Poet, rapper, and now author – New York Times bestselling no less, for his recently-published collection of essays How To Ruin Everything – Californian George Watsky has shown himself to be more than capable at turning his hand to a variety of writerly disciplines. The Bay Area’s reigning teen slam poetry champion at nineteen, Watsky is undoubtedly best know for his music; an eclectic mix of rap, hip-hop, humour and pop culture references which to date have racked up over 250 million views on YouTube alone.
Now approaching his fourth album x Infinity, which comes out this Friday, George graciously took my call to talk what kind of feedback he takes seriously, emotional resonance, epilepsy medication, favourite rhymes, Hamilton, Hogwarts, giving away his prized Subaru, and spending all his money on music videos…
I read on a Reddit AMA last year that you sometimes like to look up brutally honest feedback from people who aren’t fans because you can learn from it. What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from something one of those people has said?
That’s a serious question, let me think about that for a second. I think the first and foremost thing I’ve learned from reading people’s criticism is that I need to learn which ones to pay attention to and which ones to ignore, because a lot of the times I’ll get feedback that’s very consistent and if I’m hearing the same thing over and over again I really do listen to it. I try to take it seriously – but if it’s a rogue comment, or if I can tell it’s just someone trying to troll me or doesn’t understand what I’m going for then I really try and ignore it. But for instance, on two of my songs that have come out recently, people have posted that they think the audio mix is too low in my verses, and I’ve taken that seriously and I’ve gone back and made changes because of that; and it’s not because I’m lazy, it’s just because sometimes you don’t get it right the first time, and I’m trying. And in terms of my actual work…it’s tough to say. I think in terms of production that’s where I’ve listened to people the most, because a lot of people that don’t like my work…they don’t like who I am or what I do isn’t what they’re looking for in hip-hop, and I can’t that too seriously because I run the risk of not being myself and just doing something because I’m worried that people won’t like it.
So it’s a mix.
On the other hand, what’s the nicest thing someone’s said to you recently?!
I think any time anyone says that my music has inspired them to create their own music, it’s really great for me because I know I can point to the people who were my inspirations when I first started, and they’ll always have an extremely important place in my life. So there have been people recently who said listening to me got them started on writing, and that’s a huge compliment to me.
Touching on that a little bit, when you inspire people – or at least in my case it was – it’s usually down to one song maybe. One of the songs that really resonated with me “Wounded Healer” –
– are there any songs on the new album that resonate with you emotionally on that kind of level, more than the other?
There’s a song called “Chemical Angel” that’s third on my album, that doesn’t have the exact same feeling as “Wounded Healer“, but is a very simple and honest song in the same way that “Wounded Healer” has probably the fewest words in of any song that I’ve ever written, but it is one that I do hear from people – thank you for the nice words, by the way – that has resonated with people, and I think “Chemical Angel” might do something similar. It’s very honest, it’s very simple, and it’s one that I was able to get to the point very fast with it.
— watsky x ∞ (@gwatsky) August 3, 2016
A sneak peak of “Chemical Angel”
Yeah, I definitely picked up on that; it’s one that immediately jumped out at me.
“Chemical Angel” is about my feelings about trying to get off of the medication that I’m on for my epilepsy, and trying to quit because I’m on a medication that I really don’t like being on, and it’s about that struggle of trying to get off my medication.
You say in it: “if I had to choose, I’d rather lose my life than have to lose myself”. What does do the medication do to you that makes you feel not yourself?
It messes up my memory. It makes me feel stupid. It flattens out my brain waves so it makes me feel like a zombie, and it’s basically robbing my personality from me, and what could be more important than the person you actually are? It’s like, it’s a very terrifying thought, to think that I’m just gonna walk through the world as a cheapened version of the person that I always thought that I was.
That makes a lot of sense; I think I would definitely be the same! Is there anything you feel that x Infinity offers that maybe your previous records don’t – maybe to a new listener, or…?
Yeah…I think that it’s more mature, and I think that it’s better, but that’s a very subjective opinion, and of course I have to feel that way about my new work, but I really do! I really honestly do. I think that what it has is the same core philosophy as Cardboard Castles and All You Can Do, but with a slightly tweaked perspective on it, and I think the way that’s it’s tweaked it that it takes all the existential angst that Cardboard Castles has but looks at it from a different direction, and basically says “if we are meaningless in the world, that can actually be a very freeing idea”. So I think it’s a joyful album, and it’s one that is at its core – even though it’s sort of fatalistic – is also optimistic, and it’s a celebratory album, whereas All You Can Do was me coming to terms with the less-flattering sides of myself, and so it was sort of a darker album, and Cardboard Castles on the other hand was a very sunny album –
– and this one I think is an album that has joy at its core, but isn’t so emotionally simple as Cardboard Castles.
Is there anything in particular that changed your perspective since then?
I’ve just grown up! I’ve had successes and I’ve had failures, and I think that combination of knowing that you can succeed and maybe having the confidence to know that if I put good work out there it’s gonna do well has made me a more confident person, but also failing and fucking up has made me a more humble person, and so at least I hope that that’s just matured me; just the process of living.
So, I’ve gotta say that there are some rhymes and word-plays on the album that have really jumped out at me. Being a writer too, those kinds of think jump out, like the “your butt makes me cry, I call it a boo-hooty”
Have you got a favourite rhyme or word-play from the new album?
I do love that one! And actually, every time I come up with a pun that I think is really clever I type it into Google to make sure that I was the first one to do it.
And half the time Donald Glover did it first…
And that one I was really happy that I got to it first, because I hate it when find out a rapper recycled a line that I love from someone else, and I try to never do that. The other line that’s on that song, “Don’t Be Nice“, that I’m really proud of – it ends the whole verse. That song is such a gratuitous…it’s like a two-and-a-half minute verse followed by an extended jazz outro. Just like, pure word-play porn, and the last in is…let’s see how it all goes. It says “if you got a new Coupe, I do not knock it, but I bukkake your Bugatti with snot rockets”, and I was really rhyming “bukkake” and “Bugatti”, and then finding a way to make it make sense with the verse, and it’s the last one; it’s the last line of the verse too, and then it goes into the jazz outro, so I’m particularly proud of that disgusting image.
(laughs) There’s so much going on in that track, it’s really good.
So, Daveed Diggs is on the last track, and obviously Lin-Manuel is on your book cover. Which part in Hamilton would you like to play?
Well, I could never play a part in Hamilton unfortunately, because the only part that I think is appropriate for a white dude to play is King George, and I’m not a good enough singer to play King George; those songs require someone to have a really excellent voice. I know there’s a lot of debate around whether they should expand the casting in Hamilton to be colour-blind; I personally think the play would not resonate unless it was actors of colour playing all the revolutionary forefathers. So yeah, I’m not cut out to play a part in Hamilton, but I am cut out to be an audience member and to enjoy it.
Have you been to see it?
I have! Yeah, I loved it.
So jealous! (laughs) Okay, this is a bit of a weird one: if you could play a gig in any fictional location, where would it be and why?
A fictional location?
I would love to go to Hogwarts. That would be pretty cool.
(laughs) Who do you think would like your stuff the most; which house?
Probably Ravenclaw; pretty nerdy. But I know that Daniel Radcliffe likes wordy rap music since he did “Alphabet Aerobics” from Blackalicious [on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon] so…
Oh, no way!
Yeah, he did a big viral cover of that, and Gift of Gab from Blackalicious is one of the MCs I grew up listening to so…I know he’s not interchangeable with his character, but you know, maybe he’d come to the show too!
“I loved the idea of turning the page, and I’m maturing, my music’s maturing, that car has been in so many of my videos, and I figured why not fix it up and give it to someone who needs it?”
That’s awesome! So you’re giving away your Subaru.
I guess this question is two-fold: why are you giving it away, and what are you gonna replace it with?
Well, I’ll answer the second part first: I’m not gonna replace it with anything. I’m not gonna have a car for a while; I don’t need one, and I love the Subaru but I love the way that I’ve been travelling the world recently and just being able to move around every month to a new place, and having a car doesn’t really make sense for that. The reason that I’m getting rid of it is because of that! I don’t need it any more; my lifestyle does not require having a car and I figured if I was just lending it out to friends every six months – and they were just driving it for me – I might as well give it away and give it to someone who would love it, and I felt like it was a real…just, perfect button on a certain chapter in my life. It represented all this music that I’d done before, and I loved the idea of turning the page, and I’m maturing, my music’s maturing, that car has been in so many of my videos, and I figured why not fix it up and give it to someone who needs it? I actually picked a winner last night–
–Yeah! And I talked to them, and what I did was I put all the entries from the contest in an Excel spreadsheet, and there was two thousand of them.
Then I went to random.org – it’s a website that’s capable of generating a random integer between a field that you enter. So I wanted one random integer between 1 and 1,957, and all I did was I clicked a button once to generate one random integer, and that integer corresponded to the row the winner was in of the Excel spreadsheet. It’s a woman named Sarah, she lives in Ithaca, New York, and I called her last night and she doesn’t own a car, and she needs a car; it’s really perfect. She’s a doctoral medical student at Cornell College and I get to give someone a car who needs one. It’s really awesome!
That’s fantastic man! Is it far from the last state of your tour?
Well I’m leaving on Monday; I’m going on the road trip before my tour. Ithaca is about as far from Los Angeles as it could possibly be; it’s basically…if you look at the United States, it’s like running a diagonal from the lower left-hand corner to the upper right-hand corner, so it’s more than three thousand miles which is far it is from San Francisco to New York; it’s like thirty five hundred miles or something. I can’t wait! I’m actually really excited that the winner wasn’t right around the corner from me.
Are you taking anyone with you?
I’m gonna take a videographer, and then one other person – to be decided…
You talked about it being in a lot of your videos; what’s your favourite video of all the ones you’ve made? Any of the new ones?
Maybe! I really love “Midnight Heart“; it’s so crazy – the boxing choreography. It’s probably between that one and “Whoah Whoah Whoah“.
When I was watching the ”Midnight Heart” one I was thinking of “Fuck An Emcee Name“, but it’s so much more – all the dancing around that you do.
It was very intentional; every moment in it – and unlike “Emcee Name” where we went in a boxing ring and just messed around, with this one everything was done with intention. I’m really trying to raises the bar with all my videos and make sure that every single one of them is very…that’s there’s care and craft put into every one of them.
Are you doing a video for every song this time? Correct me if I’m wrong but you’ve done videos for most of your songs?
I’ve always tried and then I’ve lost interest and money when the album cycle’s wound down, but I really really wanna do a video for every song – it’s just gonna be incredibly expensive to do, at least to the level that I’ve been doing videos. So I’m trying to get in two more before…I have three more videos that have been shot that haven’t been released yet – for “Stick To Your Guns“, “Brave New World” and “Little Slice” – and I’m gonna try and do videos for “Don’t Be Nice” and “Pink Lemonade” before I go on the road.
Then when I get back I’d like to try and do the rest of them but it’s…I’m gonna need money and the thing thing that I’m trying to do is put these little Easter eggs around all my videos so that there’s visual themes and motifs and transitions between them. This may not be something most people notice, but when the “Tiny Glowing Screens Part 3” ends, it ends on a shot of my back, and when the “Talking To Myself” video starts, it starts on the shot of the dancer’s back and it’s framed in the exact same way as the previous one ends on my back, and that goes with two songs that follow each other directly on the album. What I’m trying to do with all my videos, even though I’m shooting them out of order, is look at the transitions so that if I were to eventually finish all my videos, you could watch them – the album videos – from start to finish with smooth transitions and motifs between all of them.
Check it out for yourselves…
That’s a level detail that I don’t think a lot of people put into their work, and I think that’s what, for me anyway, makes you so special.
Thank you – well I’m trying! And I hope that people…there will be all these little Easter eggs planted around the videos that I think people will notice afterwards and be like “ohhhhhh wow!” It’s really fun for me to do that.
I’m gonna have to go and look! Alright, so just to wrap up: obviously you’re heading out on tour. You’re doing America, then over to Europe. I was at your…it wasn’t your first London show, but it was one of them – The Old Vic Tunnels?
Oh wow! Cool.
It was literally about two months after I found out about you. You said there that playing to a crowd of that size was overwhelming – I’d imagine you play to much bigger crowds now. Are you more used to it now, or does it still blow your mind a little bit?
I’m more used to it, but it’s something that…it never gets old for me, because I spent so long playing to very small crowds, and when you spend six or seven years playing to fifteen people, and then suddenly you’re able to play to hundreds and thousands of people, you never forget how grateful you are to get to that point – and how easily it could have never happened. So it’s amazing, and every time I go out on the road I appreciate it, and especially this time because we haven’t been touring for about a year and a half. I am so so excited to get out there.
x Infinity drops this Friday, 19th August. Watsky goes out on tour starting September 2nd across North America, the UK and mainland Europe – full dates here. You can follow him on Twitter here and Facebook here.