Interview: Will Day

Studio shotWill Day is one of the hardest-working artists in Australian country music, traversing the land each year, travelling tens of thousands of kilometres and playing all sorts of shows. He’s also heading to Wests Diggers at the 2020 Tamworth Country Music Festival, playing every night at 11.00 p.m. in the courtyard.

Day’s latest single is ‘Here to Party’, which he wrote with seasoned songwriter Matt Scullion. Day says that one of the things he loves about working with Scullion is that ‘he’s very thorough in his songwriting. If you’re going to write a song with Matt, whether it’s on Skype – and I’ve written one with him on Skype – or in Newcastle with him in person, he’s very thorough about his process and he never leaves a co-write unless the song is the best it can be.

‘I’ve written a couple of songs with Matt and he’ll call me a couple hours later – after we’ve just written for four or five hours – and say, “Hey, Will, I was having a shower and I was thinking about that bit, that line in that verse there, and I think we should change or do something.” So he’s very, very dedicated to the craft and it rubs off on me because you’re motivated to be a better writer, surrounding yourself with people like him.’

Day has also written with artists such as Troy Kemp, Col Finley and Allan Caswell. Co-writing started for him in about 2016. Then he went to the DAG Songwriters Retreat for the first time.

‘I’d done a little bit of co-writing before that,’ he says, ‘but not a lot. I wrote a song with Kevin Bennett, who was a tutor there, and ever since then I just had a real urge to co-write more. I love co-writing. It really kicks you up the backside because you go into a room or a Skype session and say, “All right, we’re going to write a song.” There’s no excuse not to finish it. When I’m so busy and gigging a lot and family, et cetera, finding time to write by myself can be hard. so I love that you’re thrown into that space. I met Allan through the retreat. And then I started touring with Col. We grew up together. And I met Troy through the country music scene. You meet people through the gig scene and then say, “Hey, we should write.”‘

Day’s parents bought him his first guitar when he was around 14 years of age. Back then, he says, ‘I was learning Cat Stevens songs and 70s folk. As far as it went with country music when I was in my teens was, it was The Eagles, country rock, and James Taylor, which I know is not traditional country, but there are definitely country flavours in that, especially James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James album, it’s very country.’

His other musical influences growing up were, he says, not necessarily of his choosing – ‘you know how when you’re in a car with your parents and you forced to listen to what your parents are saying you got no choice? That was that for me. A lot of the 70s stuff that they grew up listening to. And then I went through like a real rock stage and a real Aussie rock stage. I was really heavily influenced musically by Powderfinger, The Living End and Grinspoon, those kinds of bands. And then it was when I was in my late teens that I discovered Keith Urban. Then some American acts like vintage Alan Jackson and Garth Brooks. And that’s where country music kind of started to really take a hold for me. But there was still the rock stuff going on.

‘Paul Kelly’s another guy that I really love his writing. In my mid-twenties, I’d finished uni and I was starting to write a lot more and, and starting to record and I really started to fall in love with country music and the way of writing it. The way I was singing was starting to turn really country. I’m a country boy. I grew up in a small town and that’s just how it came about. I fell into it and it’s a good place to be.’

When Day first got that guitar, he says that he thought, ‘Oh, cool, I’m going to learn a G chord and a C chord, see if I can do this guitar thing. “Big Yellow Taxi” was the first song I learned and my guitar teacher at the time taught me, and I started singing and I thought, Oh, hang on, I can kind of sing a little bit. But it wasn’t the coolest thing in high school for a bloke in a small country town to be singing when you’re a teenager.’

Regardless, he says, ‘I was really accepted by my peers and I was playing all the school assemblies and the school formals and it just became part of what did.’

Playing at the formals meant performing in front of several hundred teenagers, from the time he was in Year Nine, which is a pretty tough apprenticeship – although, as it turns out, just the right sort of training.

‘You end up with a thick skin,’ says Day, ‘and you learn how to handle being a full-time musician and handling crowds and repertoire and it’s all part of it, you know? I’m starting to do a bit of teaching myself and I’m passing it on, but the apprenticeship started in that high school formal.’

He learnt stage craft from that young age, and that has, he says, stood him in good stead to play in all sorts of audiences. These days, a lot of those audiences are in other country towns. He visits a lot of them in the course of a year, thanks to his touring schedule.

‘I do a lot of gigs and a lot of touring,’ he says, ‘and you have to do that if you’re serious about making a living in this industry, which I am, always have been since I was probably 14. I was playing in pubs when I was 16. The last two or three years I’ve been doing a lot of touring with Col [Finley], who’s now managing me and we’re still touring a lot together. I really enjoy going to regional parts of Australia and those smaller towns, and I want to do more of that [in 2020]. That’s a big part of my goals [for that year], getting out and about to more new places … I was in St George in Queensland, which is six hours west of Brisbane, on the weekend. And they’re calling our for live music and they love it. They absolutely love it.’

Part of the skill of live performance is reading an audience, and Day says it’s something that ‘becomes intuitive over time. I think when you first start out, you probably learn a few hard lessons, no matter what age you are, because a lot of people start later in life. It’s just all about experience. Those years you put under your belt as experience, they help you. Then it becomes like second nature.

‘I still get very nervous and everything, but when it comes to reading crowds you do learn as you go along and it almost becomes like, Okay, what’s in front of me tonight? Whether it’s a B&S or it’s a festival or it’s a pub where there’s 10 people or a festival where there’s 2000 people, you have to do a bit of an assessment and say, All right, I’ve got these people here to see me and they need to walk out thinking that they’ve seen a good show, basically. That’s our job as entertainers.’

Given the amount of time Day spends on the road, writing and recording are activities that he has to fit in when he can – especially since he and his wife also have two young children. ‘Here to Party’ was his second single release in 2019 and he says, ‘I’m just stoked getting two singles out. I had one out in March, “In the Real World”, and then “Here to Party” in October.’

He hopes to record an album in 2020, but given everything else that’s going on, ‘you have to really plan ahead a lot. I also like to co-write when I can. But you tend to do a fair bit of writing on the road when you’re driving. Ideas come to me.’

He has no intention of curtailing his touring, though. ‘I haven’t even touched the surface of where I want to go,’ he says. ‘There are so many places and states and territories that I want to explore next year [2020] and the year after that I haven’t even been to let alone play gigs in. I’m so hungry for more new areas of Australia.’

From a technical point of view, all that touring can be rough on a voice – as it turns out, though, Day is well qualified to know what to do to take care of his voice in any circumstance.

‘I’ve done some tertiary education in vocal training,’ he says. ‘I’ve done my degree and some postgrad study as well in vocal pedagogy. And the thing with the voice is that people don’t realise how much tiredness affects it, how much rest and hydration you need to recover from a weekend run or whatnot. I find it’s not even a gig [that does it]. We’ll drive for 8hours to do a gig, then drive for another 6 and next day or 4or whatever. I drove 13 hours a few weeks ago to get to the gig and you do the gig at night, and it’s the driving and the air con in the car all day. And that’s what wears you out. So you’ve got to toughen up a little bit and you’re going to be smart, especially vocalists. It can be really dangerous vocally if you don’t look after yourself.’

With the demands of a touring life, it’s tempting to think that a career that is sparked by a passion for music might eventually cause that passion to fade. But, Day says, ‘I don’t think the passion diminishes. The passion’s always there for me. I probably would’ve given up a fair while ago if the passion had diminished or died. People always say to me, “How’s the music going? It’s a tough game.” And I say, ‘Yeah, I do know that. I actually happen to live and breathe it 24/7 and I’ve known it’s a tough game since I was 14, 15 or 16 when I started making a career of it.

‘I don’t think it’s the passion [that changes] – you just get really tired. You get a bit frustrated and all singer-songwriters can relate to what I’m saying, I don’t care who you are. You have your knockbacks, you have your setbacks and you have your little wins. The little wins keep you going and the setbacks, they knock you down for a second. But the next day I’ll say, “That makes me want to achieve my goals even more.” And passion probably drives that.’

There is also the sense – seen in many country music artists – that the work is being done in the service of something bigger, almost with a sense of mission.

‘It is bigger than us,’ Day agrees, ‘no matter who you are. And that’s what I’ve learnt to love about country music in the last few years, especially since I’ve been really heavily involved in it. It’s a big community and the fans of country music in this country are absolutely phenomenal.’

Some of those fans will get to see Day play in Tamworth this year – although they weren’t able to see him as much as he planned last year.

‘I was booked in for the late nights at Wests Diggers and my daughter decided to come three weeks early. So my Tamworth schedule was thrown out a little bit,’ he says with a laugh. ‘So my wife had our little girl and then once my wife got out of hospital I was on my way to Tamworth. My wife’s an absolute champion. She puts up with a full-time touring musician as a husband.

‘But in 2020, I’ve been given the opportunity to go back to Wests Diggers and do late nights. So it will be nine nights. It will be country rock and sweaty good times. That’s my kind of party. So 11 o’clock every night of the festival, I’m at in the courtyard, we’ve got a killer five-piece band. And I’m also doing Songwriters in the Round at the Services Club, which is a nice change from the late night country rock shows because I can do the singer-songwriter thing. I’m looking forward to that.’

And those who miss Day in Tamworth will probably find him playing not too far from their town – if not in their town – this year. At some point, he says, he’d love to record an album, and there will be another single in the first half of this year.

You can find Will Day’s gig dates and other information at:

willday.com.au