Meeting in one of the backrooms of Exeter’s Phoenix a few hours prior to his gig, Will Varley appeared in typically high spirits. Touring his latest album, Postcards from Minor Ursa, in his own words “probably bit a late” after supporting Frank Turner on a UK tour, the Kentish troubadour was highly anticipating a sold-out show in one of Exeter’s larger venues and a place he’d previously played in support of friend Beans on Toast. With an entourage consisting of just three people (himself and the duo of Molly’s Lips, his support act) Varley is very much the embodiment of the do-it-yourself ethos and someone who has built their grassroots fanbase out of nothing but extensive touring. I caught up with the man himself to talk music, politics and touring with the great Frank Turner.
One of the distinctive features of Will Varley’s music is his lyrical ability and story-telling style, keeping alive the folk tradition of singing about whatever is on your mind. Discussing his song-writing process, Varley explained to me that he finds it really “difficult to explain because I never really know when I’m going to write a song. You just spend a long time trying to write a song and then before you know it, you’ll have nothing for hours and then you’ll sit on the bus one day and you’ve got a whole song in five minutes.”
The conversation then moved towards the more political themes that arise in his music, with particular examples being the hilarious ‘I Got This Email’ and emotionally charged ‘We Don’t Believe You’. I asked him how important politics is in his music, particularly in a world where, as we are starting to engage more with politics following the general election this year, debate surrounding the EU Referendum is hotting up and the Trident marches occurred only the day before? “I write songs for quite selfish reasons really,” he replied, keen to dismiss any strong political affiliations. “I just kind of do it for me, if there’s something on my mind, then I write a song about it. I never really set out with a political aim or a particular agenda you know. So politics to me in my songwriting is all about my experiences and my own fear. Because I think there’s a lot of unnecessary fear in the world that we live in. And I think that fear is used in a kind of way to control us.” He then jokes of the foreseeing nature of ‘I Got This Email’, a track that jokes about David Cameron’s mother turning on his policies, something that came true only a few months ago quipping, “someone emailed me a week later asking what the lottery numbers are going to be next week.”
“in general, music beyond ‘oh la la’ has been ignored for decades”
The future of protest music was a topic that Varley was particularly passionate about, coming from a folk/punk background and inspired by the likes of Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Billy Brag and John Otway. The latter of which was a particular inspiration, with Varley recalling “the first time I went to a gig and thought this is really what I want to do. I went to see him when I was about 11 years old and I still find him incredibly inspirational.”
However, Varley explains that he does not believe protest music has gone away or that it ever will. “Through the history of music, music has been used to get across ideas bigger than ‘oh baby I love you’, you know. It’s always been used in that way and it always will be used in that way. Whether the media want to cover that is a totally different conversation. Certainly coverage of protest songs is dead. But that’s been the case forever. The mainstream media have never played protest songs, you never turn on Radio 1 and hear back to back protest songs.” He then adds that “in general, music beyond ‘oh la la’ has been ignored for decades”, exclaiming that “Pop has always won and always will!” (Read our response to the BBC’s “Is Protest Music Dead?”)
Being the grass roots artist that Will Varley is, I was eager to ask him about his experiences on his so-called “walking tours”. A style of touring that he completed twice in support of his first two albums, which saw him walk, in the case of his second tour, 500 miles with just a guitar and tent on his back. He reminisced about playing Exeter’s very own Oddfellows pub to a handful of people when he was starting out, remarking that “with something like that you don’t really realise the size of it until you get going. The thing is the walking was one part, we were doing about twenty miles a day, which was perfectly do-able, but the point is we were playing a show every night as well, so we were already really exhausted and then you’ve got to turn up and play the gig.” These types of gigs greatly contrasted his latest tour, supporting Punk-Folk icon Frank Turner, which saw him play some of London’s largest venues including the Royal Albert Hall and Alexandra Palace. “That was funny, because as I walked out on stage at the Albert Hall that is exactly the first thing that crossed my mind. I just remembered the gigs we did on the walking tour to about six people, who were all just sitting at the bar not really listening. Alexandra Palace was pretty incredible too, playing to about 9,000 people. The biggest crowd I’ve ever played, quite possibly the biggest crowd I ever will play!”
We finish the interview by discussing what sort of advice Varley would offer to singer-songwriters starting out today, as someone who had done his fair share of open mics and busking. “Same as I’d always say”, he laughed. “Do it yourself. Don’t wait for someone to come along and say ‘I’m going to make you a star’ or ‘this is what you need to do’ and all that bullshit. Get out there, make your own records, print them out and do it on your own. As soon as you start doing it yourself people will start coming and interesting things will happen.” Sound words of advice from a man who has literally walked for miles on end to get to where he is today, a strong role model for any aspiring musician.