I’ve heard it said that bad news is always better received when given by a pretty messenger or placed in an attractive package. Willie Wisely must have heard the same thing, because his most recent record, Parador, is a collection of some of the most heartbreaking stories of lost loves and life’s defeats told through syrupy-sweet power-pop songs. These songs play like they were written by someone who got really into XTC, and then later discovered the Beatles, but only after hearing that they were a really big influence on XTC’s music.
In the more recent world of popular music, Wisely’s songs resemble those of a slightly older, wiser and more world-weary Fountains of Wayne. Wisely has moved far beyond the schoolboy infatuation with the high school sweetheart’s mother. He’s already had the marriage, the mortgage, the divorce and the drinking problem, and now he’s developed the sense of humor and perspective necessary to tell the stories.
It’s been a while since Wisely released 1997’s Turbosherbet, but he definitely hasn’t been slacking. He’s been living in Los Angeles where he’s had his hand in about every media outlet L.A. has to offer, including working as a music producer, scoring several films like “Tromeo and Juliet” (Andy Dick’s newest comedy) and two Scooby Doo flicks, and working as an actor in numerous films and television shows, including HBO’s “Six Feet Under.” After all that, however, Wisely is glad to return to making pop music.
“I’ve always really only wanted to be a recording artist first,” he said. “All that other stuff was just me testing my legs in Los Angeles and seeing what my heart wanted to do. It just seems like all those other projects, acting included, involved stifling your personality somehow. It just seems like when I write songs, there’s none of that. It’s pure expression.”
These days, Wisely’s main concern is writing complex songs about real emotions, and challenging the commonly perceived notions of what popular music can be and who is allowed to make it.
“It’s unfortunate that pop music is considered a young person’s art form,” Wisely said. “I wanted to make a record that was emotionally dense. I’ve made records that were very bright and colorful, that were full of splashy ideas, but I’d never made a record that had a lot of emotional gravity, and I set out to do that . And I’m not worried about the age thing. I think with the crumbling of the music industry as we know it, all this ageism is going to go away.”
With Wisely working diligently to make his music more emotionally dense, I asked him how much of this record was biographical. At first, he said most of the record was autobiographical, but that there are a few exceptions, notably the beautifully sad narrative “Too Quick to Love.” Then, after pausing in thought, Wisely changed his mind: “You know what?,” he said, “‘Too Quick to Love’ is totally autobiographical about me, too. I wanted to write a song called that because all my life — I remember I would freak girls out because I wanted to get so hyper-committed, and I’ve always been such a ‘husband,’ you know? And I’ve always been too quick to call it love and it would ruin it, it would ruin the fun.”
Wisely set a daunting goal for himself with Parador, and for the most part, he has succeeded brilliantly. The album possesses a distinct ability to tell you a true, heartbreaking story that maintains its emotional depth while simultaneously being so catchy that you’ll find yourself smiling and humming the tune days later. This didn’t come without a certain amount of hard work and perfectionism on Wisely’s part.
“A lot of stuff wound up on the editing room floor,” he said. “So much so that there’s a separate CD released called Parador Alternate Takes. It’s all the same songs, but completely different versions of every one of them. It’s all the rage now to have your fans mix or remix your record or whatever. Well, this is neither of those. It’s literally the same record twice. But two different ways.”
I noted the similarity to XTC’s Homespun and Homegrown records, which he said he wasn’t familiar with, but wasn’t surprised that they’d beaten him to the idea. I pointed out that it wasn’t so bad to have something in common with XTC, to which Wisely replied, “Amen, brother.”
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