Artist Spotlight: Westerman

    Will Westerman, who performs music under his last name, sang in choirs and played saxophone as a child before teaching himself how to play guitar at 15. The South London-born, Athens, Greece-based singer-songwriter started putting out singles in 2016 and made his label debut on Blue Flowers with 2017’s Call and Response EP, which was followed by the Ark EP a year later. Westerman recorded his debut album, Your Hero Is Not Dead, in Portugal and London with his friend and producer Nathan Jenkins (aka Bullion), who helped move his intricate folk sound in a more textural direction. After spending much of the pandemic in Italy working on demos by himself, Westerman decided to go to Los Angeles to lay down his sophomore LP, An Inbuilt Fault, which is out today. Co-produced alongside Big Thief’s Krivchenia, the LP sets his inquisitive and often ambiguous songwriting against vibrant and fluidly adventurous arrangements that place emphasis on both complex grooves and the primacy of the human voice. Even in the fragmented blur of a lot of these songs, a sense of hopeful sincerity and tenderness seeps through Westerman’s gorgeous, intimate music, which makes an effort to hold as best it can.

    We caught up with Will Westerman for the latest edition of our Artist Spotlight series to talk about how a crisis of self inspired An Inbuilt Fault, his songwriting process, freedom, and more.

    When did you move to Athens?

    I get confused with the years now, they all seem to blur in the last few years. But I went to Athens for a month in May of 2021, just to spend some time and try and get a feel for the place, because I hadn’t actually been before. I’d already tried to move once and got stuck in Italy, driving all of my instruments over, but then ended up having to go back to the UK. I spent a month in May and I liked it, so I decided to go in October of that year.

    The majority of the songs on An Inbuilt Fault were written while you were in Italy, is that right?

    Yeah. The main body of the record was written between November 2020 and April 2021, and a couple of bits, like ‘CSI: Petralona’, I wrote a bit later, and ‘Take’ I wrote in October. But the rest of them were written in Italy in that period of time.

    Do you associate the record with a strong sense of place?

    I don’t think it’s tied to any particular place. I think thematically, maybe more of a through line in this collection of songs is more a desire for replacement, maybe a feeling of flux, a feeling of being caught between two places or struggling to move to a new place – maybe geographically, but also emotionally, searching for a new space.

    How did that state of flux feed into your creative process? Did it affect your writing in any particular way?

    I think when I started writing the record – well, I wasn’t really thinking about writing a record at all. I hadn’t done any writing for some time, and I kind of just started writing as an exercise for myself. I was in a very isolated place, literally and metaphorically speaking. Generally, writing as an exercise has always been a way of working through things for myself – when I’m making the thing, and then obviously trying to shape it to make something which is kind of relatable as you kind of go along. But when it starts, it’s always been that for me. And that was definitely the case, maybe even more so than it has been for many years. I didn’t really have any concept of anyone hearing any of this music, or it being for any real purpose. I was just writing stuff to keep myself sane. And that was different; it wasn’t new, but it was more of a kind of reversion to how it was before you had any kind of concept that anyone might hear what you were doing. In that regard, it probably made it slightly easier to write in a totally unselfconscious way.

    What has the relationship between songwriting and isolation been like for you? Has making music been a way of working through it?

    It’s a funny one, I slightly yo-yo in terms of my thoughts about that. I think the desire to emote and put something down, some kind of emotive response, that’s necessarily a sort of reaction to that feeling of loneliness. So It’s a bit chicken and egg – you have to go into a place where you remove yourself, but the spiritual response to that is basically an act of communication. I don’t really know where I come down on that at the moment.

    There’s this line from ‘Take’, “Every feeling is a wire,” that I think offers a helpful metaphor. It made me wonder if songwriting is a means of untangling those wires, for you, or if it might have the opposite effect.

    There are many ways of trying to untangle; songwriting is definitely one of them. Any kind of writing is one of them, I think. During the process of doing it, it’s not necessarily a conscious effort. It’s the starting of a process, and then hopefully by the end of it, when you look at what you’ve done, maybe you can make some sense of where you were. A lot of the time, it’s quite hard to work out where you are, I find, and sometimes it takes some distance. With this record, it wasn’t until about nine months after I started writing it that I realized I had a record. I had many other bits of music, and then I wrote the title track, and I suddenly realized that there was a link between all of these pieces of music. I understood after the fact maybe I never really understood, or don’t understand, but it seemed to me that there was some sort of internal logic to these particular pieces of music, and that they should be put together. There’s something satisfying, if nothing else, about that.

    Haziness and immediacy are two qualities that seem to go hand in hand in your songwriting, or they at least balance each other out throughout An Inbuilt Fault. How conscious of that dynamic were you as you were putting together the record?

    There’s definitely a thematic continuity of unsurety, I’d say, throughout all of the songs, that I was aware of. Just because I was just trying to write in as unfiltered a way as possible, and that was just how I was feeling, irrespective of which direction I decided to turn my attention to at the particular moment in time. If it’s immediate, I’m glad. In terms of how the music is presented, it was a conscious decision to put the vocal very far forward, so that it was very much right there. At the time, I was listening to a lot of just purely vocal music, really old church music, just because I was finding great comfort in the quality of the human voice. I wanted to incorporate that into the record, and I wanted to make the vocal feel like it’s almost right next to you, I think as a response to the feeling of detachment and isolation. When it came to thinking about how to place things on the record, James and I decided quite early that drums would be very formative and the voice would be very formative.

    You’ve talked about choral music being an influence in the past, so there must have also been a kind of internal shift in confidence for you to put your voice further into the forefront.

    I actually laid out a lot of this music in quite a lot of detail before we came to record it, and some of that has translated to the final recordings, and some of it hasn’t. But I think I spent quite a lot of time doing vocal arrangements just because it’s something that I enjoy doing. But yeah, I’d say there’s more of my own personal identity in many of the different elements outside of the pure songwriting in this record just because of the amount of time that I had to kind of work on it. I suppose there is a confidence in that, and I think it ties back into what I was saying before in terms of really not thinking about what people would think about it at all.

    I read that you were inspired by films like The Seventh Seal and Ikiru, which are both deeply existential in nature. What resonated with you about them?

    As I said, I hadn’t really written for a long time, and there was quite a long period of time where I wasn’t really sure whether I wanted to make another record. There is an identity crisis involved in that, and so the process of starting to write this music was engaging with that same thing, a loss of self in some way. As was the case for many people with the pandemic, what I thought my life was going to be kind of disappeared overnight, and there was a crisis of, What am I doing? The protagonists in those films are both dealing with those same sort of crises of self, and I found both those films quite comforting in an odd way, I think because I could empathize. That’s what good art does, doesn’t it? It kind of makes you feel less alone because you feel this understanding. Even though the circumstances aren’t identical, you can see, like, I understand where this person is.

    They also both engage with the idea of freedom that you explore on the record – even just the word “free” comes up on several tracks. Was that something you were contemplating as well, be it in a more personal or philosophical sense?

    Yeah, on so many levels. I think I had two things at the same time: that quite literal lack of freedom of being told that you are not allowed to leave the house, but then also, the physical restriction necessitated more and more time spent online as a means of trying to connect with people in the in a non-physical way. I became more and more acutely aware of how much profiling was affecting the things that I was actually seeing in this space, how much the things that you’re actually interacting with digitally are almost absorbed by osmosis. I was thinking a lot about the nature of free choice and how all of this would affect even the capacity for sort of an unencumbered decision-making process. I read this Shoshana Zuboff book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, and that all fed into it as well. Without trying to be too apocalyptic about all of it, it wasn’t so much that, but that stuff was very prevalent in my mind. Just the nature of freedom – like, what is it? Is it possible? How do you find it? Do you even want it?

    What convinced you to take that leap and record the album in Los Angeles?

    I met James just before the pandemic started. Big Thief were playing in London; I was living in London at the time. My manager and Big Thief’s manager, they kind of work together. Me and James had a cigarette, and we ended up speaking for about an hour. I knew I wanted to have live percussion on this collection of music. I’d done a lot of programming on the computer, but I didn’t want it to be a programmed record; I wanted it to be a kind of breathing, live percussion record. James had just been making the new Big Thief record, and obviously he’s a fantastic producer in his own right. I had a good feeling when we met, and I liked the idea of just tearing the band-aid off. I’d spent so much time just me and the music, and it’s a good process in terms of not getting too precious. I thought, “Let’s just go and see.” There wasn’t really that much thought involved in it.

    How did it open up the process?

    It was definitely a far out of my comfort zone. Most of this record, the way it’s presented, is essentially live takes from the studio. There’s some embellishing and some overdubbing, of course, but most of the lead vocals, for example, are all from the live takes. It’s just a very different way of recording to what I’ve done before. I think you have to try and make yourself uncomfortable every time you start again, otherwise it’s difficult to mimic the feeling of risk, which is where a lot of the vitality comes from. And I was lucky because the musicians that I played with are all phenomenal musicians.

    When you sing “I don’t know who I am anymore” on ‘A Lens Turning’, it’s followed by the affirmation, “That’s okay.” Was that always there?

    It was always there. There aren’t that many lyrics in that song, but in my head, it’s supposed to be like an audio manifestation of a kind of internal panic – the psychology of a panic attack in musical form. [laughs] There’s many different sides of the same voice, of someone kind of spinning into a kind of fever pitch. When I was making the song, I was trying to expunge this feeling, to try and put it down. But that was always there in that slightly schizophrenic place.

    Do you find yourself less and less hesitant about embracing a kind of hopefulness in your music?

    I don’t know, it would seem sort of vaguely inhuman to not have to not have that as a quality of music in some way, at some point. I think the whole idea of making music in the first place presupposes some element of hope. I was talking to someone about this – can you make completely nihilistic music? I’m not sure you can, really, because you’re still making something. There has to be an element of hope for you to bother making something in the first place. If there wasn’t any hope, I don’t know why you’d do it, you know? You would just do nothing. [laughs] There are certainly some pieces of music on this record where there’s more of a struggle to try and find the hope, but I do think it’s always there.

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

    Westerman’s An Inbuilt Fault is out now via Partisan/Play It Again Sam.

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