With a sound that recalls Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash along with the cynicism of grunge and punk, nobody could believe wry singer/songwriter Willy Mason was only 19 when he appeared on the indie scene. Born and raised on Martha’s Vineyard, Mason grew up with his parents’ love of folk music. He loved it, too, but his teen years brought Nirvana and Rage Against the Machine into his life. Mason found their political and social messages much easier to identify with and soon combined folk’s softer and looser delivery with the revolutionary attitude of his new heroes. Writing came easy now and the teenager had plenty of self-penned material ready when a family friend asked him to appear on his local radio show.
As luck would have it, Sean Foley — an associate of Conor Oberst and his band, Bright Eyes — was driving through Cape Cod as Mason was on the air. Foley was captivated by Mason’s song “Oxygen” and left his phone number at the radio station, setting off a chain of events that would have Oberst and Mason hanging out, doing gigs together, and touring America. With only three people in the audience, a gig at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas seemed a disaster until one of the three introduced himself as BBC DJ Zane Lowe. Lowe was also captivated by “Oxygen” and added it to his playlist when it appeared on Mason’s debut, Where the Humans Eat, released by Team Love in 2004. Critics were positive about the album and unanimously shocked that the literate writer and performer of these songs was only 19.
Tours with Rosanne Cash, My Morning Jacket, Evan Dando, Beth Orton, and labelmates Jenny Lewis & the Watson Twins increased the fan base and influenced the Astralwerks label to pick up the debut. Astralwerks reissued Where the Humans Eat in early 2006 with bonus tracks and videos added to the original album. That same year Mason assembled a band that included Nina Violet and cousin Zak Borden, and in 2007 his sophomore record, If the Ocean Gets Rough, came out, while a live set at the Austin City Limits festival soon followed.
By 2008, two world tours had taken their toll and Mason sought respite back on Martha’s Vineyard, only occasionally venturing further afield to play live. He returned to the public eye in 2012 with Carry On, an album produced in south London by Dan Carey which incorporated the use of digital rhythm tracks and electric guitars.
– by David Jeffries