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Interview: Watsky

Interview: Watsky

I walked into the Aggie not knowing what to expect from a poetry show at a concert venue. I was greeted by George Watsky, sitting on his own surrounded by fifty fold out chairs in the bar area. Soon, the rest of the forty or so fans streamed into the venue to sit in a semicircle around one single bar stool. Watsky, a rising indie hip-hop artist, started his performing career as a slam poet and won the Brave New Voices National Poetry Slam in 2006. For his tour of his new album All You Can Do, he decided to incorporate an exclusive poetry show at the venue before each performance. Fans got the opportunity to hear the pieces that started his career and got to meet with him after his performance. After the doors opened, I met with Watsky in the stairwell behind the stage leading into the green room.

How is your tour going so far?

It’s been going really well, not a single show has flopped. We’ve had great crowds everywhere and people are getting along with each other. People in the band are all having fun, even though it’s a long slog. But given the fact that it’s like a fucking four month tour and we were on Warped Tour for a while before that. Yeah, it’s been a lot of traveling but we don’t want to rip each other’s heads off or anything so I’m ecstatic. We’re having a great time.

So you did the poetry show before, I know you did slam poetry before you started rapping and everything. Why did you decide to do the poetry before your show as a special thing for limited people?

Well, I’ve never done a VIP type of package before the show. Before I’ve been hesitant to do it because I’ve always made myself available for free after shows to anyone who wanted to do a meet and greet. And so I was hesitant to do any kind of, like, more expensive package that would make people feel like I was creating a tier between people who could afford to do something extra and those who couldn’t. So that’s why I wanted to make sure that there was an element beyond just a meet and greet. Because spoken work was what I did for years, it made sense. I mean I had people, for as long as I’ve been doing this music stuff, that said, “When are you going to do a spoken word tour?”… Some people are more of a fan of my poetry than they are of my music ‘cause that’s how they’re introduced to my work. And so it made sense to me to do these acoustic shows and add a meet and greet element to it. But I also have a disclaimer: every time someone buys a ticket for it, that says right up front, you know, if you buy this meet and greet package, I’m still doing one for free afterwards for everyone. So this isn’t like now that I’m doing this, I’m no longer doing the free one. I thought that was really important. But yeah, it’s a combination of wanting to be able to just do the isolated portion of my spoken word and it’s also an extra way for us to make money on the road. You know, with people buying less albums than they used to, it’s really important to find ways to just make your tour profitable. This is such a huge amount of work and my overhead’s so high as an independent artist that finding ways to actually be able to turn a profit is super important and luckily those two go hand in hand.

How has this tour been different for you than an actual poetry slam?

Well, the venues aren’t really… We haven’t rented out the venues to do this. So I’m kind of working around what’s going on in the background. I have to kind of create the best possible environment given the circumstances. Like, for instance, tonight, there were chairs there, but when we showed up there were only five chairs in the venue. So before we knew that we could rent out fifty chairs that were able to come here last minute, I was thinking, “Oh man, people were gonna have to sit on drum cases and, like you know, sit cross legged.” And every venue we get to is different. Sometimes they have bartenders that have to mix drinks. Like, they have to do their work for the venue before we get there. And that can be hard. It can be distracting with people walking through. Maintaining silence is so important to being able to actually have people’s full attention. And sometimes I don’t have that. Like I’m often performing in less than ideal circumstances and it’s hard for me. But I have to seem like I’m completely un-rattled on stage because if it looks like I’m rattled, I’ve immediately lost everyone’s attention. So that’s the most difficult part. You know, people are always late or walking in and out and stuff. And I don’t have any amplification. Usually, I have a mic, like if it’s a real poetry event I have a microphone and a PA system. But I’m competing with just, like, regular… loudness of voice. So as a performer, it comes some challenges to it.

Do you think you would be this successful without YouTube?

You know, it’s tough to say. I’m so much a product of my era, I don’t think that without YouTube I would be able to do exactly what I did in the way that I did. But sometimes… I’m such a huge fan of late 60’s music, I wonder like, if I had been in that era– If I would have been able to succeed. And I would like to think yes. I mean, I don’t have a great singing voice and rap didn’t really exist yet as a thing. But Bob Dylan doesn’t have the most amazing singing voice of all time either. And not to say that I’m on that same level, caliber. But you know, there’s people like Captain Beefheart and stuff that were making weird music. I don’t know the answer to that question. I think the Internet’s given me some tools that have made it possible to do what I do in this era that, like—You know say if you were to go ten years before YouTube came out then I don’t think that I would really succeed. Like in the early 90’s or something, or the early 2000’s. Like when it was all radio hip-hop and people weren’t pirating music or downloading it on Napster. I don’t know because everything was so format driven. It was all like, “Are you Urban Station or are you Top 40 Rock?” And I don’t really fit into any of those molds. So what the internet has come along and allowed for is, artists like me who fall between the cracks to find an audience for something quirky and niche. What I do isn’t represented by any mainstream format. It falls between lots of different formats. And so the Internet and YouTube have allowed me to cultivate an audience that’s really unique to who I am. And I don’t know the answer if I would succeed in another era. I’m very determined and I like to think resourceful but, you know, the Internet’s given me some huge breaks for sure. But at the same time I was on the road and touring before YouTube came along. And no I didn’t have a huge audience.

Was that just for your slam poetry?

It was just spoken word at that point. I was putting out music independently. I put out an album in 2009. I was on this old TV show, Def Poetry Jam on HBO, when I was twenty. But I was slogging it out for four or five years, performing at college campuses and cafeterias and student centers and stuff. Just very steadfastly doing my gigs. Playing, you know, 150 shows a year. It wasn’t until I got a big break in a video on YouTube that things really started to take off in a bigger way.

And sort of bouncing off that, “Tiny Glowing Screens,” [a song from Cardboard Castles], talks about technology and the way of the younger generation. And how at concerts if some kid was to “raise a lighter app” you wouldn’t like that. How do you think technology has affected this generation specifically, compared to other generations because of such a huge technology boom and how does it affect your music?

Things are changing so much and so fast. It’s almost hard; every year or two, it feels like a new pop culture generation has turned over. I’m 28 and I feel like in some ways I’m a generation or two above the kids in the audience whose slang I don’t know. Whose selfie etiquette I don’t know. Like when I was in high school, taking a selfie of yourself in a bathroom was considered a very vapid, self-absorbed thing to do. It’s like there’s no stigma attached to it. To me that’s extremely narcissistic. And I can’t believe that’s become just a common place practice. It’s not even something that teenagers, these days, think of as being weird or self-absorbed. So it’s hard to say. I really think a lot of my music deals with the paradox of knowing that I wouldn’t be where I’m at without technology. But also the obsession with it in the way that it’s changed us makes me deeply uncomfortable. I know that I have my own technology addictions. There’s a line in Tiny Glowing Screens Part 1 about “biting the hand the feeds me,” because technology is why I’m at where I’m at in many ways. I also don’t want to be plugged into my cell phone at all times. I don’t want to be spending ninety percent of my waking hours checking my Twitter notifications. That doesn’t sound like a fun or appealing way to spend my life. I like to be taking in the environment around me and having conversations with people and reading and stuff like that. So I think that the big thing with technology, and it’s going to have to depend on where the next five or ten years take us, is if people start to identify technology addiction as an important thing to curb. And if we start dealing with it and managing technology the same way we manage the intake of other vices, like alcohol and weed and stuff. People are able to manage their intake of calories and carbohydrates, and I think that as we start to recognize it as a potentially serious problem, we might learn to keep that in check as well. So I am not sure where it’s heading.

Alright, random question. What’s your favorite Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle?

[Laughs] That’s a tough question. Maybe Donatello.

Why?

You gotta love a man who’s able to look good in purple. Donatello’s the one who’s got the staff, right?

Yeah.

Yeah, I don’t know. That’s a pretty cool weapon too. I wish I could tell you that I knew their personalities from one another, but all I really know are, like, their colors and weapons. But I’ll go with Donatello.

Alright, you mention your Jewish and Christian roots in your music and in your writing in general. How does religion affect your writing?

Well, I didn’t grow up with any kind of formal religious background. And it was something that until I was a teenager I kind of resented my parents for ‘cause I’ve always had—Well it’s not a fear anymore, but when I was growing up, I had a big fear of mortality and dying because I wasn’t getting any concrete answers about what was going to happen. So I grew up with a lot of uncertainty and I didn’t feel like I was getting very satisfying answers from my parents, who, to their credit, were super honest with me. They were just like, “Yeah, we don’t know. We’re agnostics. We don’t know what happens and we’re not going to pretend to you that we do. It terrifies us too, so yeah, deal with it kid.” Like you’re gonna have to eventually and a lot of my music is about, sort of, embracing the fear of the unknown and how that’s been an important element in my life. Reading some simple Buddhist meditation handbooks has really helped me more than anything. Just to embrace the present moment and embrace uncertainty and try to live in the now and enjoy what we have while we have it. My fear of death comes from the fact that I love life. Like I love being alive. I feel so lucky to be on this planet and I’ve always felt that one of the reasons why I’m a really hard worker is I’ve always felt like the clock was ticking on me. Like in the vast scheme of things and how long an infinite time is, a human life isn’t even a blink of an eye. It’s so fast. And I know that every year is just another one down and so, you know, to me– organized religion—It’s never made sense to me. But a lot of my music is about meeting my listeners halfway so I know that I have an audience that’s made up of people that believe a lot of different things. Like for instance, I’m vegetarian and have been for twelve years, but I’m not spending the majority of my music beating people over the head with a PETA agenda. That’s not because I’m not passionate about vegetarianism. It’s because I know that with a larger audience you have to be able to recognize that a lot of different opinions are represented in that audience and you should be able to say what you believe in the core of your beliefs without making people feel like they’re being attacked. And I think that’s a better way to change people’s minds. So, the core of my music is about appreciating the present moment, being in the now, loving the people that you’re close to, and trying to see other people that you’re not close to through a compassionate lens. And to me that’s not something that any of the major religions deny. So those to me are more important points to prove than, “Oh, your god is a lie.” That’s something I’m more passionate about and so, that’s how far religion gets into it. The specific scriptures and dogmas of different religions—I’ve just never understood any compelling reason why somebody would pick one over another. It’s just, everybody’s grasping at different specific answers when, to me, everything seems vague and unprovable.

 In your new album, there are a bunch of monologues. A couple are from your dad. Why did you decide to add those to the music?

It’s similar to what I did in Cardboard Castles where there was a younger representation of myself who I had a conversation with who was a ten-year-old named Norton. Cardboard Castles was a really nostalgic, in some ways more optimistic, album. And All You Can Do—I went through some shit last year, so I wanted All You Can Do to feel a little bit more mature but also feel like an evolution from Cardboard Castles that’s still speaking to the same issues. And because Cardboard Castles was kind of looking in to my past and the previous generation, I wanted All You Can Do to look even further into the past but through a perspective of an adult. And that’s why it’s kind of a tribute to late 60’s music and to my parents because that was musically the stuff they raised me on. They’re also the people who gave me the ability to pursue art, in a way, because they supported me so much. I love my mom and dad. Also, they happened to both be named Watsky, so I felt it was fitting to put my dad on the cover and my mom on the back because I took my stage name from my family name. So, I figured it was a way to bring a more mature perspective into the album, and having these open-ended conversations brought a lot more little pieces of honest wisdom to it than scripting anything. So I just had open conversations with it and kept parts, to me, that felt the most entertaining and the most true with the themes of the album.

So would you say you are most influenced by the music that your parents raised you with? Or what inspires you to write your music?

I have really broad musical tastes and that’s why it’s hard to pin my music down sometimes. I mean, All You Can Do is a hip-hop album, just like all my albums are. First and foremost, I’m a rapper and a poet and so that’s always going to be the baseline of my music. But folk rock and psychedelic rock seep their way into All You Can Do. I don’t think that anyone would say that a track like “Whoa, Whoa, Whoa” is a psychedelic rock track. But then “Cannonball” is. It’s got Stephen Stills in the chorus and other tracks have that influence on it. And it’s an organic album in that it doesn’t have a lot of synth elements in it. It doesn’t have a lot of programmable drums, everything is mostly live and tracked in a studio piece by piece, the way a rock album is put together. And I have a feeling my next album is going to be different than that too. I also did a bluegrass hip-hop album because I love bluegrass music. And I have a jazz hip-hop album because I love jazz music. And so I’m always experimenting with styles—I’m a strong believer in the mantra that there is good music in every genre and good is a very subjective thing. But I think regardless of the genre you go through you’re able to find something that’s got skill and is of value. I’m hard pressed to find any genre that I just can’t stand.

How do you rap so fast? Is it just practice and practice and practice?

The fast rap stuff is something that didn’t become a big part of what I do until 2011 when my video – the fast rap video – went super viral and I think that I already had some skill sets that made that possible. For instance, I was a drummer in middle school. And so I had a rhythmic background that was pretty solid. I also did theatre stuff too, so I had pretty clear diction. I knew how to work a chunk of lines that I wasn’t really able to wrap my tongue around with tongue twisters. So those two things, they really helped. A lot of being able to rap fast is actually not being able to just spit words out at a crazy speed, but being able to do so with a lot of rhythmic precision and clarity. So knowing where the syllables fall is more important than just being able to speak like an auctioneer. And those two things just really help, just like knowing where every beat falls in the bar. And also when you hit a segment that you really can’t wrap your tongue around, just practicing until you got it. So it’s a lot of hard work but also just having those foundational elements.

What advice would you give to anybody trying to become a musician or an artist in this day and age?

My two pieces of advice would be to figure out why you like what you like. Why is it a path you want to go down? Because if you start basically with a goal that’s really specific but you don’t know why you want it, I think most people end up unhappy because they think that they want to be rich and famous and beloved by people. And they put a lot of effort into becoming really well known, but then don’t know why—like, what part of their psyche and their ego they’re trying to feed with that and they end up just working their whole lives and they never get to where they want to go. ‘Cause it’s a ladder —there’s no end to it and I think that if you truly love your art. And you like the daily practice of it, you like the people you spend time with. That’s the most important thing. Being professionally successful is not mutually exclusive from actually being able to enjoy the process of what we do. So, you have to be able to like the daily grind of it, because if you’re going to be an artist, you’re going to fail over and over and over again. You’re going to have moments of self-doubt. You’re going to hit walls. You’re going to have humiliations, embarrassments. There’s just nobody that doesn’t experience those things. Everybody does. And it isn’t exclusive to being an artist too. It’s really any demanding profession. You have to be willing to slog it out. Go through the tough parts. Lift the merch boxes and scrape bird shit off the front of your car and do all of the things that don’t seem attractive because that’s part of getting to where you want. So those would be the two things and beyond that it’s just– once you nail down your ability to actually enjoy what you do and not have your happiness tied into the end result, then you have to work your ass off. You have to work your ass off and you have to work smart. You can’t just be, like, banging your head against the wall; you have to set goals that are achievable on a daily basis and be able to just make small gains every single day and be disciplined about it. It’s like working out. It’s like being an athlete. Every day, you make progress. Every day, you figure out what you can be doing better. You have to be honest with yourself about what your weak spots are so that if you’re not doing something as well as you could be, you can acknowledge when you need improvement in that area and then work on it. So yeah. Work your ass off and enjoy what you do. Those are the two things.

The show was spectacular to say the least. With supporting artists Anderson Paak and Kyle to warm up the crowd, Watsky managed to get the entire venue filled and sold out. His live performance was, to say the least, the most intricate hip-hop set I have seen, having a completely live ensemble. As most hip-hop musicians nowadays rely on computer software to help with the chorus or backup vocals when they run out of breath, Watksy does everything live. He comes packed with an entire band who each got to show off their talent. It gave every one of his songs a different feel live because it is a completely changed sound from recorded versions. He played his new and old songs and he managed to wrap his tongue around his extremely fast raps while running around on stage and making sure to keep the crowd pleased. The best part of the show was when he combined three of his songs into one, making all of the choruses clash and play off of each other very effectively. He ended the night with his most recent and popular single, “Whoa, Whoa, Whoa,” which made everyone sing the whole chorus and be astounded by his fast rapping.

Watksy continues to carve his own route in the genre of hip-hop by bringing a completely different feel to rap. From making his major debut on the internet to selling out shows around the country, Watsky brings his all in his live shows.

Sam Bulkley

January 6th, 2015

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