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Premiere: Willi Carlisle - 'Life on the Fence'

By Jof Owen

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“This song certainly came out of an exigent need to write something”, Willi Carlisle explains to us about his new single, ‘Life on the Fence’.

“I’ve been interested in bisexual narratives for a long time. Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar, James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, and almost anything I could find. Walt Whitman remains a major influence and probably always will. That said, I’ve grown up around a hyper-masculine and often toxic environment when it came to queerness. I think that zoomers, by and large, get it, and are figuring their shit out, but that we’ve come a long way very quickly”.

Evoking the mystical American storytelling of Walt Whitman, W.D. Snodgrass and E.E. Cummings, like all of Carlisle’s songs, ‘Life on the Fence’ is about what becomes of human beings when they’re at their most fragile; confused, betrayed, lonely and desperate. It’s a song about the power of fearlessness in a world that wants to keep us all afraid. He knows how much we have to lose, how easily it can all fall apart, and he knows that in the end the only real force for change is love.

“When I first heard Patrick Haggerty’s (Lavender Country’s, that is) ‘Crying these Cocksucking Tears’, it was like I finally heard some of the anger that I primarily feel about this stuff. I already had a draft of this song in a notebook. The second verse has rattled around in my head for at least five years. I’ve been trying to write about the shame and internalized homophobia all bisexual men end up facing for a while.

In graduate school, it was trying to write “codedly queer” poems, and it almost always was just fully coded. But, after meeting someone in Memphis, I finished it in a cabin near the Rogue River in the Oregon wilderness. I never once trusted it as a first draft: how could something with only a couple of verses be a worthwhile song?”

He was wrong not to trust it, of course. Over its two verses and pining refrain, 'Life on the Fence’ is a way more worthwhile a song than we’re used to hearing around these parts these days. It's a heart-breakingly honest world-weary protest song about the trials of bisexuality in a culture that shies away from nearly any expression of love between two men; a fearless account of what it’s like to still have to be brave in a world where just singing about a certain kind of love is seen as subversive.

'Life on the Fence' is premiering exclusively at Holler below.

Carlisle grew up in the rural, small-town life of the American Midwest, in Kansas and Illinois. Captain of the football team in high school, he was also secretly queer and interested in poetry and singing, living in those culturally contradictory spaces as a 6'4'', 300lb gentle giant. He came to music in Illinois through punk, but turned in the seemingly opposite direction towards folk. Although musically different, they had shared sensibilities and politics found their ground in the same DIY community spaces.

Through folk music he was further drawn to poetry and literature and moved to the Ozarks on a fellowship to teach, faling in love with the landscapes of these ancient mountains along the way.

Though Carlisle had gone there to teach poetry, he quickly became disillusioned with the mainstream literary world and began setting his poems to music instead, singing on porches around campus, busking on street corners and traveling around learning songs and music from whomever he could. He fell in with experimental theatre types in the Ozarks, lived on collective farms, took up the button accordion, learned some polkas.

It’s this insatiable curiosity to travel and to take in as many different sides of the world as he can that you can hear stretched across the intensely personal songs on his remarkable new album, Peculiar, Missouri.

We tend to look at protest songs from a place of anger, of frustration. But Carlisle’s point is that these songs are written from love. We protest because we love something and want to see it made better. We highlight inequities in our culture in order to change them, to improve lives.

Carlisle bristles if you ask him how he copes with a divided America. “Who told you it’s divided?” he demands. “They’ve managed to convince people that certain elements of national politics or religious politics are hills that they have to die on. Most Americans have been systematically deprived of any ability to advocate for themselves. The square dance, the concert, the independently owned record store, the coffee shop, the small press, the punk house… These are the places where the right to assemble and think freely is still living against all odds.”

Willi Carlisle plays a handful of dates in the UK and Europe, including Black Deer Festival in June, before returning to the US for a full tour in July and August. His forthcoming album Peculiar, Missouri is released on July 15th on Free Dirt Records. Preorder here.