INTERVIEW: Willow Beats
Hailed as the next Flume Willow Beats is a talented electronic musician producing semi-dubstep-infused trip-hop with the catchiness of any great pop-sensation.
Half of WB, Narayana Johnson, speaks with confidence and enthusiasm, yet is markedly humble for a young artist earning several top spots on Triple J’s electronic charts, quite decent radio rotation and a considerable cult following.
Those of you who are already familiar with his work (paired with his niece Kalyani) are probably already excited and eager to observe his rise, and for those of you who have missed the boat thus far, we caught up with him to talk past, present and future.
First up, not many people know this, but I did my research and your father was Walter Johnson Jr… a famous musician?
Wally Johnson, your father wrote a song that many of us are quite familiar with…
(laughs)… Give Me a Home Among the Gum Trees.
Your father wrote ‘Give Me a Home Among the Gum Trees’! With your Dad as an Aussie folk legend, what type of records did you grow up listening to?
Well my Dad died when I was six years old, so I didn’t really get his musical influence on me- once he died my family up and left, we started travelling and cruised to America. There I listened to music that my brother-in-law was into, and he grew up in the 80s so stuff like Kraftwerk.
So that’s where the electronic music side of things came from?
Well yeah, I guess I was always listening to that stuff.
A-lot of your tracks have elements of experimentation and found-sounds like water dripping… but you also play guitar- how important is that musical knowledge to you when you are producing? Or is it just playing with sounds and having fun?
I think the fact that I was playing guitar, studying it, practicing two hours every-day; I think it helped my sense of harmony. I don’t know what it’s like to not be a guitar-player, but I feel like it really helped my ear for developing harmony and melody. There are also times where I’ll figure out lines on guitar; I’ll be producing electronically and I’ll work out the next line on guitar.
Would you say to anyone who wants to get into making electronic music, who wants to be the next Flume or Willow Beats- it’s not as easy as just picking up a computer, you should have some musical knowledge first hand?
Yeah I think that’s really significant. I get a-lot of people who want to get into making music asking me ‘What software do you use? I want to make beats like yours’, and, not that I’m some amazing producer or anything, but it’s like anything- to be crap is easy and to be good is hard. You have to put a-lot of effort in, and I’m not sure if it’s the right journey, but the journey I took was to get the musical theory down first and then go into the production, but other people do it different ways. It’s not easy to make good music no-matter how you do it.
So what is your writing process then?
It’s different a-lot of the time, for a track like ‘From Under the Ground’; Kalyani would write a song- She wrote ‘From Under the Ground’ on piano, and then we’d record that into midi, then we’d record the vocals, then I’d say scratch the piano, add in drums, add in synths and stuff, then it’s just a matter of getting the drums right, the harmonies sounding good, chopping the shit out of the vocals… I might change the chord progression. What comes out in the end isn’t necessarily like what Kalyani has written.
Now, you’ve seemingly exploded out of nowhere onto Triple J, headlining gigs and an upcoming tour- for those just discovering you now, where’s the start of Willow Beats, what’s the origin story?
Well while I was at Uni studying guitar I broke my wrist, and I had to pull out of that course and switch into composition. I happened to have a guy teaching the unit who was super-into electronic music, and as long as I can remember I was messing around on Fruity Loops and Reason, so he kind of took me under his wing because I was interested in that stuff. He told me to buy a microphone and I got Kalyani to sing along to one of my songs… That was ‘Lay to Rest’… and that was the beginning I guess.
So Kalyani is your niece- There are plenty of brother/sister duos, but the closest thing to an uncle/niece duo I can think of off-hand is LMFAO’s Uncle/nephew partnership. What drew you to making music with her?
When we were children we also stayed in Singapore together for a-little while as-well. She was just a little girl at the time, but I didn’t get to know anyone, I didn’t go out much, I was getting home-schooled there, so Me and Kalyani hung out every day, travelled around America and a few other countries together and developed this bond. When she grew up a bit she got into music, I started feeding her different artists to listen to and then she got into singing and playing keys. She was killing it from a very early age, and I bought a mic, a soundcard and a computer- I said I’d try recording her and it came out really cool.
Did you ever expect it to blow up? Or was this just something for you to do while your wrist healed so you could get back into guitar?
Well, it happened accidentally… I was always thinking I’m going to be a guitarist, I’m going to play in a band- music has always been everything to me. I’ve always known that was my passion and dream, I moved to Melbourne about a year ago with the sole purpose of chasing music. Before that I was nothing, I had a Facebook page with 100 likes or whatever, it just really caught on here.
Melbourne’s Cinderella story? You’re working with a bunch of Melbourne-based producers at the moment; you released a pretty rad collaboration with Yosemite.
I’ve actually known Yosemite for a-while. We met at high-school music-camp or something, and both really liked this guitarist Robben Ford, he’s this sick guitarist, so we became mates back then, but now I don’t know; it just so happened that he was also in Melbourne producing (laughs) it’s weird.
So what’s next for Willow Beats?
We’re bringing out another EP, this one is heaps next level for us, a-lot more sampling and field recording in it. Recording odd-sounds, sampling… It’s a notch up from our past writing and producing. Thinking it’s going to be a seven-inch record instead of CD.
Haven’t got a definite one yet. We are looking at November/December. Hopefully November.
That’s coming up around the time of Inca Roads Festival, which you are playing at; can we expect to see those new tracks at Inca Roads?
Definitely will be playing them at Inca Roads, you can already catch some of them at current live shows.
You can listen to and download the first Willow Beats EP here:
Words by Chris Apeitos