Willi Carlisle is a man of contradictions.
It starts with his appearance. Tall and broad-shouldered, you'll find him on most winter days wearing a denim coat with a shearling collar, a plaid shirt, jeans and boots. Sometimes he wears a cowboy hat. With a wide stance and hands hooked into jean pockets, he might be the son of an Arkansas farmer whose future includes tending to the family farm. While Carlisle has a keen respect for the art of living off the land -- he's lived on a farm off and on during his time in Arkansas -- when he opens his mouth, you realize he's an artist of a different sort: His words are full of the eloquence, intelligence and the sweet sensitivity of the poet that he is.
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1946 N. Birch, Fayetteville
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3227 E. 17th St., Wichita, Kan.
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He seems to acknowledge his mercurial quality in his song "Up the Hill," found on his first LP, "Too Nice to Mean Much":
"If I ever come off mean, vulgar or unclean
Know there's a gentle part of me. It ain't outspoken
And I carry that part up, in the bed of my old truck
Up the hill where my heart was first broken."
The 28-year-old folk singer, poet and theater artist's life will be blooming with projects in the next six months. He's releasing his second EP, "To Tell You the Truth," on May 12, two years after "Too Nice to Mean Much" came out. He's soon to start collaborating with artist and director Joseph Fletcher on their second theater piece, a year after he successfully toured with his theatrical debut -- a one-man operetta called "There Ain't No More" -- that packed houses and won multiple awards at fringe theater festivals across the country.
Reviews of the show raved about Carlisle's performance but also picked up on the contrasts within his art. The Orlando Weekly called it "simultaneously ancient and avant-garde," and the Washington Post decreed that Carlisle was "both down-home and brainy."
A lengthy conversation with Carlisle reveals more of these variances: Carlisle is recovering from a recent heartbreak and displays all of the solemnity that entails when he's not cracking wise and laughing easily. His performance history includes public library gigs for children, as well as raucous punk-rock shows in which he sometimes stripped naked. A highbrow phrase like "honky-tonks are the narthex of actual public discourse" is followed by a sentence peppered with profanity.
"I don't want to come across as too heady, but I also don't want to be so punk rock that I lack polish," he says of his work. He is keenly self-aware and answers questions posed to him with thoroughness and complexity -- and a healthy dollop of introspection, which Carlisle has in spades and uses liberally in his song lyrics. His responses often take several agonized seconds to develop in his brain and are so blisteringly honest that he occasionally regrets the words as soon as they're out of his mouth, prompting a polite "Maybe we shouldn't put that in the article."
Always an outsider
These contradictions started early. A Wichita, Kan., native ("I'm from off," he says), Carlisle's childhood and adolescence was spent between Kansas and Illinois. In high school, he was both captain of the football team and a member of the Madrigals, where he wore a plastic crown as he sang medieval and renaissance music. Despite being involved in two activities that would have had him mingling with a wide swath of the high school population, Carlisle says he always felt like an outsider.
"It was two parts of my life that rarely blended," he says. "I was always a little on the outside. I was never well loved. I think it was because I was sullen. I was angry. I'm still working out what that is."
He found solace in music early on -- a love that was fostered when he explored the vinyl collection of his father, who was a musician himself.
"My dad was a classical trumpet player by training," Carlisle says. "He played bluegrass when he was in his 20s, and then, he sort of quit and went to school. But he would tell these fantastic stories about just this low-key buffoonery from his early music days."
His father's music collection spanned genres, but Carlisle knew he was attracted to folk music -- and anything else that told a story.
"I was not to touch the record player, but you do when everybody's gone," he says with a smile. "So I would listen to a lot of weird cowboy singers and old time bands. R. Crumb and His Cheap Suit Serenaders, this weird little ragtime pick-up band, was one of my favorites. They sang dirty songs and sentimental songs.
"I wasn't encouraged to be musical, because I don't think that my father wanted me to make the same mistakes that he did."
Carlisle inherited his musical talent from both sides of the family -- his maternal grandmother, Delores Granger, is a musician as well. She says Carlisle displayed a bright intellect early on.
"I always thought he was smart," she says. "He always exhibited what I would consider as intelligence, because he was curious about everything."
High school lured his love of music out of his head -- where it had been a very personal experience -- and into the public arena, as he participated with the Madrigals and appeared in various school musicals. Poetry, too, was becoming a release for his ideas and emotions. Football served two purposes: a means of contact and a way to express aggression, both done in a socially acceptable manner.
"I loved football because, as a young man, it was a historically sanctioned touch between people," Carlisle says. "Even thought it was a violent touch. That was often really fun, as an assertive guy who really liked getting his bell rung, if that makes sense. I was angry, and this was a pathway into your body that everybody understood.
"In high school I certainly was trying to juggle the two, and I was having a really good time. It was actually just an angry queer young man like, falling, literally falling, into people in both fields, I suppose. But I still like medieval folk music, and I still like watching football."
A search for community is another underlying theme that comes out when talking to Carlisle for any length of time. He didn't find it in high school, but he had more luck after graduation. Carlisle ended up at a tiny liberal arts college -- Knox College in Galesburg, Ill.
"I was an impossible teenager," he says. "I had [to leave] in order to flourish artistically. When you live in a house where the patriarch is both a patriarch and an artist, you can't get work done there. You're under the watchful eye. Even though I was sort of generally encouraged, my father told me that I have a 'line of sh*t a mile long and an inch deep' and that I had to go into business."
He had been writing poems while still in high school, but, in college, poetry took center stage.
"Poetry was this hifalutin, pinky-out, tea-drinking thing where I could find these extraordinarily sensitive men who killed themselves [out of passion]," says Carlisle. "I remember reading about Hart Crane being in love with four or five people and having these disastrous affairs and throwing himself off of a boat. And I remember not understanding a word of the poetry but still loving the weird noises that it was making my mouth make."
He balanced the "hifalutin" world of poetry with a musical genre that was miles away from his renaissance music and musical theater in high school.
"I was lead singing in these really God-awful punk bands," he says. "I don't even want to say the name, I'm scared people will be able to find it on My Space -- I can't figure out how to take it down. We were playing in local bars. The town had just shut down -- one of the major American Maytag factories was there and a major steel factory was there, and they had both just shut down. So the bar was full, full, full, and the beer was cheap. No one would ever ID you, and there were slot machines in the corner. I'm getting to be onstage and be this outraged character. I would take my clothes off. I would hit myself in the head with the microphone, so that there was this sort of waffled pattern on my forehead. It was intentionally very intimidating, but it was pushed to the point of being over the top."
He was also finding connection in another musical arena, one many might find the polar opposite of punk rock.
"I went to my first square dance about a year into college," he remembers. "There was just a little gathering of Midwestern fiddle players. Some girl dragged me out after a football game in college to this place outside of the city. And it was like a revelation. For an angry young man to touch the hands of dozens of pretty boys and girls ... it was a lot. You generate these patterns in the dancing that are similar to the patterns in the music. ... I was in middle of the joy of actually holding hands with people for the first time in this non-sexualized way."
He continued writing poetry at college while teaching himself to play a succession of musical instruments, mostly those used in the world of square dancing (today, he plays guitar, banjo, fiddle and accordion "with varying degrees of skill"). The morphing of his poetry to song lyrics was a process that happened organically.
"I would sing poems as I was writing them," he says. "I would play guitar or banjo while I was writing poems. Sometimes it would turn into a poem, and sometimes it turned into a song, and sometimes that song has survived, and much of the time I have no idea what it was I had done.
"I was writing a lot. I wasn't performing very often, but, by my senior year in college, I was performing at parties where... I was often the token folk singer at the time. I was opening punk rock concerts by playing almost all traditional folk songs and, occasionally, something I had written."
Finding his niche
Post-graduation, determined to find a job within his craft, he accepted an offer to join the creative writing program at the University of Arkansas.
"They take something like five people a year," he says. "I'd never had vindication for my work on any level. When you're young, you don't look for it as much, but it was very nice to have that offer." Also appealing to him was the fact that two artists he admired -- musician Clarke Buehling and poet and director of the UA creative writing program Davis McCombs -- were located in Fayetteville.
When Carlisle got to town, he was thrilled to discover a larger square dancing community than he had previously had access to in Galesburg.
"There were two monthly dances that lasted all night," he says. "I'm in a town where I didn't know anybody, and the music was incredible. There was a weekly jam I was playing in. I was learning the music. I just lied and pretended that I was good at it and played it very quietly for a couple of years."
For someone for whom a search for belonging was a constant, what he had finally found was profound.
"I was going through this really deep attachment to a place in a way that I had never felt," he says. "This place was cracking me open, and I was being allowed to sort of sink into it. 'Where's the good party tonight?' 'Well, it's on my porch, and I have someone bringing a pie and somebody bringing something that they've made from an animal that they had on their farm.' I was living with a bunch of other artists, and I was really feeling rooted.
"The best thing we would do was one of these house square dances. It was a potluck, and, then, somebody would put on rally soup, and it would be ready around two in the morning. We would have another meal and then get back to dancing. It was what I have come to know as 'a visit', where we're going to spend all day together. We're going to talk or not talk, we'll play music and not play music, we will dance and not dance. You get to know everybody at some levels. These were people who got me jobs. They helped me fix my car, and I would help them move. I've played their wedding -- that sense of community that I had never had."
He started touring after he released his first record, pulling up to his gigs in a 15-passenger bus with "Osage Mills Baptist Fellowship Church" written on the outside. His act defied definition, from the beginning. He was a traditional folk artist, but he was also so much more.
"There's a house concert at a place I've been dying to go to, and they're saying, 'So what are you going to do?' And I was like, 'Well, I'm going to be a folk singer. I've got songs, and I've got stories, and I've got visual aids, bad jokes, and I play a lot of instruments. And that's what it is. I have a play that's a little different, too. And sometimes I'm touring with the play.
"I'm always doing more than one thing."
Eric Witthans of Homestead Recording served as Carlisle's engineer and producer on his first EP and is working with him on his second. He remembers the first time he saw Carlisle play live.
"He was singing a capella, playing the guitar and playing a couple of other folk instruments," says Witthans. "He is definitely a multi-faceted and multi-talented artist. A typical set would include a dedication to traditional folk tunes and also original tunes that reflect that style in such a beautiful and timeless way."
The play, "There Ain't No More," was a collaboration between Carlisle and director Joseph Fletcher. Carlisle had released his first EP and had a persistent idea floating around his head: a one-man "folk music play" that featured a character Carlisle would develop from an amalgamation of many different mentors and teachers from his past. Carlisle had taken to recording interviews with some of these people to use in his work.
"I had the idea that this was the guy's last concert, that he was going to die at the end, because, most of the time, with a lot of the interviews that I did, guys weren't going to be around for much longer. There was this imminent sense of the disappearing of some of their life's work. I wanted to create a play that explored that.
"I did have this big, great backlog of interviews, poems I'd written, a sort of soft ethnography where I had left a quilter's house and written a journal entry about it that night or something like that."
He toured with his first EP through nearly all of 2016, and, after working on the play for around six months, took the show on the road for a four-month tour. At over 70 performances, it was a hit, playing particularly successfully at the fringe theater festivals in towns ranging from Orlando to Portland to Minneapolis, where it was called "one of the hottest out-of-town acts" by a festival reviewer. A Tampa reviewer called him "an entertaining madman."
"The play, to me, is a pathway to encourage people to use folkloric techniques in the creation of original work," he says. "I can bring it to colleges, I can bring it to art centers, I can bring it to theaters. I would like to bring it to honky-tonks, which are the narthex of actual public discourse.
"We are working on another play, and it's even weirder -- and that's all I'll say about that: It's weirder."
Fletcher says the secret to their successful collaboration is a shared vision for "civic practice theater."
"We've entered into a partnership making original shows together using a new kind of practice -- telling stories about under-represented groups, using a combination of the folkloric work that Willi has been engaging in, mentorships, interviews, etc. as inspiration for the theater pieces we make and tour," he says. "Folklore and theater kind of complement and add to each other in different ways. We're using theater techniques to engage with community and to have conversations."
The new album, meanwhile, is a chance for current fans -- and fans-to-be -- to hear Carlisle at his most stripped-down and vulnerable, says Whitthans.
"It's just Willi and his instruments," he says. "We tried to focus on what Willi can do for himself -- the way his songs stand on their own, lyrically and musically. This is a naked and vulnerable record -- there's not a lot of extra padding on these songs. This is the Willi you might see on the road, or the Willi that you might see singing on the street corner. This record really showcases his talent."
It's a bit of a tightrope for Carlisle, the "show biz" -- as he characterizes it -- part of making a living as an artist. Still, he's supporting himself as an artist while staying true to who he is, which is not an easy feat for anyone.
"I feel really lucky, and I do think I'm doing what I'm on the earth to do," he says. "[I've] already gotten farther than most people get to go with it, and that is not lost on me at all. I say it a lot, but if I were to die in a ditch, I would be OK, especially after I play a decent show. You can always kill me right then, and everything would be fine. The stakes are that high because at this point it is like life and death.
"But in a fun way," he adds, with a half-smile.
Always with the contradictions.
NAN Profiles on 04/29/2018
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