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Willi Carlisle: Wordsmiths, Weirdos and Whip-Ass Concertinas

April 25, 2023 10:18 am GMT

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Even a hungover Willi Carlisle tells a thrilling tale.

The Arkansas based artist, whose album Peculiar, Missouri ranked at #8 on Holler's Albums of the Year 2022 and has sold over 3,000 vinyl units, first pursued poetry and academia and then found what he really loves to do: folk music. And he’s out to prove that this machine will always kill fascists, so to speak. He wants to be a public servant, make music and engage with causes which benefit others.

Chatting Easter Day over tea before his performance at The Green Room, a music performance space in Memphis, Tennessee, Carlisle’s strength and sensitivity are on display, his frustration with corporations, his restlessness with the internet age, his choice to find freedom in a song and his adoration for clowns.

A wordsmith wise beyond his years, he circles like an eagle and swoops down on his points, gripping your attention all vice-like.

Welcome back to Memphis! You’ve been on the road a lot lately and will soon be heading back to Europe. What bizarre stuff has happened to you on the road, and what excites you about heading overseas?

Nothing’s ever certain in tour life. It’s been really cool to go from playing the smallest venues to much larger ones; it’s still absurd to have a room full of people singing the words. My dad came to see a show, which I didn’t know would ever happen - and he enjoyed it, for that matter, which I also didn’t know would ever happen. Getting to do shows with Sierra Ferrell has been great, too.

As far as getting back to Europe, my favorite part is engaging with existing folk communities there. I’m not much for the word Americana. I understand why they would use it - it’s like if you’re from another country and you want to evoke something that feels distinctly American… but to me, all the old songs that we sing, we’re like, ‘Well, this is from Leeds, this is from Glasgow.”

As interested as I am in German, Scandinavian, Spanish and Mexican material, the language that I speak is from my Scotch-Irish forebears and not my German forebears. I’m excited to be back in the UK to get a little more taste of that and meet with as many weirdos that do that kind of work as possible. I hope that stuff is still magic for them over there and that if it isn’t, I can try to prove that it’s still magic.

Have you researched your ancestry?

Maybe too much. In fact, I’m trying to stay away from it a little bit. I’m trying to avoid some sense of birtherism. I think it would be a lie to claim there’s a reason that I’m interested in this exact music, and it’s because it’s in my blood. That strikes me as bullshit.

I think that somebody born in the Indian subcontinent should be able to play a whip-ass concertina and not apologize. As far as ideas of appropriation go, in that context, I think people should have taken that up with the Led Zeppelins of the world.

It's been almost a year since the release of Peculiar, Missouri. How are you feeling?

Great! We didn’t make any compromises on that record. I’m really grateful to the people at Free Dirt Records that talked me out of a couple times when I might have pandered to an audience that I thought I might have because of the internet. You can’t help what goes viral, right? I had a video appear next to a Colter Wall music video, and I don’t know if that was algorithmic or talent-oriented, but I don’t believe it’s a meritocracy.

But the folk songs that they encouraged me to do have mountains more merit than something I might write to try to appeal to a group of people that isn’t homogenous. I’m really proud of it still. Honestly, I hope to keep living up to doing whatever the fuck we want on a record over and over again. I’ve been worried people would think this folk song is boring for a long time, and then we do it, and it’s great. That’s what happened with that record, and I’m still surprised by it and delighted.

reviews ALBUM REVIEW • Willi Carlisle - Peculiar, Missouri

With his sophomore effort Peculiar, Missouri, Willi Carlisle secures his place as one of today’s most captivating storytellers.

Speaking of surprises, what’s occurred since the release of that record that you wouldn’t have predicted?

We’ve sold around 3,000 vinyl. And the press was really good. That was surprising! There were people that understood what I was doing on a level that I didn’t at all and there were also people who could smell exactly what I was stepping in. I thought it was a risk to make a story record because people don’t do them that much. You know, is it a concept record, or isn’t it? There’s a lot to be unpacked in it and I do know that. That everybody “got it” is amazing.

But something that really pissed me off is that people kept centering the queer aspects of the record in the press sometimes as if that were the hook, line and sinker. I found that tokenizing and obnoxious, but I can only imagine what it would be like to be a female country artist because it would be like ‘Girl Plays Country Music’ for about a third of the press. Of course, I’m just happy to be in the room. I guess it’s the same as my birtherism comment that merely being is not enough; you have to do it. You have to be good, too.

Are you feeling good?

Yeah, I’m trying to stay well. I’m working on boundaries. I got my ass grabbed at a merch table a couple of times, and I get asked out by strangers too often, which is to say, things that would make the 6th grader in me jump for joy make the adult part of me squirm every now and again. That’s a weird inner-child conflict. So, I’m working on that.

It’s honestly gone from constantly feeling like I was having a party in every single city with tons of brand-new friends… it still feels that way, but now the time that I crave isn’t the ninth beer with some strangers; it’s actually getting ready for therapy really hard and going back to my room and practicing. It doesn’t mean that I don’t make it to the third or fourth beer with strange and new friends, but I’m sort of gracefully trying to transition into taking myself more seriously.

It's weird to have people cross over your boundaries.

Having to clock it is weird. It’s really easy not to clock because you get encouraged to say, ‘Okay, this is what happens, that’s it and now it’s done,’ instead of saying, ‘Okay, that’s not something I need to happen in the future.’ Usually it’s when someone wants something from you real bad.

Since we’re in Memphis, could you talk about ‘Life on the Fence’ and how that song formed?

‘Life on the Fence’ is a true story, so we just put the city in it. I wanted to put true stories on the record. That’s it. I’ve come through Memphis a lot. Actually, for whatever reason, in working-class river cities I tend to party hard. In places like New York City, I never felt like I could fit in. Truly. I’m still pretty uncomfortable at a fucking drag show; you know what I mean? But somehow, a late-night bar in, say, Midtown in Little Rock, in a city that’s just the right size, it’s enough to act on my impulsivity and briefly become unfettered.

Anyway, that song came out in one 20-minute sitting, and I thought I’d never sing it.

I was always writing about queerness in these coded ways like American poets that I had known did it: D. H. Lawrence, Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg, Frank O’Hara and Hart Crane, people whose work I really, really admired, but weren’t necessarily talking about it literally. That didn’t free me much at all. Old American music felt like a way to unpack some of my history.

Country music often tells horrifying and forbidden stories, and I realized that was emotional territory that I’d never heard a song go into. I wanted to write something like Patrick Haggerty’s writing from Lavender Country in its directness.

Looking at ‘Tulsa’s Last Musician’, what role does magic play in your life, from tarot to astrology, or is it just a song of interest for the outsider fitting in theme?

I love weirdos - carnies and clowns and puppeteers and actors and folks like that. I did a folk music show at American and Canadian fringe festivals and talked about being the token folk singer. I was the banjo guy among clowns, puppeteers, etc., and I fucking adored them all, especially the clowns. Just weird, fun people. It was like they did yoga instead of doing cocaine, but they were the same kind of damaged, wacky people. They just had different ways of coping that I never understood.

The magicians tended to be kind of tragic folks. They had a more traditional craft like I did; they cared about who they learned it from, and it was like it was secrets. It’s pure showbiz. It’s just a trick. So, I always thought the magicians were weirdos and hard to hang out with. They were the most boring people and the most obsessed with who was doing it real.

There are a lot of story-songs like that that use one metaphor to build an entire thing. I wanted to do that really, really hard and try to beat that song system into the ground because I felt like I’d heard it a lot and was dissatisfied. Among them are ‘If I Were a Carpenter’ by Ramblin' Jack Elliott, which I do love, and ‘Death of an Unpopular Poet’ by Jimmy Buffett. I don’t always love to tell people that I had a Jimmy Buffett phase, but he’s a good writer.

I think that magic is so pervasive that it’s a shame to try to put it inside of a tarot card. I do believe it lives in there, but the impossible is happening constantly. It’s really unlikely that we should be here. It’s impossible that we’re here.

So you don’t wake up each morning and check your horoscope. Do you know what your sign is? It seems people are more and more interested in that stuff these days. Friends are practicing or consider themselves witches and whatnot.

On the behest of others, I know my sign. I think it’s got to be nice to divest yourself of whatever religion you were born in and choose something that feels more real to you. If you’re going to be religious, to me, that’s the way. More individualistic.

Speaking of individualism, let’s look at ‘Van Life’. I’m interested in the Amtrak reference. What are your hopes for a rail system in the United States?

My hopes feel like they’re dashed over and over. When I was bumming around, I wasn’t any good at train-hopping. We’re talking Peoria to Galesburg in Illinois or Quad Cities up to somewhere. I wasn’t the kind of person from that sub-culture and I never had people tell me what to do. But I did travel really hard, and good God, Amtrak was just the best way to get anywhere. It was amazing.

And actually, touring the UK… they complain about their rail system every day. It’s fucking incredible! You’re telling me I can get to Wensleydale Upon Shite all the way over to Tyne Upon Butt Crack or wherever in three hours for 30 quid – I can’t believe it! Anyhow, that’s why I love Amtrak so much.

What about libraries? Libraries come up a couple of times on the album.

I think of the loss of libraries as concomitant with the epidemic of loneliness. We get cordoned off into these marketable units… is it folk music or is it folk-rock music? These little marketable sub-groups that encourage people to build some idea of the self that is not based on their area or their curiosity, but on something that has been sold to them by brands.

After all of our food is created by major corporations, after all of our entertainment is created by it, and all the land is bought up and bargained for, then the last thing is to monetize people's sense of who they are. Maybe eventually, they’ll monetize our thoughts, too. Not to get to sci-fi with it.

The public library is the opposite of that. It says, ‘This is a place where we accept all ways of thinking and as many ways of being as possible.’ It’s an unlimited possibilities space. But, unlike the internet, nobody cares how much engagement it gets. If I’m interested in Egyptology, nobody has to know. And also, public spaces are really important to me when I’m traveling.

In my ideal life as a folk singer - I’m dead serious - I could move from playing clubs to, someday as I get older, doing church fucking basements, like the Ukrainian Workers Hall in Pittsburgh or something, and public libraries where it’s a public service again.

Any advice that you’ve been given recently?

I have a sweet manager now. I swear to God he’s a Zen priest, not a manager. He said, ‘You know, the aw-shucks routine is going to have to stop eventually.’ What he meant was, at some point, you’re going to have to stop pretending that you weren’t trying to do this well all along and that it’s just an accident. That’s great to hear. He also just says the simplest phrases like, ‘You not trusting your intuition is going to hurt you really badly pretty soon.’ And that’s when I’m saying things like, ‘Are these songs good,’ and he just won’t tell me.

What about advice from long ago that you live your life by?

Utah Phillips used to say, ‘Don’t underestimate the good that you can do with bad money.’ And he was an anarchist folk singer. That was on him turning down Johnny Cash doing a covers record of his songs. Phillips didn’t believe in the music industry at all, and I don’t really blame him.

But another mentor of mine who knew Phillips fairly well, Steve Cormier, said ‘That was the most selfish thing that Phillips ever did, to turn down a record deal with Johnny Cash.’ So, I wrestle with that all the time - what our public responsibility is and how we can build things that are sustainable and good, while also working with organizations like Ticketmaster. I’m wrestling with that.

Another thing that Phillips said that I think about pretty much every day: 'A song about freedom is any song you choose to sing yourself.’ There are a lot of times when I’ll end up protecting my brain from something it doesn’t want to know. Hopefully, not too much of reality.

This is why I live in the woods when I get off tour, actually, because we have to know that Miley Cyrus released a single whether we want to or not. We have to know whether the McRib is back or is leaving constantly. Something that’s free can be kind of hard to come by, and by that standard is something that you chose to sing yourself.

As you live in Arkansas, what are your current thoughts on that state’s marijuana laws?

Arkansas has been growing fantastic pot for a long time. It has the soil content and composition that is shitty for most other forms of farming. It has a similar soil composition to the goddamn Gold Coast in California. They can grow Maui Waui out there just as well as any other place in the country.

In the mid-90s, there were marijuana moonshiners in Newton County that were so good at what they did that they attracted the attention of the FBI, literal planes and helicopters looking for these huge fields of marijuana. Basically, it’s an institution. The hip-billies did it, and people before them did it. Hemp’s been grown out there since the damn Homestead Act. As far as the states that recently picked it up and are just liberal enough to pass the laws, in my mind, Arkansas has got a way longer history with it than most places. Let it be, dammit.

What are some practical self-care rituals that you maintain?

I try to play songs that will never make it onto the stage as often as possible. Particularly fiddle tunes and polkas, accordion pieces. When I’m home, I try to connect with the elders as much as I can. I try to meet new people to undertake apprenticeships with. If I were to start to believe that I was good at any of these instruments, that would be the end of me, so I try not to do that.

I try to sing every day a lot before I get on stage. I try to eat well. There’s a lot more for me to learn in that regard. I overdo just about everything because I’m a maximalist. I like a lot of inputs. Any self-care is me slowing down to one input - one device at a time instead of four, one instrument instead of four, one person instead of twelve.

What’s your experience been working with Free Dirt Records?

Free Dirt has been wonderful to work with. I hope that they believe me when I tell them how much I owe them and how wonderful they’ve been to work with. Artistically, in terms of their vision and mission, they have some of the most integrity of any organization I’ve ever worked with, beyond the roles of most nonprofits. They actually care about folk music. They really, really do. All of their apostles are incredible, whether or not they get the recognition they deserve.

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Written by Sam Shansky
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