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edge staff writer


Willie Wisely crafts a modern power-pop classic with ‘Face the Sun’

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It’s comforting and reassuring when a longtime favored artist or band releases a new work that stands with the very best material you’ve heard them create. A perfect example is “Face the Sun” – the just-released eighth studio album from Willie Wisely.

“Face the Sun” is quintessential Wisely - a contemporary power-pop classic that reunites him with producer John “Strawberry” Fields, the man behind the glass for the singer songwriter’s 1997 classic “Turbosherbert.”

I expect a Wisely album to be good, whether it’s a solo record, an album from his Willie Wisely Trio or one of his side projects like Secret Friend and The Lover The Keeper. The man seems incapable of writing a bad song which automatically fuels expectations for fans. One of the surprises surrounding “Face the Sun” is that the lion’s share of its songs were castoffs from previous projects.

“This is like a greatest-hits record full of songs that have never been released,” Wisely said with a laugh during a phone interview.

“This is a project where I slowly collected songs that I felt didn’t quite fit with other projects. There were a lot of different studios involved with this record. I kept stockpiling songs over the last 20 years.”

And what songs they are. The opening cut “Sutures Loose” comes galloping in with a slinky groove, contagious melody, layered harmonies and embellishments that sound like a Mellotron’s flute setting (…speaking of “Strawberry Fields”).

“Cut Your Groove” sounds like the Rolling Stones circa “Flowers.” Wisely has played the song off and on for years during live shows but a studio version has never surfaced until finally finding a home on “Face the Sun.”

“That song came to me while doing dishes one night in the late ‘90s,” Wisely explains. “I wrote it in an era when I was in a ‘60s beat-rock group called The Conquerors. It was a very democratic band. We all had to agree on an idea, or we wouldn’t do it. I wanted to write something snappy and sexy and as close to Mick Jagger as I could get. It’s fun to have the song come up on a new record for me, finally recorded in a way that I just love.”

A native of Minneapolis, Wisely divides his time these days between the Twin Cities, Los Angeles and Nashville, where he is part of the acquisitions team for Concord Music’s business development department. He evaluates assets for the company in both music publishing and recorded music.

“It requires a bit of finance, salesmanship and musicology,” according to Wisely. “It’s been a tremendously exciting job for me.”

Always on the move, Wisely seems to thrive on little sleep. I recall one wild stretch in January 2008 when he played a late show in Boston and then drove all night to Bangor where he pulled into KISS 94.5 FM’s parking lot at 5:00 a.m. He crashed on the break room couch for a half hour, then grabbed his Guild acoustic guitar and joined me and broadcast partner Mike Elliott for a full morning of The Mike and Mike Show.

Wisely performances from that broadcast (including “Through any Window” and “California”) were filmed by videographer Adam Osborne and can still be found on YouTube.

Following the morning show, Wisely headed to WHSN to record with program director Mark Nason before driving to Orland to spend the afternoon on the air with Joel Raymond at WERU. Somehow, he still had the energy to play a full show to a packed house in Ellsworth that evening.

“That was a crazy sleepless adventure, but it was fun, and I loved being in Maine again,” Wisely said when I reminded him of that trip. “I still don’t get enough sleep, but I make it work.”

“I Can’t Sleep” is a stunning ballad on “Face the Sun.” Augmented with pedal steel guitar from Eric Heywood (Son Volt, Jayhawks, Bob Dylan), the song has a goose-bump inducing melody, layered vocal harmonies and a perfectly weary Wisely on lead vocal.

“Eric is all over this record,” Wisely says of Heywood. “He’s an incredible session cat and a dear friend. He’s long been a touring musician for Ray LaMontagne, The Pretenders and many others. I’m so happy with his contributions to this record, like the Jackie Lomax song.”

“Fall Inside Your Eyes” is the sole cover song on “Face the Sun.” Written and recorded by the late British guitarist and songwriter Jackie Lomax, the song was originally produced by George Harrison and appears on Lomax’s 1969 debut album on The Beatles’ Apple Records label, “Is This What You Want?”

Wisely met Lomax 15 years ago at an LA gig and says he has always wanted to record “Fall Inside Your Eyes.”

“It’s one of my favorites to sing in the shower,” he laughed. “Jackie was a big influence for me.”

Wisely, 54 and a father of two, says he still feels like that teenaged kid standing in front of the mirror with his guitar. The joy and buzz he felt from music then are with him still.

“Inside, I’m still that 15-year-old boy full of wonder and joy over music. Parenthood and day jobs cannot seem to defeat this desire to create new songs. I still melt at the sight and the sound of my heroes and I just can’t stop doing this. I have a feeling I’ll be writing and recording even more music as I get older.”


A conversation with Willie Wisely

The Maine Edge: “Invisible in Love” is a pretty epic song. What can you tell me about the writing or recording of that one?

Wisely: The album builds itself a little bit around some co-writing I’ve done over the last couple of years. I co-wrote “Invisible in Love” with (Philadelphia-based singer-songwriter) Cliff Hillis. It’s really a suite made up of about three songs melded together with a lot of time stops and varied tempos.

The Maine Edge: The trippy “Illumination” is a song I can’t get out of my head. What is the story of that song?

Wisely: “Illumination” is kind of this album’s psychedelic trip. We’ve been playing that song live and people are loving it (laughs). Everyone wants to go on a voyage in a nightclub and this song really takes you there.

It’s absolutely a nod backwards to the indulgence of the psychedelic rock era. When we do it live, I use an electric sitar-guitar and my guitarist Dan Kalisher uses a bunch of cool pedal effects. I said ‘Do Zep’s “How Many More Times” or “Dazed and Confused” and he knew exactly what I wanted. I’m just thrilled with it.

The Maine Edge: You’ve recorded albums with producers Linus of Hollywood and Petur Smith but this one reunites you with John Fields. Was it good to record with him again?

Wisely: His contributions have been gigantic. This album has our first co-write with the title track and final song “Face the Sun.” He’s always been the producer and I’ve always brought in finished songs but we did that one together. We’ve slowly worked on these songs over the years but it’s really been 22 years since he produced one of my records.

The Maine Edge: Will you be performing some live shows around the release of this record?

Wisely: We have a residency at the Hotel Café in Hollywood where we’ve had a string of stellar shows. For 20 years, it’s been kind of a musical church for singer-songwriters. When I first moved to LA, it was a sought-after venue for gigs. To be granted a residency there is an incredible honor.

The Maine Edge: What do you remember about the first gig you ever played?

Wisely: A good friend recently uncovered photos from that very first gig. I was 15 years old and a frantic friend approached me and said ‘Dude, we have a gig this afternoon and we need somebody to sing “Freebird” (laughs). So I got onstage and that’s when I realized I could sing and perform.

It’s so funny how your memory works. In my mind, I remembered it like this: Just before jumping on-stage, I kicked off my shoes and unbuttoned my shirt all the way. I got up and gave it my all. Now these photos show up and it kind of looks like my shoes are on and I’m wearing an undershirt and a sweatshirt over it (laughs). For 40 years, I’ve been completely delusional about my first gig!

The Maine Edge: When you were last here in Maine, you told me that you’ve always dreamed of performing Paul McCartney’s “Ram” album in its entirety with an all-star band. Is it something you would still like to do?

Wisely: Oh yes. I think I might venture to finally do my first song from “Ram” at this Hotel Café residency. I’ve resisted touching that record because you don’t want to sully the Shroud of Turin, and also because I don’t know how I could ever properly sing “Monkberry Moon Delight.” I don’t know how any other singer could do what McCartney did on that track. “Ram” is pure musical Haagen-Dazs and I have to eat the whole pint (laughs).

The Maine Edge: The cover image for “Face the Sun” is striking. I know cover art is important to you. What can you share about that image?

Wisely: The photograph was taken by Rob Stark. He’s a cinematographer that works mainly in advertising. He took me to a sculpture garden and positioned me among the sculptures. He had me lean back and hold a pose to the point where I was actually shaking. It just captured a worshipful moment of looking upward, and it was the only photo from the session that was missing my usual nervousness and self-awareness that I get during photo shoots.

When I accidentally wrote “Face the Sun” with John Fields last year, I realized that I had the perfect image to go with it.


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