"An Identity Crisis in a Good Way": An Interview with Will Stratton

The upstate New York-based guitarist talks about his newest album, his intricate guitar technique, and the need to write music in tumultuous times.

Technique and technicality

Technique and technicality are topics that tend to get relegated to the "nerdier" side of the music press, like Guitar World and magazines like it. But in your decidedly non-Guitar World music scene, do you find that people talk about technique?

I'm more comfortable talking about this stuff than the emotional aspect of the music because so much of that is stuff that's under the surface. I'm not actively thinking about it, whereas with the guitar stuff, it's very tactile and I think about it in practical terms.

These days, I live upstate [in Beacon, New York]. When I do see [musical colleagues], we aren't talking about what chords we're using or whatever, but we do share music and learn from each other. Nathan Salsburg is a good example here -- I admire him but don't know him personally -- and he has a website where he has a lot of his tunings up, it shows you which tunings certain songs of his are in. I haven't been able to decipher any of those songs because they're so complex, but sometimes I'll go there and tune to one of his tunings, which will then lead me to a new, slightly different tuning that will give me some interesting results. It's all dabbling; I don't think I've had a dense, explicitly musical conversation with someone outside of college. It's all just been osmosis and friendships playing out.

There are a few songs on Rosewood Almanac, like on Gray Lodge Wisdom, where there are multiple instrumental parts, drums, string sections, among other things. When you tour, though, you're playing by yourself. Do you have a way of writing the songs such that you can re-create them in the live setting without feeling like something is missing?

When I play a lot of these songs live, they're in different tunings than I use on the record. Sometimes I'll embellish certain parts that were played by a different instrument on the album, and vice versa; there are times where I'll strip out or simplify a more complicated part of a song. I tend to make my songs slightly different when I play live; I'm not looking to 100 percent re-create what is on the record, but rather to come at the song from a different angle.

I've been talking about doing some simplified string arrangements so I could tour with some string players, but for now, it's just me., I'm constantly trying to write a full band record, but I can't completely pull it off yet. It'd be really fun to tour with a band, but I think my guitar playing can get in the way of an ensemble dynamic.

Your touring regimen focuses on Western Europe, and you haven't toured the US as much in recent years. Is there some way your music clicks over there that it doesn't click here?

I don't know. I don't have a booking agent over here yet, but I'm about to try to make a push to play more in the States over the next several months because I've kind of been neglecting that. When I'm not on tour, I work a day job, and so I have to devote myself to keeping all of the balls in the air at the same time. I'd love to tour the United States; it's something I've always wanted to do, but for whatever reason, I've gotten more traction with my music overseas.

Were the lyrics to Rosewood Almanac influenced by any major themes in the way Gray Lodge Wisdom was influenced by your reflecting on your cancer treatments and recovery?

I think this is an "identity crisis" record, but not necessarily in a bad way. I wrote these songs while I was teaching at a boarding school. I was questioning what I was doing with my life, but also taking pleasure in a lot of non-musical pursuits, like spending time with my brother and his family and spending time with my girlfriend and her family. Some of the songs are about family life, about watching people you've known for a long time change, about moving to new places and figuring out what new places mean toward my own self-perception. I don't think there's the same kind of throughline [as on Gray Lodge Wisdom]; it's more a collection of snapshots of different places I've found myself in the past few years.

When I was two-thirds done with the record, I was approached by Simon [Raymonde] from Bella Union, after which I wrote a couple more songs, finished up some string arrangements, and tied up a few loose ends. There's an element of questioning on this record that then is subsumed by this purpose of trying to see things through.

On the title track of Gray Lodge Wisdom, you sing, "Why sing about God / When she don't exist?" On your new record, you sing on the track "Whatever's Divine": "Thank Jah for your love / Thank Allah for your love / Thank God for your love / Or whatever's divine." Have you been thinking about spirituality more since your struggle with cancer?

I think it's mostly a subconscious thing. I went to church as a kid, but it was a very Northeastern Protestant kind of experience; there wasn't a lot of fire and brimstone in my religious experiences. I didn't have much of a personal belief in any of it, but I was drawn to the ritual elements of religion. I've been an agnostic for my whole life.

I enjoy reflecting on religion, but I derive more symbolic meaning rather than deep spiritual meaning. Cancer caused a clarifying and deepening of that belief, which is similar to what I was reading at the time in Joan Didion's writing about grief and loss. Some people preach the gospel of positive thinking when they have cancer or another serious illness like it, while other people downplay that idea and say, "No, you have to get down to brass tacks and clarify what you really believe." I had hallucinatory experiences in the hospital that, were I somebody different, might have had a religious effect on me, an "awakening" effect, but in my case, it reinforced an unwillingness to dwell on those questions at the expense of more pressing questions.

Have the post-treatment cancer checkups been good?

I'm in pretty good shape. I have a six-month checkup that I do. There have been some small, lingering issues, but overall I'm in really good health.

You sing on "Manzanita" about how "you love the way we grow old". After having gone through the rigors of cancer treatment and coming out with a good bill of health, I hope you don't feel you've grown too old.

With the cancer treatment, it's like I lost a year of my 20s, and now I'm 30. But there's no regret there. I came away from that experience with a lot of gratitude, and many memories that are, if not positive, really profound. I was really enjoying myself in New York City; I felt like I was getting somewhere, which is why I went into denial when I started to feel something was wrong. In the process of clinging to what I carved out for myself in the city, I allowed myself to get more sick before I was actually diagnosed and given treatment. So even though there's a bit of regret there, it's forward-looking. I don't feel that I'm old, but it's important to relish the process of getting older, to not sweep it under the rug.

Now having turned 30, and it being ten years since the release of your debut [What the Night Said], is there something 2017 Will Stratton knows about being a musician that he would want to communicate to the 2007 Will Stratton?

I was kind of a punk back then. [laughs] I was a sweet kid, but I was a little too sure of myself. I think humility, dedication, and gratitude -- being kind to those around you -- get people further ahead than sheer talent or self-confidence. I think I could use a little more self-confidence, but I wouldn't trade self-confidence for the lessons that I've learned, which mostly have to do with being persistent and dedicated to your craft.

Chris Thile likened going back and listening to the early Nickel Creek records to revisiting high school pictures of himself, in part for the same way you just described your younger self. He felt that at that age, he was way more confident in himself than he ever would be as a more adult musician. How do you feel when revisiting What the Night Said and your other early material?

There's probably one or two songs on each of those records that I can still play and get something out of. But yeah, it is kind of like looking at high school photos of myself. When I recorded What the Night Said, I had just gotten out of high school and I had a very limited perspective on what the world was like. Some of the sweetness in those songs is a reflection of that perspective. Those records don't make me uncomfortable, but I do not identify with them at all as records at this point. There are glimmers; on tracks like "Who Will" and "Sunol" there's an enduring aspect of my personality where I can still recognize myself in those songs, but on most other tracks I can hear who I was trying to sound like, or what I was trying to accomplish.

A common thread on your past few records, particularly Gray Lodge Wisdom, is the importance of place, on songs like "Dreams of Big Sur" and "Long Live the Hudson River Valley". Do you feel like where you live now has given your music a distinct color?

I have trouble putting that stuff into words. I do some hiking out here, and I'm definitely influenced by the amount of nature that's around here -- it's more literary, I guess. Part of my childhood was in California, and the other part of it was not too far from here, in Northern New Jersey. Those two places are pretty symbolic for me. The Northeast, for me, is about pragmatism and the realities of existence, while California is about optimism and looking toward the future. They're pretty abstract ideas for me; that's about as specific as I can get about them. Imagery pops up in a lot of my songs, lots of little references, but I don't think any specific reference is all that meaningful. It's more about the big picture.

You've been particularly active on Twitter with what to me is some particularly trenchant political commentary. Up until now, your music hasn't been especially political, but given the tumult of American politics at the present, do you think that you'll ever turn toward politics as a primary inspiration? Will there ever be "Will Stratton: The BernieBro Album?"

[laughs] I find it really hard to sing about political things, even though I think everything is political. I've felt like I was a socialist since I was really young, in high school. I'm always trying to figure out how to sing about politics more explicitly without coming across as a complete goober, but I don't think I can really do it. The closest I can come is on songs like "Vanishing Class", which is a pretty political song.

With this new material, I'm trying to sing more in other people's shoes -- kinda like Randy Newman, but less satirical. Who knows if any of those songs will make it on those next record, though? I read something George Saunders wrote -- it was maybe in an interview -- where he talked about the need for more empathetic art in the wake of Trump's election, which is really the only positive artistic reaction I've had to Trump. Music, art, and film have the ability to bridge ideological gaps and bring people together.

But yeah, Bernie probably would have won. [laughs]

With that particular directive of Saunders' in mind, do you feel optimistic about the future -- however optimistic one can be in these times?

I forget who said this, but I think I'm a long-term optimist and a short-term pessimist. With some of my short-term pessimistic tendencies, it's hard to know where to draw the line. Take the election in France yesterday: I think Macron's election is a sort of stop-gap measure. He's not going to be able to circumvent any of the forces that are giving rise to fascism in France, much in the same way I don't think Hillary Clinton was going to be able to address the systemic issues in the United States that gave rise to Trump. On the other hand, if we can ride this out, if we can survive the demagoguery and the idiocy, and the fundamental misunderstanding that a lot of very desperate people have about what needs to happen, I think some really beautiful and positive change can emerge from getting through all that.

I hate to bring it back to cancer, but fascism is a cancer, it's an ideological cancer. I think the process of emerging from a period of malignancy is going to make us better as people, just like it did the last time.

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