The Art of Music:
Will Varley on 'Postcards From Ursa Minor'
- 29/10/15 -
Will Varley has been touring the UK, some bits entirely on foot, while writing some of its finest and most potent songs for most of a decade. His third album Postcards From Ursa Minor is about to reduce the likelihood of debate on that latter opinion by a fair amount. It is released on 30 October 2015 and you can purchase it on CD, vinyl or download from our digital shop now. We highly recommend you do that, as you're going to want to be prepped for his February 2016 tour and beyond.
We managed to grab some of this busy young man's time between touring with The Proclaimers and his album launch, followed by supporting labelmate Frank Turner on his UK arena tour throughout November 2015, to talk a little about the exquisite album artwork, and his thoughts about his own music and artistry. Oh, and here's a quick primer for you newbies: the video to 'The Man Who Fell To Earth'.
In the case of Postcards From Ursa Minor, was the artwork conceived alongside the record’s title or was it an idea that had been around for a while and just waiting to be put into context?
My first idea for the artwork was to use an image of the Large Hadron Collider. I had one image in mind so I contacted CERN and they were very nice and gave me permission to use it. There was a problem with licensing it in the end though; because we didn't actually own the image we couldn’t use it on t-shirts and stuff like that, so that is now used on the inside and onboard the CD/vinyl. So suddenly I was up against it to come up with another idea for the front, and that’s how it was born! It was pretty last minute.
Looking at both sides of the artwork, the front has a serene, forward-thinking — almost optimistic — clash of future and past, suggesting that music is able to unite peoples from everywhere, even places more distant than we can fathom. The back though breaks the serenity with military helicopters scoping the land, and a young girl seemingly about to sound a warning to others (perhaps). The artwork tells a story rather than being a static piece — is there a specific message here or more a thematic depiction of what’s inside?
I like your reading of the front cover, and I’d say the key thing with artwork is that it starts some kind of debate in the listener's head and draws you into the world in which the album is set. So it seems to be doing its job there! For me this album, and cover, is about trying to get my head around lots of big ideas like time, space and war through simple human stories.
How much do you think a sleeve can tell you about the music within? Does your artwork give away a mood or subject matter of the record?
I think the answer to that has probably changed drastically over the past few years. I mean, in the old days artwork had to be an advert for the record inside it. People would be flicking through the sleeves at the record shop and picking up things that caught their eye. That's a much rarer thing these days. Often by the time you see the artwork of an album you're already about to buy it or already have it. Digital albums still use artwork, but it's just a tiny square version of just the front cover. So I think you can be much more free these days with your artwork, without worrying whether it's giving off the right vibes in terms of genre, mood etc. Having said that, I feel like the artwork for this record does sort of match the mood somehow...
Do you think of your music as very visual? Is this something you’ve heard said about your music before? I happen to think this record, in particular, conjures some strong imagery through your words and the texture of your voice against the relatively bare instrumentation...
I know what you mean. Songs come in different forms. Sometimes they sort of 'float' outside of any visual space, and play on our internal dialog or subconscious. Other songs are like films to me, with plot lines and characters, and I hope those sorts of songs are a visual experience to listen to...even without the help of music videos! Interestingly though, I think often the less images you are explicitly describing to the audience, the more they will make up on their own. Take classical music for example. I think most people will experience very vivid imagery while listening to classical music even though there’s no lyrical descriptions. The imagery comes from other elements of the music, and from the listener's own mind.
Do you consider yourself an artist outside of a musical context?
I think everyone is an artist, it's just that for whatever reason people stop making art. If you look at the way children respond to the world, they are acting as artists all the time – drawing on walls, singing, or making forms of theatre. We lose that as we get older because words like 'talent' and 'career' start to change the way we perceive ourselves and people start to become branded as non-artistic, and comparing themselves to other people. I think that’s a huge problem in society and probably causes a lot of emotional stress. I make most of my music videos myself, and I would like to make feature films in the future. I also paint at home regularly, even though I’m rubbish at it!
Have you ever bought an album purely on the artwork, and if so, what was it and was it what you thought or hoped it would be?
I’ve bought lots of albums based on artwork. Back in the good old days I used to go down to Tower Records on a Saturday and buy albums. Of course a lot of the time I was buying music I already new about – various 90s grunge bands or slowly making my way through the Dylan back catalogue – but other times I’d just pick up stuff because I liked the picture on the front. Sometimes I'd find something great, sometimes I'd find something terrible! I bought David Ford’s first album I Sincerely Apologise for All the Trouble I've Caused purely from the artwork and it was utterly brilliant. I don’t know if that still happens these days. I think I’d probably google the band at least before I bought the CD. I’m so old I remember when we didn’t all have Google in our pockets all the time (pfft...that's nothing. I remember when none of us even had PHONES in our pockets - Some Old Timer).
What's it like having a physical copy of your own record in your hand for the first time?
It’s a great feeling. You feel a sense of completion, and in a way a sense of freedom. You’ve been tied to a process for at least a year or two, and when you finally hold the finished album that process is over, you can move on, it belongs to whoever listens to it now. I often find I start writing a lot after I get a physical copy back because the next phase of songs can finally start coming through. It's strange though. I got the vinyl back before the CDs this time, and although the vinyl are more beautiful in every single way, I didn’t get that feeling of completion till I got the CD in my hand. I guess because CDs were my format; when I was growing up, that’s what an album looked like to me. The vinyl revolution hadn’t happened yet. Vinyl was still my dad’s thing back then. Times are strange...
Times are indeed strange. What do you think of the album? Has it crushed you under its enormous poignancy and weight of brilliance? Do you think the artwork reflects the music inside? What do you think about the artwork, and how does it make you feel? Will you be going to see Will either on his solo tours or his support slots with Frank? What do you think about his place on XMR's roster? So many questions, so little time. Get back to us via Facebook, Twitter @Xtra_Mile or on email: contributions[at]xtramilerecordings[dot]com. Thank you for your time and enthusiasm.