Beyond the Surface: Public Service Broadcasting's J. Willgoose, Esq. on Time, Success and the Point of Life

To be one’s true self is the goal in life. This blog series would not exist if it werent for a reunion with an old friend who had all the makings of a modern-day Mozart. But at a pivotal fork in the road, he chose the path behind a desk, instead of one behind a keyboard, which would’ve honored his gift - like Mozart did. Now, 20 years later, he’s unrecognizable, this friend who once had music radiating from every cell, especially when singing in random bursts of happiness. The years have taken their toll - not just in the added 20 pounds that don’t belong, but in the heaviness that comes when living someone elses life, and not one’s true purpose. The life you came here to live.

As a writer, this inspired me to highlight the special souls who chose to follow their true path. The tougher path, but one that honors and expresses the powerful gift of music they’ve been given. To live the Mozart life. May some of their words help or inspire you to find your true calling in life.

Public Service Broadcasting’s third album, Every Valley on Play It Again Sam, which debuted last month at No. 4 in the UK’s top albums chart, highlights the story of the coal mining industry in South Wales. The U.K. group’s J. Willgoose, Esq. did extensive research, interviewing former coal miners and historians, and ends the album with a traditional Welsh male choir. Among other topics, Willgoose talks about where he gets his inspiration from, how the idea of a concept album came up and the quick passage of time. PSB tours the U.S. starting Sept. 12 in Philadelphia, ending Sept. 28 at the Troubadour in Los Angeles.

How do you find inspiration for the music? Is there somewhere deep within where the inspiration comes from? It’s said that when we’re most connected to our true selves - for example, some of the best songs were written in minutes. What’s your take on that, do you feel that in those inspirational moments you’re most connected to your true self? Have any songs come to you in that way, with such ease?

I should probably start out by making multiple disclaimers, in no particular order. I’m not a particularly spiritual person - rather I’m something of a pragmatist and, more likely, pessimist, I don’t lay claim to any great authority on writing, how to write ‘the best songs’ or otherwise, I don’t always understand where things come from but - more importantly - I don’t really mind, in fact I think I like it. I think a lot of the time it’s more interesting and more rewarding to leave questions unanswered. I prefer films and books and music where you’re encouraged to think for yourself, rather than having everything explained as if you were five years old and need everything wrapped up neatly. David Lynch is probably the best example of revelling in the unanswerable.

All that aside, most often the inspiration comes when either travelling, walking or listening to music. All three can happen at once, of course. That’s normally the initial nugget of inspiration - the seed, if you will - and then you have to go about finding the right place for it, looking after it, trying to help it grow and become its own entity. Sometimes that growth is almost instant - with ‘Go!’ - that song came out almost entirely fully formed as soon as I’d heard the Apollo 11 call-outs. It was just obvious that that was the kind of song I needed to write around it.

It’s been a tough time for music, losing many of its legends or those we grew up with whose music was our soundtrack. What are your thoughts on time, how it seems to go by faster each year. Perhaps it’s made you reflect on what you want to achieve in the time we’re given here? Do you think about time much and what you want to achieve in the time we have?

Time does seem to go by faster each year and it does make me think that before long I’ll be near the end of my life and look around and think ‘god, that went fast.’ I think that’s part of the reason I wanted to try and sort my anxiety out, because I didn’t want to get to the end of life and regret having spent so much time worrying about everything. I’ve definitely got better on that front, certainly at understanding why anxiety is an issue, how it’s created and the function it serves, but there’s still a lot of work to do there. Ultimately though I think that if you can be, trying to be a good person is the point of life - being kind, helping others, being someone people will remember fondly - if at all! To quote George Orwell, our job is to make life worth living on this earth, which is the only earth we have.

Do you have a daily musical process?

Not really. I’m hard-working, so I’m disciplined in that respect, and I recognise the extraordinary privilege I have of making music for a living, but I don’t really like mornings, so I’m often very slow to get going and only really start firing in late afternoon or early evening. When you’re working and trying to maintain some kind of semblance of a normal family and social life, though, you just have to knuckle down and try to set some kind of framework for the day. I try to work 10-6 but more often than not it’s 11-7, or when it comes to finishing an album, 10-10 or later.

When did you know you had this gift of music and how did it manifest for you? How did you start to do the human discipline it takes to channel your gift, hone it and bring it forth?

I don’t know about any gift of music. I think if I have anything it’s a relative talent for building up and layering melodies. I think there’s a strong melodic element to what we do and that’s what’s helped us find an audience. That and a very strong rhythm section, which makes such a difference live. I remember mucking about with keyboards while growing up, but it was only after hearing Oasis at age 13-14 that I started learning bits of the guitar and got one for Christmas. I took to it relatively quickly, which was great as it meant I didn’t have time to get dispirited and could just learn more and more of the stuff I wanted to play.

There are divine moments of serendipity, where a catalyst opens the door that leads to the path we’re meant to be on, the one where we live out the fullest expression of our true selves, when we are most true to ourselves. What was that moment for you and how did it happen?

I feel like we probably have slightly differing philosophies of what life is and how life works, but hearing an Archive Hour programme on Radio 4 and deciding to investigate some of the BFI material they’d discussed being released was definitely a key point in my life, although I didn’t know it at the time. I was making some quite bluegrass-y, Bon Iver-wannabe music at the time but also wanted to get back into making more electronic stuff and trying to sound like DJ Shadow, and using little snippets of speech seemed like a good way to do that. Then after a few weeks I had the idea of a concept album where each song was based on a different public information film, but I quickly dismissed that as too pretentious - and here we are, three albums later.

What inspired this blog series was seeing an old friend who has a special gift of music, but didn’t choose that path, who, 20 years later, isn’t living the life he thought he would live. People who make music and get to travel the world doing so are a rare example of a life where one is able to honor and channel their gift of music. What are your thoughts? And do you feel you’re consciously living the life you thought you would be living?

I get a bit funny about ‘paths’ and so on, and choosing them. Life is mostly a series of accidents, either good ones or bad ones, and occasionally a good or a bad choice. Music, and my love for it, has been dictating most of the main decisions in my life for about 20 years now, either trying to be a musician or trying to stay close enough to the industry to feel some vicarious thrill from it. I also feel there’s a kind of general idea in society - certainly fostered by actors and the like - that people who entertain or create are a different breed, superior in some way. They, and we, are not. They’re just people. I’m just a person. Your friend is just a person. The only apparent difference is that I’ve been lucky.

I’ve said in that blog post about living the Mozart life, that it may be a tougher road to choose, but you’re fully living your true selves, being most true to yourself. Do you resonate to that? You did not choose the 9 to 5 path.

The 9 to 5 path doesn’t necessarily mean boredom or lack of fulfillment, or not living up to one’s potential. It can be a very fulfilling way of life, and is, for so many people. It offers regular hours, stability, structure, the ability to plan and schedule your time in advance, and many people embrace and love what they do. I don’t really feel I’m on some elevated or better highway, or have more access to my ‘true self’ just because I’m doing what I always wanted to. Some people are engineers and love it, some are teachers, nurses, engineers, social workers. Sorry to get on a hobby horse there but I don’t really buy the idea that I’ve made a tougher choice or that the 9 to 5 is settling for anything. And god knows a lot of famous people and a lot of touring musicians seem like miserable buggers.

But to embark on this path you chose, was that difficult? You didn’t know you would get here.

I had to take a few risks, but life always involves a few risks. I’m extraordinarily lucky in all sorts of ways - when I left my job to pursue this as a career, for example, I had the safety net of a potential return to work, a working, supportive partner, a good education, good qualifications, parents who supported me and could afford - if a crisis arrived, which thankfully it didn’t - to help ensure I wasn’t on the streets or whatever. A lot of people don’t have that, and that makes it a lot more difficult.

How did you know that this is your life path, your calling? How does someone know when they’re on the correct path?

I don’t really know about life paths I’m afraid, or callings - again it suggests some kind of lofty aim rather than just getting on with stuff, which is the more pragmatic side of me talking. I do get very depressed and restless when I’m not creating something, though, so I know I have to have an outlet of some sorts. And the great thing about having made being in PSB into a job is that it has so many different sides to it and it’s nearly impossible to get bored.

What is your idea of success, especially on the path you chose?

I think if you’re happy, if you’re healthy, if you enjoy life, your family, your friends and can accept what you’ve got without always feeling the need to strive for more, then you’re probably doing pretty well for yourself. There is no one ‘if I can just do this, I’ll have made it!’ type level of success, because as soon as you get there you have to look around for the next thing. Hillary didn’t stop doing extraordinary things when he’d climbed Everest - there’s just a drive in all of us to keep going and, if we’re not careful, to want more and more. Part of being happy is recognising that more and more of everything isn’t necessarily going to make you feel more fulfilled.

Life gives us catalysts, a release valve, which often is our lowest point in life, that allows us to push up to the next, hopefully better chapter. Like a desert, wilderness period in life, that helps raise our consciousness and stay true to yourself and your own path. What was that low point for you that helped you push yourself further, evolve and do better, and what did you do when you had that epiphany?

I find a lot of people want to believe that narrative in life, as it tends to give meaning and structure to what is essentially, in my eyes, chaos. It’s why we tell stories, to make sense out of the random and chaotic collisions that dictate the events in our life. I also don’t think it necessarily reflects reality. Often what gets spun as the story behind an album is only really a small part of it, for example, it just happens to be the part that’s easiest to package and explain. I didn’t spend 40 days in the desert or anything to make this album or any of the ones before it. I’ve had good times and some very bad ones in recent years but that’s just life, isn’t it?

Unlike any time in history, we’re in a overwhelming digital era. Theres so much detritus, noise and schadenfreude. What’s your view on that, and how do you find quiet in this era? What do you do to connect with your Higher Self, your true self? Do you have a day you unplug for example? How do you ground yourself, focus on your own life path and purpose?

I don’t really believe in a Higher Self or true self I’m afraid - I don’t really go in for all that, it’s probably a bit too west coast-y and indulged for a Londoner like me, whether or not that’s to my detriment. I also quite enjoy some well-placed schadenfreude, although I shouldn’t really admit that I suppose. I just think people focusing on their own life path and purpose, rather than society in general and other people’s problems, is part of the problem we have as a species - selfishness, individualism and the lack of a big picture in terms of society being all of us, not just ‘what’s in it for me, or what ‘path’ am I on, or why am I not as happy as I think I deserve to be.’

Dealing with digital distractions is difficult, though, and can stop you working as effectively as you might otherwise, but then again there’s an argument to be made for procrastinating as a way of getting around problems. One of the things I try to do, and mostly fail, is stop giving myself such a hard time about working every hour I can - it’s partly what happens when you end up self-employed, you just don’t switch off. I’m not that disciplined though and probably need to work on that part of my working life.

In terms of switching off - the best way I’ve found to quiet an unruly mind is to go for a long walk, preferably accompanied by a dog. Either that or drink a bottle of red wine. You could do both, I suppose!

I’m a firm believer in doing mitzvahs, especially in the tougher times of our lives. To give back, be of service in some way, to use our time most wisely, can only help us in the end. What are your thoughts and do you try to do your own mitzvahs to help others, even in the smallest way?

I’m not religious so I’d never really use the term “mitzvah “in relation to a religious duty, I had to look it up I’m afraid! Just as I wouldn’t use the term penance, or pilgrimage, or what have you - but yes, going back to what I said earlier, focusing on other people and other people’s problems and helping them where you can is a great way of putting your own troubles in perspective.

What advice do you have for people who have the gift of music, but don’t know how to start channeling it, to develop that gift and bring it out?

The basics. Keep going, keep practising, keep learning, be humble, get out there and get yourself heard. No one is coming to find you, you have to find them.

What do you do to help pick yourself up when you’re feeling down, and help you stay the course? Is there a song you play that inspires you when you’re needing some inspiration or to pick yourself up?

Music, laughter and friendship are the only things that really help when times get very bad. I don’t know if I’d be able to function without music. I mean, I would, because people get used to anything, we’re a wonderfully adaptive species. But I don’t feel life would be, as Orwell said, as ‘worth living’ without it. And again, honourable mention for dogs. Dogs make everything better.

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