Will Westerman’s music seems tailor-made for the confusion of life in 2020. While functioning as very capable pop, it’s often intensely meditative, full of remembered ruminations, deliberations, and deceptive melodies that burrow in and swim around your head for days. His angelic tenor is regularly compared to the voice of patron saint of dream-pop Arthur Russell, but, unlike many dreaming bedroom musicians, the West Londoner lives up to the hype.
It’s been two years since the release of Westerman’s flawless breakthrough single ‘Confirmation’, and his debut album Your Hero Is Not Dead arrives in more complex times. A livelier version of that track co-exists on the record with songs about environmental destruction, arguments between distanced lovers, and chronic pain. This uncanny prescience isn’t lost on the artist. “I wasn’t thinking about a pandemic when I wrote it, but it’s music that could be helpful for feelings of isolation, and it’s supposed to be sort of hopeful,” he says early on in our phone call. Recording the album saw him continue a fruitful collaboration with Nathan Jenkins (Bullion), whose impressionistic, colourful production is the perfect foil for Westerman’s lyrical tussles with the human psyche.
From the album’s brief opener ‘Drawbridge’ onwards, Westerman and Jenkins have crafted an immersive sonic world. That song repeats the refrain of the final track ‘Your Hero Is Not Dead’, giving the record a pleasingly cyclical feel. “I was quite firm on wanting to create an environment. Something which has an arc to it, and undulation”, he says of the album’s winding structure. He certainly succeeded – it’s a record to get lost in, not least for listeners of a certain age for whom the crystalline layers of FM synths and swathes of reverb will recall totemic albums by Talk Talk, The Blue Nile et al.
With so many releases being paused or cancelled due to the pandemic, it’s fortunate then that the bosses at Play It Again Sam recognised that Your Hero Is Not Dead is a work which people will really appreciate at the moment. Westerman now finds himself in the very strange position of releasing a long-awaited record with no way of celebrating it live. In other ways, the lockdown has been business as usual – day-to-day life really isn’t that different when you’re a solitary songwriter.
Whereabouts are you right now?
At home in between Hammersmith and Chiswick.
How are you using the lockdown, what’s it been like for you?
It’s been up and down really, like for everyone else. I’ve been volunteering at Hammersmith hospital with this charity called the Imperial Healthcare Trust which has been a nice thing to do, it’s a good reason to get out of the house and not feel bad about it. So that’s been a good thing for structure – I struggle with structure. I haven’t worked this week because I tried to book my shifts last week and there were no shifts until the end of June – it’s fantastic to see so many people rallying together and helping at times like this.
I also started an online course in the history of economic thought. For a few years now I’ve sort of wanted to fill in a few gaping holes in my understanding of the world as it revolves. I didn’t really know anything about economics. It’s nice to get a bit more literate in sort of being able to articulate how I see things, how we’ve got to the position we’re in now, for myself more than anything.
Have you watched that?
I have – the bit that really struck me was his point about how people have learned to love their slavery. I think that reminded me a bit of our political situation in this country, where some people embraced blind patriotism rather too willingly. And in turn some of his arguments really reminded me of certain lyrics from the album.
I think I’m really preoccupied with the way people’s perceptions of free choice – the way all of that works. A lot of the time the free choice that’s advertised isn’t really free choice. What we’ve been given as a trade-off to being beholden to large corporations is unlimited distraction, which is not really the same as ultimate choice. This is one of the things I’m hoping to better articulate at the end of this course!
In terms of your recording process – you worked with Bullion again in Portugal right? What was that like?
He’s actually in London at the moment for the lockdown, but he’s mostly been living in Lisbon. We’ve been working there for a couple of years, so we’d already done quite a lot of work at Nathan’s flat. But for the record we rented a house in the Algarve just outside a town called Olhão last January. That was the place where the skeleton of the record came together.
Before that we’ve always worked in a kind of smaller way but it was really nice to create a certain environment. We were living where we were recording and people were coming out and adding to the energy. I definitely want to do it again.
For someone whose primary instrument is an acoustic guitar, this record is very electronic. How do you sketch your elaborate productions out?
Generally the way we worked was I would come up with the guitar, the chords, the lyrics. We’d record a very simple demo in that way and then have a think about what to do with the rhythm. It’s a bit like colouring. There’s a lot of experimentation and we try different things. The process of doing that makes you realise that you can do all kinds of things and it could all be correct. There’s an overall feeling that I wanted to have in the music, almost like you’re blindfolded, feeling your way.
There’s often a very diaristic quality to your lyrics, that feeling of someone recording their thoughts and musings. Is that how your songs begin?
It’s always changing really! It’s quite important to examine the way your processes work and change them around. For the album I had some themes I wanted to talk about I think which had been accumulating over a year. When it came to making the record I had a lot of disparate threads and glimpses of melody, snapshots of lyrics or observations that resonated. The actual process of forming them all up, that doesn’t take a huge amount of time. I think you can really overwork those things – it’s important to take some time with the lyrics, but not spend so much time that it seems almost clinical and too calculated. It kills the human expression if you do that.
What’s nice about them is that they often hinge on a moment of realisation, some transformation in your thinking. Is there a song that has ever really changed your conception of something?
I don’t know whether there’s a song that’s done for me, but definitely bits of writing. There’s a coda in East of Eden by John Steinbeck which I always come back to when I’m struggling with the creative process which is all about creativity really, where he steps away from the narrative and he gives you a mantra. That’s something which I read when I was much younger but it’s something that I’ve used to construct this bigger piece of music. I like having that kind of refrain through the record, the idea of going to different places in the music, illuminating different things, but having this thing which is grounding the whole piece.
Do you see politics as an important aspect of your music?
My mind works the way it works, and I try not to present something that isn’t consistent with the way my mind works. I’m concerned with balance and unfairness in more abstract ways, when applied to a society that will obviously bring out a certain viewpoint on how things are. I find it slightly difficult to say it’s entirely political – if I was doing that I’d have to come up with some kind of manifesto and I don’t think I’m smart enough to do that. I have a feeling of what I perceive to be correct and incorrect but I don’t want to get on a parapet and raise a rabble about it.
I also wouldn’t want to be perceived as some sort of straw man or symbol for something. This is something I was thinking of with the title of the record. Figures like that can be quite one dimensional and almost slightly inhuman. My music is meant to be humanist, talking to the individual.
Who are you inspired by at the moment?
I’ve been listening to a lot of Nick Drake who I hadn’t listened to in a long time. There’s something about the idea of isolation that Nick seems appropriate for – I know that people think his music is overwhelmingly sad, but I think that his music has this strange alchemy of darkness and light whilst being soothing and being slightly melancholy as well.
I’ve also been listening to a lot of jazz – Miles Davis especially. There’s something about not listening to someone singing which I find quite nice in terms of not requiring you to analyse the person and what they’re saying and listening to the pure expression of the music, I’ve found that helpful.
When you are allowed to play live, do you have any special plans for performing the album?
I’d like to do a London gig with a much bigger band. I have got this idea that everyone who’s been on the record to perform in one place, although it seems quite far-fetched at the moment. I’m very excited about when that will be allowed, I think the atmosphere will be really special following this very trying period. Hopefully this year, if not early next year!