Q&A: Willi Carlisle

Q&A: Willi Carlisle
Courtesy Photo by Ariella Gibson Willi Carlisle will be releasing his folksy debut EP, “Too Nice To Mean Much” July 30.

Courtesy Photo by Ariella Gibson
Willi Carlisle will be releasing his folksy debut EP, “Too Nice To Mean Much” July 30.

Willi Carlisle is a man who bears a heavy heart and mind, and employs a descriptive command of language.

Throughout the past few years, Carlisle has had his hand in all things art and folk while pursuing his masters at the University of Arkansas. He’s called traditional Ozark square dances at the Backspace each month, he’s contributed to the avant garde with Artist’s Laboratory Theatre in various productions, and now, he’s become a singer/songwriter.

His debut EP, “Too Nice to Mean Much” will release July 30, and will be available for download at willicarlisle.bandcamp.com.

The music on the EP is juanty old-time meets modern folk-revival solemnity. The EP contains a good mix of both moods. Songs like “Stone County” features folksy, self-deprecating humor — or “bad jokes” as Carlisle refers to them — while a song like “Up The Hill” features only a guitar, and a story of heartbreak.

The vivid stories and scenes he paints within each verse of his songs clamors at your heart and establishes an authenticity some songwriters work years to achieve. He’s also pretty keen on the beauty and complexities of southern landscapes and their inhabitants, and does a fine job describing them.

For the full Willi Carlisle experience, there will be two performances on the night of his EP release on July 30 at Ryliegh’s. The first show includes a solo performance at 7:30 p.m. during Last Saturday, and later that night a full band performance at 10 p.m. The next chance to catch him will be at George’s Majestic Lounge on Oct. 19 with National Park Radio.

Here’s our interview:

TFW: The songwriting on your EP I can tell is certainly the focus here. What’s your approach to songcraft?

CARLISLE: The idea of no frills, raw expressiveness. I want to bring a kind of life or death desperation to songwriting. I really do believe that raising the stakes is important. You’ve got your songs about f———g and you’ve got your songs about dying. I don’t want to be too broad or prescriptive, but you’ve got your songs about fun and your songs about not fun. You want to make people laugh and you want to make people cry, and that’s the special balance I want to achieve. Love is funny, but it’s also terrifying and awful. That’s what binds it together for me. Love put in context of everyday objects and normal places. That’s what I think songs are designed to do, to take universal feelings or what people consider unique feelings and then normalize them.

There’s a chorus I’m fond of, “I don’t know if I believe in heaven, but in my head it’s always dark and bare. I can’t think of an afterlife worth living, when in your heaven I’m not there” from “Small Things.” As for my process, I’ve been writing for a long time and I think these are a few of the best. I had way more than I knew I could fit on this, and a full-length will be on the heels of this. It’s just the beginning, truly. It takes a lot of work. I don’t ever want to brag about having a masters degree in poetry because it’s a waste of time, but I put every bit as much effort — maybe a bit more — into songwriting than I ever did in poem writing. To the audience, a poem is less universal, and I feel like I can say what I really want to say to more people in a context where they will laugh and cry. That’s really what I want.

I’m ready to go for broke on it. I’m ready to put it up against anybody, I do not think there is anybody who likes Americana songwriting who will think these are bad songs. There are very few who will say these aren’t good songs. I won’t say very much about myself. I’m fat, I can’t sing and I can’t play the guitar, but by God, I at least can do this. I’ve always known I wanted to be a folk singer and a poet.

TFW: Do you write from a personal perspective? Or do you make up these characters you mention in the songs?

CARLISLE: Both. All of it’s real, but none of it is. There’s an ex-girlfriend who’s furious, she said she loves the song but hates that it’s about her. I’m flat-out ignoring that text, like what are you doing texting me at 2 in the morning, you gotta get out of my life [laughs]. Yes, it’s very personal, but the truth comes in a lot of different forms. Sometimes substituting a word for a place or an eye color or an event, it’s always just two degrees from the truth. That’s one of the things that makes it broad for a lot of people to listen to it. It’s just two degrees from something that happened. Just because I was working 10 hours a day seven days a week and dated her friends doesn’t mean that could be someone else.

You walk in a church, right? If you go to church a lot, there’s a few days where you’re looking at statue of Christ and you’re thinking that motherf——r really died for me, look he’s up there, bleeding! Then, most of the time you’re like eh, it’s the same statue I see everyday. That’s the way the landscape is. Sometimes it speaks, sometimes it doesn’t, but when it does…

TFW: What are the songs about, and what compelled you to write about them?

CARLISLE: The songs are about living in the South, living in Arkansas. They’re about being in love, and they’re about knowing that you’re going to die and that this might be the only time you get to be in a place. I was talking about life and death earlier, comedy and tragedy I guess — the feeling of where we are and what we’re doing is truly special. Who we are to each other truly can be special. I want to be like secular gospel music of the upper south. I know that’s lofty as f—k. I tried to limit myself to “Can you write about something that you’ll never be embarrassed about? Can you always write something that can be anthemic to you, if no one else?” Writing songs alone, you’re closed off. The thing about singer/songwriters, it comes from this closed off part of my body and it’s also the way that we live. I want to write things that will allow people to live more thoroughly inside themselves… Damn, what’s a good way to put that Mr. Brothers? Gospel music is meant for everybody, I’d like to do a version of that that’s highly personalized and invite them to a one on one experience. That’s fundamentally just as hoity toity as going to church or going to yoga and saying namaste at the end of yoga.

Too Nice To Mean Much EP Release

What: Willi Carlisle will do a solo performance at Last Saturday, followed by a full band performance later that evening.

Where: Ryliegh’s, 313 W Dickson St #105

When: 7:30 p.m. and 10 p.m.

How Much: Last Saturday is free, and the late night show is $5.

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