George Watsky has only been on stage for about five minutes when the unearthly screech of microphone feedback obliterates all other sounds. He is in the middle of explaining how unfriendly the security barrier is between him and us, but is interrupted by this painful noise. He doesn’t, however, seem fazed. Without any semblance of panic, he discards the microphone and speaks to the crowd unamplified: at the Oxford O2 an entirely silent crowd listens as George Watsky performs poetry.
If you don’t know who he is (perhaps your Internet’s been cut off?) he suggests that you could start with his poetry: “I might direct people towards my lisp poem, I think it’s a good example … I think my spoken word poetry sets me apart more than my music because there’re a lot of rappers out there. I don’t think there are as many people who are touring who advocate for spoken word poetry like I do. I also think it’s a good example of – I try a lot of times in my work to take what would be perceived as a weakness and make it a strength, and use it confidently, so I think that that poem does it well and it’s also got a lot of word play in it”. ‘S for Lisp’ is what you want to search on YouTube. The poem starts “So someone said to me the other day I’ve got a lisp / A stranger you know they said I’ve got a subtle lisp and I should know I sound a little stupid doing spoken word when all my words have S in them are spoken so absurd / And I’m not upset, okay it just sucks / You think you’re speaking normally for two decades and then shucks; Find out your stuff sounds like a stanza of Severus Snape’s toughest parseltongue is pronounced by Daffy Duck”. It continues to be just as eloquent and intelligent exulting the letter ‘S’ in spite of the stranger’s attempt to silence him. Much like the earlier account of the microphone issues, Watsky refuses to be silenced.
Not content with being just a talented poet, Watsky has used his skills of rhyme and metre to break into the world of music. He has now released several mixtapes, including A New Kind of Sexy and Nothing Like The First Time both of which are available for free download. His latest album Cardboard Castles is an incredible listen, with songs such as ‘Strong as an Oak’ sending messages of youthful hope despite the circumstances, whilst others such as ‘Ugly Faces’ have a real sense of humour. He suggests that he would style himself perhaps as a “lyricist”, a term which encompasses both aspects of his work.
YouTube is also an important part of Watsky’s work. He doesn’t describe himself as a YouTuber, saying “YouTube is the platform that I get my work out there on, but I don’t think it’s what I do”. Having gone viral with the video ‘Pale Kid Raps Fast’, Watsky’s channel has now amassed nearly half a million subscribers. He primarily uploads music videos, all of which are innovative and different – something to watch as well as listen to. I ask how he comes up with the ideas: “I’m not always the one who writes the treatment, I sometimes am. I have a group of friends who are filmmakers who I went to school with and we all migrated from Boston to Los Angeles around the same time. We usually pick what song we think has the most potential and then brainstorm together. If one of us has a concept we’ll bring it in and send it to the other ones and then we’ll get together for a production meeting and we’ll delegate tasks and roles to everybody and just try to flesh it out together. It’s very collaborative. I’m definitely really involved from the first step to the last step”. So, if you want to watch a half-naked Watsky fall to earth after letting go of a plane flown by a toddler in sunglasses, the ‘Ugly Faces’ videos is the place to go.
Also on YouTube is Watsky’s webseries: Watsky’s Making An Album and its second series Watsky’s Releasing An Album. It’s worth watching even if you don’t enjoy rap music because it is genuinely very funny, and with episodes lasting only around seven minutes it’s easy to spend an evening watching the whole thing. However, he reassures me that “ it was fictional. I mean it was a mockumentary. It comes from a real place of like wanting to lampoon the music business or what it means to be a broke content creator. So, the seed ideas were definitely rooted in reality, but in terms of like actual scenarios, it was fictionalised”.
At the minute Watsky and his band are just rounding up their second tour. This is his first visit to Oxford, saying “I just know of it as a very historical town with a huge academic tradition”. Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on your affection for Oxford traditions), owing to the tight schedule of the tour he and his band hadn’t made it onto a punt yet, but this is only a minor loss on what has otherwise been a highly successful tour. After more than three months on the road he’s still hugely positive about the whole experience, saying ““It’s amazing to me, I had no idea that we would get such a great response when we hit the road, we’ve got awesome crowds everywhere we’ve been and it’s a really humbling, touching experience. I mean, I’m living my dream right now and it’s awesome. There’s parts of it that are unglamorous, and it’s just like nitty-gritty, like get to the hotel and move the gear up the stairs and stuff that isn’t as fun as the rest. But it’s, in general, just great. I mean to be able to go out there and see people knowing all the words – and yeah, I wouldn’t trade it”.
He’s been on and off various tours now since about 2007, so he says he’s “pretty used to living out of a suitcase at this point”, he doesn’t miss home comforts such as his own bed but he does miss “friends in Los Angeles”. Incidentally, that’s also what he misses about student life: “more than anything I miss the social aspect – like, your friends get lazier and lazier every year and take less pains to go out and hang out with each other and when you’re at school everyone wants to go out and hang out all the time so I miss that. I do miss taking classes but I’m still learning a lot all the time, so more than anything it’s just the social aspect”. What’s his final message for students? “I guess my message is just … you never want to force yourself or put pressure on yourself to figure out what you wanna do before you’re ready to make that decision but if you do have an inkling that you’re passionate about something, it’s good to remove plan Bs from your choice from your life plan, because if a plan B that you have that’s comfortable seems like it’s more reasonable or accessible to you, you’ll probably take it. So if you have a thought that you might be interested in doing something, it’s not going to happen unless you throw yourself into it with full enthusiasm”.