Tim Hughes talks to Carterton garage rocker, and former plasterer, Willie J Healey
IF he had been a little bit better with his hands, Willie J Healey could have been a great plasterer.
With his dad a master of the trade and Willie eager to learn, the pair made a perfect double act in and around their hometown of Carterton.
“The problem was, I wasn’t that good at it,” he confesses. “I could only give you a lumpy wall. My dad is a real craftsman, but I was really the guy who carried stuff.
“It was really good fun though. I listened to music all day and then got a record deal, which meant I didn’t have to do it any more.”
If you have even a glancing interest in the Oxfordshire music scene, you will have heard of Willie J Healey. The skinny, softly-spoken, small town troubadour with his shock of curly red hair has been knocking gig-goers for six with his expansive brand of garage rock since breaking through over the past six months.
We last saw him supporting Palace at The Bullingdon on Friday – tomorrow he does the same at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire. Then, next Friday he headlines his own show at Modern Art Oxford.
The shows come as he launches new single Greys (the follow up to last year’s acclaimed Would You Be). The song is about small town life, what might happen if he was abducted by aliens, and whether anyone would even notice. “I like sci-fi”, he says, by way of explanation.
It also sees him preparing to release his debut album. Festivals follow – including local gathering Truck Festival, in Steventon.
“It’s really fun,” he says while relaxing at home in ‘C-Town’, as he fondly calls it. West Oxfordshire’s second biggest town, with its lack of major excitement or, crucially, distraction, suits him well.
“I’ve lived here all my life,” he says. “It’s pretty nice. It’s fairly slow but that’s good for me as I like that pace of life. I used to play lots of football and still have lots of friends here. It was better to grow up here than in the city – though there are times I wish I could walk down the road and watch a gig.
“It has fed my creativity too. If I am bored it forces me to make my own fun. I sometimes want a bit of hustle and bustle but when I am here it does force me to concentrate on my own stuff.”
The 22-year-old former Carterton Community College pupil is self-taught, admitting to never having had a guitar lesson until very recently, when he bought himself a few sessions as a treat.
“My music was something I did on my own,” he says. “I have never played a gig in Carterton and it wasn’t a big thing at school. My dad and grandad both play though and would always play at Christmas, and that was my main motivation to play. I wanted to play Oasis covers with them.”
He honed his craft at Oxford & Cherwell Valley College, taking a music diploma.
“I was going to go to university, but didn’t get in,” he says. “So I decided to use the money I would have spent on myself.”
He hit the open-mic nights in Witney and Oxford and drove around supporting local acts such as Spring Offensive and Salvation Bill – becoming a familiar sight in his choice of vehicle: an undertaker’s black limo.
“I needed something big and ended up with that,” he says. “It would judder down the road, but then fell apart, so I traded it in for a van.”
He is joined in his band by another Carterton legend, virtuoso drummer Mike Monaghan – who has wielded the sticks for Gaz Coombes, Candy Says, Ralfe Band, Co-Pilgrim, Danny & The Champions of the World and more – and another local lad, Witney guitarist Chris Barker. They jam and record in Willie’s garage – quite literally making garage rock.
He describes the band’s sound as indie-rock.
Comparisons have been flung around, with everyone from Lou Reed to Bruce Springsteen mentioned, but especially T Rex star Marc Bolan. “I’m quite flattered when people say that,” he says. “There is something in the sound and we definitely go for a 70s thing. And the voice isn’t a million miles away either. He looks good too, with good hair.”
He adds: “We are now at the stage where we can put on a headline show and people will come, which is a bit odd as we’ve always supported people up to now.”
All attention is now on the new album – People and their Dogs.
“The name just had a ring to it,” he explains. “I live near a dog walking field and have always liked that sweet relationship owners have with their pets which is sometimes overlooked. And sometimes people do look like them too.
“It’s not literally about dogs though.”
Does he have a dog of his own. “Yes... six!” he laughs. “My boxer Macy had puppies – and one of them, Jeff, has his photograph on the album.
“Jeff is a real rising star and heading for the big time,” he laughs. “He definitely has his paw in the door. Watch this space!”
Willie J Healey's Greys is out now.
He plays a free gig at Modern Art Oxford, Pembroke Street, next Friday, May 5.