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Wisely’s music is lush and heartfelt–a sound described as ‘evocative pop’.

Photo: Gordon Stettinius

Photo: Gordon Stettinius

Willie Wisely is a songwriter’s songwriter, and a performer’s performer. Often compared to Paul McCartney, Ben Folds and Elliot Smith, his music is hyper-personal, and by turns quirky and unexpectedly profound. On stage he delivers much more than just song. He plays and moves in a can’t-take-your-eyes-off him style that reminds you why leaving the house for live music is so critical to understanding the pop music art form.

He has toured extensively in the USA and Japan and with his forthcoming 8th studio album “Face The Sun” (due in early 2019), shows off influences not seen from him on previous recordings. Nods to early Rollings Stones, Graham Parsons, Al Green, British psychedelia and even Crosby, Stills & Nash are most notable. Also surprising is the frequent appearance of female backing vocalists and pedal steel, both of which create the sense that after having raised two small children and worked inside the belly of a large record label for the last decade that Wisely is ready to head out to have some new conversations.

Since late 2017 Wisely began releasing EP’s and singles for a groundbreaking new project with fellow Minneapolis expat singer-songwriter Kristin Mooney and platinum-selling producer John Fields. It’s called theloverthekeeper.

Wisely is also a producer, notably for the young Mark Foster (Foster The People), comedian Andy Dick (albums Do Your Shows Always Suck & The Darkest Day Of The Year), and educator Michael Ryther’s “Kids Of The Earth,” an ambitious new project hailed as “the soundtrack to saving the planet.”

Beyond his 30-plus-year recording artist career, Wisely has also enjoyed working behind the scenes in the music industry, including a six year stint as Head Of Promotions at Minneapolis’ legendary venue First Avenue, and also as composer for a number of films, notable working with director James Gunn (Guardians Of The Galaxy).

Currently, Wisely works in acquisitions at Concord Music, where he also manages the estates of Billie Holiday and Tammy Wynette.

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No one-trick pony, the Willie Wisely Trio leaps from era to era, delivering a vivid aroma of days past. But wait, it’s not retro. It’s just easy to love.

Willie Wisely Trio, photo: Steven Meurett

Willie Wisely Trio, photo: Steven Meurett

Whether you’re reminded of Mahalia Jackson “Moving On Up a Little Higher,” or Ray Charles proclaiming “I Believe To My Soul,” Rod Stewart coaxing a stadium to sing along to “Maggie May,” or Neil Young delivering an epic guitar solo, it’s always more Willie than anything else. But that hasn’t stopped comparisons. The group has been referred to as a “troupe of minstrels gallivanting,” “Sinatra on crack,” “Jazz-tinged bards” and “neo-burlesque.” One critic warned “David Lee Roth watch your back” while another imagined, “if Willie were to fart loudly you would no doubt feel inclined to utter an appreciative thank you.” The Willie Wisely Trio truly makes music in a different way.

If stripped naked the group would still be wearing Willie’s songs. Wisely composes like a theater director. Scene One: two lovers who don’t speak the same language. The curtain rises… the song is half-rhymed in French, played to an oozy, 1960’s TV commercial bossa nova funk. Scene Two: man comprehends the scope of his lustful desires and warns the lady to BEWARE. The curtain rises…. eight minutes of screaming guitar feedback sunk to the seething six-eight pulse of the most hideous of Hammond organ tones. Amazingly though, each song is just as effective if sung by Willie with an acoustic guitar. Indeed the Wiselys are a rare band, one that is compelled by their musical frontiers and not held captive by them.

The Chronology

In 1986, after leaving Beloit College and finding a job at the Wax Museum record store in Dinkytown, a university neighborhood in Minneapolis, Willie Wisely began a quest to understand and appreciate jazz. Previously, only the Beatles had really impressed him; and he was let down by most the music of the 1980’s. So without a muse Willie turned to history for inspiration.

In many ways bassist James Voss became this muse. He and Willie met in 1987 while attending what would become McNally Smith College of Music in Minneapolis. They’d signed on for the performance degree programs to explode their skills. Despite being a good songwriter, Willie kind of sucked on guitar and felt the need to improve. Unfortunately, studying scales and modes, and going to class with 50 shredding metal heads, all playing at the speed of light, made Wisely so self conscious that he unimproved his skills (temporarily). It didn’t really matter because he was an entertainer, a singer and a writer at heart. The George Lynch licks were best left to classmates.

James had a notion that they form a band fusing mid-century and New Orleans jazz with classic, but maybe with a twist, like a clarinet player. James was a versatile musician, and played in scads of ‘jobber’ groups across many styles. In his network he met Peter Anderson, a swinging drummer with an appreciation for groups as varied as the frenetic Babes In Toyland, to the placid The Carpenters. Peter also loved Neil Young, free-jazz virtuoso Albert Ayler and Captain Beefheart. The Trio was complete.

James played a dilapidated upright bass, freshly nicked from a school band department. Peter, taking cues from John Bonham and Tony Williams, syncopated the music with ingenuity. And then there’s Willie, trying so hard to be his heroes John Lennon and Mahalia Jackson, and almost always failing spectacularly. But, failure being the breeding ground of innovation, charmed local critics and drove sales of several home-crafted cassette releases. By April 1990, the band would be featured in a cover story for The City Pages weekly––Minneapolis’ Village Voice.

In November 1989 the Trio was playing at a smoky little bar in Minneapolis (yes, you could smoke indoors!). Greg Wold, co-owner of the bar and gonzo trombonist, first saw the group. He played in Twin Cities jazz scene, but had a proclivity for inviting chaos onto stage and drama to every band. He could make the slide trombone wheeze like a steam engine or squeal like a pterosaur. After a few glasses of scotch he would invite himself onto stage, always proclaiming; “You are three of the most attractive young musicians I’ve ever seen.” For the next three years, Greg was the crowning touch as the group became louder and more circus-like.

In early 1992, now with a loyal audience, the Trio released their first album titled Raincan––an homage to Captain Beefheart. The disk generated booking opportunities across the nation, and memorable opening slots for Violent Femmes, Dr. John, Aztec Camera, Trip Shakespeare, Brian Setzer Orchestra, Jr. Wells & Ronald Shannon Jackson among others. The fact that all these bookings made good musical sense was a testament to the Trio’s oddball style. Invitations to perform at South By Southwest Music Conference in Austin, TX came next, stirring activity on the regional CMJ radio charts.

From 1991 to 1993, the Trio toured like a UPS truck, playing endlessly on the small-club circuit across the Midwest––their homemade cassettes and the Raincan CD stacking up rave reviews. Hundreds and hundreds of gigs, thousands of people and plenty of mischief later, the band needed new material. The result was Parlez-Vous Francais?, originally released on Chicago’s Pravda Records in 1994. The sessions were emotionally frayed, as members became disenchanted with endless roadwork. James moved to Christie, WI (population 27) and started a family and hair salon, Peter co-founded his own group Saucer, and Greg who had developed a life threatening blood clot in his leg during the recording sessions started thinking that the road was not an effective place for himself or the group. Things became disjointed, burning out four different teams of engineer/studio teams, resulting in piles of unreleased songs and steeling Wisely’s confidence about the band and the album.

In 1993, after touring through a treacherous blizzard in the Poconos Mountains, Greg would begin making a different noise––confessing he didn’t want to tour any longer. Losing him would be a challenge for the group, but was compensated for by Willie’s distinctive new guitar style––done without a guitar pick. The Trio would commit to rocking harder and swinging less, still launching into great flights of improvisation, and never playing the same show twice. However, demoralized by the loss, they would tour for a year in support of Parlez-Vous Francais? but eventually break up in the summer of 1995.

From 1996 through 2009 Wisely spawned a substantial solo career––releasing seven albums, touring the US and Japan, moving to Los Angeles, acting in film and TV, and producing records for other artists, including comedian Andy Dick. Wisely’s music after the Trio is often referred to as power pop, or more recently as evocative pop. He is often compared to contemporaries like Ron Sexsmith, Elliot Smith, or elder statesmen such as Donovan, and Pauls Simon and McCartney.

By 2008, a label deal with Oglio/Fontana, a wine sponsorship, and sprawling house concert tours established Wisely as a contemporary singer-songwriter. Several star-studded music videos featuring actors Jenna Fischer, Alexander Gould and frequent collaborator Andy Dick, heighten his national profile.

In 2009 tragedy struck. Gigs were cancelled, and recording projects were tabled. Wisely’s desire to write songs completely vaporized. He had developed an inexplicable hemangioma on his right vocal cord that distorted the singing voice and made it impossible to sing in tune.

Surgery in 2011 would finally begin to solve the problem. With 40% of his voice returned by mid-year, Willie was reinvigorated enough to finish the passion-project he’d started in 2007 with the original Willie Wisely Trio. Adding final overdubs, even singing a bit, the band sculpted the recordings and culled some songs until there was a new album worthy of their 18-year hiatus.

In Summer 2011, with the album complete, nearly a year after vocal surgery, the Trio played a spate of gigs around Minneapolis, whetting everyone’s appetite for more. The band was fearless as ever, making a great big noise unlike any other band in rock history.

Frighteningly, “True” now stares at Wisely, demanding to be performed. Yet there is uncertainty. “My voice will never be the same as it was, Most of the vocal tracks on “True” were recorded before things went to hell. I’m not sure how to handle some of the material live. It’ll be challenging and frightening to show people my new voice. I’ll have to trust that great art comes from puzzling situations. Cowabunga!!