Not many musicians get to release their first album as Will Westerman did. Since 2018, sites like Pitchfork and Stereogum have heralded the singer-songwriter as “up-and-coming” and an “artist to watch,” thanks to his track “Confirmation” and two EPs. His gentle brand of art-pop earned him endless comparisons to Arthur Russell and Nick Drake. Now, after a relatively quiet last few months, he’s returned with his highly anticipated debut album, Your Hero is Not Dead, via Partisan Records.
Westerman’s electronic folk music rewards patient listeners. Most of his tracks unwind slowly, sometimes going on for over a minute before he opens his mouth, like on the aptly named recent single, “Waiting on Design.” He then lulls the listener into a sort of trance with his rhythmic guitar playing and liberal use of phaser pedal.
Truthfully, Westerman is cut from the same cloth as many of the famous singer-songwriters of the late 20th century, like Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Elliot Smith, Nick Drake, Arthur Russell. He reads philosophy, he’s purposeful in his speech, often shy; he even apologizes for not being articulate enough despite his perpetual bookish word choice, and his lyrics read like poetry. At the root of each of his songs is always Westerman, his guitar, and a story. But despite what his mature songwriting might suggest, he hasn’t been performing very long.
“I didn't actually play live until I left university. I guess about five years ago, maybe six. I was self-conscious about what I was doing until I realized people weren't [telling me] I was rubbish. I sort of forced myself to just go and see if I could do it. I thought I would be annoyed with myself if I didn't. I wasn't one of those people who spent their teen years playing in bands in front of people.”
He’s ultimately grateful for the late start, though. It’s allowed him to maintain a clear head about his career. When the press outlets started dishing out praise, he didn’t sprint out and haphazardly release a record on the first label that came to him to capitalize on the press. He’s looking at the long run, doing things at his own pace.
“I've been, maybe fortunate is the wrong word, but I've seen people, I've seen what happens to people — people [joining] major record labels too early, when they don't really know what they're doing, end up very confused and not wanting to make any more music,” he said. “It's very sad when that happens, but it's quite frequent with the music industry. So, it's very important to separate the two [goals], obviously, if you want to keep making music, you hope that there'll be some sort of response, but it's gotta be that way round as opposed to trying to create the response. That's a fool's errand.”
To record the album, Westerman rented a house in Portugal in January 2019 to get away from the bustling London lifestyle and invited other musicians to come and collaborate. For the first time, he had a cello and oboe players at his discretion. He could take his time, gaze at the orange groves and go on walks with the musicians. “That month, last January, was one of the best months of my life,” he says. “It was the first time I've been able to experience such a prolonged period in a kind of creative bubble.”
Before this album, Westerman normally wrote and recorded alone, or with his partner-in-crime, producer Nathan Bullion. And while some artists might oversaturate their record with all the newly available instrumentation and players, Westerman applies them gently, like how a painter uses shading, giving increased depth of each song, and uplifting his most notable strength, the interplay between his vocal melodies and rhythmic guitar work.
While recording in Portugal, Westerman had no idea he’d be writing for an album that would release during the peak of a global pandemic. Coincidentally, his original goal for Your Hero is Not Dead was to act as a source of hope in wavering times. As the pandemic pushed on, he dreaded the thought of the album being pushed back for thematic or financial reasons. Luckily, it didn’t.
“I'd rather the album came out sooner rather than being delayed because I have made the record, which is kind of speaking to difficult times,” he says. “Really. I think that the record is a kind of reaction to times of struggle. Without trying to be opportunistic, I felt that it would be maybe nice if people could hear what I've made. I've actually listened to it myself a couple of times for the first time in about a year recently and I was finding it helpful.”
Your Hero is Not Dead confronts topics like environmentalism on the hypnotizing single “Blue Comanche,” where he sings “Turn back around Comanche / Walk me through the blue cornered sundown and on.” And on “Big Nothing Glow,” he muses on the homelessness crisis in the U.K., which he believes has gotten worse in the last few years, especially in London.
“I felt that from my perspective, I found the last few years has not been fantastic overall in terms of global news,” he says. “It doesn't feel like a kind of very progressive time. It feels more regressive. You can react to that in different ways. You can do something, and I decided that I wanted to react to it with a kind of a hopeful message, and speak to isolated individuals and try and conjure a sort of feeling of optimism and hope.
“That's the sort of sentiment I want to have in the record. It's not supposed to be pretending that everything's fantastic; it's trying to let people hope, or feel hope basically. And I'd like people to be able to sort of see that in whatever way they like within themselves.”