Willie J Healey: “When I compromise on my music, I always come back to regret it”

Willie J Healey has thrown off his major label ties to work with indie darlings Yala! Records on his second album, 'Twin Heavy'.

Willie J Healey is back on track. Following the release of his (bloody brilliant) first album, 2017’s ‘People and Their Dogs’, the Oxford singer-songwriter, indie darling and all-round legend cut ties with Columbia Records, and duly took some time out from the scene. Fast-forward to August 2020 and Healey is feeling more at home with himself, his songs, and what they’re trying to say. He shares all about his long-awaited second LP, ‘Twin Heavy’.

Tell us about the conception of ‘Twin Heavy’ – how long have you had these songs written for?

The songs vary from two to four years old, and some of them are the result of a couple of ideas I had for my first album, but I ended up not using them. About a year ago, Yala! Records approached me to do an album, and I was lucky enough to have a collection full of demos together already. I have just kept going, always demoing, writing and accumulating songs, and I am always working on these new songs just in case of situations like that where an opportunity arises to put something out. I like just being able to say, ‘yep, here you go!’.

This album marks your first full-length release with Yala! Records, right? How has working with label owner (and former Maccabees guitarist) Felix White been?

I love working with Felix! He is one of the rare gems within the music industry, in the sense that he has been on both sides of the desk. They have given me a lot of creative freedom with the album. It feels like it has been very easy for everyone involved to get to a place where we all like the songs, and I am so happy with how the recordings came out. They let me have full control over the things that would typically be a struggle with a label, such as choosing the singles and the tracklisting. Above all else, it feels like we are all on the artist side of things.

It seems that Yala! Records gave you full creative control over ‘Twin Heavy’ – how important was that flexibility for you?

I did have a bit of creative control with the first album too, but I think that Columbia Records didn’t want me to be so hands-on. I think they would have liked a bit more involvement as a label. I did exactly what I wanted to do with the first album, but I think that it may have put them off slightly, and as a result, I don’t think that they were as invested in the album as we all would have liked them to be. Whereas with Yala!, they have allowed me to pick the tracks that I really love, and they are all so invested in the release. I am open-minded, but I feel like when I compromise on my music, I always come back to regret it. The older I get, and the more I work at this, the more creative control I require over things.

Somehow, you managed to record all of the tracks for the album in nine days! How did you manage that experience?

It was a complete whirlwind! Myself and my producer, Loren Humphrys, had nine days to record fifteen songs, and I haven’t ever worked on a full-length album with a producer before, so there were a lot of firsts. It was really quite intense. I don’t know how we did it, but it all came together in the end. I can’t really remember a lot of the process because it felt like it went by so quickly, but that is only a credit to everyone involved. It was quite stressful at times, though; it genuinely felt like we were trying to put a double album together in the space of one night. It was one of those situations where you are in the middle of it and thinking, ‘how are we ever going to do this?’. In the end, I think it worked out really well because it also meant that we didn’t have any time for faffing around. We had to make decisions there and then, and didn’t have time to talk things through too much.

“There are no songs like ‘Sex On Fire’ on this album! I can’t see any of the tracks making me a million pounds in one go”
Willie J Healey

What was your songwriting process for the album like? Where did you look for inspiration?
I listen to a lot of older stuff, like 70s rock and country recordings. But really I just like to keep writing; I know that sounds very simple, but that was my process. I have been getting my ideas together at home, and I made it my mission very early on to learn how to record well enough to present songs as very good demos. If I’m not touring or recording at a studio, I’m doing it at home instead. A typical day of writing the album would be me getting up and going into the garage, sitting there making loops and putting together any loose ends I have to try and turn them into songs. It is a bit of a blur now really to try and pin down all of the songs, because they are all so different. Some songs took me a week to make, so it was really all over the place. We recorded it all to tape, and we tracked it all live, and that process glued the album together.

You have spoken at length about choosing to work and record from home – how did this set up affect the recording of ‘Twin Heavy’?

The big gain that I get from doing things at my own pace at home is that I feel like I have endless amounts of time to try out new methods, whereas when I recorded ‘Twin Heavy’ in the studio, it was the complete opposite, as we had to go with the best ideas straight away. I feel so comfortable in my own company because if you are working in a room full of really good musicians, it can sometimes make you quite self-aware of your own abilities. When I am at home or in the garage, I am in my own little universe, and there is no one there to snap me out of that creative zone. I hope to continue to create things in the way that I do.

Does it make sense to be putting out an album without being able to tour it for the foreseeable future?

I spent a long time writing these songs, mixing them and putting them together, so I am just hoping that there is something here for everyone to enjoy. Regardless of whether we can tour this album, hopefully people will have the opportunity to live with it, and really get to know it. I mean… there are no songs like ‘Sex On Fire’ on this album! I can’t see any of the tracks making me a million pounds in one go. I hope, though, that this album is something that people can live and grow with, and when we can tour, they will be able to appreciate some of the songs that are a little more subtle. It is just about making the best of a bad situation, and I am just trying not to think about how sad it is that nobody can tour right now. I am sure it will be worth the wait.

Did you feel in a more confident position coming into this album, or has the way your debut was critically acclaimed added more pressure?

I have actually felt the opposite to difficult second album syndrome, and I am not too worried about whether it will be a flop. When I did my first album, I thought it was amazing, and I really loved it, and I am still so proud of it. Though I think that I have gotten so much better at what I do now, and there is no competition between those albums. That is not to say that people will definitely love ‘Twin Heavy’, and maybe some people will prefer the first one, but I have just been gagging to show people my new music. I have felt a sense of urgency to show people my new work, because I am so into it.

A little birdie told us that you have got a fan in Alex Turner…

At first, it was a real shock to see him at one of my shows. I was really chuffed, and I didn’t know what to say to him. It is a huge compliment coming from someone like him, or from anyone of that calibre, Felix, Alex, Orlando Weeks… I really don’t take their support for granted. It makes me think, ‘what would 15-year-old me think of this?’ It would blow my mind. Also, when I met Alex outside of the venue after the show, and he started singing one of my new demos back to me, and he somehow knew all of the words! I stood there thinking, ‘this is so surreal’…

What is the future looking like for Willie J Healey?

I have always got tonnes of ideas, and I feel like I am growing in confidence as my songs are getting better. I think that once people have heard some of these ‘Twin Heavy’ songs, it will simply be a case of world domination for me! No, not really. I don’t really know what the future looks like, but I just hope that I can make enough money to keep doing this, and if people enjoy the music half as much as I do, then I will be onto something great.

Taken from the August issue of Dork. Willie J Healey’s album ‘Twin Heavy’ is out 7th August

Words: Sophie Williams

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