While being best known as a rapper, Watsky is not afraid to branch out and touch upon other genres of music to help enrich his one-of-a-kind sound. Check out our interview with him below!
In today’s music industry, It can be said that many well-known rappers fail to add heart and soul into their lyrics. By preaching mostly about drugs, money, and degrading women, the struggle of putting a positive message out to their audience is ever prevalent. Unfortunately, it is because of this negative message from mainstream rappers that many people get this prejudged notion of what rap and hip-hop songs are supposed to be about. Some artists, however, are establishing a unique style and lyricism which is not afraid to go against the grain to completely defy the status quo of what the typical rap song is supposed to be about. Altwire recently had the privilege to speak with one of these individuals who are fighting the good fight one line at a time in slam-poet-turned-rapper, George Watsky.
Watsky recently released a new album, ‘All You Can Do’, on August 12th, which was a huge hit in multiple countries, and will be starting a world tour for the album starting in September. Here’s what Watsky had to say about his new album and upcoming tour!
AltWire [Mattison] : Can you give a little background about yourself for readers who may not know much about you?
[Watsky] I’m from San Francisco, I started off in the arts by doing spoken word poetry when I was a teenager. I was about 15 or 16, and I saw this show called Def Poetry Jam, which was on HBO, it was a theater show and really fell in love with spoken word. For the next 5 or 10 years, I got really involved with it. I did competitions, and open mics, then when I was 19 years old, I was on the final season of Def Poetry, right before the show was canceled. From there, I started touring college campuses. I spent about 4 years doing heavy college campus touring, hundreds of gigs. I was playing in cafeterias, student centers, and stuff like that. I went all over the country, just traveling alone, to do stand-up, but the whole time I was trying to get my independent music career off the ground. I was putting out albums, totally independently, and I used the money I made touring college campuses to fund my first few music videos. I actually went to college in Boston while doing this. I was still doing spoken word things after I graduated in 2010, and in 2011, there was a viral rapping video that got millions of hits overnight. Then I went on the Ellen show, and that was all funded through the spoken word gigs that I did. That one video kind of got the snow ball rolling for me getting an audience, and I was determined after that happened to try to turn out as much music as I could to try to keep the fan base growing. So for last 3 years, since my video happened, I have been trying to stay really consistent putting content out. It wasn’t until 2012 that I was able to finally make the transition from college gigs, to playing concerts with my band. It took a lot of determination to make that happen because when you’re successful in one world, it’s tough to get a booking agent to see what you see in transitioning to another one. In 2012, I went on this tour called the “Nothing Like The First Time” tour which I half-way did myself since I called, emailed bookers and taking door deals for venues. It was pretty successful. Then I put out ‘Cardboard Castles’, which was my first album since the internet flash happened in 2013. We went on tour for that and that was even more successful than the last one. We did better numbers and then I went back at it and just did Warped Tour this past summer. So now this will basically be our third national tour that we are doing.
[AW] Who would you say your biggest musical influence is?
[Watsky] I have a lot of influences that fall on different sides of the spectrum. I have people who have really influenced my writings which is spoken word poetry nobody has every heard of, and ones that are really big poetry fans. But I guess one of my biggest ones is Beau Sia who really influenced my persona on stage. My stage persona is very different then just talking to me normally. I really do try to make my music sound honest, so the way that I talk is similar to how I talk in conversation, it’s really not a voice or anything. I have definitely been influenced by guys like Eminem and Busta Rhymes, but if you listen to my music you wouldn’t think they’re similar, except for maybe the rhyme schemes and styles. The stuff that I rap about is very different. Guys like Atmosphere have been inspiring to me, and really people who have built any kind of fan bases without going corporate, without having major label deals. In terms of building a career, that really inspires me.
[AW] What song on your new album means the most to you and why?
[Watsky] I didn’t even think about that. I wrote about 30 songs when I started the album, and cut a lot of them. It doesn’t include any songs that I wasn’t passionate about. I did a song called ‘Cannon Ball’ which is the last song on the album that I’m proud of. I always try to include some spoken word poetry in my albums because I have this background in poetry, and I have an opportunity to expose people to spoken word even though they may not listen to it otherwise. ‘Cannon Ball’ is basically a piece of spoken word that has some chorus on either side and Stephen Stills actually sings the chorus. The album is kind of a tribute to may parents in the era of music they grew up on, late 60’s early 70’s, psychedelic rock and folk rock, so that was one incorporated with the past, a really good example of that. I like the song ‘Let’s Get High And Watch Planet Earth’ too. It’s a sillier song, and has a very short verse, but I really like the melody and it doesn’t sound like anything else I have done before. It’s a love song, a silly love song, about getting high and watching nature shows but also experiencing the feelings of getting old with somebody you really love so I really like that song too.
[AW] I wanted to discuss you dedicating this album to your parents, and putting your dad on the front of the album, and your mom on the back cover. Is there a reason you chose this album for that over the other ones?
[Watsky] ‘Cardboard Castles’ was an album that I was proud of but I wanted to make a record that felt less self-indulgent and tried to shine the spotlight on some other people. The people who were influential in raising me, and gave them credit for how much of a hand they had in what I’m doing now. My dad is a poet, my mom is an elementary school librarian so they both really instilled the love of language in me. They both moved to San Fransisco around the time of the summer of love, and influenced the album in that way. Also because my stage name is Watsky, it’s my last name, they’re Clair Watsky, and Paul Watsky, so I thought there was something kind of cool about putting different Watsky’s on the cover. The inside booklet is all a photo book of my family history going back to the 1800’s. I thought it was cool to give a spotlight to the people who raised me and my background. All of the transitions on the album are interviews that I had with my parents. I recorded them talking about a bunch of different things. For ‘Cardboard Castles’ I interviewed a 10-year-old kid to sort of represent the younger version of myself. In some ways this album is a response to ‘Cardboard Castles’ which was a very nostalgic album about childhood, and this one is not a nostalgic album in the same way, it’s more looking in the other direction about getting older. So I interviewed my parent about their experiences and at certain points in the album you hear them talking about different periods in their life.
“I spent so long performing for very few people, in playing these small colleges, that I really appreciate having an audience now and I’ll never take it for granted.”
[AW] Is there any one song that you would dedicate to your parents?
[Watsky] They’re referenced in a lot of songs. If there is one song where the influence musically comes through, there are some more than others, like ‘Lets Get High And Watch Planet Earth’, ‘Hand Over Hand’, and ‘Grass Is Greener’. They have that soul rock influence. ‘Never Let It Die’ has a spoken section for my mom at the end, and there is a piece of poetry at the end of this song, about my family coming through Ellis Island from Poland.
[AW] ‘All You Can Do’ hit number 1 on iTunes in 4 different countries, and number 2 in 4 others. How did you feel about that?
[Watsky] It’s exciting. I spent so long performing for very few people, in playing these small colleges, that I really appreciate having an audience now and I’ll never take it for granted. How many people actually listen to my stuff is gratifying. You work extremely hard on a project, then when you put it out to the world and and it lands with a thud, it feels great. I’m really excited that its doing well.
[AW] You have an upcoming tour, starting in Denmark and ending in India, are you pretty excited about it?
[Watsky] Yeah, I’m especially excited for India. I feel like I don’t know how long I’m gonna be able to tour for, and I’ll do it for as long as I am able to, but you don’t always get to choose when you career ends, sometime it just happens to you, so every time we go out I’m trying to treat it – not like I’m expecting it to be the last one – but that it could be the last one. For instance, I’ll be sitting down with my tour manager today and we will be talking about how we are going to make this tour really special for everyone who is involved. My touring party is like family, they’re not a group of hired guns or different mercenary musicians, and roadies and stuff like that. These are friends that we grew up with who have learned to fill different roles, as merch person, tour manager, musician etc. Nobody is there because they have been hired by a label to do something. Touring for us is not about grinding it out, at least for me it’s not like saying “Oh, we have to do this so we can get more fans and make more money,” it’s about saying “getting the tour is the payoff that we’ve earned from working really hard, we have to enjoy it”. We get to play music in front of people who love you for a living, and that’s something that we have to enjoy. That extends into why we go to weird places where I may not have that many fans. I may not have that many fans in India, but I get a chance to travel to a part of the world and get taken there by heart. That’s why were going to Australia too. I know we have fans in Australia, but it’s still super expensive to play bring and play with a full band versus going over with a DJ where you can go make some money. At our level, you’re selling out 500-1000 person venues, and that still doesn’t necessarily carry the overhead for bring a 10 person crew all the way to Australia. Were doing it because we built a base in the United States that gives us a financial cushion to do things like that. I’m really stoked and every time we go to Europe, we wonder what the line-up is going to be like. Can we go to Denmark, can we go to Sweden next time. Maybe we’ll go to Iceland next time. It’s fun for us to figure that out.
[AW] Who will be opening for you?
[Watsky] Different people in different markets. The a band called The La Fontaines in Europe. They’re a rock band with hip-hop included in their music. In the US is a guy named Kyle, very common name, may be hard to search on Google. But his label is called Super Duper, and his name is Kyle. The guy who produced the album, Anderson Paak is playing both Europe and the US with us. He’ll be doing a 25 minute set opening every show. He’s going to be singing with me too. In Australia we don’t have any supporting acts, it’s just us going over there.
“I grew up on hip-hop, but the album in particular is an album that I made, not for people who don’t listen to hip-hop, but for people who listen to lots of different types of music.”
[AW] That is all I have for you, but is there anything else that you would like to add?
[Watsky] I would just add to take the album for what it is. I think that it can be confusing to some folks, who expect to go in getting a traditional hip-hop album. I grew up on hip-hop, but the album in particular is an album that I made, not for people who don’t listen to hip-hop, but for people who listen to lots of different types of music. Because of the music my parents raised me on, I wanted [the album] to feel really eclectic musically so I think for hip-hop fans it’s been a little hard to swallow, because in some ways it’s a rock album, then it goes to being like a folk album, and I’m rapping on it. It’s a collage of different styles. I just urge people to keep an open mind when they are listening to it and to not expect on genre or another. Also, to know that I’ll come back and I’ll do another mix-tape, that’s more straight down the middle, but I was kind of experimenting with this one.
[AW] I had the chance to hear your song ‘Bet Against Me’ and it definitely goes from one genre, right to another.
[Watsky] Yeah, that one sounds kind of like a Rage Against the Machine song at the end, and then you have ‘My First Stalker’ which is like 200 chords in the background, and then ‘Cannon Ball’ is more of a folk rock song. ‘Boomerang’ is like a 90’s song. That’s all I would really say to anybody out there who is reading the interview and thinking about checking the album out. Genre wise, just keep an open mind about it, it’s going to be a mix of a lot of different things.
Watsky – “Bet Against Me”