Will Varley has been described as the epitome of a DIY musician, starting off his music career wandering the public houses of London and playing to any open mic available before creating his own record label (Smugglers Records) and even walking venue to venue through the English countryside, with nothing more than a guitar in one hand and a tent in the other.
His touring schedule is looking a little different now as he’s traded in the public houses for full scale venues, his songwriting talents of combining personal storytelling with political statements, catching the imaginations of many and as he gears up to release his fifth album, ‘Spirit of Minnie’ to be released on February 9th, he has amassed a following through pure grit, determination & musical talent.
We managed to sit him down for a moment before his show in Manchester, to discuss the journey he’s been on and where he’s heading in the future. As the discussion began he spoke of his recent success outside of music, one that will no doubt make a change in his touring life if he so chooses, he recently passed his driving test but seemed reluctant to take up the tour bus driver seat just yet; “I don’t think I will be doing that, I did hear a story about Bob Dylan, I did a tour with Frank Turner and one of the drivers left for a bit and his deputy, was one of Dylan’s drivers supposedly and he told me that Bob Dylan would drive his own bus, he’d just come down at like 2 in the morning and be like ‘Can I drive the bus?’ How mad is that?”
Reflecting back on his old touring lifestyle left him almost exhausted just thinking about it, trekking from venue to venue, just walking, sleeping & playing music: ‘Yeah some of them were up to 25-30 miles between each other but some of them were shorter, the walking bit was fairly easy, the problem was doing the walking and the gigs, two of them together was pretty hard, you’d get somewhere, exhausted after 25 miles and the landlord would be going “Okay, you’re on stage in 5 minutes!” and you found yourself going, “No! Please! Just let me sit here and cry.”’
Of course he is currently on tour in support of his latest album and after making a career out of taking inspiration from others stories and adding his own perspective to it, it’s no surprise that ‘Spirit of Minnie’ continues in the same vein but from a source of inspiration, you may not quite expect: ‘I was in Minneapolis and I’d just finished a tour and I spent about four nights just hanging around, it was so cold that you couldn’t be outside for longer than a few seconds before you couldn’t feel your fingers, it was crazy! Anyway, I’d gotten into this taxi and this driver started telling me, spinning me this yarn about this spirit of Minnie this apparition that appears between two skyscrapers between 3 and 4 in the morning in a snow storm and he was quite a spiritual character, the way he talked about it just took me somewhere else and it was totally unexpected. After that, I started asking people around Minneapolis, “Oh, have you heard of the spirit of Minnie?” and everybody said no, except for this one guy who said it was a very scientific thing, it’s to do with the magnetic fields between the two buildings and the cold, and it has something to do with the way that the snow interacts with the magnetic entities between the buildings and I was like “Stop taking all the magic away!”
It seems that Varley is always on the look out for inspiration for his music, keeping his eyes and ears open at all times, it seems it’s something that’s an integral part of his songwriting process: ‘I do like to collect little moments and stories and even just sentences or words that people say is enough for me to start thinking about something, as a songwriter or any kind of writer whether it’s plays or books or whatever, part of it is maybe collecting little moments and stringing them together, you get home and you string them together to create a song.’
He has used his music over the years to express his own personal view point of the world, taking tales and moulding them into his own life experiences is something he is familiar with and when pressed as to whether he finds it easy to attach his own personal experiences to these narratives, he discussed how a new song, ‘The Postman’ came to be: ‘I think it’s quite nice to have an underlying narrative, for example the second to last song on the album is a song called ‘The Postman’ and that song is based on a guy called Ferdinand Cheval, who in the early 1900’s was a postman in rural France and he started picking up stones on his way to work, and over the course of many, many years he built a giant palace on his garden with the stones he’d picked up from the floor, it’s called Le Palais Ideal so that for me, is this most wonderful little narrative and you can’t really pick that out of the song, it’s just where the starting point was for me and then that for me becomes about being aware that the world was about to change, in a way where there’s some form of energy that you don’t understand and dealing with it in some way and trying to make something positive out of it, for me the context of that now is important, the world feels like it’s changing incredibly fast but to pick some stones up off the floor and try to build a palace, I mean you couldn’t do anything more simple and beautiful within your own confines and within your own little world. So yeah, I kind of find that through finding these stories, I can then pin my own personal experiences or feelings on top of these narratives.’
His musical set up has always been based around himself and an acoustic guitar, delicate finger picking and societal musings are what you would expect from a Will Varley live show but with a new album breeds new opportunity and Will has taken the chance to shake things up and introduce a full live band to his set and on the new record: ‘Yeah, well I’ve been doing this on my own for so many years, it’s good to shake things up a bit and I think you should never be too comfortable, and you should always try to push things a little bit further.’
Not only has he managed to shake things up a bit in a musical sense, he has also managed to dip his toe in another medium of expression by creating the video for one of his latest singles ‘Seven Days’, a video influenced by the classic 8-bit dos games of the 90’s that he played during his childhood: ‘I’m kind of interesting in film and visuals is a whole different medium you know, writing songs you spend a lot of your time with your head being in a particular place, it’s all about the words and getting your message across and so, visual mediums to me are quite alien and I really enjoy putting symbolism and stuff into it and the animated thing, I basically had a few days/weeks after Christmas where I didn’t have much on and I just fiddled about with the song and then 2/3 weeks later there was the video, the last few days were a little intense because I realised I had a deadline and that I had to get it done but for the first week or so it was very playful process.’
The travelling troubadour still has enough wonder in him to continue creating stories through the way he sees the world, he may not be walking from venue to venue but his commitment to his craft remains steadfast and as long as he continues to push himself and his music forward, we will be hearing his musings for a long time to come.
Spirit of Minnie is available via Xtra Mile Recordings from February 9th