If you’ve been waiting for a new Willy Mason album to drop, you’re in luck. “Already Dead,” produced by Noel Heroux, releases August 6. It’s his first record in almost 10 years. Mason played some of the new songs, if not all of them, a couple of weeks ago at Martha’s Vineyard Museum. Replete with the mindful lyrics he’s known for, these new songs are an older, maybe wiser, collection.
I’d heard Mason before on some of those winter nights at the Ritz when Island musicians weave in and out of each others’ bands, but I wanted to hear him again before we met up at his place in West Tisbury. I went to the museum where his mom, Jemima James, opened with Lilah Larson, Lexi Roth, and Geordie Gude. They all played a song together before Willy took it from there with three other musicians — Farley Glavin, Tim Laursen, and Stuart Rodegest — playing with him.
The first thing that strikes you when you hear Mason is that his voice is translucent, pure, a singer-songwriter whose lyrics you can both understand in the moment and mull over in your head afterwards. These new songs go deeper than the older tunes, even though those too made you think. Mason is 36 now, and clarity and complexity go hand-in-hand on “Already Dead,” an album with songs that echo weeks after you’ve heard them. “Can’t kill me … I’m already dead … already dead,” a loop from the single “Youth on a Spit,” comes to mind.
We talked about the new music versus the old as we sat outside at a picnic table on a warm Saturday afternoon, with what sounded like a mournful chicken crying in the background. (The chicken in question broke free from the coop eventually, allowing Mason to finally see its escape route that had ended its sad lament.) He agreed that the music has evolved since his last recordings.
“An older song, ‘Hard Hand to Hold,’ is a song that I like because I think it expresses a complicated idea pretty clearly, about trust between people and trust within oneself and how it plays out in our society,” Mason said. “A newer song that I like, ‘One of the Good Ones,’ also kind of deals with a complicated idea of having a strong sense of morality but being unwilling to question oneself with the same lens you look at everyone else with.
“Those songs reflect change because ‘Hard Hand to Hold’ is a pretty traditional folk format and it’s also told with the confidence of youth, a sort of certainty that I wouldn’t feel comfortable using today.
“I guess because when you’re younger it’s much easier to believe in a perspective without question, and as I get older I kind of don’t have the confidence to say that I know what other people are experiencing or to tell them how it should be. The tone in that song [“One of the Good Ones”] is a bit more . . . just kind of sarcastic now that I think about it. Lines of it… ‘you live for your pride but you’re one of the good ones, one of the good ones . . . keep it bottled inside because you’re one of the good ones . . . willfully ignorant . . . one of the good ones.’ It’s a little bit less kind.”
Mason wrote all the songs on “Already Dead” in just a month or two, and ended up using only half of what he’d written. What comes easier, I asked, writing or playing the songs.
“It changes,” he said. “Right now, playing music is easier than writing, but a lot of times it’s been the other way around. I think because I’ve gotten a lot of practice playing and the practice of writing is more of a discipline that you can’t count on anyone else to keep up for you.”
He comes from a long line of writers of both music and literature — both parents are songwriters and he’s a descendant of novelist Henry James and philosopher William James. Mason grew up in a house filled with music and musicians who came to play all the time. He started his first band in fifth grade, and his bandmate at the museum, Farley Glavin, was in that band as well. Success came first when Mason was in his 20s and gained popularity after signing with Conor Oberst’s Team Love Records and recording “Where the Humans Eat” in 2004. You get the feeling he’s come through some things since then and this album holds as much meaning, if not more.
Wondering why it took so long between albums, I asked about the extended break. “I stopped touring for a while and just personal life stuff was happening,” he said. “The whole thing of being on tour all the time, you’re sort of rootless, and I kind of feel like I’ve been lucky to have the experience of being both rootless and rooted, and for me they’ve informed each other. Writing can happen anywhere. It’s easier to write at home for me; I kind of need stillness. I need to be able to focus. I’ll have little scraps of ideas and then ideally I come back to it and work it out.”
He’s spent much of this past year working in construction and giving music lessons, along with recording the new album. “The songs are a little different. I wrote them and recorded them at the same time I was working here.” I asked where the album was recorded. “In the basement,” he grinned, “I wasn’t distracted by elegance.”
Putting a record together after a long absence felt good, though, he said.
“I guess it kinda feels like blowing out the lines after a machine has been sitting for a while. It’s not all pretty, but it’s gotta come out somehow. In surrendering to that process, I think some pretty interesting things came out that got me excited about the writing and recording process all over again.”
Mason is comfortable with the woods and the water, living here where he grew up and still playing with the same friends he made in grade school. He’ll leave shortly though, and go on the road again to promote the new music. Mason has gigs lined up from the Sinclair in Cambridge, Mass., in August to Portland Arms, an English pub in Cambridge, UK, in November. In the meantime, be on the lookout for the next time he plays on-Island. These are songs worth hearing.
Check out “Already Dead” via Mason’s website, and order a vinyl or CD edition at willymasonmusic.com.