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Westerman talks economic inequality, the pandemic, and his debut album with super-fan Joyride

17 June 2020 | 10:39 am | Emma Jones

With his debut album 'Your Hero Is Not Dead' now out, Westerman sat down with the one and only Joyride to talk his new record and much more.

With the release of his 2018 critically-acclaimed EP, Ark, Will Westerman elevated himself to be one of the most exciting artists coming out of the UK thanks to his considered amalgamation of his folk roots with forward-thinking electronic-tinged soundscapes. Now, in 2020 with the release of his debut album, Your Hero Is Not Dead, he has elevated himself once again to become one of the UK's most vital voices. A record which encompasses moral, political, and ethical grey areas, Westerman seeks comfort in the ebb and flow of our own personal battles and the to and fro of empathy and compassion, struggle and release, and finds reprieve in the complex contradictions we all face within ourselves and beyond.

We said in 2018 when he released 'Easy Money', "Westerman often gets labelled as “enigmatic” – less so because he’s hiding behind an artistic cloak of anonymity but more because his music is intangible, fundamentally hard to hold onto," and this still holds true today. To listen to Your Hero Is Not Dead is to delve into so many different worlds and tales as Westerman and Bullion so effortlessly guide you through. Masterful storytelling paired with intricate, meticulous yet still incredibly emotive electronic-influenced indie sounds make for a spellbinding album with this one.

At once looking to provide commentary or ask questions on why society maintains such deep flaws while still considering perhaps the key to resolving these might first be found internally, Westerman's Your Hero Is Not Dead is a deeply introspective record that sees him take a magnifying glass to his own flaws — and find solace in sharing them with us all. There is something deeply comforting to know that you're not alone, and in these incredibly uncertain times, we need these reminders more than ever.

With Westerman's fan base steadily growing across the world, it makes sense he would find fans in many different places. One such fan is that of the inimitable JOYRIDE. The Sydney icon counts himself as a loyal Westerman fan and has been for quite sometime, so we thought why not have the pair of them sit down for a virtual chat. Together the pair touch on everything from the global pandemic, the growing threat to our freedom from big corporations, the sometimes painstaking process of an artist releasing a record, and some particularly fascinating insights into some of Westerman's songs. A big thank you to Joyride for pretty much putting us out of a job with this fantastic interview, and thank you of course to Westerman for his generous answers.

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Joyride: What’s day to day been like for you, given these uncertain times?

Westerman: It’s strange because, in many ways, I’m kind of at home most of the time anyway, just trying to do what I’m doing. Some structure is really important, I find, for me, but even more so at the moment because if you don’t structure your time a bit, you give yourself far too much time to think about this, which is not very useful.

J: Kind of build distractions, right, because you just get trapped in it otherwise.

W: Yeah, I just think if you spend too much time mulling over a situation like this, I don’t really know, there’s not much good that can come from it. Not kind of completely disappearing into a hole and sort of not knowing what’s going on at all, but, as much as possible, trying to limit the amount of news you’re reading and stuff because otherwise it gets a bit much. I’ve actually started doing an online course in the history of economic thought, which is not really something that I’d normally do but that’s been a good thing because it’s actually really difficult so I’m having to read a lot of academic texts at the moment.

J: What led you to that?

W: I mean it’s not really to do with learning how to be an exceptional businessman, I’ve just had an interest for quite a long time in the way society is formed and things that I perceive to be slightly off or wrong. And I just kind of wanted to give myself a bit more grounding and understanding of how we’ve ended up in the situation where we’re at now - not that everything about it is incredibly terrible but it does feel like a strange time. Inequities are at a pretty high level at the moment, and I just wanted to understand how we got to this place just for my own ability to better articulate what I see and what I think and make sense of it better. So I’ve been doing that. I’ve been kind of wanting to do it for a couple of years, but this time just being grounded at home and obviously not really going to be touring, I just thought it’s a good time to be doing something like that.

J: It’s funny you’re talking about inequality and capitalist structures because - and I might be wrong about this - I feel like you kind of touch on those ideas a bit through the album, like on ‘Think I’ll Stay’, ‘Blue Commanche’, ‘Easy Money’. Those ones especially for me kind of touched on that. ‘Think I’ll Stay’, for me, kind of spoke to the lies that the working class are sold to maintain their space. And I might be way off, but was that something that was funnelled into it?

W: There are threads of that going through the record and just in the music in general. I spent a lot of time thinking about unfairness, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be so specific to one socio-economic group or whatever, but it’s more just mulling over things that don’t really seem fair. I think unfairness is the animating feature a lot of the lyrical, sort of musing side. I definitely wouldn’t want to sit here and say that I’m a kind of working class hero, because I’m not. But I definitely do perceive a lot of quite unjust situations in the way that the world is structured at the moment.

J: I think that the problem at the moment with the general discourse is, well, if you see a problem but you don’t have a solution, then you should stay quiet. I mean, that’s something I’ve observed here in Australia with the growing right-wing sentimentality and big money sentimentalities. But I think it is important to point out things which aren’t in balance, even if you don’t have a solution because it’s not necessarily up to one person to have solutions, but until the conversation starts, no one will be talking about it, you know? I guess that kind of speaks again to the course you’re doing. What are some of the problems you see in the UK in terms of the unfairness you’re speaking about?

W: I think for me one of the biggest problems that I’ve been engaging with and struggling with, I guess, over the last few years, is the realisation that big corporations - it doesn’t have to be tech companies, people like Starbucks and Apple and Google - it seems are more powerful than governments now. So governments are sort of at the behest of corporations and I find that that has a knock-on effect to everybody in a society because it’s almost like you join, or you’re left behind. And I just think there’s something quite scary about the idea of a private company of people basically not answering to anybody and we have no control over the ethics of those companies, or because of the way that they’re structured they’re just working on numbers, and there isn’t really a human consideration because they’re pure reason, pure profit companies. For me that’s something I find quite unnerving, to be honest. I don’t necessarily have a solution, but that’s sort of the thing that sparked me wanting to understand the history of economic thought and how different economic policies have led us to a position where that’s the case, in quite a global way. I think on a more micro level in England, when I finished studying I grew up in London, and then I went to York university and when I came back I did notice very clearly for the first couple of years there were just so many more homeless people in London now. And I was just thinking, you don’t even have to go too deeply into it, when you just look at that, that’s a very visual representation of something which isn’t working, given that this is supposed to be a first world, developed country — clearly it’s going the wrong way if that’s happening. I don’t know what “development” really means if that’s a situation which is just getting worse. There’s a lot.

J: Do you think the situation that the world’s facing at the moment could help things swing back towards something which is more fair and just and looks after and protects the more vulnerable? I mean, in Australia, there’s talk about trying to nationalise one of the airlines because they’ve gone under. They’ve raised our unemployment benefits finally to a liveable wage, but they’re talking about decreasing it once the crisis is over and there’s a big pushback against that. Do you feel like now is the time for larger conversations about, say, more publicly owned corporations and giving wealth back to the people?

W: Yeah, I think there was always a conversation to be had about that. I don’t know. I definitely think the world will not be the same place once this is all finished, for better or worse. The idea of it going back to "normal", how it was before, I don’t think that’s going to happen. How it then reforms, I guess you could say that is probably an opportunity for that. I’m not entirely sure. This is one of the things that’s so difficult. This is why I don’t really purport to have or give solutions in the music because these are enormous global issues. I think realistically for the kind of changes that I would like to see, there would probably have to be more of a global consensus on things. I think that’s probably one of things. In one way, the world has been getting much more global and connected but in another way, in terms of the way that people have clearly been feeling, it’s getting much more regionalised again with the Brexit vote and the way that the Americans have voted and the swing back towards right wing politics, really quite conservative politics. And those two things are quite at odds, but I think the voting sort of suggests that people are basically afraid. I think people vote like that when they’re afraid. I think anyone who’s trying to think optimistically and idealistically, you’d hope that it’d be going the other way as opposed to that way.

J: Totally, thinking optimistically doesn’t normally end in the politics of fear. What’s it been like recently having to release music? It’s pretty stressful at the best of times, right. Have you found it stressful or different or uncomfortable putting tunes out recently?

W: It’s definitely been quite strange. I didn’t have an idea of how it would feel to release the record but normally it’s really quite binary stuff. But all of the things you’d normally do to punctuate the record actually being released are not going to happen in terms of touring and going to record stores and stuff like that. In a way, it’s just stuff, they’re things that mentally make it a bit more real now because obviously the record’s been in my head plus it’s been finished for quite a long time, so in terms of feeling differently about it, it’s definitely been weird. It hasn’t been bad, but it’s just been a bit strange. But I’m glad that it is coming out, because I think a lot of people probably have been told to hold their albums until everything has calmed down a bit. But I was quite vocal in wanting the music to come out because I tried to write it with a sentiment which I thought was, not like appropriate for a pandemic because that makes it sound like I was hoping a bad thing was going happen, but I was trying to make something that had hope in it and something that was uplifting and comforting, so I’m glad that it is coming out. I try not to think about it too much really.

J: Time’s much better spent focusing on what you can do than what could’ve been done, right?

W: Totally, and that’s exactly it.

J: You’ve kind of touched on the messaging in the album but I wanted to talk to you about the sound of it a little bit as well, working with Bullion, the producer. Would you say that he kind of came to the sound you wanted or was it like he could do that and it just worked well together? What was the process like and what was your intention going in working with him? Did he meet those expectations or was it just the skill set matched?

W: I don’t really know, I think the way we’ve worked has been not hugely planned in advance. We’ve been working together for a while now, and I think a lot of it is kind of intuition. I guess the more that we work together, the more that we understand what both of us can do and what we’re trying to do. I mean, I had an idea of how I wanted the record to feel, but in terms of the sort of textures in there, I didn’t have a list of things I wanted to have on the record. Apart from an oboe. I wanted to have an oboe. But apart from that, it was more just trying different things out on the songs until it seemed to sit in the right place. Essentially, it’s just trying to find balance, just trying to balance the feel of the sonics so that the counterpoint with the lyrics is at the right place where it doesn’t feel overwhelmingly sad or tritely happy either.

J: And is that how you kind of ended up with all the chorus basses or chorus on the guitars and stuff, or is that just the 80s vibe you feel and ran into with it?

W: I think there’s a kind of softness and roundness that those things add that I just ended up using quite a lot in the music. And I guess there’s quite a lot. We don’t sort of listen intently to music before making the tracks and sort of try and take specific things and put them in the music, but I guess there is a shared interest in 80s art-pop, you know, sort of left-field, experimental pop music. And I guess if you listen to a lot of that music, then a lot of that does kind of seep in and come out anyway without you trying to. It’s funny because I probably don’t notice the same things as other people in the music because I’ve sat with it for so long I kind of listen to it more as the whole thing together as opposed to identifying different elements. That was definitely a thing that I was doing at the beginning, but it seems like a long time ago now.

J: How long ago was it when you finished the album? Or how long ago when you started and then how long ago when you finished it?

W: So we started last January, we had like a month in the south of Portugal. We had this house in the Algarve for the whole month of January which was incredible, and had musicians coming in and out as and when during that time. And that was when the bones of the record were done, by the end of that month. It was like the sketches were mostly there, but it wasn’t finished. And then I went touring for two months, and then we finished between a few different studios in London and in Lisbon, where Nathan [Jenkins, aka Bullion] lives in the summer. So I think it was done at the end of July. I guess that isn’t that long ago. It feels like a long time ago.

J: I know people who have had to sit on records for a lot longer, man, that’s not too bad. But still it feels like an age, right, because in eleven months you can write so much and you can do so much and have new ideas, but you still have to kind of keep them paused because you know that when the album comes out, you have to be in the mindset of what you created for that, so it can feel like you’re handcuffed. I’ve definitely been in that position before.

W: Yeah, it’s a strange one. I guess you just said it basically. Not the handcuffs thing, I don’t know, that sounds really ungrateful, like I’m glad that the record is being released.

J: At the same time, it’s like when you have ideas bursting out of you but you have to keep them at bay because you have to prioritise something you did a year ago because of schedules that have been put in place by people who really have not much to do with the creative side of it and you have to fit into the planning, it can get frustrating I think. But now’s not the time to start shitting on your label or anything. I left ‘em so it’s fine but yeah.

I wanted to ask you about some lyrics from the album, two particular lines that stick out. One of them sticks out for me, in particular, from ‘Think I’ll Stay’ which is: “I’ll die at work, until then keep me entertained”. And I think that that really beautifully sums up… The thing that I picture in my head is looking at my girlfriend watching Netflix after a long day at work and thinking about what she has to do for work the next day and just being fine with being pacified between the working hours. I wanted to ask what your intention was with that line.

W: I’ve taken it out of context, but it was something that my friend said - I mean, the “until then keep me entertained” thing is not to do with that but “I’ll die at work” is basically something that my friend said in quite a throwaway way in talking about, like, oh we’re going to be working until we’re 80 so whatever. He didn’t say “I’ll die at work” but I was thinking about what you kind of said… I guess it just come back to that same thing of being pacified, like the constant distractions to keep you in a place where you’re like a five or a five-and-a-half or a six out of ten, it’s not like your life is awful, you’re just slightly…

J: Like the tone of the song and that line is not being like “oh, this sucks”, it’s kind of like “yeah, that’s okay”. That’s the kind of vibe I got from it, and it is kind of semi-optimistic in the way that I heard it.

W: I’m just trying to think. It’s basically like, it’s quite a nonlinear song, it’s talking about quite a few different situations and observations that I’ve had. I definitely wasn’t thinking when I wrote that like, that’s fine. It was more just in the context of the music, it had a slightly strange kind of framing. But I think the thing is, with the music I think obviously I have my own interpretation and I know why I’ve written things I’ve written and there are personal things in there, but I’m trying to put things in a slightly more universal way, not that I’m trying to speak universal truths, but certainly put things in a context where I’d like people to think about what the lyrics are. Ultimately, I think that’s all I’m really trying to do. I’m not trying to tell people like this is what you need to do and this is what’s fucked, and this is what you need to do to fix it. If I could do anything with the music, it would be to comfort people. And also, hopefully, to get people thinking about what it is that’s being spoken about. And that’s enough, that’s definitely enough for me.

J: For sure, I mean it reminds me of something that a friend of mine always says that art asks questions. Science can give the answers but all art has to do is ask the questions. And I think that’s like a nice way to look at it. Whenever I get stuck writing, I just think, "Oh, I don’t have to have much in this." I can say half-finished thoughts and it’s okay because that’s partially art’s purpose.

W: Well I think what you said earlier is right in that there is value in just starting the conversation, and I think doing that in and of itself is an incredibly valuable thing. I generally think that people have to decide for themselves how they want to view things and how they want to view the world and what decisions they want to make. But I feel like it would be autocratic to sort of preach this is the way, especially when, realistically, you’re talking about things to do with ethics or morality or politics, there is very rarely a very clear black and white answer. I mean, there’s people’s own personal sentiments and the way that they feel about things, and those are valuable in and of themselves… I think the emotional response is sufficient in and of itself, I don’t think that you then need to purport that what you’re saying is absolute truth, because I don’t like it when people do that, that’s just like religious fanaticism.

J: And at the very least just arrogance. Another one that I wanted to ask you about or even just tell you a little story about and maybe get something from you on is ‘Easy Money’, which was my most listened to song on Spotify for the last decade.

W: Wow.

J: Yeah, it really caught, man, it really got me. And a lot of my friends love it as well, it became a real anthem for my friends and I.

W: Oh, that’s amazing.

J: There’s one line in it - “Ornament my body / Cause I like how it makes me feel “ - which my friend Sarah and I, who we often go and get tattoos together, makes us think of that. It’s like I like how my tattoos make me feel, I like how it feels getting it done and I maybe know where it came from for you. I’m not sure if it was about tattoos or getting dressed or whatever.

W: Oh, I don’t know. That’s an interesting one, I’m just trying to think. I think it was just about accumulation, the idea of accumulation of stuff. I mean it could be tattoos but... There’s something comforting or reassuring to people about the accumulation of things, and it doesn’t necessarily need to be material things. It’s just about accumulation, I suppose. I can’t really say it more than that.

J: Yeah, yeah, you don’t have to, you might ruin the whole thing for me if you do. That’s great. I’ve got one last quick one for you, I’ve taken a lot of your time, I know.

W: No, it’s fine, I’ve got loads of time.

J: So on the album, I had a listen through and it’s great and I’m very much looking forward to when it comes out and everyone gets a chance to hear it. But ‘Confirmation’ and ‘Think I’ll Stay’ - ‘Confirmation’ sounds like it was completely rerecorded from the single release, is that right?

W: Well, it’s actually not 'cause when we were making that one there was loads - well it tends to be the case with a lot of the music - but there was loads of unused threads, unused parts that we’d recorded. Actually, I think the only new thing was there’s some new drums in there. But yeah, I think that was one where I was unsure whether or not I wanted to use any of the old music. Basically, I wanted to make the album first, the record that I wanted to make, and then I wanted to, after that had been done, have a think about whether or not any of the old music should go in it. I wanted to do it that way around, as opposed to thinking these songs are gonna go in the record, and then build the record around them 'cause then you’re sort of building the record around pre-existing parts and I didn’t want to do that. When it came to it, Nathan actually was just really keen to have another go at that song. I was unsure whether or not I wanted to put it in because I didn’t know really what kind of function it was going to fulfil in the record but that was quite exciting, the idea of re-approaching it made it kind of a new song. Ultimately, it was just about trying to feel excited about having it. It definitely does feel quite different now. I think it does work, I like the ending.

J: It’s mad, I love it. And the other one, which is like a finicky thing but it caught me off guard when I was listening to the album they sent across, was the first post-chorus on ‘Think I’ll Stay’ isn’t there, album version. I was expecting that lead line to come back and it didn’t. I was wondering what the thinking was there.

W: I’m not sure which link you’ve got but we made two different versions so there’s one which is shorter, which doesn’t have - is that the only thing that’s missing? I think that’s the only thing that’s missing.

J: Cause you expect it to go back to that [does melody] at the end of that second verse.

W: Yeah, I quite liked that one. I quite liked it, there was just something quite strange, it’s a bit like what’s going on now.

J: Last one, man. Obviously it’s a bit hard to answer but do you have any plans, intentions or hopes to come to Australia?

W: Yeah, I would love to. I was actually supposed to be coming like now. I was supposed to be there in May, I think.

J: Oh really?

W: Yeah, just to do some like - I don’t know, this was all being talked about before the lockdown started, but I think I was hopefully meant to be coming to play some really small, intimate shows. That was the plan. I’ve been to Sydney before, but I’ve never been to Melbourne and I’ve heard great things about Melbourne, I’d really like to go. Hopefully, when everyone’s allowed to move around a bit that can happen. That’d be great.

Interview by Joyride

Introduction by Emma Jones

Images: Westerman by Bex Day, Joyride via Facebook