A Long, Strange Trip
British singer may well be Music Row's most unconventional signing
By Beverly Keel
NOVEMBER 29, 1999: Sitting in the Princeton Grille nursing a beer at 11:30 a.m., William Topley is an unlikely rock star in the unlikeliest of places. Apologetic and disheveled in the midst of an exhausting promotional tour for his new album, Spanish Wells, Topley, 35, forms a stark contrast to the restaurant's perky, suburban clientele.
It seems that nothing about Topley is normal: The Briton's music, which has earned comparisons to Van Morrison, is deep, soulful, and sexual--yet he's signed to a country label, Mercury Nashville, and counts Shania Twain among his label-mates. With his cult-like following, Topley is emerging as the best-kept secret in rock, although in cities such as Denver, Detroit, Portland, and Boston, attendance at his shows is already phenomenal. Ironically, as his career builds momentum Stateside--garnering airplay on AAA stations, including Nashville's WRLT-100.1 FM--his recent solo records aren't even available in his English homeland, due to record-company politics.
With a growing paunch and receding hairline, the married father of three seems like a risky gamble in an era dominated by pretty-boy bands like the Goo Goo Dolls and Sugar Ray. But the appeal of Topley's music lies in its charm and its thoughtfulness. His life represents the road less traveled--an idea that has romantic connotations but in reality is mired with emotional baggage. It's this lifelong journey of self-examination, as well as literal travels to Jamaica, Spain, and even Texas, that has allowed him to capture universal feelings of despair, heartbreak, and longing.
"I'm not particularly miserable at the moment, but I have been, and I can draw on that if I need to," he says. "There isn't an awful lot to write about family life."
Topley has very few good memories about his own childhood because he was enrolled in a strict boarding school for five years. "It was like being sent to jail at the age of 7," he says. "I still believe music can be an escape from those restrictions that were imposed upon me.... I probably would have been better off if I had followed the pattern my father lined out for me. I'd probably be making more money, but I certainly wouldn't have had such broad experience and met so many people."
As a teenager, Topley began listening to The Who and The Rolling Stones, as well as blues artists like Robert Johnson, and found he could easily mimic their delivery. Much to his father's chagrin, the young singer quit school at age 16 and began pursuing music, eventually joining English rock band The Blessing. "My father never understood that if you can't go to university, it doesn't mean you're not capable of intellectual thought. He was part of the people who believed you either follow the path or you're a bum, although he actually enjoys the music. But he thinks it's a crazy thing to make a career of."
During his 20s, Topley became a success in his homeland. As The Blessing's records topped the charts, his voice became a familiar presence on radio and TV, while the invasive British press peeked into his personal life. But just as it had all fallen together so perfectly, Topley suddenly found everything in his life unraveling. "I had a relationship [break-up] that coincided with my business affairs not going so great," he says, adding that four close friends died around the same time. "I found myself drinking rum at 8 in the morning."
In hindsight, Topley now believes surviving this period gives him the authority now to sing the way he does. "I was working with [producer] Barry Beckett, and he said to me in front of my band, 'He knows what he's singing about.' They had given me shit for years, but they never gave me shit after that.
"I feel that I'm entitled to sing the way I do now. I was making the same noise, the same tone, at 15, and I didn't have the right to do that."
While with The Blessing, Topley met Luke Lewis, who was then with Uni Distribution and is now president of Mercury Nashville. Lewis, one of Nashville's last true mavericks, believed in Topley and signed him to the label, despite the raised eyebrows it likely caused on Music Row. William Topley's first solo album, released last year, was his first recording in about seven years.
On his latest effort, Topley cowrote all but one song--Stan Jones' standard "Cowpoke"--and collaborated with Nashville writers Aimee Mayo, Neal Coty, and Randy VanWarmer. Other cowriters also included guitarist Dominic Miller and bandmates Luke Brighty and Mike Westergaard. "There are some things about Nashville [songwriting] that the rest of the world has actually learned," he says. "People in England now make more of an effort to focus on their writing. Everyone takes it more seriously, 'I have to do a writing session.' "
Topley produced the album, along with his bass player James Eller, Westergaard, and longtime collaborator Colin Vearncombe. His recording philosophy is the antithesis of Music Row's: He used his own band, rather than hiring high-paid studio musicians, and purposely waited until the end of last summer's 70-city tour to begin recording. "It's always been a dream to have a band like this and to take them into the studio directly off a tour, when everything is clicking," he says. "What I like about it is that it carries a lot of the feelings I had from the tour. The tour was a life-changing experience. I was amazed at how hard it is on your body and your mind.
"If you use the best musicians in the world, they're probably going to be better musicians, but the band is much more likely to understand where you are coming from. They also have hopes and aspirations that the successful musicians might not have."
Spanish Wells marks the convergence of Topley's life and musical influences. His soulful, Memphis blues-tinged voice is accompanied by reggae beats and sounds on "Kingston Morning" and "I Am the Man," which were influenced by his time in Jamaica. The instrumental title track was inspired by his brief stint in Spain.
"It feels like a new beginning, really," he says. "For the first time, everything put on record was under my control. It's what an artist works for, really. I feel like everything I've done, everything I've learned, has led me to this series of songs, to these recordings, to this album. This album represents me better than anything I've done prior to this.
"I mean it more now," Topley says of his music. "I don't know if that makes it different. I'm not trying to make music save my life. When I was with The Blessing, I had no money and thought, 'This is the chance to change my life. I can become one of the people who doesn't have problems anymore.' I don't feel that now. I feel I want to do the music, and bugger everybody else."
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