We came upon Bingham Willoughby’s music and sat back a little stunned. Here was a new artistic voice, unfamiliar yet intimate in it’s approach and impact. Accessible, poetic and conversational lyrics engage the listener in surprising ways. Atmospheric arrangements and unique vocal choices mark each cut. Bingham, Ontario based, left the city, escaped into the Canadian countryside and recorded his debut CD, ‘Maybe Not Today, Maybe Tomorrow’. He wrote, sang, played every instrument, and self-produced the project. Bingham Willoughby is an Artist to watch.
Thank you Bingham for agreeing to this interview. I spent a great deal of time listening to your music. I noted that I wasn’t listening from my place as an interviewer, but refreshingly, as a participant. Of course that making my job a bit harder, because I wasn’t laying mentally what I heard in your music over other tracks and artists that I had heard before. So now I can’t ask the usual questions. As the lyric in ‘The North Light’ suggests ‘It’s up for interpretation’. If you’re game my friend this may turn out to be an adventure.
What I enjoyed most about your music is its resistance to being pigeonholed into a genre. Many songwriter/performers write in the framework of a genre feeling it’s necessary to be a success. Has that been problematic for you?
I agree, my music isn’t a tidy fit into a single genre—I didn’t set out for that to happen. I began this recording with a few goals, mostly based around the notion that it was to be an “acoustic” record. I mainly play acoustic guitar, and I originally had intended to do a voice and guitar record. There are several tracks that ended up that way—but others seemed to be wanting more of a “band” treatment, and things took off from there. The sound is centered around acoustic guitars, but some electrics crept in; electric bass, of course. I think of the Rhodes piano as vaguely acoustic as well. So I call this acoustic music, and the genre I picked to categorize it under is “folk”. My subtitle category is “singer/songwriter”. I second guess those decisions daily. The current climate is very genre obsessed, and I’m not sure if that’s great for music. But there are an astronomical number of artists out there, and you need to start somewhere. There’s an “other” category on ReverbNation—I may well end up there. It’s been problematic in the sense that I’m not great at genre picking for myself—I basically thought acoustic guitar equals “folk,” but I’m not exactly a protest singer. I’m performing solo these days, just me and the guitar—but there’s no itinerant troubadour genre—as of yet! As for restricting yourself to one genre? It’s probably not a bad idea. In terms of needing to belong to a genre, to be successful? I didn’t make this album with the marketplace in mind. Truthfully, I made it the way I wanted to—not knowing if a soul would hear it—or like it. I’ve been more than pleasantly surprised, by the response.
How does a song come to you? What inspires you?
I think after you’ve thought about song-writing, or music for an extended period, it becomes so preoccupying that it’s always taking up a bit of residence. It is as if it’s in the very furthest corner of your peripheral vision, so that you’re catching a glimpse of it all the time. The little experiences that pass the time are being filtered by this habituated perspective. You end up extracting the information. For example, I once extrapolated an entire song from what started as an odd cadence made by a printer—and yes, it was a longish road! I just run around hoping to be surprised. Then at other times, it results from painstaking repetition. I do take great inspiration from conversation—and not necessarily the “eavesdropping” kind. One completely disparate element can become the body of an entire song, for me. I don’t necessarily begin by saying the song is about this and therefore it must be about one thing—whereas other times I will. I try to place myself in a new context every time, or decontextualize the song, if it’s proving problematic. I find the sound of the guitar to be very effective in eliciting a response in me—tone fosters language at times and vice versa. I literally try to write them any way I can. Imagined scenarios washing into the personal—or the negative being transformed to the positive.
What is the most important element of a Bingham Willoughby song?
For me, the most important element of my songs, is the response the listener has—that’s where these ideas take flight—the listener is the catalyst. Before that, the songs remain inert. I refer to my tunes as being “lyric” driven, but no picture is complete without a background—so I think the effect is best expressed as a product of the music and lyrics.
Your lyrics ebb and flow between strong poetic phrasings to personal and conversational lines. Is that intended?
Yes, blending together these elements, is definitely intentional. I consciously blur the lines. You can internally be responding to something profound, and yet when the moment arrives you may well verbalize it colloquially, and it has a surprising impact. That’s how I experience things. I’m a sucker for the flower growing out of the crack in the cement. There’s profundity shrouded in the colloquial and hidden in the pauses of conversation—and it’s possible to be misguided by the poetic. So much of what we experience is open ended—things can be fragmentary. I’m trying to capture that, at times.
When I listen I am connected to the lyric and the music almost seems atmospheric. Am I getting that right? Is the lyric the most important element of a song to you?
Yes and no. You strive to have the various components working on a number of levels. The lyric is joined to the melody, and that is intimately connected to the music. They are interchangeably the “blood” or the “veins”. I play, and therefore write, with an open sounding style which has developed over a long period. One has been continually informing the other. Is the lyric the most important part of a song or my songs? Probably. It’s psychological. The voice is the universal component. Not everyone plays an instrument, but we all have a mouth, and unless someone plays—it’s their de facto focus. And the lyric is the medium for the voice. I started out as a player before I took over the vocal duties, and having worn both hats I can tell you, the vocal isn’t the only emphasis—but for most listeners—it’s the focal point. The cliche scenario of the band being ushered out of the frame, while the lead singer strikes a pose is too true. Sorry guitarists, I feel your pain! The nature of my music has everything to do with me simply trying to conjure up what I picture in my mind: sonically. I take extreme care to fashion the accompaniment to be the greatest support for the singing, and for the track. It’s a hard question to answer because as much as I view them individually, I view them as a whole equally. Simply put, it ends up being about the song first and foremost. I love that word atmospheric, so thank you.
I have read the promo blurbs comparing you to a host of artists. Although I am sure that is flattering I find you honestly unique. You have a strong poetic voice, clean arrangements, and an interesting vocal approach. Is that planned or a happy accident? What comes first lyric/story or the music/arrangement?
I can honestly say that “happy accident,” applies to very little of what I do. I certainly had moments in the recording process, that weren’t necessarily planned. I’d say, it’s more along the lines of, the scenario that there’s a piece of food stuck at one end of the maze and more than one route there! I’m released and then compulsively try to get to the end. I always record one tune at a time. In terms of what comes first, my tunes can begin either way, or in combinations of the two. I categorize the songs more along the lines of, this is a particularly “vocal” one or this is more of a “guitar” one. I don’t place a restrictive framework on it, other than I want them to feel complete unto themselves. As for comparisons, I do feel flattered but more in the sense that the listener has felt a connection to the songs, and it reminds them of a familiar touchstone. I certainly strive to be myself, and offer something novel. I’m influenced and inspired by many artists and musicians—even to the point where I attempt to borrow a little of what I perceive to be the impact of their energies on me. Even if their music sounds completely different. As for my vocal approach, I really just try to communicate the meanings and emotion that the lyrics represent—it’s by far the most painstaking aspect for me.
This is a personal question, being a poet/songwriter myself and due to some ancestral influences in your family tree do you see yourself as a poet as well as a songwriter?
Personally, I put great emphasis on my lyrics and lyrics in general. I’m also a reader of poetry. I probably elevate the poet above the songwriter, but they are very different mediums for me. A lyric in its very essence is meant to be sung, whereas poetry (particularly in its more abstract and avant-garde incarnations), can be the product of type setting and word placement on a page, and can be less contextual. A lyric can be a poem, more than admirably—but some poems literally can’t be song lyrics. I don’t pit one against the other. I strive to be poetic in my lyric writing, and I don’t feel that every single thing necessarily needs to rhyme without question. It’s all up for grabs, the way I see it. You try to evoke the imagery effectively—because not doing so, means that you’ve missed the opportunity to elucidate the moment or attain the emotion—and for lyrics, the emotional part is inexorably tied to the voice. As for family trees, I’ve got a seriously great line crumpled up in my D.N.A: “Stone walls do not a prison make/nor iron bars a cage.” It is just such a great line. I’ve even heard it quoted on some TV show recently—some 400 years, after Richard Lovelace wrote it. I can’t even imagine something I’m doing now resonating after that period of time. Honestly, it’s a tantalizing thought. More to the point: people will decide what resonates for themselves. I’m working on it. I hope that my lyrics aspire to the poetic, and it’s my wish for them to resonate with people. Ask me again in 400 years—it’s mind boggling! I do write “poems,” and I’m not shy about cannibalizing them for the tunes. A poem can become a song for me. I wouldn’t rule out a book of poetry, at some point in the future. I believe Richard Lovelace wrote, “To Althea, from Prison,” whilst in prison (the first time). On that front, I won’t be following his lead!
Do you have a poem to share?
I don’t have a “poem” as such, that is in a finished enough state to share at the moment. I’m not in the habit of sharing my unfinished work, per se, but because of the kindness of your request I’m happy to give a preview of a lyric, from an (as yet), unreleased tune I’m finishing—see what you think:
I’m throwing pebbles at your window,
hoping you’ll throw down your key—
hoping that you’ll answer.
What if the things you liked about me,
have not resisted change.
And, will you choose to hear me beckon you
when that stone bounces off your pane.
I keep alternating “pane” with “pain”—these little quandaries. I fear literal interpretations.
My little itch has been satisfied. Very nice! Thank you!
On your currently released CD ‘Maybe Not Today, Maybe Tomorrow’ you wrote all the songs, played all the instruments, and recorded it yourself – skillfully! Do you prefer working alone? What differs for you working with other musicians and a producer?
Prefer, might be over stating things a bit. I do probably write best alone—but if the situation arose… You have to remain open to new scenarios, because there are many, many talented people I’d love to work with. The pot being stirred in an uncomfortable direction is harder to arrive at alone, but believe me it is possible. In a strictly logistical context, the grunt (and extremely important) part of the process like track cleaning, is your responsibility—but it literally pours you into the tracks—and you’re on a first name basis with every blemish. The esprit de corps, is something you sadly miss, particularly in the more run of the mill times. Also, you have to be your own second guesser—and that’s not the easiest position—but there may be a small amount of comfort in questioning yourself. The end result is you might end up having to blame yourself! Also, not seeing eye to eye with some one in this environment is truly a nightmare—so you avoid that.
Is doing it yourself a part of your personal makeup?
At this point, yes.
I had read that you moved from the city to the country to record the CD. How much does ‘place’ and ‘environment’ affect your writing?
I’m not sure if I could whole heartedly say that the country has effected my process that much. You are off by yourself with more privacy, but ironically “nature” can be surprising noisy—so you’re still trapped inside a closet to record your vocals. A change of scenery probably does clear the cobwebs, but I’ve actually come up with some unexpectedly urban narratives lately. You’re accessing experiences—so you get what bubbles up. Where I can comment on the “environment” aspect has more to do with Canada: the cold and snow. We’re inside for at least 6 months of the year (perhaps closer to 8), so for that concentrated amount of time, you’re looking outside at total whiteness and it gives you time to think. That seeps into your consciousness. For example, if you look at my tune, “The North Light” (which isn’t a weather reference)—even if that song had a different title—it’s still a winter song. For the video, we assembled a bunch of snow footage—and for me, it’s unimaginable for that song to not possess that sensibility. That peculiar sensibility is a product of my “Canadian” experience. So yes, it has had its influence.
Moving away from what you know is courageous and uncertain; do you take on the rest of your life that way?
I don’t know if it’s necessarily courageous, in my case. I do agree that sometimes it is, particularly if you’re putting yourself in harms way to help people. I have undying respect for those individuals. I’m a bit of a restless sort, and I get a kick out of changes of scenery. Quite frankly, being a musician you could argue, fosters a higher tolerance for uncertainty. There’s plenty of that, in several categories! I’ll admit to having a tendency to live my life that way—but I feel comfortable in a particular place too.
It seems to me you ‘center’ yourself as an Artist rather than a Pop Star. Going away to record the CD does hint to a person that considers themselves an ‘outsider.’ It’s clear you take the ‘craft’ of songwriting and performing seriously. How would you speak to other songwriters/performers about ‘integrity’ and ‘responsibility’ as relates to their work?
I tend towards the designation of “artist” over “pop star”. Though a pop star can certainly be an artist, it’s a more congested route the other way. Seldom does an individual manage to embody both for very long. I guess there’s an “outsider” element to how I did the CD, but in this era of recording, the one man show is more common. I didn’t program a bunch of Midi. I made a conscious choice to play the physical instruments—which is a bit different—but other people are making that choice too. I’d like to be an insider (laughs). I did set out to make a CD with my idiosyncrasies intact. I definitely made some decisions based around—for the lack of a better phrase—some sonic, creative conceits: zero auto-tune, for one. In terms of integrity and responsibility; those have to be self-regulating for artists. You definitely want to have people look upon your work as having creative integrity, but if you decide to take a different, or even ill advised direction—you invariably will have irked the odd person that wanted another serving of the same thing. So is it your responsibility to deliver the same thing? My point being, that it’s a circular problem. There’s the responsibility of integrity (laughs): the goal is to write and play as best you can. If I had to say anything related to work, it might be along the abstract lines of are you asking the appropriate questions of yourself, and are you providing the answer that serves the correct purpose? More importantly, is it right for the song? It’s highly personal. I’m still questioning some creative decisions—and I’ve already released the tunes.
What is the one thing you want your growing fan base to know about you?
I place real importance on how these songs resonate with my listeners. They’re a crucial part of the equation in this, for me. My intention is to try and communicate my thoughts and impressions—and as such, I’m just presenting these tunes. It truly is the people listening, that give these songs their voice. I’m grateful that my tunes have been allowed to seep into their lives a little bit. I’m working hard to create some more, and I hope they’ll like those too.
In you there is a real sense of working at songwriting as a ‘Craft’ in your work, as opposed to working from a formula. Something I believe is missing and needed these days. What would you say about the ‘Craft’ of songwriting?
Songwriting is a “craft,” because you’re able to transform something. An area that I’ve had many debates/discussions about, is where the process has to depart from the intellectual (passing for “formula” in this instance) and rely on the emotional. That’s where the extra chord comes in. That’s where the lyrical shift occurs. That’s when you might chose to subvert the structure. I’m not saying you should necessarily make those decisions, but you have to be willing to entertain the notions. These aren’t new ideas, but I think it’s something to keep in the back of your mind—you might need to do it, to successfully articulate what you’re saying. I try to stay open to these things.
The title of your CD begs a question – how is your work ethic? Do you procrastinate on projects?
I’ve been asked this a few times now, and I always want to use that line about “not incriminating myself,” but (truth), I’ve been known to procrastinate. Sometimes…with beneficial results. I practice guitar generally two hours or so a day, and that increases prior to my shows. I consider it to be my vocation. I think my work ethic is pretty good. Exhibit A: if I were a true procrastinator…my album would have only been an EP—instead of 16 tracks! As for the, “Maybe Not Today, Maybe Tomorrow,” title; I intended it to be both speculative and hopeful. I wanted it to invite, and be evocative. To echo your sentiment from earlier—I wanted it to feel open.
What’s up for the future?
Next up for me, is more concentrated touring—outside of Canada—to promote this album. I’ll be seeing you soon!
‘It’s open for interpretation!’ but I say the world is ready for a breath of honest and fresh air from you. It’s been a privilege chatting with you. And Dave and I will be watching your career closely. Thank You!
Ken and Dave: I truly appreciate you taking the time to listen and I sincerely thank you for this chat. It has been my sincere pleasure. I found your questions to be refreshingly, thought provoking. I thank you, for that.
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