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Watsky: ‘My Mantra to Myself When I’m Writing is “Dig Deeper”’

The American rapper discusses creative dilemmas, vulnerabilities and his biggest influences

Aditi Dharmadhikari Feb 20, 2018

As far as Watsky's core message is concerned, the idea is ‘to acknowledge our own insignificance against the massive backdrop of time and space. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

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Poetry, music, essays—there are few artists who are actively exploring the written and spoken word the way San Francisco-born rapper George Virden Watsky (known mononymously as Watsky) is today, without any qualms about seeming vulnerable or getting weird. His voice is distinct—across mediums—and has, over time, become a razor-sharp appraisal of his own life, American politics and some of the most urgent issues plaguing the country, such as gun violence, while rapping a mile a minute.

He performed last weekend at the Backdoors 2018 festival, organised by The Humming Tree, kicking off his performance with a disgruntled but firm, “Trump does not represent us!” As far as his core message is concerned, the idea is ‘to acknowledge our own insignificance against the massive backdrop of time and space.’ He explains, “It’s worth squeezing every drop out of life we can. I want to uplift people without pretending life is all roses and puppies.”

The festival also launched the global Online Violence Against Women campaign (#OVAW) spearheaded by Amnesty International India, and Watsky shares with Rolling Stone India some of his own experiences with backlash he has faced online, for the political views he has expressed.

When it comes to spoken word, lyrics and personal essays, how different is your approach to writing each of these?

I use a lot of the same techniques across all three, and for the most part, I’m a heavy editor in everything I do. I brainstorm, experiment, tinker, throw stuff away, and start all over, if I don’t like what I have. I think of having this writing toolbox. I might use all the same tools (story, metaphor, irony, imagery, sound, etc.) in an essay that I use in a song, but depending on the medium, I use a different primary tool as a “way in” to the material. For essays, that tool is generally story. For music, it’s sound. For poetry, it could be either, or metaphor, or imagery.

Who are some of the writers and artists that you feel really inform, or have influenced, your work?

I guess it depends on what genre; I’ve absorbed a lot of Eminem into my rap cadence, and I love finding creative ways to tell stories in song. Other rappers that I learned a lot from early on were Andre 3000, Ludacris and Busta Rhymes. The biggest influence on my essay collection was probably David Sedaris, and my poetry is largely influenced by the other teenage writers I grew up competing against in poetry slams, but some of my poetry idols were Saul Williams and Beau Sia; the tone of Beau’s work—this funny, subversive smolder—had a big impact on my stuff.

Have you ever faced any backlash for your work?

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I had a little backlash from elements of the rap establishment when I had a viral video in 2011. Some people felt I was skipping the line without putting in touring work, and that I’d sort of tricked people into paying attention to me. I have a lot of political material in my work, and I get online comments all the time from people who disagree with me. But, for the most part (and somewhat unfortunately), I think my audience has self-selected into a group of people that share my general outlook on the world.

Conversely, your work resonates deeply with your fans — what do you hope to convey to them, and are there any takeaways from / interactions with fans that stand out, in recent times?

I put a show on in LA a few months back that was a one-time-only synced performance of all the music videos from my last album, and it really meant a lot to me to see that people flew in from all over the country. I got breakfast with some of the people who flew in, the next morning, and that was great.

How do you find the courage to be so vulnerable in your writing? Could you elaborate a little on your journey towards finding things close to your personal truth (and how it’s going so far)?

Having released a bunch of albums at this point, my mantra to myself when I’m writing is “dig deeper.” A lot of the obvious material from my life I’ve already covered and re-covered, and I’m not interested in repeating myself over and over again. So, just like life is a constant process of self-discovery, so is writing. I feel much less conflicted about sharing myself than sharing details of others, so the opening up part has never been an issue for me.

We really enjoyed Chemical Angel — “I’m already saved.” Did you ever feel like the medication “muted” your creativity in any way, and how would you say it has influenced your work process?

I don’t know if the medicines muted my creativity but they definitely made/make me stupider. Epilepsy medication is in the same family of drugs used to treat schizophrenia. The effect of the pills is to tamp down brain activity, and they’re successful in bringing down the spiking of brain activity that causes seizures, but they bring healthy function down with it.

And for someone whose work, as well as sense of self, is defined by using his or her mind—that really, really sucks. It’s very painful to have to decide between my health and maintaining who I am. Fortunately I’ve gotten myself down to a much lower dosage, but it’s still not ideal.

X Infinity waded into politics and issues like gun control, just a few months before the American elections. Over a year later, where do you see a post-Trump America heading? To what extent has it had an impact on any future releases you might be working on?

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x Infinity was very explicitly political. For my next projects I’m more interested in exploring politics from an emotional angle. What is the humanistic antidote to Trump-world? I think the answer is love, honesty, sincerity and courage. Those are qualities that I don’t always embody, but I aspire to. I think we all should, the world would be a better place if we did. So that’s the energy I want to put out into the atmosphere.

Each of your videos has its own properly fleshed-out concept, and a lot of work and craft clearly goes into them. Any personal favorites in recent times?

I think my favorite video off my last album was the animated “Lovely Thing Suite. Or maybe “Don’t Be Nice.” It’s hard to pick because all of them had different payoffs.

You’ve performed in India before; what was that like, and what are you looking forward to doing here this time, both onstage and off it?

Last time I came here I did it with a DJ, and it’s really exciting to come back with my live band, because that’s the true version of my show. I also used to tour with Anderson .Paak, and this is my first time being on a festival bill with him. So it’s a cool full-circle moment, and I’m looking forward to hanging out with his whole crew.

I’m going to do a little exploring on our day off in Bangalore, and after the last show, two of my bandmates and I are flying to Nepal for a backpacking trip. It’s a real honor to be back in India to play again, and I hope I get to keep coming back.

What’s in the cards next for Watsky, across mediums?

An album and a tour. And then hopefully some more poetry, and a novel.

You turned thirty recently. Do you have any tips for navigating / surviving the inscrutable twenties?

Just try not to stress too hard. If you’re like most people, you’ll spend the rest of your life wishing you were still in your twenties, so try to enjoy yourself.

Watch Watsky’s video for “Don’t Be Nice” below:

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