From folk to funk, Willie J Healey is doing things his way

The singer-songwriter sits down with HUNGER during some much-needed downtime.

When HUNGER calls Oxfordshire singer-songwriter Willie J Healey, he’s relaxing at home after a busy year of touring. As well as playing “lots of great shows” and releasing his third album, 2023 was a long-awaited banner year. “Some big moments happened, things that I’ve always wanted to do”, he reflects, having supported Arctic Monkeys and Florence & The Machine on their arena tours.

While the start of 2024 has given him time to slow down, regroup and start writing music at home, there’s no denying that Healey – who was once signed to a major label – has come a long way. 

Although Healey initially had his sights set on becoming a boxer when he was a sports-loving teenager, he had been interested in music from a young age – largely thanks to his family, many of whom played acoustic guitar. This led to him discovering different sounds and genres as a child, ranging from classic folk and rock (his dad was a big fan of Van Morrison and Neil Young) to his mum’s collection of R&B and soul, and even garage music (his two older sisters’ preference). “Music was everywhere, it was a big part of our life,” he remembers.

Aged 10, Healey’s dad brought him a guitar so he could join in with everyone. Thanks to YouTube tutorials, specifically those created by Justin Guitar, he quickly taught himself to play by learning other people’s songs. However, Healey realised he could get more attention from his family if he wrote his own. After showing them his creations aged 13, and following their encouragement, he put pen to paper more frequently. 

But, because he was so into boxing, Healey didn’t feel any pressure. “No-one was telling me to do it, and I didn’t have any lessons,” he recalls. “It was just a fun little hobby that I loved.” 

In his later teenage years, however, Healey started feeling embarrassed and more self-conscious about sharing his songs with relatives. Meanwhile, at school, he felt like an “outlier”, because the majority of his friends were into grime. “I just wanted to listen to Neil Young,” he remembers. Thankfully, his other mates were also into bands and guitar music. “We would get together at lunchtimes, secretly, as we didn’t want to get picked on,” he reminisces.

Near the end of his secondary school years, a careers advisor altered Healey’s vision for the future. While he wanted to go to Manchester and study a boxing-based sports science course, she encouraged him to think of alternative interests. Naturally, Healey landed on music. “She said ‘you should definitely do that’”. This was a real turning point as, until that point, “music had been my little secret”. 

A big shift followed, and Healey put his seven-nights-a-week dedication to boxing aside. “Once I moved my focus onto music, there was no stopping me,” he says. By 2016, Healey had “fallen into” a major label deal, which he thought sounded great. “At the time, I was like ‘this is what I knew was going to happen’,” he laughs. However, after his debut album, Healey was dropped. His self-belief never waivered, though: “fairly out of option-lessness, I had to tell myself ‘no, I’m gonna keep going and forget that. It’s just someone’s opinion’.” 

Retrospectively, he thinks getting dropped was helpful. “I learned a lot about myself,” he recalls. “It was the wake-up call that I needed because, before that, I wasn’t sure how it all worked. I thought I was made for life”.

Healey quickly picked himself back up, however, and signed with independent label Yala! Music, which is owned by The Maccabees’ Felix White. “I align with a lot of indie bands who release their own music,” he says, adding that being with an indie has allowed him more creative freedom in recent years, too. “Major labels are cool, and there are lots of things they are really good at,” he says. “But maybe for someone like me, who likes to do what I want… they probably wouldn’t have been so cool with me wanting to do a folk album (2020’s Twin Heavy) and then a funk one (2023’s Bunny).”

Nonetheless, Healey’s genre-traversing sound has led to his music reaching several of his favourite musicians – Florence Welch, Alex Turner and Joe Talbot of Idles – who he now calls fans. “It was surreal at first, but also encouraging,” he says of the imposter syndrome that came with such massive co-signs. “I’ve always appreciated getting recognition from people I look up to. I think that’s really big, especially in something like art and music, because sometimes it feels like you don’t know how you’re getting on,” he ponders. “It can feel like you’re hitting a brick wall.” 

Over time, Healey has grown in self-confidence to realise that “I deserve to be here, because I’ve worked my arse off over the past 10 years”. Going from playing his own shows at local venues to opening for Florence & The Machine at The O2, however, was a real adjustment. “It brought stuff out of me; I really had to turn it on and lose myself in any kind of doubt. I just had to go for it,” he says. “I definitely broke through some walls at those shows.”

Last summer, Healey also supported his friend and collaborator, Jamie T, at his huge Finsbury Park festival. “Even though we had done a song and we’re mates now, I still look back and think ‘if only I knew’,” he says, having long been a fan of Jamie’s music. “We both bring something different to the table,” Healey  adds, saying that he wrote their song, ‘Thank You’, as a joke to thank Jamie for lending him a drum machine. “He’s a very creative person – a force to be reckoned with, and there’s a lot to learn from people like him.” 

Their collaboration laid the foundations for Healey’s third album, ‘Bunny’, on which he switched from the folk of its predecessor to funk. Rather than deliberately changing sound, it came naturally, as a result of lockdown and a lot of time on his hands. “I made very little effort to bridge the gap,” he says. “I was just making stuff in a purely self-indulgent way,” he reflects, adding that because of the pandemic he wasn’t thinking about putting music out or playing gigs.

In terms of his general creative process, Healey says “I’m like a kid in a sweet shop. When I have an idea, I just do it,” he adds. He must have done something right: “I still get people messaging me about Bunny saying they’re just listening to it,” he says, six months after its release. It’s easy to see why: the record is an uplifting and comforting embrace, a tonic amid widespread conflict.

More recently, Healey has started writing new music which, once again, sounds different to what came before. “The songs are a bit more direct, and not so funky,” he teases of the upcoming “band-y cult classics”. Having spent a lot of time “really flexing and pushing the production”, he says “I find myself in a spot now where I’m thinking about songs in a more simple way again.”

Regardless of what happens in the future, Healey says he would still make music. “It’s part of how I process feelings and express myself”. The thought of not writing songs scares him, he says, comparing it to a boxer thinking about losing. “It’s not an option. I’d be stuffed, because I’m fairly unemployable,” he laughs.

Healey’s artistic goal, then, remains humble: “to have done well enough to keep doing music. If I was self-sustainable for a good chunk of time, I’d be pretty happy with that.” On a more ambitious note, and approaching 30, he aspires “to be as big as my friends… And to write songs that need to be written.”

WriterBen Jolley
PhotographerCharlie Cummings
StylistLucy Parker