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Can Musicians Avoid Commercial Pressure And Still Make A Living? WILLS Is Trying

For his latest work as WILLS, songwriter and producer Will Johnson is turning to arts foundations for funding.
Dena Winter
Courtesy of the artist
For his latest work as WILLS, songwriter and producer Will Johnson is turning to arts foundations for funding.

Will Johnson has seen some things.

"A couple years ago I got approached by these, like, Silicon Valley dudes," the musician says,"and they basically were like, 'Yo. We have created a formula to make a for-sure No. 1 hit.' Literally."

Johnson, who releases music under the name WILLS, did not get involved with those Silicon Valley dudes. They approached him because he was already a successful songwriter with a publishing deal that had him co-writing with Grammy-winning names. That's his voice on the song " Pika," from Flume's Skin, which won best dance/electronic album in 2017.

WILLS' publishing situation was a good one. But, he says, "I've never worked with a producer who's just, like, a black dude. All of those co-writes are always like, 'I'm asking you to lend your voice, your vocals, to this beat that I made. And I'm, like, some white dude from the Internet that you've never met.' "

You've heard it before: Do you what you love and you'll never work a day in your life. It sounds simple, but fitting artistry into industry requires compromise. For the past few years, WILLS has been trying to figure out how to protect his music from commercial pressures and still make a living. As an industry songwriter, he says he found himself building protections into his contributions so there was no chance his creativity could end up subsumed into something he didn't agree with: "Being like, 'Well, what's my role in this? What words am I lending to this? How am I writing this?'"

Asking questions about what's happening under the surface has long been the artist's whole thing. When he moved out of the Bronx, where he was born and raised, on down to gentrifying Brooklyn, what he saw led him to create a funkdafied, black-masculinity-tweaking performance art persona named Gordon Voidwell.

"I'm living in Brooklyn with all these people that I'm totally alienated from, feel totally isolated from, and don't really know how to engage that while partaking in the same world as these people," he recalls. "So that became sort of both an academic study and also then just a release."

Lest you believe making songs that are half intellectual exercise, half messing with people isn't a commercially viable approach to music, it was Gordon Voidwell that got WILLS his publishing deal, and made those Silicon Valley guys think he could run a hit factory.

But he left Brooklyn for love. Success followed him to Minnesota — one of his songs, " Woes vs. Whoas," got picked up for an Acura ad.

Disquiet followed, too. "Part of the irony in using black music in car commercials is the amount of deaths that happen by black dudes who get killed as a result of being pulled over, right?" he says. Just before "Woes vs. Whoas" was released, Philando Castile was killed in his car by a police officer, about 20 minutes from WILLS' apartment.

"Whenever someone syncs my stuff into a commercial, I'm always like, 'The joke's on you, 'cause I know where my heart's at with the music,' " WILLS says. "And on some level I'm kind of like, 'Word, this person truly read what my intentions were and that's what they're trying to communicate.' I have to have some faith in that on some level, on a human level, someone heard that and was like, 'You know what, we are trying to put forth this voice.' "

Despite the stress and the energetic counterbalancing WILLS felt like he had to factor into his dealings with the music industry, he was doing all right. "I was like, this is cool. I'm happy I have this publishing deal," he says. "But also it might be smart, looking forward, to think about other ways that you can get funding to start making the music that you want to be making, or experimenting, or just having some space to think about that in a different way."

So he made another move: He wrote a proposal.

Dena Winter / Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist

The work he pitched, "a solo voice and electronic acoustic project connecting American spiritual idioms and contemporary sound design and composition," was eventually approved for a fellowship by the Minnesota-based Jerome Foundation. The New Old, an album of original work based on obscure gospel records from the 1950s to the '70s, was released in March.

"All of those songs from the album started from a gospel song. I think that there's a naive practice of musicianship where you're like, 'This just came from the ethers of my soul.' Which is like, maybe — but also, the ethers of your soul are rooted in an actual real, material world," he says. "If you've listened to a single song in your life, if you've lived in this world, you're having an interaction with an entire tradition and an entire history of music."

As he mined the artifacts left by the musicians who came before him, flipping them over and examining them, he says was trying to figure out why the sounds they recorded then were making him feel things now. One of the theses of the album is that sacred idioms are in communication with secular daily life.

"A big part of it was my own self-inquiry: What are my own musical tastes and my own musical history that I'm telling myself is this real thing, and how much of that is still going to stand by the end of this project?" he says. "If I'm being honest, one thing that's happened through the whole project is I'm like, 'Actually, none of this really means that much. These are all just stories.' "

That statement doesn't reflect disappointment; it was a relief. The financial support of the Jerome Fellowship gave WILLS the chance to look hard at who he is in relation to his artistic forebears and then gracefully individuate. He removed the veil.

"Why it's even called soul music, I think, is a reference to the fact that it has some roots in Christianity and in spiritual music and in gospel music, but ultimately is not entirely anchored or attached to having to speak about the Psalms or the actual gospel or having to reference Jesus or belief in Jesus," he says. "It's about believing that there is, in fact, a soul."

This journey led to songs that are full of worldliness — that ache and stretch and can't be shocked — but extend past what's observable. They are elegant and hypnotic: Whether by way of sampled voices or WILLS' own voice stacked, the songs are populated, bustling and happening.

And that's even though WILLS made The New Old entirely by himself, playing every instrument and taking on every engineering and production task. The album feels like one hand holding many other hands: a pinkie bent back but hanging in there, one finger claimed entirely by a still-small fist, everybody wiggling and repositioning but holding on for dear life.

"I feel like I use my voice just literally to tell the story of where I've been," WILLS says. "If you listen to Otis Redding or almost all my favorite soul singers, they're just talking. They're just having a conversation. Of course that's going to resonate; of course that's gonna hit. They're just being true to themselves."

But WILLS was also interested in an even wider-ranging conversation. So he wrote a second part to his proposal, says Eleanor Savage, the program director of the Jerome Foundation: "A sound-based composition for a collaborative theatrical work exploring the dancing plague of 1518, a widespread class revolt in Strasbourg that manifested in uncontrollable movement and dancing."

And in the foundation world, that, apparently, is a for-sure No. 1 hit.

"He wrote about this 'dancing plague,' which of course I'd never heard of before, and just articulated this experience of people [who] couldn't stop dancing," Savage says. "And everyone who read that application had the same response: Everyone wanted to see it, everyone wanted to hear that. I think that's what makes Will so successful, is his imagination."

The Jerome fellowship is meant for early-career artists. WILLS is in his mid-30s — which, he points out, might pass for early in the art world but definitely doesn't in the music industry. "Being a black dude, people don't get signed when they're 35 or when they're 40 or when they're 45. That doesn't happen. You know what I mean? That's not popping on blogs."

Yet he says his management company, British punk and rock execs who presume he'll be earning until he's 70, backs him 100%.

"That's different than the way that they do young black rappers. You know what I mean? Like part of the model of young black youth is like there's a good probability that this person will die out before they reach 30 years old — in like [an] epic, capitalized way, like Biggie and Tupac. I grew up watching that happen."

WILLS' theatrical work exploring the dancing plague of 1518 is getting a workshop at the acclaimed Public Theater in New York — the same place that helped develop Hamilton. And he's in the final round for another prestigious fellowship.

It's heady stuff and it's moving quickly. To remember the world outside of his studio and his own head, WILLS goes to the Mall of America in Minneapolis. Walking around the mall with him, I ask if he thinks about how his deeply considered music fits in this place — all the branding with the playlists in the chains and the audience of families intent on consuming.

"I'm committed to doing this work," he says. "Whether it works on a commercial level, I don't know — and I'm more at peace with that, I feel like, than ever before. Partially just because when you get older, you're like, 'I love doing this work.' You know what I mean? Like if I have to become a teacher tomorrow, cool. If I have to become a garbage man tomorrow, also cool. I'm gonna do this work no matter what."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frannie Kelley is co-host of the Microphone Check podcast with Ali Shaheed Muhammad.