WILLY MASON with RADIOHEAD at the Hummingbird Centre (1 Front East), Wednesday and Thursday (June 7 and 8). $71.65. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
Willy Mason can't open for Radiohead until he finishes his chores.
The just-turned-21 singer/songwriter, who lives with his large family on Martha's Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts, says he's still obliged to do the same housework as ever.
But rather than sulk at the unfairness of his parents' demands or just leave the nest, which his burgeoning career would easily allow at this point, Mason views fulfilling those duties as part of an important work ethic that's served him well in music.
"It's healthy to do some chores," says Mason over the phone a few days before hitting the road with Radiohead. "It keeps me motivated and gives me perspective - motivated to work hard and keep trying.
"The nature of this industry almost mystifies things to the point where music isn't seen as something you have to work hard at, put effort into and continue to get better, like a carpenter or a stonemason would. So I think it's important to take that attitude."
Despite Mason's humble, blue-collar ideas about his career, he'd have to admit that he's enjoyed a certain degree of good fortune. It began when a friend of Conor Oberst was driving on Cape Cod in the small hours and heard Mason's shoddily produced demo transmitting from a Martha's Vineyard indie station. The mysterious patron left his number with the DJ, and Mason eventually got invited to a Bright Eyes gig in Northampton, Mass.
Oberst dug the young buck's heartfelt folk style, which is not unlike his own, and snuck the underage Mason into a bar after that show for some rites-of-passage drinking.
"I woke up the next day on their tour bus in Vermont," recalls Mason. "I was 18 at the time."
He became an impromptu opener on the tour, and Oberst released Mason's debut, Where The Humans Eat, on his Team Love label in 2004. (It was later re-released by major Astralwerks.)
That brings us to fairy tale number two. At the 2004 SXSW, Mason was allotted a dismal time slot. Despite that, the empty venue and a three-person audience, Mason played his heart out.
After strumming his last chord, the three hyper blokes with Brit accents pulled out their business cards and formed a line to shake his hand. All were from BBC Radio One, and one of them was heavy-clouted disc jockey Zane Lowe, a career maker/breaker who took Mason's soft-anthem single, Oxygen, overseas and spun the hell out it until England fell hard for the doe-eyed, soulful-voiced young American.
"I came over and tried to back up the song by giving people the full picture," remembers Mason about his first UK voyage. "It was cool, it was fresh, it was a new audience, and they were pretty receptive. They could understand what I was talking about in my music."
Joining him on one of his cross-Atlantic excursions, and for a John Peel session, were (even younger) brother Sam on drums and Mason's mom, Jemima, doing backup vox.
That sounds like a twisted way for a smother-mother to keep an eye on her troops, but in actuality she was just returning a favour.
Jemima, a notable New England folk singer in her own right, invited Mason to back her on guitar when he was 13, his first stage moment ever. Yep, besides backbreaking chores, music is a family affair.
Although Pops, also a folk player, wasn't exactly "psyched" to hear Will's first rock band rumbling from the basement, he eventually capitulated.
"He didn't like the idea of playing loud music in the house," says Mason. "But now he helps me out a lot. He's always good for trading ideas and giving lots of criticisms."