Old Soul, Young Folk: Willy Mason

It’s a sweltering night in the middle of July in New York City. The narrow and crowded Two Moon Art House & Cafe in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Park Slope is hosting a night of folk music. Musician Kristin Andreassen is entertaining a modest audience of around 20-some people, opening for a surprise act that the show’s curator announced last minute, Willy Mason.

Photos and videos by Fanny Lambotte

Mason’s performance at the small Brooklyn venue was an oddity–an unexpected gig for Mason to play, considering the now-27-year-old musician has been performing for large crowds around the world for a number of years (he’s opened for Radiohead, Death Cab, Ben Kweller, Sondre Lerche, Damian Rice), and the fact that he’ll soon be touring large Australian venues with the popular British act Mumford & Sons. The show’s organizer, Melanie Gabor, was able to book Mason because the two have been friends for a long time and he was looking for some smaller shows to play between his busier tour dates.

“Willy doesn’t take much convincing. It’s a small musical world and we share a lot of the same friends. He did some work with the folks over at Communion and we met through them quite a while back,” explains Gabor. “We got back in touch a few months ago about playing some music together and putting on a show for him while he was in town seemed like a sound plan.”

The show was an especially intimate performance for Mason’s fans; the stage hosted just the musician, his Gretsch 5112 guitar, and a small black amplifier. Stephanie Jenkins from the local band The Pearly Snaps had accompanied Kristin Andreassen during the opening set and she spontaneously jumped in to play banjo with Mason during some of his songs. He’d call her up and propose a tuning, “This one’s in D…” and she’d pluck along as if the two had been playing together for years.

Joyce Pisarello of Two Moon Art House & Cafe prepares for the Willy Mason concert with show curator Melanie Gabor

The night’s setlist featured old and new songs, including the musician’s mainstay, “Restless Fugitive,” as well as “We Can Be Strong,” “Hard Hand to Hold,” “Simple Town,” and a new beauty, “For the Need of Love“–a song that fragilely breaks down the universal “need of love” that affects us all. The musician also played the song “Waiter At the Station,” a tune written by his parents, Jemima James and Michael Mason, who both are also folk musicians. The songs were punctuated with short moments of banter with the audience. At one point, Mason and his friends mentioned Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday, and played Mason’s song “So Long Baby Shoes” as a tribute.

The Backstory

Willy Mason first made a buzz back in 2004 when he released his debut album, Where The Humans Eat (Team Love). It was an incredibly mature record, showcasing Mason’s deep, resonate voice and meaningful, thoughtful lyrics. The Conor Oberst/Team Love endorsement predictably helped Mason get his name out to a wide audience; Virgin Records released the album in the U.K. in 2005. In a short amount of time the then-under-21 Mason was doing national tours and making trips to the U.K., playing original songs beyond his time, like “Oxygen,” “Hard Hand to Hold,” and “All You Can Do.” News outlets referred to Mason as the new generation’s Bob Dylan. Hype aside, Mason has always managed to stay out of the media buzz and keep his music something for himself. This is obvious in the way he manages social media and interviews; the press is not his first priority–the music is. Mason reportedly told the Boston Herald in an interview, “I take the craft of writing songs seriously. But if I took the hype seriously, it would make me insane.”

After Mason’s 2004 release, he had a 2007 follow-up, If The Ocean Gets Rough (Astralwerks, Virgin Records). The album did well in the U.S. and U.K. (except for the incredibly unwarranted P4ker review), continuing Mason’s reputation as a young and promising singer/songwriter. Since then, Mason has released a five-track EP (So Long Baby Shoes) and some live recordings, but mostly the musician has ducked out of the spotlight, aside from a few tours here and there. When asked about the reasoning behind Mason’s musical hiatus, he replied, “Lots of things were going on that kept me at home…” That’s enough of a sentence to explain a whole lot, and the truth is, we (the press, his fans), don’t really need to know.

Mason elaborates on his career in music, “I’ve been touring since I was 17. That’s a lot of shows. Some songs have taken playing them all that time to finally feel like I’m really putting them across live. Touring gets better too–its a weird lifestyle that gets better with practice.”

What’s to come

THE BOMBER JACKET is happy to confirm that Mason is planning a new release for early 2013. “The album will be out hopefully by January. Don’t know about singles and titles yet. Working on signing a record deal,” says Mason.

When fans visit the singer’s homepage, they are greeted by a peek into the upcoming release–a polished and rhythmic version of Mason’s track “Restless Fugitive,” a song that Mason’s been playing for a while now but hasn’t ever professionally recorded.

The month of August will bring Mason to the U.K. for a solid two-week solo tour, October is the musician’s Australian touring stint with Mumford & Songs, and in November he will be supporting musician Ben Howard for shows back in the U.K. According to the artist, the new album will be released sometime around January. Judging by the professional, polished sound of the newly available “Restless Fugitive” track, the album could have more of a professional “studio” sound–less of a lone man-with-guitar feel. We eagerly await the month of January.

When in New York…

For New Yorkers or travelers visiting New York who are looking to explore the folk music scene in Brooklyn, Melanie Gabor recommends Lowlands Bar in Gowanus (they host old-time jams every other Monday), Jalopy Theatre in Red Hook, Barbes in Park Slope, and the Brooklyn Rod & Gun Club. For people who are looking to check out more of Gabor’s shows, she plans to curate some more nights of music in the future, although there are no dates in stone yet:

“It would be nice to make it a regular thing, and there are plans to do so, but I favor quality over quantity of shows. I suppose when a good opportunity arises, we’ll jump on it.”

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