On an early spring evening a little over six weeks ago, Will Varley stepped out onto the stage of the Royal Albert Hall. “It was amazing” he gushes, evidently still not over the enormity of the event. “Absolutely amazing. One of the first records I ever had was Bob Dylan live at the Royal Albert Hall, and it became in my head the place to be, the place to play, and it’s been on my radar for years and years…the ultimate gig. I was only asked to do it two days before it happened so I had no warning. It was absolutely amazing, and quite an emotional night really“. Indeed, playing the Albert Hall is often seen as the culmination of everything that has come beforehand, the pinnacle of a career perhaps, but with Varley you get the sense that it’s slightly different. He’s been around long enough, that’s for sure, for well over a decade he’s been plying his trade in the pubs and clubs of England, but there was no sense of finality to the night here. As he took his place at the centre of that famous stage, it could rather be said that things were just beginning.
Just minutes before opening the Teenage Cancer Trust fundraiser at the Albert Hall, Will Varley had signed a contract with Xtra Mile Recordings – a renowned cultivator of roots music and independent artists, including the headliner for that evening, Frank Turner. From that night on, with his ‘Live At The Lighthouse’ EP recorded and released and with a nationwide tour underway, it barely seems as though Varley has had time to draw breath. “We had the EP out within a month” he explains “I wanted to get ‘We Don’t Believe You’ out before the election as I wanted to put my two cents in there, and we were also keen to get something out and the ball rolling. It was recorded at The Lighthouse in Deal, a beautiful venue with really lovely people, so it all came together pretty quickly really“.
“And how about plans for another album” I ask him, “Is there anything on the horizon?”
“We are making plans for a record, though we don’t have an exact date yet, but at some point – hopefully this year – there will be an album“. If it’s anything like the quality of his previous offerings, then it’s likely to be an album worth waiting for. Having set up his own label, Smugglers Records, in his home town of Deal, Kent, Varley first released the 2011 record ‘Advert Soundtracks’ before following it up with the critically acclaimed ‘As The Crow Flies’ in 2013. Both are littered with a mix of brooding satire and comical quips, the likes of which make up this latest EP as well as his live performances also. It’s a technique which has been well honed over the years it seems.
“I’ve been doing this for about 15 years, open mic’s and acoustic nights” Varley explains when quizzed on his ability to mix contrasting moods so well. “And when I first started out it was all really dark, suicide bombers and what not, and over the years I’ve discovered you can’t have one without the other. If it’s all doom and gloom the whole way through people will just stop listening and stop caring about what you have to say. I just think a little bit of lightness here and there can just make the darkness darker and the lightness a little more light, you know?” It’s a profound approach to music – deep thinking for the masses, an alternate and lucid view of the world contrasted with stories of Nick Clegg on a Gameboy Advance or sultry tales of thievery from supermarket self-checkout machines – but it seems even he can’t quite put his finger in where the inspiration originates from.
“Each song has totally different beginnings. They always feel quite far away and have a life of their own until you begin trying to write it, and then they begin to feel a bit less magical. Other songs just come a lot more naturally, it’s a real mix and it just depends on what it is and why you wrote it. The point of a song for me is if I can’t get my head around something, or if something’s sticking in my mind, I’ll write a song about it and try and get it out of my mind. It’s like a filing system in a way“. That’s quite a filing system. Not many musicians would think of writing the history of the world and putting it into song, would they? “That song [Weddings and Wars] was a bit of a challenge to myself” he admits, “I wanted to see if I could write a history of the world in three minutes“.
And therein lies another key to what makes him such an interesting character, that appetite for a challenge. Varley has toured twice on foot, covering 130 miles down from London Bridge and out across Kent in 2011, and more recently walking the entire South English coast, almost 500 miles up from Penzance to Deal. For all the singer-songwriters labelled as ‘folk troubadours’ these days, very few have actually done it in the true essence of its meaning. I ask him if there’s any more planned, a question met with immediate laughter. “I’d like to do John O’Groats. We did West to East, so I’d like to do North to South at some point” he tells me, before hesitating. “I’ll build up to it though, you kind of have to forget how hard it is before you want to do it again“.
Out on tour again currently – this time with the luxury of a car for transport – Varley is enthusiastic about how it’s gone so far. “It’s been really good. There’s been more people at the shows than I’d imagined there would be, and it’s been amazing to go out and play to lots of people so far away from home”. With venues already covered from Northern England and Edinburgh down to the South Coast, he arrives in Cambridge this bank holiday weekend, and it promises to be a special show. Having seen him manage to silence a typically rowdy Beans on Toast audience twice in Cambridge over the last year or so, The Junction 2 is set up perfectly for the intimacy his performances suit so well. And then beyond that? A couple of final dates on this tour, before a summer packed with festival dates begins with the small matter of supporting The Proclaimers on a nationwide tour. 2015 could be a big year in the life of Will Varley, and quite frankly, you’d be a fool to miss out.