INTERVIEW: Will Hannagan (WILLING)
He's ready, witty and able, and to kick off 2018 in sinfully smooth style Melbourne's new prince of alt-R&B electro-pop Willing (aka Will Hannagan) is charging full steam ahead, whipping crowds into a frenzy with festival appearances while standing on the brink of unveiling his sophomore EP 'Small Cruelties'.
Theatrically offbeat and fantastically diverse, Willing is a one-man groove factory who is just at home crafting mock glam jams as he is pouring his flawless falsetto over an ocean of synths. But despite the larger than life tunes and live show to match, there's more to Willing than just glitzy bells and whistles - in fact, his genius lies in his uncanny ability to balance restraint and excess, never sacrificing true musicianship over shallow one-hit-wonders.
Having just released his lead single 'I Swear We Won't Get Caught' off the forthcoming EP, there's a whole lot ahead for this up and coming electro wizard, but in between dipping his toes further into the music industry, Willing took a few moments to chat future, past and present - and how heartache paved the way to ear worm gold.
TIANA: Thanks so much for chatting to today! So Will - AKA 'Willing'...I'm not really sure where to start with you because I've read some incredible descriptions of you, I think "Frank Ocean meets Liza Minelli" was a personal favourite. How did you fall into this glittery electro wonderland? Was there a particular type of music you grew up listening to?
WILL: Well (laughs) I grew up listening to Liza Minelli and Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler, and they're all my idols because I was a music theatre boy, and a cabaret boy. That's what I've done for the past seven years of my life, I'd do the cabaret circuit and I just sort of found that as I kept developing I continued to write pop and then I found it was moving more and more electronic in its focus. And I also found that cabaret was a very niche world and that I was getting more joy out of the creation of the music and the performance of the music than actually performing in these cabaret venues with that sort of banter/repartee/comedy shtick thing that comes along with the cabaret world. And I was also feeling very limited by it, but I think that's when I just decided I had to stop calling it cabaret because basically I was just making music with banter in between, which I can do anyway at a gig - but I can brand it as a gig and I can perform the music I like to a broader audience because it has broad appeal. So, yeah! I guess that's how it all happened. That's not to say that my influence isn't very much in the electronic and R&B sort of world nowadays, but growing up that's how it happened.
TIANA: And there's a whole lot more to your background as well, you've actually written for the theatre, you've done plays and a whole lot more so clearly you've got more than a few strings to your bow that have now culminated in this project called Willing...
WILL: Absolutely, for me what's always important is narrative and I think that that's what came from the theatre and the focus when you were developing things like that, it's always the narrative stuff - who's the Protagonist? Who's the antagonist? What's the action and the obstacle and all that sort of thing? And I think I bring that to my songwriting, especially lyrically but also even in terms of orchestration and what's supporting me on this quest, or what's stopping or hindering me from getting there - all those sort of elements I think need to be there and I think it makes for dynamic and compelling music and performance, and it's something I try to carry into my life. I mean, the audio product of a recording is something that people can enjoy at home, but if you wanna get people off the couch out to see you, you've sort of got to offer something that's a bit more dazzling. So I think that's what the theatre background has helped with.
TIANA: You've just recently unleashed your divine single 'I Swear We Won't Get Caught' off your upcoming EP 'Small Cruelties' - and you have been previewing the EP recently live, what's the reception been like so far, particularly for the new song?
WILL: Yeah, it's been pretty good, especially amongst my friends. I'm still a pretty new entity and I've got some more things coming up...but in terms of the actual reaction to the single I've just had so many friends dm-ing me and being like "I've added it to my playlist" or "I've got it in the car". And it's really encouraging when people not in your direct circle of friends, more like people who know you as an acquaintance are actually taking the time to write to you and say that you've affected them in some way, that's been encouraging. I certainly can't wait to get a bit more press from doing a music video or something like that - and that's all in the pipeline!
TIANA:You've previously spoken a bit in your press release about the track, and there's also been mention of influences like Janet Jackson and Perfume Genius. But was there a particular catalyst that conjured this tune on a personal level? Or are you just waking up with these bangers magically in your head and you manage to get them out somehow?
WILL: (laughs) The construction of this one was a bit calculated. I mean, the Perfume Genius thing makes sense on that sort of neo-narrative level, but I don't think that sonically that's where this came from. This definitely came from that Janet Jackson sort of world, I was listening actually to her new album ('Unbreakable') a lot and there's a single on that called 'No Sleeep' and it's just so smooth. It doesn't really sound anything like that in the end, but that was sort of the inspiration track and then I had listened to this podcast where they were talking about the importance of title and taking a song and then making the main thematic of the song something that really catches people off guard, sort of turning around a common idea and trying to invert it. And so that's where 'I Swear We Won't Get Caught' came from, which is all I had, just that lyric to start with...about sort of enjoying a liaison rather than it being at the other end of the liaison and accusing someone and being the other woman or the other man or whatever. So that's where it kind of all started, and then I was out with one of my straight mates and talking to him being like "I've got this great track, I have a great beat, I've got a great feel for the chorus but I don't actually know what it's about beyond 'I Swear We Won't Get Caught'...". And he said to me "it's obviously about having a crush on a straight guy" and I was like "oh! What does this mean about us??" (laughs). And so then I thought that was actually an interesting sort of concept to have this crush on someone that's sort of unattainable, but perhaps there's some fluidity in their straightness or something. So that was interesting to me, and I wrote it around that idea. I was also very interested in the idea of the straight guy being the object rather than the subject in the song, as I thought it was a way of being anti-patriarchal or in some way an act of protest, creating this sort of normal R&B track but making the straight guy the object. It was fun to play around with that.
TIANA: And I've also read that your upcoming and second EP 'Small Cruelties' has been described as a "breakup EP"...is this actually the case, and if so is it autobiographical or just a generally a universal thing that we sadly can all relate to?
WILL: (pause). It's totally autobiographical. It's quite brutally honest. I presented a theatrical rendering of the whole EP recently and I actually did twelve songs, I did an album's worth. But because of the limitations of recording something independently I had to limit myself. And I think that if I had have released the full album, you'd get the full weight of the narrative crux of the breakup. But moreover, it's really an examination of rupture and a rumination on what the immediate rupture causes, because there's two causes - there's obviously sadness and nostalgia and melancholy, but there's also liberation, promiscuity....sluttiness (laughs). With these two sort of reactions you go in two directions and you start going way too hard doing all these things, sort of living an epicurean life of excess on the one hand and then these midweek downs of trying to pay for that (laughs). And it's all sort of permissible because you think the break up excuses this total hedonism, which it does in a way. But on this sort of intellectual level it's like "am I really even this bad?". So that's what it was, it's definitely a rumination on rupture and it's certainly, totally autobiographical, to be totally honest. I don't write in metaphors, everything happened - maybe some are a bit exaggerated, but others definitely not (laughs).
TIANA: It's certainly something I think we can all relate to, myself 100% included, so thank you for making me feel a tad more normal!
WILL: Well that's it! I think the thing is that when you're entirely specific about your feelings and emotions, the commonality of experience will still allow people in. And because you're being that precise hopefully people will be even more - hopefully! - more affected by it because you can't be that precise without being that honest.
TIANA: So while you're relatively a bit of a newcomer on the scene you have done a few things in the past, you've previously released your debut EP and you are turning heads with this whole synthy, slinky electro pop, or however you want to label it. But I'm intrigued given that type of genre you're becoming known for and your theatrical tendencies - are there any bands or artists that you might have hidden away on a playlist that might surprise people?
WILL: Oh! Well I'm so honest about all my daggy taste. I think the real truth about me is that I'm a total mum in my tastes, I just love listening to things like k.d. lang (laughs), that may be a bit of a secret. And I love listening to Robbie Williams, I mean I'm such a dag!! (laughs) I try and be more cool and listen to a bunch of house bangers or some hard techno or something, trying to give in a little. Oh! You know who I love?! This is my absolute biggest love - Ariana Grande! But in terms of any of it being a secret, I don't lie about any of that stuff because the thing is for me...with popular music, it's quite elitist to dismiss things that are popular because they unify in a way and they bring people some joy and I like to listen to things on both side of the spectrum.
TIANA: And to put you on the spot - if you could go back in time to write any song, what would it be?
WILL: Oohh....In the context of this breakup, probably 'Landslide' by Fleetwood Mac. That's a song I just kept listening to on and on repeat. But also, anything by Stephen Sondheim.
TIANA: Ooo, perhaps there's a future covers album for you - Willing does Sondheim!
WILL: I'd actually love that, some sort of electronic Stephen Sondheim covers album, that would be hysterical!
TIANA: And last but not least, you've already performed some live shows this year and you mentioned there's a potential music video in the works...but what else is on the cards for Willing for 2018? Open to interpretation, or have you got a game plan on the go?
WILL: I certainly have a game plan, as we spoke about earlier I did the theatrical launch of an album's worth of material so I want to record, I guess, a B-side and record the other tracks that aren't on this EP, and I want to have them released pretty quickly. And then I want to get this music video out there and then later in the year, I just want to gig a whole lot more. Like I said earlier, I'm quite new to the music game rather than the musical theatre and I think both will always influence what I do and I just want to start gigging more and keep building it up.
TIANA: Well I hope one of those gigs brings you past my way, but in the meantime thank you so much for your time and can't wait to hear more!
WILL: Thank you so much!
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BY TIANA SPETER