Musician Will Stratton '09 discusses his albums, his craft, and music today Over the past few years, a small movement has emerged at Bennington, one that has contributed a number of new and moving voices to the contemporary music scene. At its center of it is singer-songwriter Will Stratton ’09.
Stratton is the type of artist who can be free-associative and on point all at the same time. Even his blog— willstratton.com
—meanders from e.e. cummings references and the reductive power of “best-of” lists, to explaining which guitars serve to enhance his singular finger-picking style. It is the same with his music: a style that is both intimate and far reaching, casual but lofty.
Stratton, née Will Lulofs, has most often been compared to such voices as Nick Drake and Sufjan Stevens. These are apt observations given the skillful poetry behind Stratton’s lyrics, and the degree to which he innovates around tone and rhythm, taking from such diverse musical traditions as minimalism and folk. But a Stratton song is also specific, one marked by a potent brew of wistful nostalgia and haunting melancholy.
Listening to his albums, one gets the sense that the young artist lost something many years ago and music is the quest to regain it. One also hopes—perversely and for the sake of the searching emotions he evokes—that he not succeed.
Stratton has been working at a fast clip, producing three albums in the past four years. One emerged after he arrived at Bennington (2007’s What the Night Said)
, one just as he graduated (2009’s No Wonder
), and in the summer of 2010, his latest, New Vanguard Blues
, was produced. Each is marked by specific explorations and experimentation, but they all seem part of a piece, united by a seriousness of craft not often encountered in music today.
We talked with Stratton about all those subjects—the albums, the craft, and music today—and also what’s next. Bennington College: You started playing music at a very young age, around three. Can you recall when you first understood that music was your muse?
Will Stratton: I'm still not sure that it is my muse! It's an endless battle, like any good love affair. Music never really clues me in on where I stand. The closest thing to a moment of epiphany about music as a focus of my life was probably in my sophomore year of high school, when I got to write a piece for a Juilliard string quartet that was coming through town to play an Easter service at the church that my family went to. Hearing some incredible musicians treat my ideas with such care and expressive clarity was a very moving and humbling experience, and taught me about the power of composing.
BC: What, then, inspires music for you, or what specifically inspired What the Night Said, No Wonder, and New Vanguard Blues?
WS: What the Night Said
was about growing up in the suburbs in New Jersey. I still don't know if No Wonder
or New Vanguard Blues
had an inspiration that can be named, other than I had these songs that kept cropping up, and those albums were my way of organizing and rationalizing them. I always have to cut myself off almost arbitrarily in order to complete an album, or I will keep trying to polish it until there is nothing left. That very nearly happened with No Wonder
, which took nearly three years, on and off, to write and record. New Vanguard Blues
took a year to write, but it only took two days to make, and then I ordered myself not to work on it anymore because it seemed to stand on its own with minimal modifications.
BC: Do you know when an album of material has emerged?
WS: Recorded music is so ephemeral that I find myself constantly of two minds over whether something is complete. Eventually I have to let go of the current project and tie up all of the loose ends because I feel it growing distant, and I feel the next thing coming on. There is something freeing about allowing an album to be finished more or less on a whim. BC: Your music has a lot of unifying elements to it, but is that true of your lyrics too? Do you find yourself returning to themes over and over?
WS: Family and genealogy seems to be an emerging theme for me now. Jealousy, passivity, and helplessness are seemingly inexhaustible topics for me, and on the other side of that, serenity, stoicism and acceptance have their allure. For the most part, I spend very little time on my lyrics and I try not to think about them at all, lest they risk derailing everything else. The biggest musical intrigue for me is the balance between beauty and dissonance. I am always searching for a new way to introduce a hideous musical idea in a way that highlights the beauty or the elegance of another musical idea.
BC: That’s curious. Can you give me an example of what you mean?
WS: On the last track on my most recent record, three minutes in there is a very loud 30-second burst of guitar noise, after which the song continues for another minute and a half. I try to make choices like that every once in a while because I think that they momentarily bring the listener out of the song, and then bring them back in from another viewpoint.
BC: Have you changed musically after, or over the course of, three albums?
WS: My music is less confessional, and it’s a little more concerned with genre than it was at first. I am hopeful that my music has become more harmonically interesting than it used to be.
BC: You said in one of your blogs that music emerges for you from “vague discontent.”
WS: My motivation for making music is always baffling and elusive to me, like an itch that never goes away. The only thing that makes the itch temporarily disappear is trying to expand and improve on the music that I have already made, by replacing it with something that, to my ear, sounds better or more profound. In a general sense, I think that all art comes out of some sort of dissatisfaction with the world, and it is that impulse that I think I was referring to.
BC: Did your four years at Bennington shape your musical sensibility?
WS: I mostly studied music at Bennington, and mostly with Allen Shawn and Nick Brooke, along with a few classes with Kitty Brazelton. Allen was supportive and managed to be pleasantly surprised by nearly everything that his composition students brought to him. Watching him pore over my classmates’ scores was nearly as instructive as working with him one on one. Nick was constantly putting disparate ideas together in class, and keeping up with his capacity for synthesis was mind-bending (in a very good way). And Kitty had a propensity for deconstructing everything, even her own syllabus, within a single class, and then calling on the class as a whole to put it back together with her. Studying Schenkerian Analysis in her Advanced Theory Intensive was like stumbling around in a room with a bunch of feral animals (again, in a good way).
But, of course, Bennington was great for lots of non-musical reasons. Coming from New Jersey, the Light Pollution State, it was the first time I could recall seeing so many stars in the sky on a silent winter night, which likely made a deeper impression on me than anything else. BC: We’ve noticed that a school of musicians has emerged at Bennington recently, between you, Mountain Man, BOBBY, and others. Do you have a sense of why?
WS: I do think that we all share a pretty specific perspective about what music means and has the potential to mean. And it was really great to watch them develop when we were in school. I am flattered to be in the company of the bands you name, as both are favorites of mine right now and I have made some music with them. Other favorites who I first knew from Bennington: Anastasia Clarke ’10, who now goes by the name “Silent Isle.” Real Estate, which counts one Bennington alum, Alex Bleeker ’08, as a member. Horse’s Mouth, who I play around with quite a bit in the city; Flower Orgy; and Trevor Wilson ’09, who I tend to think of as the spiritual heart of the music scene from my time at Bennington. Amelia Meath ’10 (of Mountain Man), Michael Chinworth ’08 (of Horse’s Mouth), and I have been singing in Trevor’s new vocal ensemble, and I think he is writing some very singular, striking music. As far as why the music scene was so rich during our years at Bennington, I have no answer—maybe that’s the norm; I’m not sure. I feel very lucky that it was.
BC: Now that you’re a part of the larger music world, what does success look like to you?
WS: Being able to tour without being preoccupied with affording food and shelter. In general, making my living off of music entirely, and not having to spend a majority of every week working at a desk on something unrelated. That is the definition of success for me. If I can do that just by continuing to make this music, I will be very happy.
BC: Is there anything that worries you about today's music scene?
WS: I firmly believe any shortcomings that people might extrapolate about music coming out right now has more to do with the process of releasing and promoting music in the post-monetary badlands of the record business than anything actually having to do with the artists themselves. Musicians are just as talented, as driven, and as visionary as ever. Attention spans decrease, the market becomes oversaturated, the arcs of musicians' careers shorten, and the ability to appreciate the mythology of a great artist dies in the process. And the music suffers due to neglect. A new medium may be the only answer.
BC: Do you know what that medium would be?
WS: No. Although I think about it a fair amount. But to really devote myself to finding an answer to that question would be to let go of record making. That would be a big tragedy. We have only really had recorded music as a standalone art form on the level of novels or films for half a century. That's too little time. I think I'd rather participate in a dying medium that I believe in than be a pioneer of a new medium that I might have reservations about. Will Stratton is currently working on a fourth full-length album, tentatively called
Post-Empire. You can learn more from his website, mentioned above.