There was a moment during the writing of Appalling Human that it all fell into place for Wesley Gonzalez.
The Brixton-based singer-songwriter was going through, in his words, “a particularly bad few months” as he was writing the follow-up to 2017’s Excellent Musician.
It was the deeply personal song Did You Get What You Paid For?, a half-joke, half-tragic track that is both a sombre and euphoric listen.
“I wrote a song that was basically what would I want played at my funeral”, Gonzalez told Daily Star Online.
And although the 29-year-old doesn’t recall penning it, it marked a staggering turning point that allowed him to explore ideas and enjoy a clarity with his craft.
The result is one of the year’s stand-out albums so far thanks to its emotionally complex, self-depreciative yet witty lyricism that’s joyously backed by dazzling dance-focused production from James Greenwood.
Gonzalez describes Appalling Human – a former 6 Music album of the day – as his “post-therapy” album compared the “pre-therapy” of Excellent Musician’s “. He tells us: “I was in a bit of a strange place mentally when I was doing the last album. I was ill prepared for the attention on it.
“The one thing I noticed listening back and having a long time to reflect over it, the first album places blame on things but doesn’t solve the issue of what it could be or emphatic to other people.
“This one talks about far more negative and dark stuff but they all have a resolution and aren’t quite as bleak in that sense.”
Harnessing influences ranging from Prince to Ghanaian house music, Appalling Human marks a dynamic new chapter for Gonzalez.
Daily Star Online’s Rory McKeown caught up with him from his Brixton home to discuss Appalling Human’s themes, its creation, influences, and how writing it gave Gonzalez a newfound perspective as an artist.
Hi Wesley, how’s your year been so far in strange circumstances? How has lockdown treated you?
“Very odd – but surprisingly rewarding. It’s been a really weird challenge to put the record out with all this going on, but quite a fun one in a way.
“There are lots of weird experimental ways of promoting it that wouldn’t usually come up. It’s been a bit of a challenge in the positive sense of it. I miss playing shows, obviously, but people have responded really well to the record, which is all I can really hope for.”
Have you worked on anything in this period where you’ve got more time?
“I’ve started this third record. I was so terrified of not having anything to do that I gave myself too much to do!
“It’s been fun. You get so focused on promoting one thing, it’s quite nice to have something to focus on something at the same time. Luckily I had enough songs written to get cracking.
“I’ve not stopped. It’s been a really hectic few months, but a really brilliant one. We spent a whole month on the video for Did You Get What You Paid For?, with my own funeral, which is incredibly hard to pull off.
“I’m really happy with how it came it out. Gathering footage from about 30 different people and things you don’t even think about. Where am I going to store all this data? I never thought I’d be worrying about that!”
Has it brought any challenges you never thought you’d face as a musician?
“I don’t think I would have been expecting a global pandemic in the first place! Not so much. As long as you have a good imagination and a good way to be creative with it, nothing can get in the way of that.
“It’s harnessing it in a different way and allowing yourself to be open minded about it. It makes it interesting in terms of I wonder if when people do tours there will be a live stream date for places you can’t get to. Maybe that’s the future of touring itself.
“It’s a weird experiment at the moment but it could become far more normal.
“Social media gives me the heebie-jeebies most of the time anyway but because people can’t chat to you at shows, more people have got in contact with me online and on days when you feel like ‘oh, the world is burning, everything’s going to s*** and I’m depressed’, it’s nice to hear someone say ‘I heard the record and I loved it’.
“I’ve had lots of correspondence with people and it’s been fantastic.”
Your album Appalling Human is one of the year’s best. Can you talk me through its writing and recording process?
“It was recorded straight after Excellent Musician was released. When we were touring it we started working out new songs. Euan (Hinshelwood), who played with me, has a studio in Greenwich so we were like we have the resources to do it, let’s just get on with it.
“A few personal stumbling blocks happened over the making of it. We recorded it and it took ages to get it mixed. We decided to get it mixed with James Greenwood, aka Ghost Culture, who did a really brilliant job with it.
“More personal stuff happened and then it finally it’s out now. It’s been a two year process but, actually, the bits of creativity have been quite concise. It’s taken a long time to get out there.
“I’ve been talking about the pre-therapy post-therapy angle of the record a lot. I was in a bit of a strange place mentally when I was doing the last album. I was ill prepared for the attention on it.
“The one thing I noticed listening back and having a long time to reflect over it, the first album places blame on things but doesn’t solve the issue of what it could be or emphatic to other people. This one talks about far more negative and dark stuff but they all have a resolution and aren’t quite as bleak in that sense.
“That angle of where the writing came from, a lot of that is in hindsight and reflecting back on it.”
You deal with quite a lot of deep issues. How do you get into the mindset of taking these ideas in your head to the paper?
“I find those bits are always the most blurry. You get a weird adrenaline rush and start doing it. Most of the tracks were written straight after coming back from therapy.
“It would be an hour walk back from the therapist’s office to my flat in Brixton. I could think about what I’d been talking about. I’d think about it for an hour and work up in my mind and my the time I’d get home I’d bash out a song in 10 or 15 minutes. That’s what makes a lot of the lyrical elements so raw in it. One line things can be quite f***** up.
“All the songs came very quickly and naturally. Most of the time it was a quick burst of energy and it was done. I was writing so much at the time that I’d write and forget it. A month later I’d be like ‘oh I forgot I wrote that song’, and then it was ‘oh, there’s an album and it’s done’, and I didn’t realise.”
You mention therapy. Does writing help with issues or mental health for you?
“It was definitely the main thing I used before going to therapy. It’s enhanced so much by allowing yourself to go through the process of therapy. I feel it’s made me so much better as a writer. I’ve noticed I can get to a point so much quicker without stressing over it. It’s clearer in my mind because I’ve discussed that topic.
“It’s been a massive help to my writing in general and my outlook in making music and being an artist. I used to feel a bit embarrassed about it, like it was an embarrassing thing being an artist or a musician. You don’t have any money or whatever. It changed my outlook on that and made me go ‘I’m alright at this’, and it gave me the confidence to step it up a notch.”
Is there more clarity to your output?
“There’s stuff that I’ve written about on this record that I’ve always wanted to write about but would never have the confidence to do so or to feel like you just sound like a victim if you’re just moaning about something. There’s a possibility of it coming out like that but I feel like I’ve managed to swerve that trope of it being ‘oh poor me, life’s s***’. It doesn’t feel like that. There’s a lot more clarity definitely.”
Stylistically it’s varied throughout. You have the neon-soaked synths, piano hooks, and hip hop beats, inspired by everything from Prince and Eurythmics to Ghanian house music. There’s a lot going on. How did you bring those inspirations together to hone this particular sound?
“The reason James was picked was because I was listening to his record quite a lot. The varied musicality of it comes from possibly working in a record shop and listening to everything all the time. Before my tastes were a little more narrow. I liked what I liked.
“Over the last five years I’ve become so much more open minded, specifically to dance music. I’ve always been a really big hip-hop fan and liked stuff in that genre but never delved in.
“If you go into Phonica or a big dance shop, it can be a bit intimidating and you’re like ‘I’m not used to this’. It was hanging out with a lot more people who worked in record shops in the area, or friends who worked in NTS. Going round and listening to really great house and techno meant I focused my energy.
“I don’t mean this to sound arrogant but I got everything I could from the singer-songwriter genre. I know I’m good at writing a decent pop song. If I focus all my attention on this that I don’t know about I can learn so much more from it. It was important for me to show influence from all these different places but I don’t want it to not gel together.
“That’s what I thought of the most, the tracklist – the way it ran through so it didn’t sound like a complication. I wanted it to still very much have an identity.”
With the iPod culture where listeners flip through playlists, are you very much of the mindset that you want the album to be a journey from start to finish?
“That’s always been my preferred way to listen to music. Not that I disregard the modern way of listening either. I made a big point of not wanting to release a record where there’s not a dud on it anymore.
“Even on Excellent Musician, there are one or two where I think I could have left them off. It was enjoyable arguing about what songs were going to be the single. It was p***ing people off because people wanted this one or that one. I came at it from that angle of that I wanted it to be a record of pop songs.”
Was the finish product what you wanted it to be or did it grow during the process?
“It grew from beginning to end but it’s definitely been this record more than any I’ve released that this is a good summation of what I do and what I want to continue to do.
“It may be that if it’s not within the same content genre-wise, I think it’s an honest representation of what I’m doing and I knew from the early sessions that it was going to be good. I was confident from the first day of recording that it was going to come out like I’d planned it to.”
What did you learn from the writing process of Excellent Musician when creating Appalling Human?
“The main thing I learned about in writing was leaving space. I felt like Excellent Musician I had bottled up all these ideas that I wasn’t allowed to use because I had to be mindful of other people in a group. At this point I was like I can do whatever the f*** I like. I was recording it without any expectation of it being released. I was doing it for fun.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do, whether I wanted to quit music or whatever. Because of that I think there’s some really good work on Excellent Musician and I’m still very proud of it but there are things I was thinking at the time, like ‘why isn’t this doing well?’. It did do well but in my head I was thinking ‘this is a really great pop record’.
“As soon as I finished the cycle of it I went ’it’s a weird record’. There’s a lot of digitally high pitched vocals on there, weird percussion, time signatures change all the time. It is very much an experimental pop record but at the time I had just heard it as Steeley Dan and it definitely wasn’t like that!”
It was mixed by James Greenwood (Ghost Culture, Daniel Avery, Kelly Lee Owens). What did he bring to the album’s eventual sound? Did it enhance the album’s dancer elements?
“I think the main thing, which is why I wanted to get somebody from a dance background, is the attention to bass. I’m under no illusions that it’s a dance record, it’s definitely going to stay in its indie realm, but I wanted it so that if you played a track in a club it wouldn’t sound amiss.
“I found with years of working with people who predominantly mix indie music, that’s not the priority. The priority is the melody and tune. It’s like when a band says they’re into krautrock and they just do the Neu! thing. If you listen to Can and Faust, there’s some amazing funky bits and amazing stuff that’s completely influenced by soul, funk and disco but it’s all branded as this one thing. I see the same thing with indie production.
“If you go to dance music, there’s far more scope to experiment within a mix. I think people are less fearful in dance music because the creation of it is based around technology. They’re less fearful to f*** with the formula.
“That’s definitely what James brought to it. I went down to Margate and mixed it with him. The stuff he was doing was bringing in delays at certain points of the song. It was very pop-minded and it was respectful of atmosphere. The last thing I wanted for it was to come out flat. I think he did a great job with it.”
Will you take elements from that going forward maybe to your next material?
“The record I’m working on now is a very different thing. It’s got elements of Appalling Human but it’s changing direction slightly. I’m not too sure what I’m going to do down the line yet. Me and James are talking about doing something in the future and carrying on working together. He enjoyed working on the record and I enjoyed having him on it. That door’s completely open.”
Is there a song you’re particularly proud of on the album?
“My favourite song is Did you Get What You Paid For? I’ve been saying that’s the best song I’ve written to date, or at least released.
“When you asked before about the stories behind the songs, I don’t remember writing this one. It was just there. I remember having a particularly bad few months. Very, very, like, suicidal, and just terrible. That was on my mind.
“I wrote a song that was basically what would I want played at my funeral. In a way the lyrics are half joking – ‘Do you all love me? Am I what you want?’. It’s a half joke because everybody wants some validation in their life. I was probably asking that but it’s my sick sense of humour that you’re going to have to deal with my own arrogance at my funeral.
“It marked a turning point where I got a lot better after writing it. Just having stated it as an idea in my head and allowing myself to explore it, I felt far better having made that and I think it’s a good mix of light and dark. It’s a good representation of my skill set as a songwriter.
“The other one is Change, the first single off the record, which is about a friend’s sobriety. We were on the phone a lot and he was going through it with me. It was my way of saying ‘I get it, this is s*** but it’s going to be alright’. I felt very pleased that I had expressed it well enough.”
Your lyrics are observational, picking up on experiences you’ve been through. What’s it like when people give you their feedback?
“I find it interesting. Some of them I don’t understand how people got to it, but I’m pleased in a way. One early review stated something about a break-up. I was with my partner at the time and we were absolutely fine! The next one is the break up album…they must have heard on the grapevine.
“A lot of people have put ‘that’s about a break-up’, but the majority aren’t. A lot of the subjects about the disillusion of my family, and that’s a heavy topic for somebody to come to the conclusion of that’s what that would be about. That’s not a usual pop album format.”
The album has been highly praised and was even made 6 Music’s album of the day. How do you feel when your output is praised?
“The main thing is I want people to get it, even if they hate it. If they understand it and hate it, I’m fine with it. But when it’s misconstrued to something I don’t like, I can stomach that badly. There’s some artists that get dropped in at the same time as me that I’m like ‘I don’t think it’s anything like that’. Just being a nerdy record collector I’m thinking that stings a bit, even if it’s in a good review.
“I nit pick what I like from stuff. It’s been absolutely wonderful reading the reviews of this. I don’t think there’s been a record I’ve released that I’ve been more happy with what people have taken from it. It’s been really exciting getting all this through. It’s nice to have that when you’re locked in a room for three months!”
Who are your influences and inspirations? You have worked in a record shop which means you’re constantly consuming it.
“The good thing about this record is that there’s been a lot more modern influences. A lot of the stuff I was listening to was stuff on Hyperdub and lots of house music, modern pop stuff.
“I was listening to tonnes of that Bruno Mars album, 24K Magic. In the past I’ve looked for stuff from the 70s of whatever, now it feels very much that I’m more interested in modern music than I have been.
“Prince is the main thing I listen to. 24/7 I don’t stop listening to Prince. Yellow Magic Orchestra is the other thing I never stop listening to. And maybe Sly Stone. They’re the three I would put forward. And maybe some of the meaner John Lennon solo stuff.”
Where you’re dealing with so much music all the time. Do you feel fresh with the amount you consume or feel overwhelmed?
“Oh yeah, massively. There’s a song on the record called Used To Love You. It is about going to the shop and it was my job that every day you’d have people come in and talk to them about music. You think that’s going to be fun but most of the time it’s some grumpy 75-year-old bloke saying you’ve undercut him on the price of Who Live at Leeds and stuff I don’t give a s*** about.
“There came to a point where I was so sick of being around music all the time. It was all the commerciality of music and it’s hard as a musician to see what the majority of what people buy. It’s a lot of Fleetwood Mac or Dire Straits, stuff that’s already sold tonnes of copies.
“I don’t think the promotion of new music is prioritised as much as it could be. I think it’s dwindling and I think the industry is selling a lot of records to a lot of older people. I got disheartened for a while and thought what’s the point of doing this? That song is all about that.
“There’s a line in it that I’m proud of – ‘A granola bar freely given away, is this the highlight of your day?’ It’s about coming out of Oxford Circus station and there’s always Nutella and Go or some product they’re trying to fob off on you.
“I remember thinking ‘Oh god, I’m sick of seeing this promotions every day’. And I got into work and somebody said ‘Did you see they’re giving away granola bars! They’re free! Did you miss it”’
“That was a low point where I thought ‘get me out of here’.”
Wesley Gonzalez’s Appalling Human is out now via Moshi Moshi Records