Photo By Kirk Edwards
“What will happen to our National Throat?,” pondered John Phillip Sousa in a 1906, in a gloomy forecast of the nascent century titled “The Menace of Mechanical Music.” And after over a century of cyclical panic and reinvention in the music industry, were still not quite sure the answer. One person who’s not afraid to explore the question, however, is Will Dailey. The acclaimed singer/songwriter/producer culled Sousa’s quote for the title for his new, and possibly best, album, which stands as an artistic statement in itself: Dailey forced his exit from Universal Records to go the crowdfunding route, and the stellar results of his newfound freedom are plain for everyone to hear. In this extensive interview, Dailey talks about the Boston Music Awards (the three-time winner will be performing and is up for three of the top honors on Sunday), the artist’s life in Boston, and why our National Throat will be just fine.
Do you have room on the shelf for another Boston Music Award?
I see people get upset and excited about awards, but for the first eight years I was in Boston, I wasn’t getting nominated for anything. It wasn’t until I started getting out of Boston that I started to get nominated. It wasn’t until I was out playing the country and other places in the world that it mattered. But yeah, there’s always room on the shelf. [laughs]
What does it mean to you to keep on getting that recognition, not just in the form of a nomination, but just in general having that strong support here?
It means a lot. It’s important to me on a couple aspects, the first being that I’m constantly told I need to move to Nashville, LA or NY. I just resent the fact that to be an artist, you have to live amongst a machine. I get so much more value added to my art by living in New England. I want to believe that I can have a career and live here, and when you are highlighted with a nomination, hopefully it communicates to other people that, hey, Will Dailey did 120 shows in various United States and European countries and lives in Boston, and you can to. That’s important for the economy of Boston, that’s important for the personality of Boston, that artists can thrive here. That’s part of the recognition. It fuels my fight and belief that we need that to be a reality for artists in cities like Boston. And then the other thing is that it’s just… I view awards and nominations as just a nod of A) hard work and B) you are representing a community outside of that community. Some journalist said this once – ‘I nominate people who are getting out of Boston on a regular basis and representing the community’. That’s what’s cool about it too. I played about 123 shows and appearances this year, and at 90% I’m introduced as being from Boston. Every show, every radio interview mentions Boston. It feels good to always feel connected to where you call home.
Were you always here?
I lived in Los Angeles for a year and immediately ran back. It just goes back to the fact that I feel the most inspiration here. Not for any particular reason, it’s just where I am happiest and most focused. I was born for four seasons and I also love that the oldest place you can find in America is Boston and Phildelphia. There is a richness and perspective on what America is about that’s here. When you go play abroad or go play on the West Coast, you appreciate it even more, or at least I do. The city of Boston itself is growing and expanding in incredible ways. The past five or six years have been insane. You go to parts of Somerville, you go to Seaport area, it’s insane. It’s important for art and music to be a part of that.
Let’s go back to your early material for a minute. You were signed to CBS Records for a while…
I started my own label to put out my first record, then I was signed to this little indie label that basically gives you a deal to get you a bigger deal. From there I was picked up by CBS.
Based on where you are now, we can say that that situation wasn’t ideal for you, but what were you thinking going into it?
Just to clarify, I was on CBS and then signed to Universal. That supposedly upgraded, but it was a severe downgrade. I had a great time on CBS and a horrible time on Universal. I quickly fought to get out of that deal to go do it the way I’ve been doing National Throat.
The one thing is that I just keep working. I just love working on music and think working is an important word, because before there were gatekeepers, and now it’s about work. If you want to do the work, you can do anything. If you want to put in the sweat and the hours, you can do anything now. That’s what’s beautiful about it. All those things that happened, whether the indie deal before CBS or that deal or the Universal deal or all these cool things that when I look at on paper, I can kind of feel better about myself if I’m having a bad day. [laughs] I played a bill with Neil Young, I got to do all these cool things. And it all came from just doing it. I never hired a lawyer to go shop deals. It came from doing it. It came from getting in a car and going out and playing by myself, even though I hate touring by myself. Then going from a car to a van, a van to a trailer. It just happened and I would argue that if its not happening, then you have to sit back and look if good things aren’t happening. And now I love the system and its a great time to be creative in all facets because you can control your own destiny now with art. Whereas before there were so many gatekeepers and tastemakers deciding what should be on the shelf. And now you can put yourself on the shelf. And people who say they hate the crowdfunding thing — well, what did you like better about it before? Did you like when you were told what could be on the shelf?
The beautiful thing is the Sistine Chapel exists because Michelangelo, yes, but also because somebody paid for it, and that person was the Pope, one person. But now a group of people or one person can decide, ‘I want that art made.’ It could be a song, film, art, video, or any kind of project. You can be the person who makes the Sistine Chapel. I’m not saying the artist is the next Michaleangelo or I am or anything like that, I’m saying everyone out there can be the Pope and it’s the greatest exercise in democracy, the fact that we can do this now. The control this paradigm brings to an artistic democratic process, is a beautiful thing and people need to look to it as that, not just be annoyed that somebody is asking them for money. [laughs]
This is a bit of an aside, but how do you feel about the criticism established people like Spike Lee and Zach Braff have taken for using crowdfunding?
Let’s take a film. A major film costs major money. Zach Braff may have $5 million in the bank, but it costs $5 million to make a movie. These things are expensive. We raised a ton of money, but I still put in $3,000 of my own money to finish National Throat and get it up to print. Everyone got paid a fair wage, everyone ate while they were in the studio. That money just went back into artist’s hands and into the community. Again, people think about the democratic process of it all. We are trying to be as transparent as possible with it. I think we will see more and more of that coming from bigger names because it’s also great pre-marketing for your project, and again, you are galvanizing a democratic process. If you are upset by Spike Lee doing it, you don’t have to do it. You don’t have to support it, you don’t have to go see it. So there’s really no harm done. And the great thing about the paradigm is you can go support another movie or another album or any other art, and really champion that.
How big of a risk was this for you? How sure were you that this would be viable?
My first record I sold in my car to finish paying for. Taking those kinds of risks or decisions has never failed me, because I would have fallen on my face by now, or you get to keep going. I think if you aren’t taking risks with art, you shouldn’t be sharing it. Everyone should be making art. Kurt Vonnegut said this: everyone should write a poem, but you should throw it in the trash and you’ll be a better person for having done it. Not all of us should be sharing. I don’t share everything I do, I shared when I’m compelled to do what I feel is a risk. People feel that risk and that excitement and that motivation, that you have to do this.
I wanted to go all in on this record. I believe in these songs and I also believe in the fact that I fought to get off the biggest able in the world in order to do it this way, as a statement of whats important for an artist, and for artists coming up in Boston. All these bands ask me all the time to meet with them for a beer or a coffee, and I meet with bands all the time who ask, ‘How do you do this?’ And I tell them sometimes I worry from month-to-month what I’m going to make and how I’m going to get by, so be careful. It’s still work. You still have to be a little bit crazy, and your friends might go get nice jobs and nice cars and get a little comfortable, and you might not ever get that. But you will be making things that you get to share with people. I have to give a lot of credit to the music, which of course I want to believe is a big part of it, but to be honest, people connect with the story too. People connect with the fact that this album is about trying to get free. It was something I had to do. You know I’m not bullshitting with this record. If you were ever worried that I might have been, you know I’m not now. If I tried to jump through the hoops on the label I was on, I could have done pretty well, but I wouldn’t have been myself.
Do you enjoy mentoring artists in Boston, or at least being someone they can look to as an example?
I do. I do look forward to it and say yes every time, but not just in the mentor or ambassador realm. I did a talk for some group of people that felt like a lecture in France. But a lot of it feeds me, because a person is like me 10 years ago. I want to touch base and still recognize that person and hear their passion, their ideas, their input on even what I’m saying. The response is just as valuable to me.
Do you have to be selective on how much Boston presence you have and how often you play shows here?
It’s tough! When I’m home I just want to play. If I could play once a week at Toad, that’s what I want to to do. But then all my friends come out and the room is full, and my band’s friends, and we want to reach new people and get this record out. So it’s tough. We have this big show on December 17 and it’s weird… You have to be selective and have to be strategic, and that sucks. [laughs] Because I would love to be home and play overnight, because my band is full of players and they play every night, somewhere, so sometimes I’ll just go sit in with them. You do have to be smart and all that, but I don’t know… Maybe sometime I’ll just… well, I won’t say what I’ll do someday because I’m doing what I said I’d be doing five years ago [laughs], so I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing.
Where does this record fit in your discography or career path?
In a lot of ways this is kind of like my third album, because I think the album Torrent and the album Will Dailey & the Rivals were more concept records. We have a budget from CBS and let’s completely fuck around for four or five weeks; when are you ever going to get a lockout in a studio like that, in a democratized band process that allows a lot of input in? If it was just my input for five records, we’d be all bored by now. I love that process with musicians that I trust. But those are concept things. Same thing with Torrent, with all these guests doing all these different themed things. This kind of follows up after my first or second record in a way, but with all these things that I’ve learned in the studio from producing my own stuff and for other people. National Throat is kind of a culmination of being ten years in the studio, and then kind of taking it back to the first record, which I did myself: all 16 track analog, no computers. “Sunken Ship” is just one take, and same with “World Go Round”. I’d say six or seven songs have one drum and bass take live, then overdubs after of all the sounds that you hear. This one is like the story of doing it for this long more than anything. It’s kind of like a starting over point for me in a way. I feel like this is where I start. It feels like I’ve been training and training and training, and now I start off with this.
Did the songs come easy? A song like “Sunken Ship” is pretty reflective of where you are at, but did the rest follow clearly as well?
I was tweaking little things, but I generally had a lot of the songs. When Universal was asking me for new songs, and I didn’t want to share them. I realized what am I doing here if I don’t want to give them my songs? “Sunken Ship” took my five minutes. “Don’t Take Your Eyes” I thought was going to be a B-side, and it just turned into this really fun tune. I knew the title of the record and the message early on, so it was about keeping it just super vibey. My drummer Dave Brophy and I went into the Plow every Monday night and would start playing at 10:30pm. We would put our cell phones on record and we went under the name Iron Harvest and played these songs to strangers on a Monday night. If people drinking on a Monday at 11pm turn around and clap, you know you are on to something. That’s what we did for about three months, until we figured out which ones were working. You can go out and play for your friends and your fans and fans and they will tell you every song is great. But there’s nothing like turning the heads of people who don’t want to hear music and aren’t there to see you.
What does the title mean to you? How did you interpret it as relevant to your work?
Since day one, I’ve been coming up in the era of the business falling apart, while getting pulled into it. The deal with CBS was supposed to be this cool new deal, same thing with Universal, and instead everyone is panicking, everyone is losing their jobs. Bands and friends of mine are just giving up, they’ve stopped playing because they’re not making enough money, they start going on singing shows because they are out of ideas. Everyone is in a panic about the business dying. And then I read that essay that Sousa wrote, when he was so worried about gramophones coming into our homes and the way we take in music and the way it’s taught. And I thought, it doesn’t change. Everything falls apart and is rebuilt all the time. But artists make art all the time because they have to, because they’re compelled to. When he wrote ‘what will happen to our National Throat,’ it just hit me. I just thought the National Throat will be fine, because when he wrote that, it was all before The Beatles and Fleetwood Mac and Bob Dylan and Kurt Cobain and Beyonce and whoever you love. It happens; great music happens, great art will always happen. The harder you make it for us, the better it gets.
Do you feel like this is the high point of your career?
Yeah. It is a tough time to make a living doing it still. You have to have a diverse portfolio: write, produce, sell t-shirts, all of the above has to happen. But as far as the reception and people hearing me, they are hearing me now more than ever. One song has 600,000 spins on Spotify in the past month, and I’ve never had 600,000 anything in my life. Every day something new happens thats kind of like, ‘who did that?’ I woke up a couple weeks ago and Rob Thomas from Matchbox 20 Tweeted about a song of mine and wrote about it on Facebook. He doesn’t need to do that, and most guys don’t give props to other guys coming up underneath them. All these little things percolating that feels great. I’ve never felt as complete as I do now.
Another example of taking out the middleman…
Totally. And there’s also that aspect of why should music only be made by millionaires? My concerns in life are no different than that of a lot of middle class people. The artistic middle class is very important for the rest of the middle class and the rest of the country to understand what that does when you have a strong artistic middle class. Goes back to that lesson in democracy with art; if that’s healthy, just like our middle class, everything goes better. Everything. The money we raised went right back into a community of artists and companies that employ people. Artists create the 1%. We sell beer, liquor, we sell tickets. We made Apple what is it, we made YouTube what it is. Everyone needs to take a step back and realize what music has done for our economy, and figure out how you want to be involved in that. Not what you are going to do for it, because you are already a part of it. What are the 25 acts you love the most? Support them every year. It’s a great time. I just think the paradigm needs to be communicated more by myself and by the people who understand it.
The driving force in a lot of consumer technology these days seems to be music, in many ways.
Silicon Valley has blown up because of music. All these people are becoming millionaires because of music. And, yes, the midnight sales of records are now gone, but now people line up for the phone. They used to line up [outside stores] for the record, and I don’t care that they are gone, because now I can get the record immediately. I just think no one is having a conversation about how music drives everything we do in art. Take live music out of communities, take it out of the festivals that are exploding, and you have massive, massive job less. Then these brands don’t have a way to reach audiences. Just in general, take architecture away. You don’t have the Eiffel Tower, you don’t have the Louvre in Paris. You don’t have all these things that artists have made that drive economies, that make you want to get on a plane and go there to see the architecture, or to taste the food made by culinary artists. It the biggest economic driver of culture.
Yet it seems there’s a different value placed on music now. People are listening to more music now than ever, but maybe people see it as something of piecemeal value — they like what they like when they like it, not necessarily the entire artistic presentation you are trying to present them.
It’s kind of that Spotify argument. It goes back to the fact that it’s incumbent upon any one who understand it to communicate the fact that you are a part of this if you are the listener. You are a part of it being made. No one is really going to get that if we don’t say it. A lot of communication is reprimanding, like Taylor Swift reprimanding Spotify or people saying ‘We need to pay artists more.’ People need to understand that you are a part of it. It’s not about feeling bad or anything like that. You are a part of this process, and that’s a better way of letting people know what it means. If someone gets one song of mine, downloads one song off the album and it communicates to them, you can’t ask for more than that. If it gets 30 seconds and is skipped, that’s OK. I do that. Maybe that song wasn’t meant to communicate with me. I don’t expect National Throat to be a worldwide phenomenon, and honestly I hope it’s not. I never wanted to be famous, and I still don’t. I just wanted to be good and to do this for the rest of my life. I think with 7 billion people on earth, and if there are 100,000 people who heard 30 seconds of “Castle of Pretending” and didn’t skip it, that would be all I need and then some to keep being creative.
I’m not really asking for more than that. I think we are told through all of our culture that we are supposed to want everything and you’re supposed to crush competition. But I want to be an artist because I want to do things through art that I didn’t think I could’ve done until that moment. I didn’t know that I could have created National Throat five years ago. I couldn’t have. That’s the beauty about art. It happens in this moment that comes from pursuing life and pursuing art. So, that 100,000 people who will support you if they’ve heard of you is immense, and that’s enough to be an artist. It’s about how do you get the word out there. And it’s working. That’s my goal: get the people who matter. We were doing the fundraising and I said to a friend, ‘I don’t want to piss anyone off.’ His response was, ‘Let’s piss them all off. If anyone is upset at you being you on social media or your mailing list and they unfriend you or unsubscribe, what good was that person anyway?’ It cleared my brain up in a way that it hadn’t been in forever with this social media stuff. Since then, I’ve been saying I want less followers and less people on mailing list. I want to reach the people who I’m reaching, who understand it, who need and connect with what I’m doing.
Will you take this same approach on your next album?
I will never not do crowdsourcing. This is the template from now on. Out of five releases, this is the only record that wasn’t in the red the day it came out. Why would I be foolish enough to return to such panic when I’m supposed to be celebrating the art? In the galvanization process of it, the feeling that 750 people who preordered the record have when they see the record getting good reviews or in stores… It feels good to be part of the success, and I don’t want to rob people of that. I’m here to communicate how we can all paint Sistine Chapels. [laughs] Kind of how Van Gough’s brother paid for the paint for Starry Night. We can all be part of that, with the artist still feeling they are in charge of their creation.
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