"The next song is a drinking song. Who here is drunk?" asks the man on stage, looking out over the audience of a tightly packed, dark venue. A few hands shoot up, but apparently not enough to satisfy the performer. He snorts.
"Well, for those of you who aren't, we'll do the best we can. You must place one finger in the air. Stare at it. Now...begin to spin very fast, eleven times around. And when you are done, then we can sing this song."
Everyone who has experienced it remembers their first Jason Webley concert; a thin, sinewy man with long hair and wild eyes, swinging around, yelling and stomping. This Northwest performer got his start as a busker in Seattle, and has since gone on to perform on many stages, release five personal albums, and record a staggering amount of collaborations with other artists. Fans of Webley have come to look for his bizarre themes in his music, such as vegetables and the number elven. I was privileged to get the chance to ask Webley some questions regarding his career and his plans for the future.
Natural Beardy: You had a very unique beginning as a musician, dying in the fall only to be reborn in the spring. What was the inspiration behind this?
Jason Webley: That wasn't actually the beginning. I started out as a street performed in July of 1998. The "dying" thing didn't start until Halloween of 2000, and it is actually a bit hard to talk about. At the time I was very private about it, and even now that I've stopped, it is hard to know what to say. I can say that at first it just seemed like the thing to do at the time. One day in early August of that year, I saw this character in the mirror – the hat and trench coat wearing long-haired accordion guy – and a voice told me it was time to kill him.
Natural Beardy: Your music has a very unique sound. Sometimes it is soft and sweet, and other times, you bellow in a gravelly Tom Waits voice. What artists have inspired you most in your music career?
Jason Webley: I grew up on the punk scene of the late 80's and early 90's–when I was in high school. In a way that stuff will always be the biggest influence in terms of energy and how I run my career. Musically, I like a lot of things. In college I tried to steep myself the 20'th century classical music and started branching out a lot from just the punk stuff. Somewhere in there I started paying attention to singer songwriters like Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. But the people who have most inspired me are the few performers I've seen who can totally light a room on fire. The Blind Boys of Alabama were perhaps the best convert I've ever seen, just because they got a room full of people, mostly non-believers and doubters like me, up on their feet singing and praying.
Natural Beardy: You've done quite a bit of collaborative work with other musicians such as Amanda Palmer and Reverend Peyton's Big Damn Band. What has been the best experience you've had working with another artist?
Jason Webley: They have all been so different and good. I wouldn't want to pick one as a favorite. My last project with my friends Oliver Orion and Caitlin Rippey was really fun. The songs are incredibly stupid, but we somehow fought over them – very intensely at times. But the end result, I think, is pretty ridiculous and awesome. Look up "Hockey Star" video on Youtube for an idea.
Natural Beardy: What is the strangest thing that has happened to you on tour?
Jason Webley: Nothing strange has ever happened to me on tour.
Natural Beardy: Your performances always involves audience participation in some form or another, be it getting spin-drunk, tickling each other, or filling in for string sections that appear on recordings. Do you write songs with audience parts in mind?
Jason Webley: Usually writing my songs, at least my REAL songs, the ones that aren't just silly jokes, all I am thinking of is writing the song. The way that they play out in performance comes later. Some songs that I really like don't work out to have an interesting or powerful way of playing them live and they get neglected in favor of the stuff where I can work with the audience more.
Natural Beardy: Against the Night seems to be a much darker album than your most recent Cost of Living. How, if so, do you feel that the tone of your music has changed over the years?
Jason Webley: That's interesting, because I feel like Cost of Living is much darker than Against the Night. Against the Night is dark, but I feel like it burns through that by the end somehow... that most of the things that are left hanging by the early songs get addressed and resolved by the last few tracks on the record. Whereas with Cost of Living, the album opens up with a dark searching and ends with a dark searching.
Natural Beardy: This is a question every an has asked, I'm sure: Number 11? What's the significance?
Jason Webley: It is an odd number – one more than you can count on your fingers.
Natural Beardy: Speaking of 11, you are taking a "very long break" from touring on 11/11/11. What do you hope to do following your last show?
Jason Webley: I don't have any plans. Maybe I'll travel places I haven't been. Maybe I'll go visit places I've always wanted to stay longer. Maybe I'll write a book, or a bunch of new songs, or become fluent in Russian or Spanish, or start a family, or sit at home and read. Or all or none of the above.
–Adam Alexander, February 15, 2011