Ainslie Wills: A Melodic Journey

Ainslie Wills and guitarist/collaborator Lawrence Folvig spoke to MG about their forthcoming album and the ongoing process of exploration and learning that is at the heart of their craft.

Wills has moved in leaps and bounds since releasing her first EP back in 2010, garnering rave reviews, plenty of radio play and a growing swathe of devoted fans. Following two well-received EPs and a string of brilliant singles, the hypnotic debut album You Go Your Way, I’ll Go Mine was released in 2013.

As well as the general hard work required of any successful artist, Wills’ momentum has a lot to do with the sheer quality and inventiveness of her music. Wills pleasantly confounds expectations. According to Georgia King of Frankie Magazine, Wills is “an antidote to the ordinary.” This isn’t just an artistic fluke — Wills and Folvig are both musical explorers; not content to sit still or rest on their laurels.

Both Wills and Folvig are graduates of the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) and started their musical training at a young age. Wills studied singing on and off in different styles from the age of 12. She started out with classical lessons in high school, contemporary vocal techniques with Danny Fry at the University of Ballarat and finally, delved into jazz vocals at VCA with Michelle Nicole, Alison Wedding, and Julie O’Hara.

Wills also developed her unique voice by imitating artists she loves and incorporating their techniques into her own vocal tool-belt.

“Imitation of lots of different people’s tonality gives you so much room to manipulate the sound. Someone like Jeff Buckley, I mimicked his way of producing notes — he’s got a very interesting, unconventional technique,” Wills says.

Folvig also studied guitar formally in high school and at VCA, however he discovered his real musical passions through experiments in free improvisation, the “wormhole” of frequency-warping guitar pedals and playing with “organised sound”.

“Something I was into was using physical objects on the guitar — it could be pieces of wood or wire or stone — to coax other sounds from the instrument than just the conventional ones it’s known for,” says Folvig.

Wills  eschews the ‘singer-songwriter’ label, instead calling herself a ‘melodist’.

“I love to compose melody and harmony, that’s my main passion,” Wills says.

“A lot of people still default to using ‘singer-songwriter’ but I think ‘melodist’ better describes what I do.”

Folvig finds his truest form of expression in creating atmosphere using his technical knowledge, experimental approach and a vast array of guitar pedals.

“It almost feels closer to painting. If you ask someone why they paint, they might feel its cathartic in some way; it’s close to that for me.

“I’m gradually creating this picture of something and I don’t necessarily know what it is along the way and that’s okay.”

Wills and Folvig write most of the music for the band, sending ideas back and forth via email. Their different backgrounds and approaches to music shine through, with Wills providing much of the melodic and harmonic ideas and Folvig creating cinematic soundscapes for the songs to rest in or punctuate.

The opening track of You Go Your Way, I’ll Go Mine – ‘Mary’ – showcases what this approach can achieve. Starting with otherworldly harmonics that swell until an organ-like chord slides out of nowhere and a cascade of vocal harmonies emerge, the effect is arresting.

Wills recounts how she had a particular organ sound from the 1980 film Xanadu – “That terrible movie!” – in mind for ‘Mary’ but couldn’t find a way to bring it to life. Folvig introduced Wills to a versatile pedal called the HOG which, among other things, can make a guitar sound like an organ through manual control of the harmonics created by any chord played through it.

“With the HOG, you can get infinite sustain on a chord, then you play another muted chord underneath it. Gradually you move the pedal back and the notes from the previous chord slide to that new chord,” Folvig enthuses.

It makes for a stunning album opener, typical of Wills’ and Folvig’s determined, experimental approach to music.

“I knew there was a sound that I had in my mind and, with Lawrence’s help, I found that sound and recorded it. That’s such a good practice for musicians, to spend the time figuring it out — to learn, to keep learning,” Wills notes.

The learning process continues with Wills and Folvig working on their second album with producer Matt Redlich.

“There’s more piano going on in some of these songs and I feel like this new stuff is definitely tapping into the 80s at times,” Wills says.

“In the studio we’ve been listening to a lot of — well, John Farnham’s name has come up, which is bizarre! Olivia Newton-John is huge as well. Those production values have seeped through.”

Wills and Folvig confirm that it’s important to have goals and stick to them; to make plans and follow through.

Wills lets Patti Smith speak to what’s most important:

“Build a good name … be concerned with doing good work . . . eventually, that name will be its own currency.”

Considering the quality of their output and the passion and knowledge they bring to their craft, I imagine Wills and Folvig will be minting that particular currency for a long while yet.

This article was originally published in Melbourne Guru Magazine. Photo © Izabel Caligiore.

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