Sometimes on rainy days, Westerly, Rhode Island reminds me of Stephen King’s fictional town of Derry, Maine.
You get that eerie sensation that there might be balloons in the sewer, blood in the bathtub, voices down the drain. And it is oddly full of musicians.
(Not that Derry was full of musicians; Derry’s claim to fame seems to be precocious preteens.)
That was one of the first things I noticed when I moved here. You can’t walk a block but you stub your toe on a musician.
Sometimes they travel in clumps.
There are as many singer-songwriters here as there are policemen. And there are a lot of policemen. Possibly because of all the musicians.
Anyway, one of my favorite musicians, almost since I moved here, is Haunt the House.
Is it still a musician if it is both a person and a band? Singer-songwriter Will Houlihan is both, and a visual artist besides. He is Haunt the House. He and his guitar and his harmonica and his words. Not to mention his doodles.
The first time I heard him play, I blogged:
Houlihan’s voice is the kind you don’t want to hear singing up at you from the bottom of an old well. If it calls out from a difficult, mist-obscured patch of bog, don’t follow it down. If you hear it floating up from the tombs as you pass a graveyard, walk away quickly, stop your ears with wax, scatter salt.
His range is both flexible and steely, with a warm burr at the bottom and a razor glitter at the top. There is a kind of cry built into it. And then he played the harmonica…”
Recently, I decided I’d like to start a string of interviews here on Black Gate Magazine, talking to artists I’d consider fantastical even if they don’t. Or haven’t to this point.
I asked Will if he’d be willing to talk to me about his music — especially his most recent project, a concept album called Jack Rabbit Jones — to kick things off.
He obliged. We arranged. He came over with his two sons.
We plopped the boys in front of The Dark Crystal (neither of them had seen it, much to the shock and bewilderment of my childhood shades), and then shut ourselves in the Purple Parlor.
The Purple Parlor is so named because the last owners painted the walls a sort of lurid violet, and then my roommate and I hung up purple tie-dyed draperies over one corner to conceal storage we were not quite ready to go through.
Here, in the long shadows cast by our purple gauze curtains, is where we conducted the interview.
Haunt the House and Jack Rabbit Jones: An Interview with Will Houlihan
So. Will Houlihan.
Yes, that is me.
Why don’t you talk about yourself a little bit? Tell me what you do.
I write music… (Will laughs) That’s it.
How would characterize your music? If you had to.
That’s a difficult question.
It is – and I embrace this title – “Backwoods Gospel.” Not so much folk. My spirituality has been a pervasive theme throughout my life, and it allows me to express myself in ways other than “I feel this, I feel that.”
It gives me an outsider perspective. It gives me an ability and an outlet to write creatively. The fun part about writing that way is that I’m able to explore it. I don’t think I ever want to find out why. If I find out why, I’ll get tired of it.
I also write directly from experience. I’ve been through two divorces, so there’s a lot of writing fodder there, and there’s a lot to write about in relationships. Not just with people. More recently, I’ve been looking at relationships between objects. And people and objects. And objects and other objects.
Yeah — there’s a good friend of mine who wrote an amazing love story, and he put it to music. And it’s about two wax figures in a museum. And the museum catches on fire, and they melt. His poetry is beautiful. I haven’t been able to listen to that song without tearing up.
It sounds fantastic. Not only is it a great love story, but it is totally surreal. Do you tend to tell stories with your songs?
I try to. Right now, I’m writing an album about the love a woman has for her husband. He has a split personality. One personality is Jack Rabbit Jones; the other is King Amish.
It’s a love triangle.
The songs are turning out to be an extraction of dialogue between the three of them, with their story implied. I had originally intended to make this huge album, doing it in three-parts — Act I, Act II, Act III — each EP voiced to each character.
But I kind of like it better with the dialogue extracted. Because I can imply the story with the design of the album. The outside visual design. There’s gonna be a booklet with it, of artwork.
But the music itself is just gonna be the conversation between all three.
Honestly, I just thought of the name. Jack Rabbit Jones. I thought it was interesting, and I wondered if anyone had ever thought of that name, put it to any sort of artwork, or taken on a persona.
So, I am Jack Rabbit Jones. I also am King Amish. And Prairie, who’s his wife, that’s my longing for my feminine half. I’m writing about the woman that I want. That I imagine having. She sings, in “Ease Your Troubled Mind”:
Well you wouldn’t let me love you,
You were always unsatisfied,
Oh but darlin please believe me how I tried
The smoke that billows from your window,
It is just a telling sign,
That the heart within is choked
And nearly died.
But I want to ease your troubled mind.
I want to ease your troubled mind
Come back to me, and you will find
That I will ease your troubled mind.
Jack Rabbit Jones has no inner peace. He’s just wild. His character is a completely destroyed – emotionally and psychologically – person. And yet she still loves him. And she wants to cover him and protect him and give him that room to grow as a person.
At the end of it all, he’s sort of lost. I don’t think he’s ever going to turn around.
As far as looks go — Jack Rabbit Jones is nothing like me.
He’s tall. He’s thin. He’s kinda a cowboy character. He is the protagonist of the story. When he’s Jack Rabbit Jones, he’s the hero. He loves his family. There’s a song called “Emerson” when he’s expressing how much ambition he has, how much love and care he’s implementing.
I was buried in Emerson on the kitchen floor cuz my knees had just given way, as I took from his brain ’bout the freedom of men, he was puttin me back in my place, and you called to the kids with a fire in your heart that the dinner was ready and hot, and I looked up to god, with a wink and a nod singing “destitute we are not!”
King Amish, unlike Jack Rabbit Jones, is very much like me.
Fully bearded? Dark eyes? Dark hair? More brooding, not as quicksilver?
There are a couple songs in a row. The first is “Black Butte” — Jack Rabbit works in an oil rig. And he comes home, and he finds — this is where it all gets twisted — King Amish with his wife. (Who is actually himself.)
“oh what do I hear, oh what do I see?
In the arms of my woman, but it isn’t me…
And he gets enraged. And the next song is “Jealous Vow.”
And “Jealous Vow” is about his determination to take revenge. It’s very explicit. He’s gonna kill them. And he’s gonna bury them in the wall. He’s very hateful. He’s looking for retribution, and he wants justice.
Darlin don’t you worry, all your doves with razored claws
I have trapped them with my bloodied hands
And laid them in the walls
Where as well my lover you may rest alongside Rabbit Jones,
And they’ll never find your bodies
Til you’re dust and dirty bones…
But the thing I like about King Amish is that he sang these things because deep down, he really loves her.
Wait. …King Amish is singing these things??? I thought it was Jack Rabbit Jones who finds King Amish with…
No, Jack Rabbit is King Amish. Here’s the hard part. Jack Rabbit Jones comes home. Finds King Amish and Prairie together. Goes mad.
So… This is Jack Rabbit Jones singing?
No, it is King Amish singing.
About how he’s going to kill King Amish?
No, about how he’s going to kill Jack Rabbit Jones. Because there’s a switch in his mind. He can’t be malevolent unless he’s King Amish.
Jack Rabbit comes home. The jealousy ensues. He sees King Amish there. He switches. He’s King Amish. He goes away. He sings this song. About killing Jack Rabbit Jones and his wife.
As he’s singing, his malevolence subsides, and he decides that he’s going to throw himself off a cliff.
Because he’s calmed down, and now he’s Jack Rabbit Jones, and the switch has gone off again. And so he climbs to the top of Black Butte.
Which is… What? A mountain? A desert?
It’s a fictional place, although there are actually two places I know of named Black Butte. Neither of them have canyons. Mine is… Not a desert. Black Butte is this dark green, lush, craggy, cliff-ridden area.
And he goes to the top of it. And he throws himself off. And the song “Pity Creek Ravine,” is about him throwing himself off the cliff and into this natural ravine. And an angel actually catches him and gives him a second chance.
“Well my life flashed hollywooden reels,
As a light was burning at my heels,
And the wind was dancing round it feels
Just like a wheel….”
Is the angel voice a female voice? Male voice?
In my head, it’s female.
There’s a choir that comes in during that time. I’m composing it that way. A lot of the sound elements in this album have to do with broken voices. Voices that are imperfect.
I want people to sound like a church congregation, rather than a metered out you’re gonna sing tenor, you’re gonna sing bass. I want it to sound as real as possible.
I remember there was this one time when I was going through this last divorce. There was this old house. We lived there. It was built in 1740. Had all posts and beams. A center fireplace. I had a studio downstairs. Amazing pine floors. Just beautiful house.
And I remember waiting for someone to come home. I remember the despair that I had. I was all alone for some reason that night. And I just remember I was writing songs, and I was singing, and I was by myself, so I was singing at the top of my lungs. And all my emotions came to the surface, and I was no longer singing, I was wailing.
And that’s what I’m thinking of when I hear the choir parts. That everyone is wailing. Everyone is looking for their comfort.
That knowledge that everything’s gonna be okay. But first you have to cry for it.
That’s what I want.
Are Prairie and the angel the same voice?
Not so much. The attitude of the songs I want to try to make similar. Not one person or one female is going to voice those songs. A few of them I’m going to do as duets with another artist, Allysen Callery.
What kind of artist is she?
Both amazing pieces. She’s categorized as folk, but it’s like opening a storybook and reading a fairy tale. But she’s singing it to you.
The albums definitely have a very strong visual imagery. For me at least, I interpret it as Medieval, or like Celtic fairy tales. Beautiful stuff. And her voice compliments the style perfectly.
She started out playing nylon guitar. You know, nylon strings have a certain quality to them. You can hear the fingers on them differently than you can on a steel string guitar. She’s moved over to steel string now, which she does beautifully as well, but I’m really in love with the nylon stuff that she was doing because her voice mirrors the picking of the nylon.
Specifically her consonants.
Even when she says hard sounds like Ps and Ts and Gs, her voice has this ethereal quality that I haven’t heard anywhere else in music. If you ever get a chance to listen to it…
I will! New music! Hurray!
Back to you… What time period do you think Jack Rabbit Jones takes place in? You said it’s “antique” — what does that mean, like an alternate 1930’s?
There are things about it that I feel are classic. Antique. Like those things you come across in antique stores that you think are completely useful. Like an apple corer. You know – we still use things like that. This is what I imagine.
King Amish would live in a gypsy wagon. You know? A horse-drawn gypsy wagon, but he’d still have technology of today. This the first time I’ve actually spoken to anyone about this out loud. Most of it — all of it — is my head.
But as far as the landscape goes, the setting, yes, it’s very much an antique thing.
You see it in sepia?
Not so much. I see a lot of it in old designs. I look at old typeface, old photographs, on a regular basis, trying to keep up the idea of what I’m doing.
I’ve gotten to the point where I’m finished writing the songs. Now I’m looking to give it an identity visually. A lot of it has to do with the photographs of Edward S. Curtis. He’s very well known for photographing the Native American tribes in the Northwest corner. Most of America, actually. But his photographs are beautiful. Just incredible.
What about your musical influences? Have you heard any other album that sounds like what you want? That makes you feel a certain way, that you want to make people feel that way?
There’s a lot of… empty space in his songs. He kind of lets you fill in a lot of those spaces with what you imagine. He uses a voice — his falsetto.
The word falsetto leads you to believe that it’s not his voice. I always took that to mean, whenever anyone did falsetto — and if they did it well — that it’s not their voice. It’s something else. Or someone else.
That always intrigued me that an artist was able to do that. Sing from somewhere else.
Other artists who do that are Ben Knox Miller and Jeff Prystowsky from Low Anthem. Their albums are – the landscapes that they manage to create and build — are phenomenal. Musical landscapes. Of course it’s wonderful music. But for me, I interpret it more as a feeling. I feel that album.
What feeling is it?
I can say that when I’m listening to Oh My God, Charlie Darwin that it feels… It feels like life.
What are you doing with the Jack Rabbit Jones album that you’ve never done before?
We have a band. I’m getting schedules together. Schedules in general.
I’m very much — I’m trying to change this about myself — I’m very much a fly by the seat of my pants kind of person. Never really have plans for anything. And I’ve realized that I cannot live the rest of my life that way.
I was the kind of guy who went to work — I worked two or three jobs most of my life — and then I was laid off in 2011, and was on unemployment for a year, and during that time I just needed to figure out what I was going to do for the rest of my life.
Going to work and punching a clock and coming home and having a paycheck was stability enough for me not to plan ahead. If that makes any sense?
I also did a lot of my growing up through the second divorce. I was living my life day to day, banking on the fact that I was going to have a paycheck, and this was going to be my life, and I’d do art on the side.
I liked music, and I liked to write a few songs, but I wasn’t really going to do anything with it.
But when I got laid off, it was like God kicked me off the highway.
I was dating someone who put it like this, “God kicked you off the highway, ’cause you missed your exit ten years ago.”
And I think she was right. I had to recognize that. This is what I want to do. I found my passion. My direction.
So now I’m in the mode of, “Okay, I’m going to be in business for myself. Gotta start making schedules. Not just for me, but for other people. Trying to get them together.”
Yeah, ’cause they’re all musicians, they all have crazy schedules, and most of them are, well, like me. All very unstable. (Laughs) So it’s been a big change for me.
What’s the timeline for this project?
Well, I go into the studio the week of October 14th. And I’m going to be in the studio for five days. And if everything goes according to plan, I’ll have an album by the end of that week, or the week after.
I’m trying to put it out on colored vinyl, followed up with CDs and digital releases. There’s going to be a very small booklet with it. I want to do a chapbook. That may change, but that’s the idea for now, depending on how much I get.
So I’ll be getting 250 limited edition colored vinyls, with the front and back prints, and then the book. After that, CDs released with booklets inside. Or with the CDs inside card stock booklets.
And after that is the digital download with a PDF and all the artwork.
After that, it’s just preparing for a few shows. I wanna have shows that sort of emulate a play. That have actors come on and off the stage. In total, I have thirteen people who are playing on the record.
Are they all members of the chorus?
I’ll be doing most of the vocals. There’ll be back-up, duets on the Prairie songs, and the choir. Jack Rabbit Jones and King Amish will be me. And people are playing musical instruments.
My acoustic guitar. My harmonica. A stand-up bass. An electric guitar. A violin. Possibly cello. Harmonium. Melodica — which is awesome and strange.
I don’t know what that is.
You blow into it and it’s like a little tiny keyboard.
The accordion. Of course, drums. There are a lot of very talented people involved — banjo will definitely be in there. It’s gonna be fun. It’s just gonna be a logistical nightmare. I’d like to do a number of shows afterwards. Just local stuff.
…And after that I’m gearing up for writing for the next.
To help fund the recording, engineering, mastering, and distribution of “Jack Rabbit Jones,” visit Will’s Indiegogo fundraiser page and contribute what you can.
There are perks like signed albums, buttons, prints of original artwork by Will Houlihan, free downloads, and limited edition T-shirts.