Last month we caught up with singer-songwriter and co-founder of Smugglers Records Will Varley. After rushing into the Buyers Club in Liverpool just over an hour before his biggest headline show in the city to date (taxi issues, don’t ask), apologising profusely and doing a quick soundcheck, we chatted about his career so far including support slots for Frank Turner and The Proclaimers, and tried to think of the word “review” for a while.
How did you get started with performing and songwriting?
Will: Well, I always used to write silly songs and poems, and I guess that’s still what I’m doing, really, on a bigger scale. So I was doing it for as long as I can remember, then I started going out when I was 13 or 14 with a fake ID going out, finding places to sing them in. And here I am!
Do you feel as though setting up your own shows and label as you did helped you build up your career or did it slow the process?
Will: I think it definitely helped – it helped with everything, it definitely didn’t slow it down. You kind of wait around, waiting for other people to do stuff, and then as soon as you start doing things for yourself, that’s when interesting things start to happen. So we set up the label and festival with a band called Cocos Lovers – amazing band. And yeah, you just start meeting people and start to connect with what’s going on instead of sitting in your local pub complaining, which I did for a very long time.
So you’d recommend doing that to upstarts breaking into the business?
Will: Of course, yeah. That’s the best advice – just do it yourself, don’t wait for someone else. Get some CDs together, make them at home. I used to print things out on my parents’ printer, you know? Make some little CDs and stuff, put them together and off you go.
What or who were your main influences in getting into the business?
Will: In getting into the business or in music?
Will: Well, you see I wouldn’t really say that I’m in the “music business”. I never really like to think of what I do as being about business, because it’s the same as when I first went out with a fake ID when I was 13. I just got older and the crowds got bigger. So it’s not really a business. In terms of influences, it’s a tough one. I remember seeing [singer songwriter] John Otway at a festival and thinking “I want to do that” when I was about 10.
So as an underground artist, how was it supporting The Proclaimers?
Will: Amazing! They’re incredible blokes. They’re really inspirational to me, I’ve learned a huge amount from them.
You’ve loved them since you were little, haven’t you?
Will: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve always been a huge fan, so it was very strange to suddenly be sharing a stage with them. I felt like I had to step things up in a way. It was the first time I’d ever done a tour on that level, playing to 2000 capacity venues, so yeah, that bit was great.
You’ve toured with Frank Turner as well, and he’s done guest vocals on some of your tracks. How did that relationship start?
Will: Basically, we were at a pub called the Monarch in Camden, and I’d done a gig there for [folk singer] Beans On Toast. He’d booked me to play and Frank was in the crowd. We got drunk together and the rest is history.
I’m sure there’s a lot of stories to tell from the tour you did with Skinny Lister too…
Will: Yeah, we did Germany and the UK and it was pretty amazing. The thing is, it’s the same in a way in terms of size and scale…
Just for some people with guitars…
Will: Yeah, exactly. With like, seven buses between them. It’s weird. But yeah, we had some great times. Lots of drunken nights out.
You signed your deal with Xtra Mile before you opened for Frank at the Albert Hall last year, how was that?
Will: That was one of the most weird nights of my life. And incredible nights of my life, obviously! But yeah, I’ve always done this off my own back, I never had a manager until very recently. You never really get the chance to… what’s the word I’m looking for? What’s that word? Say if you’re working somewhere and your boss tells you how you’re doing in your job? Okay, I’ll find the word and write it down.
[laughs] Email it to me.
Will: [to microphone] I’m speaking to you from the past. [laughs] Well you never get a chance to, that word, your own progress. So erm, review! Review your own progress. There you go. So it was really nice to be able to go and do that show and just take a moment to actually think “something’s moving forward, something’s working here”.
Like a milestone.
Will: Yeah exactly, a milestone.
How does being signed to a bigger label make things different?
Will: It’s kind of very similar really. Smugglers and Xtra Mile have a lot in common. Both of them started from the ground up, they’re both roots labels. They really did it themselves. I mean Xtra Mile have obviously been going a lot longer and have a lot more contacts, especially when it comes to outside of the UK. We’re going to America next month which will be amazing. So that kind of thing Smugglers would struggle to organise. But having said that, Smugglers is still very much a part of what I do. It says Smugglers on the back of the album, you know? Smugglers is me and my best friends, but it’s nice to have some help from Xtra Mile as well.
Was the process of making [third album] Postcards From Ursa Minor different to your first two albums?
Will: Yeah, it was different. The first two albums I made at home – recorded in my house in my basement or my attic. This third album, I went to a proper studio in London with a guy called Tristan Ivemy who records quite a lot of Frank Turner’s albums, and he was a great, great chap. So we basically sat in a room eating pizza and making a record!
Sounds like fun.
Will: It was. But ultimately it was a similar process. I was a lot more knowledgeable than I was back then.
Was there a specific inspiration behind that album or parts of that album?
Will: No. I tend to just write songs. So once I’ve got enough songs I just sort of make an album. But it seems to be with that album there are some themes which run through it, which is quite nice but kind of accidental. It depends what’s on my mind while I’m writing the album.
That leads me nicely onto what I was going to say next. A lot of your songs are philosophical or political – did you intend to do that or is it just natural?
Will: I always tend to write about whatever comes into my head. No, it’s not something I’ve worked out in advance, it’s just the way it kind of falls out.
You’ve got humorous songs as well like Talking Cat Blues that still have a kind of edge to them. Would you say that reflects your outlook on life and your personality?
Will: Well I think everyone’s got to laugh… otherwise you cry, as the old saying goes. But yeah the comedy for me, it’s something I’ve done for quite a long time. If you’re going to sing a song like The Man Who Fell To Earth, which is quite a dark song – quite a sad, serious song really – then it’s nice to cut the atmosphere and start again. It’s like a palate cleanser, everybody laughs, then you can go somewhere else and talk about another serious thing. If you just keep it dark for an hour and twenty minutes, then people start to turn off and lose interest.
So do you prefer to play the serious songs or the humorous songs live?
Or is there a preference?
Will: There’s no preference. I just like playing live in all guises so in the future I think there’ll be shows where there’s no jokes, there might be shows where there’s no serious songs. To me it’s all the same.
It depends on how you’re feeling, just whatever comes out…
Will: Exactly. It just depends how my day’s been.
You tend to personalise your shows; they have a friendly vibe…
Will: Sometimes… [laughs]
[laughs] Is it important for you to make that connection with an audience?
Will: Yeah, I mean it goes back a long way to when I was a kid. I just used to turn up at these open mics in a room full of strangers. You know, it’s just “why do you do this? What’s the point of playing a gig? What’s the whole idea behind it?” And I don’t really know the answer to that, I don’t know why I do it. But one thing I do know is that when you’re in a room full of people and you all feel like you’re going somewhere together, it’s like everyone’s looking at exactly the same page of the book, just for one moment and that feels great. It’s kind of addictive. I’ve been a junkie on that feeling since I was fourteen.
So you’re obviously in the middle of your headline tour. Do you feel like there’s pressure considering that more people have become aware of you lately? You’ve got a few sold out shows on here…
Will: Yeah I guess so. I mean the thing is that I don’t really feel pressure, I feel like I want to put on a good show. And when there’s two people at your show it doesn’t really matter as much as when there’s two hundred. Having said that, when I was playing to two people I always put on the best show I could then. So no, I don’t think I feel more pressure.
Do you see it more like a challenge?
Will: In some ways it’s easier sometimes. I’ve done gigs to nobody, I’ve done gigs to the sound man and the barman, and that’s much more of a challenge, that’s much more intense. When there’s two hundred people in a room it’s a bit more relaxed
So how’s the tour going so far? Has it felt like you’ve moved up since your support slots?
Will: Definitely. The last time I did a headline tour was last May. Just the size of the crowds has almost doubled basically since then. So that’s a really cool thing to see in less than a year. So yeah, it’s definitely a different thing and it’s nice to, having done the support slots for quite a long time, you get a lot more time on your own [on a headline tour]. So usually it’d be twenty-five minutes or half an hour with The Proclaimers or Frank, and now these sets are about an hour and a half long. There’s more time to chat, more time to get to know the audience a bit more.
And then lastly, what’s next for you?
Will: Well the next thing is America after this tour…
How’s that looking?
Will: Yeah it’s great, I can’t wait. Well it depends on what you mean by “the next thing”. I mean, the next thing is [points] that can of Guinness… And then after that the show tonight, and then the rest of this tour, which finishes up at Scala in London which is the biggest show I’ve ever done, that’s the 10th of March. And then after that America. So America’s kind of a long way away, I don’t have to worry about that right now [laughs].
What are your ambitions? Is the goal to be as big as you can possibly be?
Will: Well I used to say I want to play the Albert Hall but I kind of did that so… Reading Festival. I’d love to play Reading, I used to go there every year when I was growing up and I’d love to go back there and get money. Get money and drunk.
Interview by Georgia Jackson
Will Varley’s latest album ‘Postcards From Ursa Minor’ is out now on Xtra Mile Records.