Musicscan: Will, first of all, congratulations to the new album. It has occupied my CD player for several days in a row now. I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about how you approached this album in terms of the songwriting and its aesthetics in general? How does the album compare to your previous efforts for you personally?
Will Stratton: Post-Empire is kind of a hybrid of previous approaches for me. The recordings themselves were all quite hasty--the guitar and vocals limited to a couple of takes, recorded to tape, and the string parts played by friends who had very little time to become familiar with their scores. These days I am trying not to look back at my previous work with a critical eye, as I know how much I have changed from year to year, and how much my interests have changed. But aesthetically, I wanted this record to be very spare but very enveloping at the same time, and I wanted it to sound timeless.
Musicscan: How do you think did studying music composition influences and informs your songwriting? In what ways do you find it useful to have a theoretical grasp on music when writing your songs?
Will Stratton: I think that classical training in composition just adds another set of colors to the palette. Hopefully I am still able to be more intuitive or even more savage than notated music would allow when the direction of the song demands it. But being able to write for strings or woodwinds when a piece of music seems to be calling for that kind of approach is a nice skill to have, and listening to lots of 20th and 21st century classical music over the years has made me a little more tonally adventurous than I would be otherwise, I think.
Musicscan: Do you still remember what it felt like when you finished your first song and what it feels like now when you finish a song? Does one become somewhat “jaded” with regard to the creative process?
Will Stratton: It's certainly satisfying to get songs to the point where they are ready to be performed, but even after a song has been recorded and it has arguably reached its "definitive" version, I still mess with it over the years and perform it in different ways. So in that sense songs never completely feel finished for me. I'm not sure I know what you mean about getting jaded about the creative process--that's one of the only things I'm not jaded about when it comes to music making.
Musicscan: Do you come from a musical family? How would you describe your musical socialization growing up in New Jersey?
Will Stratton: Yeah, everyone in my immediate family is musical. My dad plays guitar and bass, and he sings and writes songs, and they're very good. My brother is a trumpet player, and my mom sings and has a lovely voice, though she doesn't do it in public. I was never in orchestra or school band growing up, which are the usual ways of becoming immersed in music where I come from, but I took piano lessons and composition/ear training lessons, and I played in dozens of punk/ska/emo/metal/indie rock bands over the years.
Musicscan: At what point do you know that a song is finished?
Will Stratton: I don't. I suppose the closest a song of mine gets to being finished is when I'm so tired of it that I stop playing it permanently. At that point, the recorded version becomes the conclusion to the song's life, in a sense.
Musicscan: While your album certainly cannot simply be categorized as a classic folk album, it nevertheless retains aspects of its most ambitious protagonists. Which artists, according to you, continue to push the aesthetic and structural boundaries of current folk music in the U.S.?
Will Stratton: A lot of the great folk music in America is pretty underheard right now. Aaron Roche comes to mind immediately. His music straddles the line between folk music and "new music"/contemporary chamber music. Zachary Cale is a good example of a more traditionally-minded songwriter whose style is very strong and whose songs are quite compelling. Mike Wexler, who is now on Mexican Summer records, is fantastic. And I must mention the Canadian singer and picker Tamara Lindeman, an incredible talent out of Toronto, Ontario, not an American but close enough in my book. I guarantee you will be hearing a lot more from her, possibly under her stage name The Weather Station.
Musicscan: What do you hope people to take away from a Will Stratton show and what were your experiences touring in Europe recently?
Will Stratton: Europe was amazing, of course, more for its vastness and its generosity than anything else. Barcelona, Paris, Copenhagen and Berlin all seemed like places of great possibility to me. I met so many wonderful people, and it really whet my appetite for touring more. I have never done a long tour in the U.S., so spending two months straight in Europe was quite a marathon. I don't really have any specific desires for what people take away from seeing me perform, although I would like to move people when possible. Where I move them to is up to them, if that makes sense.
Musicscan: Do you feel like your music is perceived differently in Europe compared to the U.S.? If so, why do you think that is the case?
Will Stratton: Well, the obvious answer is that people don't listen to the words as much. And perhaps there is less of an awareness of the different conventions of the American folk tradition, so when I am trying to be clever or subversive it might not come across as clearly. Other than that, I was struck much more by the similarities between American and European crowds and fans more than by their differences. I'm very grateful that my music has been warmly received by Europe so far, and I hope that I can continue to experience the continent through the eyes of an artist and musician, rather than just through the eyes of a tourist. Not that there is anything wrong with being a tourist.
Musicscan: How do you make ends meet when you are not on the road?
Will Stratton: I work for a company that helps musicians from outside of the United States obtain work visas so that they can come to tour in America. It is an absurd and daunting process, especially for first-time applicants, so our job is to help them understand the complicated bits and help them put together the strongest visa petitions possible.
Musicscan: What do you think you would be doing if you weren’t pursuing music? What are some other passions in your life?
Will Stratton: I'd probably be working for some sort of political organization or going to graduate school in some sort of social science discipline. Or I would be writing - novels, reviews, et cetera. I love to write, though I don't do it much these days. I do think that I will put music aside for a while, eventually, so that I can try to write a novel or a set of short stories. But right now music is a compulsion, and it takes over most aspects of my life.
Musicscan: What is the difference between art and entertainment in your opinion?
Will Stratton: Oh, I don't know. There is a lot of overlap, of course, some of the finest entertainment qualifies as fine art, and I'd be hard pressed to say that there isn't an artistic element in even the lowest forms of entertainment--say, professional wrestling, for example. And I think even the driest, most conceptual art contains entertaining elements. If art does not engage with any audience, who is there to call it art? The one old adage about art that I stand by is that it can not serve a function outside of itself that supersedes its aesthetic value. An Apple computer is not a work of art, and neither is an Eames chair, in my opinion.
Musicscan: What do you think you can express through music that you wouldn’t be able to express through other aesthetic means? What makes music, or sound in general, special in this regard?
Will Stratton: Everything nontextual about music falls in this category. The medium of sound is wholly unique, and nothing that can be accomplished with music can be accomplished by another medium to the same degree. But that's all there is to say about it. As Martin Mull said, talking or writing about music is like dancing about architecture.
Musicscan: What can we expect from you in the near future? Any further releases, collaborations or tours planned?
Will Stratton: Yes, I have a lot in the works, much of which I can't talk about. But I am planning on returning to Europe in October, including Germany, and I am currently working on my fifth record, which is currently untitled. The songs are almost fully written, and I have no doubts that it is going to be my best work so far, at least by my own standards.