Will Stratton: interview
Storytelling is an integral part of how we understand ourselves and how we understand the world around us. The oral tradition of passing wisdom from one generation to another is something which was readily subsumed and assimilated by folk artists and Will Stratton's music is an exemplary addition to a continuum that includes the likes of Bob, Dylan, Nick Drake and Bert Jansch.
Californian born but raised in the state of New York, Stratton has an interesting story to tell. He has survived cancer and is the great grandson of a travelling preacher. However, the contextual back story to Stratton's life only goes half way to describing his work. Stratton is something more akin to a conduit to the stories around him - as if they move through him rather than from him.
Stratton’s new album Rosewood Almanac is a work of fragile magic, a hypnotic combination of beautifully breathy voice and exquisite lyrical imagery, gorgeous melodies and similarly soft-spun instrumentation, centred on his thrumming acoustic guitar and the verdant presence of velvet strings.
We caught up with Will to discuss his writing process, the disaster of Trump, signing to Bella Union and having dinner with Gertrude Stein.
Q. The title of your new album, Rosewood Almanac, is a tribute to your favourite acoustic guitar. Do you remember when you first fell in love with guitar playing?
I was in love with it from the beginning, when I was 12 and I received a Candy Apple Red Squier Stratocaster for my birthday. I loved it because it was completely open ended—there were no lessons or requirements, just sound.
Q. Thematically, your lyrics across these new songs touch on everything from nature to ageing and politics to health. What inspired you when writing for this album?
I was writing a lot of these when I was anxious about something or when I was trying to work something out in my head. Songwriting for me is like how I imagine knitting to be for some people—it’s something to do with my hands and it allows my mind to wander. A couple of the songs took some lyrical inspiration from an epic poem by Frank Stanford that my friend Gabe sent me as part of a project he was doing. Another song started as a re-writing of a traditional folk song called “Swing and Turn Jubilee” as played by Jean Ritchie, and then quickly went in a very different direction.
Q. Did you set out to experiment with more complex chord progressions on this album or did they develop naturally when composing?
I think everything just kind of naturally follows from the last thing I’ve done. I tried to keep my playing a little simpler than the last record, in some respects, but sometimes a part is more fun to play and easier to remember when it’s a little bit more complex than it necessarily needs to be.
Q. Before you recorded the album, you took some time away from being a professional musician to become a teacher. What motivated you to take a break from touring and recording full-time?
I’ve actually never been a full-time musician. I think it would be fun but I have had to do other work in order to afford health insurance. When I left New York City to teach at a boarding school I was working as a paralegal, something that I still do in a slightly different capacity. I was hoping that I would get a kind of fulfilment from teaching in the countryside that I didn’t get from working full-time in the city. I ended up really loving the countryside but I found out that I wasn’t meant to be a teacher, at least not in that capacity.
Q. Can you tell us more about the cover artwork for the album?
It is part of a series of ballpoint pen drawings done by a great French artist named Kevin Lucbert who currently works in Berlin, I believe. His work is fantastic and you can see more of it at kevinlucbert.com.
Q. Rosewood Almanac is your first release with legendary record label, Bella Union. Why do you think this particular label is a good fit for you?
They have put out a lot of music that I’ve loved over the years, in an incredibly wide array of styles, some of which takes inspiration from the same places that I do. When Simon approached me it just seemed like it needed to happen. The entire staff seem to like each other a lot as people, which feels important to me. And there’s also just a general self-awareness about what they do—an acknowledgment that the odds of success with any single record may be long, but that the pursuit is worth it.
Q. Sufjan Stevens provided some instrumental accompaniment on your first album, What the Night Said. How did you come to work together?
I’ve never met Sufjan but I’m obviously a big fan of his work. He was recording at my friend Kieran Kelly’s studio in Queens at the time, where I was also recording intermittently. He was the one who asked Sufjan to play oboe, and Sufjan kindly obliged after the rest of the recording was finished.
Q. As an American who once experienced a significant period of ill health, what are your thoughts on the deteriorating state of the US healthcare system under President Trump?
Oh, I could write a long essay about that but it would be exhausting. Trump is obviously terrible on every level, but the push to dismantle US healthcare (which is already in shambles compared to most civilised countries) is really coming from congressional Republicans. They will burn in hell for it, if there is a hell. Democrats are completely feckless right now, for the most part. A majority of Americans want a single payer/Medicare For All kind of system, but the healthcare lobby clearly has some deep pockets.
Q. We’ll round things off by giving you a magic power. You can invite three guests, living or dead, to your fantasy dinner party. Who would you pick and why?
Gertrude Stein, P.G. Wodehouse, and Kevin Ayers. I think they’d all have a good time together. Or Stein and Ayers would have a good time at Wodehouse’s expense, I’m not sure. And they’d all have incredible stories.
New album 'Rosewood Almanac ' is out now and released by Bella Union,