Going below the surface with Will Varley in SF

Will VarleyBy Gina Lopez //

Will Varley //
The Independent – San Francisco
February 25th, 2018 //

Opening for London folk-punk act Skinny Lister on a Sunday night, British singer-songwriter Will Varley captivated fans at The Independent while touring in support of his fifth and most recent album Spirit of Minnie, which he released just weeks before the show.

The crowd, ready for a rowdy set from Skinny Lister, was silent as Varley, with his raspy voice, began his acoustic set by singing “The Concept of Freedom” that sounded reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” in rhythm and depth. Although it wasn’t at capacity, The Indy held the largest, most attentive crowd I had ever been among — even more than an intimate coffee shop performance. But Varley has a way about him that engages his listeners, as though they are not just listening to him but listening with him.

And with that inviting nature, Varley manned his own merch table after his set so he could meet fans while being kind enough to let me interview him.

With this being my first exposure to Varley, besides having listened to a few of his songs online to prepare for the show, I was struck by the depth of his material. So, I started by asking him to tell me about his lyrics. What inspired his introspective words?

“I like the way words come together,” he told me. “It never feels too difficult or too deep. I feel like something is in my head that I can’t get out, and writing releases it and brings me a sense of peace.”

Varley creates narratives around what he observes. While onstage, he explained to us that one day this past summer, he noticed ants invading his kitchen, and that led to the “ant song”, an exploration of an ant’s point of view.

“Little things can get your mind going, a trigger, I guess,” he said when I asked him more about the songwriting process for his “ant song”.

Varley’s lyrics, whether lighthearted or profound, are observant. Only a man who is observant and a protagonist of his own life can write lyrics like “By the time you can speak, they got you in school / Where just asking questions is breaking the rules” on “King for a King”. Varley is a rule-breaker whose lyrics confront political systems and social norms, try to make sense of life (i.e. “The Man Who Fell to the Earth”) and laugh at the absurd.

Will Varley

While Varley struck fans silent by showcasing a profound folk repertoire, he also had many laughing when he sang the buoyant “Talking Cat Blues”, a layered, yet fun tune that jabs at capitalism, war and pop culture’s obsession with cat content on social media. As he played the song, Varley acknowledged a couple of fans standing in front of the stage. Recognizing them from the Los Angeles and Phoenix shows earlier that week, he invited one of them to provide a meow sound. The crowd hooted and clapped with approval at the meow that was heard throughout the venue. From cats to beer, he then delivered “As for My Soul” as some audience members raised their glasses as if they were toasting him.

Along with being a talented musician, Varley is a funny storyteller and not just through his lyrics. In between songs, he engaged with those in attendance, telling humorous anecdotes about changing a lyric when the original reference to some British brands was unknown to foreign ears.

“Sometimes I’d say a lyric and realize it doesn’t make sense in America,” he told me.

As he performed his cynical cut “Weddings and Wars” and got to the line “Instead of hunting now we go to Tescos”, Varley stopped for a minute to explain that Tesco is a large grocery and general merchandising retailer in the UK. He then asked the audience to tell him what Tesco’s equivalent in the U.S. might be. Walmart was the consensus among the crowd. Subsequently, Varley continued singing and comically inserted Walmart into the lyrics.

Though cultural differences vary around the world, Varley said, “People seem to be the same everywhere you go. Folk music runs through all human beings. Folk music goes beyond you, beyond geography.”

Indeed, his music goes beyond the surface of things and reaches into the enormously rich experience of the human heart.

My final question to Varley on this night was what he liked most about SF. He said a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown called House of Nanking is his favorite restaurant that he frequents every time he visits the City. He also enjoys the views of the Bay.

Telling me that “the people here are amazing, and I’ll be back as soon as I can”, it seems as though Varley’s return to the Bay Area isn’t far off.

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