When Will Westerman—who performs moody, reverb-drenched music under his last name—started out 2018, he had a few grand plans in mind: he was going to make his first full-length album, learn to produce demos without having to rely on others, maybe even get better at playing piano. But everything changed when he released the single "Confirmation" back in February.
"There was not really any expectation from anybody, from my label or from myself really either. Then people seemed to really connect with that song, and that really changed what I thought was gonna be this year," Westerman told Gothamist. "Everything from then on has just seemed like, 'Okay,' I'm just kind of catching up with myself a bit. But y'know it's great. I'm trying to make music so that people will connect with it, so it's amazing."
At the very tail end of that crazy year, the British Westerman embarked on his first ever U.S. tour, performing his first ever NYC show at Elsewhere in Bushwick. "It's kind of tiring, but this place is pretty mad—it's like London, but on steroids!" The day before that gig, he joined us for our latest edition of Gothamist House, where he reflected on his breakout year and what might come next.
Westerman started off his musical career in the mid-10's as a singer/songwriter—he was a solo performer in the London folk scene (he won Best Country/Folk Act at London's Unsigned Music Awards in 2016), even though he never felt that description quite fit him. "I was always quite shy with my music. It was always something I just did on my own, I always found it quite therapeutic," he said. "And I never really would have had the confidence to start a band, or ask people to play with me."
He says he was greatly inspired by the likes of Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, and especially Neil Young, whose mid-70s albums like On The Beach remain his favorites. "The imperfections are kind of what makes it so magical. Just kind of having that breathing quality to them. If it's too perfect, for me it's less effecting," he said. His father was obsessed with Young, and it took Westerman many years to come around on his voice. "I get a bit older, and there's just so much vitality in it," he said. "When I'm recording with Nathan, sometimes there'll be room sounds which we intentionally leave in because that's the stuff that gives it an atmosphere and captures the moment. It's that kind of stuff, the unintentional stuff, that I think is often the best."
"Nathan" refers to Bullion, an East London producer whom Westerman started working with in 2016 on the Call and Response EP. Bullion helped give new context to his music, marrying Westerman's songwriting with dark, synth-heavy textures—somewhat reminiscent of Arthur Russell's work—which added new depth to the recordings. (Westerman notes that he never heard of Russell before people started comparing his sound to him, but he is flattered by the comparison.)
Their partnership is what has helped fueled Westerman's run of incredible (and incredibly consistent) singles in 2018. He said the first time they collaborated, it was "a sort of light bulb moment, where I started to think about the music not just as having two instruments like guitar and voice, but all these different colors." Bullion helped add a halo of melancholy fuzz around Westerman's synth-pop confections. In the center of everything, Westerman's vocals are almost tonally hypnotic, simultaneously detached and comforting—the melodies latch their hooks into your brain.
"I take the song—I write almost exclusively on acoustic guitar—and then I'll have an idea of how I want the pulse to be, and then together we'll try a few things out with the kinds of textures, that part is quite experimental really," he said. "I'll have an idea in terms of the arrangement, cause sometimes with my music now, the lyrics don't necessarily come back in terms of specific sections."
"It's kind of a new creative process," he added. "So that's really fun for me, because you kind of can end up with something which you didn't necessarily think was gonna be what it was."
There's a drifting quality to the verses of "Confirmation," with the vocals and guitar almost crisscrossing in a complicated pattern. The instruments coalesce on the uplifting chorus, where the lyrics hinge on its own "light bulb moment."
Don't you wonder why
When you don't think so much about it
Trying and it won't work
I still can't get my head around it
It's a person mulling over the same thoughts until they realize the only way to stop twisting their brain into a pretzel is to stop thinking about it at all. It's kind of like the position Westerman found himself in this year as his career unexpectedly took off. He still can't get his head around it.
After the breakthrough of "Confirmation" (which Spin named the second best song of 2018), more idiosyncratic one-offs kept coming out: the single "I Turned Away," then "Edison," then "Easy Money," and finally the Ark EP. "Because we put out ["Confirmation"] and no one was really expecting this to happen, we kind of just kept recording—I never stopped writing and recording as I've gone along. I maybe didn't agonize over everything quite as much as I would have...it's all kind of been on the fly," he said, adding, "I'm proud that I've been able to release almost an album's worth of music this year anyway with everything."
Nevertheless, he is determined to complete his first full-length album in 2019, though he demurred about whether any of his 2018 singles will be a part of it. "I've got more stuff, so it's gonna be a nice situation where I'll have quite a lot to pick from. I'll have more control over it, hopefully have the luxury of picking from a number of different ways I could do that record," he said.
It's safe to say he never expected things to move this quickly: "I've been pleasantly surprised at kind of...pretty much everything about this year. Not that I had a really desolate view of how other years have been," he said, laughing.