It all sounds romantic – four young musicians living their rock dreams, driving from town to town and slaying audiences in a most spectacular manner. That part is true, but it’s probably only part of the picture. Only those four know for certain, but I’m guessing the full story includes tales of chronic exhaustion, illness, bad food and sketchy venues. Who wants to chase down a club manager for a check when you just played a three-hour show with a 102 fever and you’re facing a five-hour drive to get to the next town?
The Willie Wisely Trio split in 1995. “We were sleeping on sofas and drinking up a storm,” Wisely remembers. “It’s just no way to live. Greg had the brains to quit and we just dissolved.”
Wisely immediately went to work crafting back-to-back albums of pure pop genius. “She” (1996) and “Turbosherbet” (1997) saw him collaborating with (among others) famed producer John Fields as well as Mike Ruekberg formerly of Rex Daisy and currently of The Red Button. They’re among the finest pop records of the decade and in a more just world, they would be full of number one singles.
The new album contains a collection of songs that Wisely told me “didn’t seem right for anyone except these characters” - and it’s a record that nearly didn’t happen. During the sessions, Wisely noticed something unusual happening to his voice – an instrument of remarkable power and range that had never failed him.
“I quickly finished all of the vocals because I thought this was going to be my swansong,” Wisely told me last week. “I thought, 'It’s all over - my voice is getting worse. I’ve got to finish all of these vocals,' like hurrying to write the last symphony before you die.”
After completing the vocal tracks, Wisely did some heavy touring behind another album, 2008’s “Wisely,” which included memorable Maine performances in Ellsworth and Blue Hill. When he returned to his Laurel Canyon home in Los Angeles, his throat problem became physically and emotionally painful. “I got to the point where I couldn’t read a book to my little kids at night,” he said. “I’m talking basic 2-year old toddler books. Speaking out loud like that was really tough.”
It took the better part of three years and visits to several homeopathic doctors, acupuncturists and an ENT for Wisely to find the doctor who gave him a correct diagnosis. “It turned out to be a hemangioma, which is basically blood vessels that get so twisted, they bulge up and create a vibrant red spot,” Wisely said.
Exactly one year after surgery, Wisely is confident that his voice is getting stronger, and he’s taking steps to protect it. “Speaking isn’t tiresome anymore, and I don’t have that ball of flame in the bottom of my throat”, he said. “I have evidence that my voice is getting stronger - the suppleness is coming back.”
This Saturday, April 14, Wisely will celebrate the release of “True” with an album release party, concert and video shoot at Kulak’s Woodshed in North Hollywood. Two weeks later, he heads to Japan for eight shows in eight days. “If I’m going to be away from my family, I want to be exquisitely busy,” he says. “It’s a blessing in my life that my music resonates with Japanese audiences. Music fans there really appreciate singer/songwriters. Actually, they appreciate our culture more than we do.”
It’s probably a cliché to suggest that “True” was worth the wait but…it’s true. Song for song, it’s one of the best records you’ll hear this year.
“True,” along with the rest of the Willie Wisely catalog, is available at www.WiselyLive.com. Also just released: A Trio companion album called “Turn Up The Suck!” - 16 live tracks carefully pruned from the band’s massive archive of board tapes recorded between ’90 and ’95.
Praise for Wisely
“I remember finding Willie's record “She” and that incredible feeling when you take a CD from an artist you don't know, put it in the player and out comes something wonderful. Willie's music is a power pop gem with lyrics to match... smart and sharp. And on stage he's like a hundred sparklers set off at the same time. He's gives 100 percent to the audience.” - Sara Willis, host of “In Tune by Ten” Monday – Thursday, 10 p.m./ Sunday, 10 a.m. on MPBN radio.
“I first heard Willie’s trio in the '90s on the 'Parlez Vouz Francais' album, and the pop passion was in full evidence. Later, 'Go!' and 'Vagabond' hit a home run for me. It was a great joy to work with Willie on a couple of shows in 2008. He’s a natural with an audience and a genius at the turn of a phrase.” - Joel Raymond, host of “On The Wing” – each Friday from 11 to 2 on WERU 89.9 FM.
The Truth from Willie Wisely
Dow: You have dozens of unreleased songs. How did you decide which ones would make the cut for “True?”
Wisely: There’s always been something goofy and colorful about the Willie Wisely Trio, and these songs needed that group. On my last two albums (Parador in 2006 and Wisely in 2008), I was searching for emotional depth or gravity and these songs almost wanted to float.
Dow: What was the first indication that your voice was giving you trouble?
Wisely: There’s a song called “Go!” – a crowd pleaser and a very important song in my set. In the bridge, there’s always this little break in my voice which I could suddenly no longer do in rehearsals. I went on tour and that break wouldn’t come back - then things started getting worse. I said, “Wow, I’m losing that whole area of my voice – three, four, five notes are gone. After being diagnosed, it was another eight months to get the courage to have surgery on what has been the center of my life for 30 years – singing.
Dow: Was it scary to face the possibility that you might have to stop singing?
Wisely: The whole mortality thing sets in pretty quickly. That thought of “I am less now than what I once was” was very difficult for me. I’m starting to sing lower and calmer now. I realize that my virtually my entire catalog was written in this tenor place. Maybe it’s time to sound like Leonard Cohen or maybe it’s time to write melodies that are less histrionic.
Dow: What got you through that time?
Wisely: My kids. I didn’t want to tell fans because I didn’t know where it was heading or what it meant. I could still kind of “grumble-speak-sing.” It’s hard to give up when you’ve built a career on your own without conventional management – without agents – without big labels. It’s all been indie and I’ve done really well in light of that. But that makes it really hard to give up because I’ve set hands on every stone in this building. I thought, “Maybe I’ll just go out and croak like Bob Dylan (does impression of contemporary Dylan) “Maybe that’ll be OKAYYYYY” (laughing).
Lately, I’ve been shifting the keys up on the guitar and singing an octave lower. I’m constantly changing keys in the songs – when I play with bands, it drives them nuts (laughing).
I finally found the right doctor who said, “There’s so much inflammation on your vocal cord.” He put me on this anti-inflammatory diet which included none of the allergen foods – wheat, dairy, soy, corn, the glutens – all of the things that have been bio-engineered to the point of unrecognizability by our systems. In two weeks, that changed my whole body. That’s when I realized that most Americans suffer from inflammation. I know this sounds weird but we suffer from eating foods that make us swollen.
It was so cool to feel narrow, clean and breezy. It’s almost impossible to live a life with no glutens. Are you kidding? Our modern world isn’t built for it but it was nice to see what it might feel like.
So the inflammation went down and he could finally see the red mark – the twisted blood vessels on the cord.
Dow: I’d like to ask you about some of the songs on “True,” starting with “Kiss Her and Make it Right.”
Wisely: That was written for a Japanese compilation called “What’s Up Buttercup?” that came out 10 years ago in a wildly different version. It’s an amazing compilation and definitely worth seeking out because nobody knows about it and there is so much wonderful material on there.
Dow: “Dr. Jack” is one of my favorites. It’s so catchy, sweet and smooth but it also has an element of freakiness for anyone paying attention to the lyrics.
Wisely: “Dr. Jack” is one of my favorites too. Again, the Trio album is a collection of songs I didn’t know what to do with that could only be played by these guys. I wrote “Dr. Jack” in the late '90s and just held onto it. I was writing this Americana tune with a little country shuffle and bluegrass thing and then the lyrics started coming, but it was like a futuristic “Space Oddity” – Major Tom thing. Dr. Jack Kervorkian was in the news at the time. I kind of wrote it about him and about a guy who has investors to replicate himself and has spectators at his experiments and then he starts eating his detractors (laughing), and I thought it was just so funny to set it to a blue-mountain groove. It seemed like a strange juxtaposition where no man had gone before. I hope people like that song and don’t just see it as kooky. I actually think it’s a whole new genre of something.
Dow: You wrote “National Council of Jewish Women’s Thrift Store” with Andy Dick. That song has turned into a real crowd pleaser – I remember you played it when you came to Maine last time. What was Andy’s contribution to the songwriting?
Wisely: Just before our session, Andy had driven by one of those stores and thought it was the strangest name for a thrift store. He wanted to talk about what he had bought there and then we stumbled upon the T-shirt idea (“How about a T-shirt that says 'I’m Here. I am here.'”)
Andy is such a character in every other song I’ve ever written with him, it’s like “Only you can sing this” but what I like about this song is that it had universality. Working with Andy can be a little slow and frustrating (laughing). He’s very distractible.
Dow: When Andy appears in the news, it’s usually because of some bizarre situation that he’s gotten himself into. Is he misunderstood or just plugged in differently than most people?
Wisely: Andy has a great brain and a huge heart.
Dow: All of the Willy Wisely Trio albums have a “live in the studio” quality to them. Were the basic tracks recorded live?
Wisely: The bass and drums are live, but almost everything else is overdubbed, which is how we operated from day one. On the early material, I would lay down a guitar track and say, “OK guys, play to this.” They’d follow me and that became our thing – push and pull. The choruses would be a different tempo than the verses. It was expressive and evocative in that way. So with this record, I knew that going in with my guitar tracks already recorded, it would return us to that Trio vibe and it would feel live cutting that way and that would free me up to engineer and make great creative choices. As it turned out, I replaced most of those guitar tracks, so there was a lot of studio wizardry to arrive at that extemporaneous sound that we have. A lot of that is the band – you can’t obscure 400 gigs worth of chemistry in the studio. That’s going to come through no matter what.
Dow: “Surreal” – the last song on the album. Wow. It’s a great song to listen to in the car. Twenty-six minutes – unlike anything you guys have ever released on a studio record. And it really cooks – was it done in one take?
Wisely: Yes – that was totally live and largely improvised. I wanted us to express ourselves as the band that we were when we were playing 150 dates a year. I said, “How are we going to make a record that isn’t stuffy and Pro-Tools’d into place?” It’s very easy to make a record that sounds like today. I wanted to make a record that sounds like the band we were and connect it with our pedigree that had ended (at the time) 14 years earlier.
So I said, “Guys, we’re going to do this in one take. You don’t know it. Here’s the chord progression, James. Just memorize it – let’s go. Repeat that form and follow me.”
I didn’t tell them that it was going to be 29 verses long and nearly half an hour in duration and that I would break up the groove and that we would do free time/free jazz music without a beat. We got pretty good at that when we were on tour. It was part of our zaniness. The guys just followed me and at verse 29, I started yelling louder and they sensed that I was out of lyrics (laughing) and we wrapped it up. The only person I told was the engineer. I said, “You’re going to need a big empty hard drive (laughing). I don’t know how long it’s gonna go.” It was completely an athletic feat. You hear how many lyrics there are. The lyrics were just sort of sketched in. I wanted it to be surreal – I wanted it to be playing with my mind so I didn’t have all of the lyrics buttoned up, but that’s what gets those odd juxtapositions going.
Dow: OK – a Twilight Zone question. The Willie Wisely of 2012 goes back in time and meets Willie Wisely of the early '90s. What sort of advice would you give the young Wisely?
Wisely: I would tell him to listen to people. Listen to what they’re saying and listen to what they’re playing. I made so many mistakes that could have been avoided.
I was so full of myself – so headstrong. We all look back on our foolish youth a bit like that, but music is a social activity and the more you listen and the more you’re aware of others, the more fun you are to play with. The better you get, the more in-tune and on-time you become.
Dow: I can tell you’re pleased with the new album, and you should be. It’s a wonderful record.
Wisely: If you want to know what my brain looks like, it’s all there more than any other album I’ve ever made. I don’t mean to slight earlier producers or projects, but this is the one that smells most like me.