political climate we currently find ourselves in, but in fact, the song was actually released back in 2015 on a live album that was recorded soon after Will signed with Xtra Mile Recordings.
I never sort of set out to write political songs, Will explains. I don’t start with an agenda and sort of say this is what I want to kind of… I kind of just respond to stuff I see or stuff that gets stuck in my head and worries me on a kind of a personal level and sometimes it comes across politically because I’m worried about that or because I’m thinking about that or that’s what’s stuck in my head.
I am working on some new stuff and some new songs. I played a new song this afternoon. And kind of hopefully working towards another album, doing some huge tours in November in the UK that I’ve been working towards for a long time.
Will recently pushed his November tour of the UK back to February in favor of working on the new album, so it’s clear that his 5th studio effort is taking up the lions share of his focus over the next few months.
The next album may well have more than just me and a guitar on it. You know it’s just been me the whole time he explains. I’ve never really had a band – I just rock up with my guitar and plug it in and I play. So the idea of having sound checks that go on for like forty minutes and a whole load of people to worry about is a little bit scary for me. At the same time, it’s something I’m quite interested in doing at the moment.
I find myself saying the words “that’s awesome!” for the millionth time in 15 minutes and pressing him for who he might like to play with.
They’re just old friends of mine. Very old friends of mine and they’re kind of a band. They’re in lots of different bands. So we’ll kind of just rehearse the songs up and record them I think. And whether that turns into a live thing… whether we even release them, I don’t know but… the next step is to try that out. But it’s mainly just… it’s my buddies, so we’re just going to get drunk and record some songs.
It’s just the same road I started when I was thirteen. I’m just happy to do it for as long as I can really. I have no intentions of stopping until people stop booking me. And as long as they keep booking me and there’s still free beer I’ll be there… that’s the bit that got me at thirteen and that’s the bit that gets me now.
I for one predict a plenty more shows and free beer Will Varley’s future and can’t wait for the new album to hit the shelves.