Westerman, A Bold Artist Abroad, Makes Folk-Pop Tinged With Longing
In the mid 1960s, the minimalist poet Robert Lax followed in the footsteps of St. John the Revelator and relocated to the remote Greek isle of Patmos. “I had hoped only to find a quiet place to live for a while and write some poems,” he recalled in his 1996 book Love Had a Compass. He remained there for the rest of his life, learning that “you are never alone in Greece.”
Will Westerman, a London-born musician who scouted out Athens a few years ago, has read Love Had a Compass. He’s familiar with Lax’s narrow vertical lines on the page that resemble scrolling celluloid film (Lax had previously worked as a critic and a screenwriter). Westerman, meanwhile, builds sophisticated folk-pop songs around characters in pivotal situations. Looking at Westerman’s lyrics written out summons a similar impulse: to make a movie from those scenes.
The song “CSI: Petralona” from his new album, An Inbuilt Fault, follows “four people rolled into two characters,” he tells MTV News, on a track that’s a travelogue around the hip Greek neighborhood of the same name. “Athens is small / Everybody knows you here,” he sings amid details of intoxication and new friendship. By the end, he lets out what sounds like a cry of defeat: “I think I might be done here.”
“It's a response to a feeling of hopelessness,” Westerman says. “It sounds negative, but in my head it's positively inflected.” He made the city his official home in October 2021.
Six decades apart, both Westerman and Lax — weary pilgrims on a journey of meaning — looked for refuge in Greece. An Inbuilt Fault, out today (May 5), abounds in reflections and perspectives from a nomad’s point of view. As he lights up a cigarette on our Zoom call, Westerman explains what called him to Greece was somewhat unknowable, though steeped in romantic notions of escapism.
“Immediately when I got here, I just thought I liked the way this place seems — very different to where I'm from, which was definitely welcome,” Westerman says. “Attitudinally, London can be a quite inhospitable kind of place at times. Something about the kind of culture here is very familial, and everybody's just very, very friendly to each other, which is nice. I'm not that used to that.”
After a few of his spartan pop songs caught on in 2018, he capitalized on the buzz with his quietly dazzling 2020 debut, Your Hero Is Not Dead, made with West London producer Bullion. An Inbuilt Fault finds him loosening up musically. Where 2018’s “Confirmation” boldly declared plenty over a synth squiggle, new track “Pilot Was a Dancer” sounds like a funk-metal band doing an unplugged set. It boasts a “warped” pedal steel run through a squadron of electric gear. “Everybody just kind of went to town,” he says of the drums, guitar, auxiliary percussion, and whatever else is buried in the mix.”We did a few takes of just really going fucking ballistic in it, and then at the end [we said], we'll just see what we've got.”
Westerman’s humor is dry and elevated, more in song than in conversation. An Inbuilt Fault is the only album you’ll hear this year featuring the word “jagaloon” and a reference to the Roman poet Catullus. Any notions of stately and reserved songwriting are dismantled on An Inbuilt Fault, a folk record for the clubgoer. “Idol; Re-Run” finds him singing the word “motherfucker” three times, in different tones, over beautiful windswept art-pop that sways like a Mediterranean breeze. “That'll wake people up,” he recalls thinking of the section. “It made me laugh when I was writing it.”
He’s still learning the language and the customs of his adopted home, despite studying Greek philosophy in university. He’ll offer what he thinks is a polite gesture only to realize it’s rude. But people are kind and warm. Westerman is keenly aware of his status as an outsider, though some of that may be self-applied. “I'm always going to be an alien here to an extent,” he admits. “But I would really like to be able to get a richer and closer relationship with how the kind of culture works here.” One way he’d like to do that is by learning the language a bit better.
In the meantime, a line from “Help Didn’t Help at All,” a straight-up slow jam, sums up much of the album’s isolation. “I only have myself,” he sings in a lovely falsetto. “Now even that feels so ephemeral.” And then later, on a song called “A Lens Turning,” he’s adrift: “I don’t know who I am anymore.”
There’s inherent danger in assuming any song is a first-person narrative about Westerman’s life. None are, directly, but they’re certainly informed by it. After meeting Big Thief drummer James Krivchenia at a live gig for the now-defunct band Pottery in early 2020, they paired up through a mutual friend and began to flesh out Westerman’s demos. He gave up control in favor of finding out where the songs would go with a live band present in a room in Los Angeles.
“The way that we recorded it, I said, I've already written all these parts, so that’s not really useful to get good musicians to play something that I've written. It's much more interesting, I think, for me to say, these are the chords to play, and see what they do,” he said.
The music unspools patiently amid lyrical mentions of Judas Iscariot and an “idol” whose fate is ultimately meaningless because, as he sings, there’s always going to be another. (“I was thinking a lot about disposability,” he says.) He slightly repurposes a line Gil Scott-Heron used to protest Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign: “We don’t need no re-run.” And yet, there is hope, if incidentally.
In writing his findings after decades on a remote Greek isle, the poet Lax seemed to suggest that even there — geographically closer to Turkey than Greece, and continents away from his early career in New York — there was always someone around. Westerman’s not exactly off the grid in Athens. But he’s feeling good and generous about the company and even extends an invite before he signs off the call: “There are so many beautiful things to see here.”
The moment calls to another on An Inbuilt Fault’s album’s title track. After going on for minutes in a seemingly circular argument with someone, the “motherfucker” mastermind strikes again: “All I know is lalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalala.” He sings it an uncountable number of times, joined by a parade of voices melting into the ether. You are never alone in Greece.