Author Martin Shaw wrote that “Myth is not much to do with the past, but a kind of magical present that can flood our lives when the conditions are just so.” The music of Willow Beats is all about creating those conditions, as JODY MACGREGOR discovers.
They may be making electronic music, glitchy dubstep and chilled-out trip-hop, but Willow Beats’ lyrics are about mermaids and alchemy. With titles such as Grom The Betrayer and Cog Goblin, their songs almost sound like they belong on a power metal album with barbarians on the cover.
“I don’t listen to a whole lot of metal but I probably should because I love the whole fantasy thing that they get into,” says Narayana Johnson, the production half of Willow Beats. “Dragons and stuff are awesome.”
Narayana and Willow Beats’ other half, his niece Kalyani Ellis, were raised as Hare Krishnas, and that’s part of what’s gone into making their music so distinctive. “The Hare Krishna folklore, there’s a lot of fantasy stories,” Narayana explains, “like 10-headed demons and heroes with magical arrows that will split into 1000. Fantasy stuff like that. A lot of it is from that, and also where we grew up – Murwillumbah, where I am right now, is a beautiful town with lots of rivers and forests and mountains. I think that had a lot to do with it as well.” He thinks about that for a second, before adding, “Also, we’re really into The Lord Of The Rings.”
As for how an uncle and niece came to be playing music together, that also has a lot to do with their unusual upbringing. Although born in scenic rural Murwillumbah, on the Tweed River in north-eastern New South Wales, their close extended family frequently moved around as a unit when they were younger. “Kalyani was born in Australia. We went to Singapore when she was really young and we lived there for a while, and then we went to the States,” says Narayana. “We lived in America for two years. We were moving around heaps, we lived in all these different places in the United States. I grew up with her in this really fast-moving lifestyle, and because I was always having to make new friends and stuff, we’d hang out a lot.”
The closeness of their bond is evident in the music, which may meander through neighbouring genres and tempos but feels unified in theme and in tone. “When we write music we have a lot of similar ideas,” says Narayana. “We think about music the same way. It works pretty well, man. I guess Kalyani knows what I’m good at and I know what she’s good at and we just let each other have freedom within that. I’m producing it so I’ll be recording her vocals and I know how to get the best takes out of her and know how to help her get the best out of her writing. Like, ‘This is really cool, what about this?’ Or ‘I don’t really like this line.’ We workshop a lot of stuff and I think it’s a good dynamic, man. We have a lot of respect for each other.”
All too often there’s an assumption with male/female electronic double acts that the guy does all the musical heavy lifting and the lady stands out front singing and looking pretty, and it’s almost always wrong. In Willow Beats, Kalyani plays keys and the majority of the song ideas begin with her and a keyboard, a piano line that Narayana later develops and adds beats and synth to. “Occasionally it’ll be different. I’ll write like a little 16-bar loop and she’ll write over that.”
After attracting some attention through triple j’s Unearthed – through which they won a competition to play the Parklife festival – and racking up the hits on SoundCloud, they’ve been playing bigger shows. That involves remixing some of the slower tracks from their first two EPs, making what Narayana calls “hyped-up dancey versions” of them that people will only hear at their gigs, where they use Ableton, MIDI instruments, and drum pads to create a more energetic version of their atmospheric soundscapes. “I like to headbang a bit,” Narayana says. “I kind of glitch up the vocals live as well so Kalyani will be singing and I’ll put a beat repeat thing on her voice and there’ll be glitches and stuff.”
Willow Beats have just released their third EP, Water, which features the single, Merewif. Plenty of electronic music has played with underwater sounds, bubbling and gushing, but in Merewif that watery sound collage goes beyond being part of the backdrop to being the text, with Kalyani singing like a siren perched on a rock about how much you’ll enjoy it when she drags you under the waves. Narayana says he loves the idea of having the samples inform the subject of a song, and wants to continue doing it in the future.
“Do you know what an Ent is?” he asks, of the tree-themed, mellow-talking characters from Lord Of The Rings. “I was thinking it would be cool to do an Ent-themed song and have these really low vocals, pitch-shifted down vocals and then this really slow marching-type beat and I want to use breaking stick samples, breaking wood, all ‘KSHHH!’, like when a tree falls down.”
WATER EP TOUR
THURSDAY, DECEMBER 11 @ ASTOR LOUNGE
SATURDAY, DECEMBER 20 @ WONDERLAND FESTIVAL