Jason Webley is a talented musician – he plays a bunch of instruments, he writes songs that aren’t quite folk or punk but could be either. He has the skills of a circus performer, a mime artist, a busker – he was in fact discovered, in a sense, as exactly that: a street performer.
He’s visited New Zealand before but this trip saw him speaking as a guest of Webstock. Last year Webley fired up a Kickstarter to fund a rather quirky project – he was aiming for $11,111 (“the number 11 has been a funny thing in my life, I have all sorts of things wrapped up around that number”) and the project gained some $70,000.
While down here for Webstock Webley figured he oughta play a few shows again. I talked to him on one of his days off while he was checking out Christchurch. He was preparing for what he hoped would be his first gig in Christchurch – the last (and first) time he was there the city was all but reduced to rubble.
He tells me down the line, a little time off between the corporate conference gig and his handful of pub shows, that he’s “really quite sad” seeing all that hasn’t been done in Christchurch. He wasn’t “expecting to see the city still flat – and gone”.
He was touring here when the big quake struck – he was on the road with his friend Amanda Palmer. They first met at the Adelaide Fringe in the early 2000s, back when she too was a street performer. The friendship that blossomed saw Webley opening for Palmer’s band, The Dresden Dolls. Then to a musical project with Palmer (Evelyn Evelyn) and in and around that connection (“we’re great friends, we see each other actually a lot, almost all the time, which is crazy considering how busy we are”) Webley has continued to make music on his own. For himself. Most often it was for a stunned audience, jaws on the ground as he moved between guitars and the accordion, and then over to the piano.
Webley says he started writing songs “as a kid, before I could ever really play anything – my dream wasn’t specifically to be in music, to be a musician. But music was always part of what I was doing. I was, for a time there, more of a theatre person, I did a lot of acting and writing and that’s always been part of what I’ve done, it’s sorta all in the mix, but then the music side took over”.
He was late to the accordion too, an instrument he says is “versatile and interesting, you can dance and move, but it’s there with you, you’ve got your grip on it, you’re doing something with your hands and you can accompany yourself, you provide the rhythm and the melody”.
It was guitar and “a really crappy keyboard” that were first. And it was a band – a few bands – before there was ever the notion of street-performing.
“I was all about messy, noisy punk stuff and being in bands but I guess the simplest way to put it is that the idea of the band just didn’t work out for me. And though I didn’t really know the street-performer world I just fell into it”.
What happened, first, was the desire to record songs. To make an album.
“I had this job doing voice work – I’d be the ‘thanks for calling/your call is important to us’ voice, and I had ad-work and that sort of stuff. I got to know the studio and at that stage I just had this crazy idea to record every song I’d written. All of them. I just wanted to record them all. So I set up an 8-Track and that was my first album”.
Then, he “did the done-thing” and ordered “a thousand copies”. Once he’d “given a copy to all of my friends and family I had, you know, like 970 of them left. So that’s where I got into the busking thing, the street performing. It was simply a way of thinking I could offload this music”.
He says “I really only did the street-performing thing for two years, full time. And then it was off around the world to various places, playing gigs and making more records, just finding a home for the songs and sending them out to people”.
A mix of fluke and design has him as his own boss, a one-man-band both on stage and as the sole person responsible for managing his website, marketing and promotion, booking gigs, planning the PR, responding to interview requests.
“I’ve just found that if you involve too many other people you get gaps in communication that you don’t need – I wouldn’t say I set out to control everything but I’ve found that, definitely, this is the best way for me. I like to work this way”.
Nowadays Webley isn’t even involved, all that often, in the sorts of pub gigs he’ll be playing in New Zealand (“I just saw this as an opportunity, you come all this way, I might not be back here for a while”). He’s interested in doing up old houses, he’s working on the soundtrack to a Russian animated film. He’s discussing projects all of the time. But he’s enjoying the fact that he can pick and choose the work now.
He has a performance piece planned outside of Mexico in April.
But New Zealand is lucky to have him here right now. And he says, not just paying lip-service, that he’s very lucky to be here. We’re a good audience – we like him. He remembers fondly the last time he played Wellington. “There was something very special going on then, it was magical, a really great night”.
And this Friday, March 6, he takes the stage at Bodega again.