Is Willie J Healey your favourite artists’ favourite artist? You better believe it. Alex Turner, Joe Talbot of IDLES, Jamie T and Orlando Weeks are among those who believe, most having come onboard following the Neil Young-meets-The Beatles-meets Elvis Costello charms of his 2020 album ‘Twin Heavy’. And while Willie has largely been the preserve of those in the know, that’s all about to change. When Florence Welch heard his upcoming album ‘Bunny’ via its producer, her friend Loren Humphrey, as well as through YALA! Records co-founder Felix White, she was sufficiently impressed to invite Willie and his band on this autumn’s Florence + The Machine arena tour.
If you’ve already discovered the album’s introductory track, ‘Tiger Woods’, you’ll have had a first taste of why Florence was so won over. It sees Willie dive headfirst into a style of music he has always loved, but that never previously found its way into his own songs. It’s a low-slung, sensual ‘70s-style jam which simultaneously calls to mind Sly and The Family Stone, Philly soul, ‘Midnite Vultures’-era Beck and a little OutKast.
“The whole era is something that I love,” begins Willie. “Long before making ‘Twin Heavy’, I had always listened to funk, soul and R&B, but for some reason it never translated into my own music. Really my inspiration was just the feel of things, I really enjoyed playing music that makes you feel really good.”
While Willie appreciates classic ‘70s funk, he had no interest in the thankless task of trying to emulate Sly Stone. The turning point came from David Bowie. I know, I know: every artist cites Bowie as an influence. But Willie is a man almost as devoted to digging into an artist’s back catalogue as he is to making his own music. And so, rather than an obvious choice, he became enamoured by the relatively undiscovered ‘The Gouster’, an album of the Thin White Duke at his funkiest that only received its first official release in 2016.
From that point, he smiles, “the songs were just falling out of me.” Adding a contemporary touch to those timeless influences, the lead single ‘Dreams’ is essentially ‘Tiger Woods’ taken to a new level with hypnotic grooves, gospel harmonies, brass flourishes and Willie’s organic, understated falsetto.
A positive, engaging character in general, Willie beams with pride when discussing ‘Dreams’. “‘Dreams’ is both my personal reality and where I’d like to be, all in one song. I’m ambitious, I want people to hear my music and I do think it’s good. But also, I haven’t got to where I want to be yet. It’s about the idea of wanting something, and thinking it can fill some kind of hole for you. But you get to that point and realise this still isn’t it – you want more! It’s a really ambitious song and different to a lot of things that I’ve done before.”
On first impressions, ‘Bunny’ has a feelgood factor that bursts through every moment. It’s there from the very beginning with the chilled-out contentment of ‘Woke Up Smiling’, which feels like a continuation of ‘Twin Heavy’ until its soulful vocal harmonies surface just 45 seconds into the record. And as the lyrics sink in, its positivity becomes almost hymnal. Unsurprisingly then, it comes from a place of great contentment in Willie’s life. Having moved to Bristol, he enjoyed a new start with his friends and would regularly escape the city by spending a day cycling with Joe Talbot (“We sometimes laugh about it – he’s direct and driven but I can be quite lazy and relaxed, so when we’re together it’s a happy medium”). Perhaps more importantly, it also allowed Willie to let go of some of the pressures of making music. As he puts it, “In the past I would’ve tried to shape my musical future, but this time I completely let go.”
A major part of the album’s feelgood vibe comes from love as a recurring topic. “I just can’t stop writing about love,” he smiles. “When I listen to other people’s music, a good love song really gets me. But whatever the subject is, I just like to write songs that make you feel something and love is a classic subject.” While there’s a fresh maturity to his words and a desire to express more universal emotions (see the sweet, straightforward brass-infused Beatlesy closer ‘Blue Bird’ for evidence), there’s still plenty of Willie’s dry British humour at play. And what other record contains the phrase, “Thank you for the drum machine”?
“My friend let me borrow this drum machine, and to cut a long story short, I kept it for a long time,” offers Willie by way of explanation. In fact, he kept it for so long that it was the starting point for numerous songs on this album, including this specific track, ‘Thank You’. The friend in question being Jamie T who also features on the song.
“We have a lot in common. The music industry can often feel pretty lonely as a solo artist. We both spend a lot of time on our own and have similar gripes and victories. I’m really inspired by him as a person. It reminds me to listen to new music and encourage people, because when he encouraged me it meant a lot and it still does. And I appreciate the little things he does too. Like, do you want to borrow this drum machine that’s worth four grand?”
You can hear the drum machine briefly rise to the forefront of the mix at various points within the album, providing a programmed counterpoint to the warm, human performances that dominate it. One such moment is the mid-record highlight ‘Chrome’, which provides a neat summation of everything Willie does throughout ‘Bunny’. His falsetto soars even higher than it does on ‘Dreams’, while his lyrics point to both the pains and pleasures of love. Once again Willie’s charismatic phrasing suggests he would prosper in a side hustle as a greetings card writer with the amorously atypical couplet “If she says I’m mud, consider me stuck.”
While the songs were mostly written alone, recording themselves was an unforgettable experience. Willie and Loren started the project remotely, but when the opportunity arose for Willie to head to New York to record with Loren’s ridiculously accomplished team of musicians he jumped at the chance – even with a little sadness that his regular band could only be represented by bassist Harry Deacon. It wasn’t a complete stab-in-the-dark – some of them had played on ‘Fashun’ from ‘Twin Heavy’ – but it was another step outside of his comfort zone.
“It felt like being Brian Wilson,” he chuckles of leading a team of musicians who had graced albums by Beck, Lana Del Rey, Arctic Monkeys and countless others. “‘Here’s the song, please play it better than I ever possibly could and I’ll play acoustic guitar.’ It was a risk, but I had total faith in Loren. Every single one of them is a force to be reckoned with in their own right. You begin to ask people what they’ve played on before and it’s endless and mind-blowing. It’s easy to feel intimidated by the way they play and operate, but I gave myself to the process and reaped the rewards.”
Those rewards are there for all to hear. It sounds tight, warm, accomplished and all of those good things. But above all else, it’s just a joy to listen to.
It’s inevitable that more people than ever before will listen to Willie when he tours with Florence + The Machine. “I can’t wait,” beams Willie like a kid at Christmas. “I’ve never played venues that big before, so I don’t know what to expect. I’m excited to be able to play with my friends, hear these songs through a PA that big, and get to see a Florence show every night.”
While fans will be coming to hear ‘Dog Days Are Over’ or ‘Cosmic Love’, there will be numerous people waking up the next morning with “Dreams don’t come easy and they don’t come cheap” embedded in their mind. And for Willie J Healey, that will be a big step towards his dreams becoming a reality.