Playing Edinburgh’s Voodoo Rooms on the second night of his latest tour of the UK, folk musician Will Varley continues to go from strength to strength as he performs his latest release, Postcards From Ursa Minor, to a packed out room.
Alex Maxwell, a local artist from Edinburgh, opens the night accompanied by a violinist, playing folky material to a warm reception. Xylaroo come next – a two piece with haunting harmonised vocals and unparalleled lyrical depth. This pair from Kent are utterly captivating. Their own work is fantastically written, and their rendition of ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dance Floor’ is beautiful. Though they have yet to put out a full-length release and have sparse material available online, their pair deserve to be catapulted into the public more than any other act you are likely to see this year.
Will Varley steps on stage and brings an atmosphere that is immediately familiar and intimate. Good humoured and self-effacing, he stumbles through the first track, later remarking that dyslexia and alcoholism are a poor mix for any performer trying to remember their own material. He is as charismatic onstage as he is in interview. When asked why he will not put his music on streaming services such as Spotify, Varley said: “There’s this new model where you give your music away for free then get an advertising deal and make you money from some huge company using your music to sell stuff. I never want to do that. You won’t find most of my music on Spotify, but you won’t find me on any adverts either.” Balancing sombre notes about a bleak political outlook with blunt, earthy jests is no mean feat, but Varley pulls it off easily. ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’ tells the story of Jose Matada, a young man who fell from a plan undercarriage in April 2013 after stowing away on a flight from Angola. It confronts the sheer inhumanity that people declared ‘illegal’ by imaginary national boundaries and the deaths that occur int he pursuit of a better life as we go about our daily lives unaware. Made all the more relevant by the on-going refugee crisis, Varley’s damning statements of the way our system is letting so many down are powerful and sincere.
Variety was reticent, though, to take a stance with his art. “No”, he said, “I think performers are free to sing about whatever they want, and I certainly don’t think they have any responsibility to tackle politics. Personally Write songs about things that are on my mind, whether thats the colour of the sky or the general election.”
Though it has only been a few months since Postcards From Ursa Minor was released, Varley is alreadydebuting new material on his tour as he trials ‘February Snow’, a new track from an unnamed forthcoming album. Stepping back from songs about the ephemerality of love and the nature of loss, Varley then launches into a brief reprise from Leona Lewis’ 2007 chart-topper ‘Bleeding Love’ which apparently continues to be an earworm for the troubadour.
Varley’s approach to his music has evolved since he began writing: “Over the year I’ve certainly made a conscious choice to delve into the folk tradition”, he said, “and using words to tell stories is something I’ve always been interested in. At the same time, I never feel I have much control over the songs I write. They usually come out at night, just when I’ve stopped looking for them.” Many of the songs on Postcards… deal with themes of isolation. In Varley’s opinion, “I suppose we all live our lives and get on with things, but we all know we’re on the giant rock floating through some vast universe and we don’t know why. Every day we see a gigantic ball of gas burning at colossal temperatures in the sky yet we still go out and buy OK! Magazine and get our hair cut. There’s this interesting and sort of amusing contrast between the minutiae of our life and the extremed of space. I was thinking about that a lot while I wrote the album.”
Asking if anyone could grab him a pint to tide him through the set, three appear at his feet over the next half an hour, a testament to Edinburgh’s warm reception. Though the last few songs of his set are the same successful mix of stand-up, social commentary, and heartfelt ballads, the night ends on a low as a heckler who insists on interrupting the night with his lame jokes eventually takes to the stage and derails Varley’s finale, ‘King for a King’.