Now Hear This!: Will Stratton

Will Stratton
Rapt Gaze

Will Stratton just barely turned 25 years old.

While this event may not be horribly noteworthy in and of itself (aside from the fact that this is the age where you can now rent a car), few 25-year-olds can lay claim to what Stratton has achieved. For starters, he recently released his fourth full-length of album of modern folk compositions, featuring a furiously-fast finger-picked style and some powerful string arrangements that he recorded in his small New York apartment. As if that weren’t enough, he had Sufjan Stevens play on his debut, he self-booked his European tour, and when not working on music for commercials or doing string arrangements for other musicians or releasing split-EPs with his friends, Stratton also spends his spare time singing with Trevor Wilson & Vocal Ensemble, all while somehow finding time to run a newly-established record label called Rapt Gaze.

All of these events are incredibly notable in and of themselves, yet what is perhaps the most astonishing aspect of all of this is that this Bennington graduate’s fourth full-length, Post-Empire, just so happens to be one of the best albums released so far this year.

“Making records is a compulsion for me,” he tells us. “I spend most of my energy just making them and then I see what happens. This isn’t good for self-promotion or business — I really should spend more of my time chatting people up and trying to get a solid record deal in the States. I think this business talk comes of as kind of vulgar to most people — they prefer to think of the music as having just wafted into the air out of nowhere. That’s how I prefer to think of it, too. The collapse of the music industry has forced musicians to act as their own publicists a lot of the time. Slowly the music morphs into a publicity tool, and the roles of publicist and musician completely reverse — I think that this is kind of loathsome, and so I try to make the processes of writing and recording and the process of actually letting my music free into the world as humane and non-coercive as possible. There are some problems with this approach — namely, that I don’t spend much time planning the release, because if I did it would take time away from making music. That is the advantage of having a team of people working with you, like with an outside label or a booking agent, both of which are things that currently elude me here in America.”

Stratton essentially appeared out of nowhere with his first release, 2007’s What the Night Said, which – without the aid of any major publicity campaigns — received rapturous writeups from critics, including a rather notable feature on NPR, and comparisons to Nick Drake and Sufjan Stevens abound. Written largely when Stratton was still in high school, Night — along with his more eclectic follow-up, 2009’s No Wonder — came out on a very small label called Stunning Models on Display.

“Stunning Models On Display, the label that put out my first two records, was thrilling to me,” he continues, “because I was just graduating high school, and they had a little recording studio in Queens that I could basically use by myself for days at a time for free. That was how I learned how to engineer. I owe a lot to Kieran Kelly, the guy who owns the studio and was co-running the label, because that was a big part of my musical education. There were a couple reputable little labels that had approached me before that, if you can believe it. This was all through MySpace at the time, which seems like eons ago now.

“After No Wonder, I parted ways with that label. My third record, New Vanguard Blues, was my first record as a relatively independent person in the city, and so I wanted to do basically all the engineering and playing myself, and put it out really quickly without the constraints of a label, and so I did. The results were interesting. But I really do want to find a sympathetic home for my music on a U.S. label like Drag City or Tompkins Square — Rapt Gaze is more of an idea than a reality at this point. Some labels have shown interest in me, but no one interesting has made any offers in the U.S. If I return from Europe and no one is pawing at my door to put out Post-Empire and give it a wider release, then I will likely put the wheels in motion to get it pressed up on vinyl and spend a couple months just mailing records to people I admire, hoping that they listen.”

When listening to Stratton play, it’s obvious that this is a young man who truly understands proper folk history. His playing style has traces of Fahey and (especially) Kottke all over it, but it’s synthesized in a way that is modern, resonant, and surprisingly capable of also adhering to singer-songwriter tradition at the same time. His 2010 Bandcamp-only release New Vanguard Blues shed away the studio excesses of No Wonder in favor of a stripped-down, voice-and-guitar approach, one that also put his six-string skills front and center, evoking as much atmosphere as it does outright awe. It’s even more fascinating to hear his adept playing when you consider that he started out playing only the piano:

“I started with piano really early. I was never very good at practicing other people’s music, although that changed at least a little bit when I started playing more interesting pieces. I thought of myself as a composer, and ended up taking some fairly casual lessons in counterpoint, orchestration and ear training when I was in high school — my parents were totally supportive and excited for me, and of course when you’re a kid you take all of that for granted, so I never worked as hard on piano as I should have, though I did fall hard for composing, regardless of the instrument. 

For probably ten years, guitar was completely separate of that — I started teaching myself electric guitar, started bands and joined other people’s bands, and played music in a more intuitive way. Looking back, it has been really important to have both ways of learning music in my life, and if anyone who is reading this ever has a kid with an interest in music, I urge you to allow the intuitive side and the systematized side to flourish. I had so much fun playing in punk and ska bands — there is nothing in the world like the feeling of playing with a decent band. Then eventually I became more interested in the acoustic guitar, right around the time that I first heard Nick Drake on my big brother’s car stereo one night. I had grown up with Leo Kottke playing in the house, and also The Chieftains’ songs on the soundtrack for the Kubrick film Barry Lyndon made a big impression on me, because that got a lot of play by my parents too. But Nick Drake was the first time that the simple combination of voice and guitar really interested me. The chords that he used reminded me of Debussy and Ravel, and also of old blues and jazz records. It was the things about his music that made it different from other folk-inflected singers that interested me, the way that he was mixing so many different things with such staggering results. It is the alchemic qualities of great music that gets me, and so far I have found that my own skills in alchemy are strongest when the basic elements are relatively simple. I think that is why I have found myself singing and playing guitar. But I write string arrangements for other people, and I have written and produced some music for commercials — as the elements congeal, they become more complicated. 

I went to Bennington College in Vermont and mostly studied composition, but I also took some classes in British Literature and other non-musical things. The music scene there was pretty incredible at the time — the incredible female vocal trio Mountain Man had their first shows, I did sound for one of Real Estate’s first shows, and Trevor Wilson had various projects going on, all interesting ones. The boundaries between notated and non-notated music finally began to break down for me by the time I left, and that was where, after completing my first two records, I began to accept that I wasn’t just a chameleon.”

Now, with Post-Empire, it feels that Stratton is at his the peak of his powers. His songs can be vulnerable without feeling precious (as on “The Relatively Fair”), emotive without feeling cloying (“Colt New Marine”). While some of No Wonder‘s most powerful moments happened to be story songs and New Vanguard Blues at times kept the listener at arms’ length with a few lightly absurd lyrical twists, Post-Empire feels more open and conversational than anything he’s done before. When asked how this particular tone came about in the process, Stratton says “I don’t know, to be honest. I think that you become more open the longer that you write, as long as you don’t fall into a rut. Even if all of my lyrics were completely cryptic and imagistic now, I hope that they would come across as more open and honest than on previous records, because I feel like I’m being more honest. That’s what coming out of adolescence does, it seems to me — it helps you speak clearly. “The Relatively Fair” is a song about class anxiety, at least to me. When I break from the narrative of the song, I’m trying to make the listener aware of the essential dilemma, whether to try to be happy or to try to be safe.”

Stratton isn’t one to hide his feelings about things, as his Twitter account tends to feature both wry observations and sometimes full-blown rants about politics, the music industry, the fault in Pitchfork’s need to classify everything and more. When I asked him how, as a New Yorker, he felt about the Occupy movement that caught the nation’s attention last fall, he noted how “the energy was palpable this past winter as the Occupy movement started gaining momentum. I never went up there to the demonstrations, although I came close a couple of times. But the way it changed how people were talking about the economy was fantastic, and all of the sudden people I knew to be fairly fatalistic or apathetic were talking in radical terms that I found to be constructive because of the way they changed the media narrative.

“For me, though, at this point in my life, my music only has an existential relationship to politics. When I sing with disdain on Post-Empire‘s title track, “If you felt any less, you’d be dead,” it is to my own generation, but I hope that the message supersedes politics. And when I talk about Eric Cantor or whoever on Twitter, it is because I can’t help but express outrage as a human being, not because I am trying to parlay a political viewpoint into greater recognition as an artist — something about that doesn’t sit right with me. Right now it is very hard to be a political musician without letting the message become too simple — when you lose your sense of subtlety, you are probably trafficking in propaganda rather than art. Not to say that there isn’t overlap — in the right political climate, songs can be incredibly powerful both as art and as propaganda, no question. There was maybe a week this winter where I felt the winds blowing in that direction, but as the economy has slowly improved, the urgency has dissipated and I feel the country losing sight of any lasting economic reforms.”

While those lucky enough to catch Stratton in Europe got to see his intimate-yet-passionate live sets, people living elsewhere can simply give a listen to Post-Empire and understand why many consider this to be his best album, and one of the the absolute highlights of the year thus far. We ended our conversation by asking him a very simple question: given your prolific career thus far, what would you say is your biggest regret, and, conversely, what would you say is your proudest accomplishment?

“I truly, honestly have no regrets as a musician,” he says, “it feels like every opportunity that I have ever had has fallen into my lap, and I have tried to just let the music speak for itself and welcome whatever comes of it, good or bad. So far this approach has worked out just fine. Whenever anyone tells me about a terrible time that they went through, and how my music helped them through that time, that makes me proud. This sort of information usually comes in the form of an e-mail, and it is nice to read these words rather than to hear them out loud — there is a point where I can’t express enough gratitude in person to correspond to the things that people tell me. Being paid compliments is hard when you enjoy making music as much as I do. It’s painful to be proud, which is part of the point, I guess. Better to be humble.”