The Past Always Runs Faster: An Interview with Will Stratton

He started out as a too-young folk prodigy, and evolved into an immaculate songsmith, before a severe cancer diagnosis left him fighting for his life. Now, Will Stratton is back in good health, but also with a new album reflecting his experience, Gray Lodge Wisdom, which is already one of the year's absolute best.
Will Stratton
Gray Lodge Wisdom

Will Stratton just barely turned 27 years old and already has a tribute album that was made in his honor. What’s more, he nearly didn’t live long enough to see its completion.

You see, Will Stratton put out his first album, What the Night Said, in 2007, shortly after he turned 20. With a majority of the material recorded when he was 19, this young man with a powerful and unique picking style managed to write songs that were rich, complex, melodic, and showed a wisdom well beyond his years. Sufjan Stevens played on his debut, but that is by far the least interesting thing about it. Press from the likes of NPR followed, and Stratton’s career seemed like it was on a good upward trajectory. After the small Stunning Models On Display label that distributed his material dissolved following the release of his 2009 disc No Wonder, he began self-releasing material through his Bandcamp page, starting with his stripped-to-the-basics acoustic album New Vanguard Blues in 2010, and then his absolute masterpiece in 2012, a lush, powerful album called Post-Empire. He began gaining notoriety over in Europe, and slowly, surely, this young Bennington graduate seemed to poised to finally break through to a much wider audience.

Then, after feeling rather sharp internal pains for some time, he finally went to a medical facility wherein he was later informed he had Stage 3 testicular cancer, which was so severe that it had already spread to his liver, lungs, and abdomen. As he extensively detailed on his blog, he then went through “five surgeries, at least five blood transfusions, four rounds of high-dose, inpatient chemotherapy, two ports installed and removed from my body, a sepsis infection, a two-day long episode of delirium and psychosis brought on by a cocktail of anesthetics, and one short incident in which my heart rate approached three hundred beats per minute. I have been on every painkiller imaginable: hydrocodone, which is my favorite, morphine, vicodin, oxycontin, oxycodone, ketamine, my least favorite, and several others. I have been pricked with needles over two hundred times, not counting intravenous medication. By my count, I have spent about three and a half months in hospitals, not counting outpatient visits.” He had been told about various rates of survival from the onset, but the sheer severity of what he was going through was jarring to say the least.

The aforementioned tribute album, aptly titled If You Wait Long Enough (after a song from Post-Empire) was made by his friends as a way of supporting him and helping pay off his mounting medical bills in face of curing such a tragic ailment. When I asked Stratton during a recent phone call about what he thought of the tribute album, he noted that “most of the people who ended up contributing are pretty close friends of mine, but that kind of makes it more valuable to me. I know most of those people have a connection with those songs or have a connection to me. It was amazing to hear new takes on all those songs. There were a lot of times where I liked the versions that these guys made as much if not more than the versions that I made in the first place.”

Thus, after recovering in his parents’ place in Washington, he began recording the framework for what would ultimately become Gray Lodge Wisdom, his latest full-length, which details this difficult chapter of his life and the affirming lessons that came out of it now that he’s on the road to recovery.

Even in the press release for the album, however, he notes how he doesn’t refer to this as “the cancer record,” as the themes contained within are much more universal than that. When asked if people would still typecast the album like that anyways, he joked that “Yeah. I don’t really care about being typecast necessarily — ‘cos I’m not really cast as anything! It’s not really a worry of mine. I’ll wind up doing whatever I want to do next. I just want people to see these songs for what they are, which is a pretty diverse collection of experiences I had over the course of a year that was definitely informed by the disease I was grappling with at the time, but I think there’s a lot else in there too.”

On Gray Lodge Wisdom‘s excellent title track, he leads into the first chorus with the powerful line “Why hope for the best / When the worst just makes you strong?”, which may very well serve as the album’s thesis statement. “That’s probably the biggest lesson I took away from the whole battle with cancer,” he says of that line, “that pain is not something to be feared, and neither is death. Especially in the throes of unimaginable pain or pain that you wouldn’t be able to imagine six months before it happened — it feels like you’ve taken on a new level of consciousness when you have to deal with that sort of pain on a day to day basis. It makes any pain you experienced before feel trivial and even make the current pain itself feel trivial. It’s kind of a cliché for cancer survivors to talk about having a new lease on life or stuff like that, and I never really felt like I lacked an appreciation for life, but if you think that the sort of perspective you get just from the physical aspects of the diseases and the treatment are kind of humbling. So yeah, I guess I’d say that that first song, the title track, is as close to a summation of what I’m trying to express lyrically with the album as possible.”

Ever the prolific writer, Stratton noted that during the run-up to the release of What the Night Said all those years ago, he had pretty much already written the material for his follow-up album already, so even during promotional periods for each disc, a good majority of the nitty-gritty songwriting was already done for whichever album was to follow. However, with the events surrounding his diagnosis and recovery, the process did change slightly:

“I had all of the material written and about half recorded by the time I got back to New York. I’ve been recording version after version in my parents basement while I was doing chemotherapy and recovering from surgery and stuff. It’s what I normally do, so it was what I was doing then, [to just] have some kind of semblance of normalcy. By the time I was finished with treatment, I was thinking I might just tie things up and finish it that way and just have it be a really homemade-sounding record. But as the painkillers wore off [laughs], I started to think less highly of the recordings. So I decided to at least take them back to New York while I got back to my normal life here to see what I thought of them.

“So I sat on them for a little while and what I ended up doing was re-recording a bunch of stuff. I kept some of it, but not as much as I originally intended. Then I invited a bunch of composer friends of mine to write arrangements for a string quartet, and I ended up recording those at the same recording studio I did What the Night Said back in 2007. I also did No Wonder there and New Vanguard Blues there. So it’s kind of been my home base. It’s really cheap and I like the owner of the place — he’s a real sweet guy, and he kind of lets me go in over the course of the weekend and it’s kind of just me doing all the engineering kinda by myself in this two-room studio for the weekend. So it’s a nice way to focus and get a lot done in a short amount of time.”

While Stratton’s songs have only deepened in quality as time has gone on, his lyrical perspective has been gradually turning inward. No Wonder housed a great story-song track called “Robin & Marian” that was more indie-rock than folk (and “folk musician,” for the record, is a genre tag that he’s been fighting and growing increasingly disinterested in over time), but set the story of Robin Hood and Maid Marian in a modern-day context, all married to a great pop hook. With Post-Empire, there was a melding of first- and second-person perspectives, sometimes even directly addressing the listener themselves. With Gray Lodge Wisdom, however, it’s almost entirely from the first-person POV straight through.

“I think that for the whole year when I was writing it,” he explains, “the only people I was in close touch with were my parents and a couple of close friends — but even the close friends, I’d only see them once every couple of months. I was pretty cut off from everybody I know back East. Because of the process I was going through and because I wanted to really focus on healing — I just didn’t have that much contact with the outside world. I’m an introverted person to begin with, but this was more introverted than usual. I don’t think there are really any metaphors on the entire record. I think it’s really all the literal truth of what was going on.”

There is, however, one line that sticks out, also in that title track, wherein he asks “Why long for fame / When it’s tried and it’s grotesque?” His small tour in Europe to promote Post-Empire was warmly received, and while he’s self-releasing his material over here in the States, he’s signed to Talitres Records over on the other side of the pond, and notes how the arrangement proved to be fairly natural not because of business reasons so much as it’s because Europe has a few notable cultural differences in the way that musicians are taken care of:

“I’m slightly more well-received [in Europe], and definitely treated better there, like most musicians are. What a different type of hospitality is provided to musicians over there, ‘cos people really do treat it like an occupation rather than a hobby, which is refreshing. The larger impression that I’ve got over the past few years is that it’s always going to have the appearance of a hobby, especially when I’m back at home at my desk or my job and I have to carve time out to do these recordings and stuff. It’s always going to have the veneer of a hobby and I think there’s probably some dignity in that.

“The fact that it’s become so much harder to be a professional musician or to have your aspirations of being a professional musician taken seriously as the industry has changed — that’s what the grotesque part is, really. I think the changing perceptions of what it takes to be a successful musician — they’re interesting to me. Everything’s changing so quickly, and when people hear that somebody is on the charts or on iTunes or whatever or in a modestly successful band and they still have to have a full time job (and I’m not talking about me, but I read an article once about Grizzly Bear and how economical they have to be) I don’t think that registers to most people, how difficult that line is to straddle for people who are actually making it. So I think that the trite and grotesque line is about people who are really stretching to become something that isn’t even a possibly anymore. Why sell every part of yourself to try and obtain some level of renown or exist that isn’t even in the cards for anybody anymore? Why not just make what you’re going to make and live with it?”

The rest of Gray Lodge Wisdom is filled with songs that are quite lovely in tone (“Yeah, I’ll Requite Your Love”), and those that show him clamoring back for the East Coast that he has now called his home (“Long Live the Hudson River Valley“). Yet, if anything, Gray Lodge Wisdom is a document of perseverance, of having gone through the worst pains imaginable (he does note how the numerous scars from his numerous operations are things he’ll have on him for the rest of his life, referring to them on the album like a river on his body), he’s come out the other end not as much a completely changed man as much as he is a very self-aware one, and one who understands the value of life far greater than he has before. On “Long Live the Hudson River Valley”, his final lyric is about how he’d like to retire upstate where he can hear “the old silence that my own heart has now come to cherish dear”. For those who have been moved and truly affected by Stratton’s music, his return is not only welcome, but a relief: not only due to his clean bill of health, but also for the fact that his own silence has ended, as the world is far richer with his joyful noise inside of it.