Artist To Watch: Westerman
Sometimes an artist emerges, seemingly out of nowhere, with a piece of new music so perfect that it leaves you wondering a few things. First and foremost, who the hell is this person? Where did they come from? What’s their story — and how have I not heard it yet?
That was the feeling left after London singer-songwriter Westerman debuted his latest single “Confirmation” last month. It’s a stunning track that sticks with you — and continues revealing new facets of itself — long, long after its three-minute runtime has expired. “Confirmation” came on like a sneak attack, a work of immediate genius from a young artist with a very small footprint in the music landscape. But if “Confirmation” was a hint of what is yet to come, chances are the latter detail might not hold true for much longer.
Of course, as it usually goes with these situations, Westerman’s career goes a little further back than the spark of brilliance that may have just landed him on some people’s radars for the first time. On a recent morning, I called Westerman at his home in London. During our conversation, he dug into his origins, shined a light on “Confirmation” and its new companion “I Turned Away,” and explained how he got to this point, the beginning of the next phase of his career.
Westerman’s professional life as a musician officially kicked off back in 2016, when he released a couple tracks that came together into the Harvard EP. Musically, it was airy and yearning folk that garnered persistent comparisons to Nick Drake. You can hear the some of the same Westerman in that earlier work: Even then, his voice was already notable — rich, malleable, expressive, and able to weave into those places that keep the emotions of a particular song somewhat shrouded in mystery. But there are plenty of ways in which it’s also starting to sound like a completely different artist given where Westerman appears to be now.
At that point, Harvard might’ve seemed like a culmination of a life spent in and around music already. As a child, Westerman sang in choirs and played saxophone, before quitting both in a teenage rejection of formal music and being told what to play. Soon after, he acquired an acoustic guitar for Christmas and set out teaching himself via the accessible guitar bands of the time — stuff like the Strokes, Kings Of Leon, and groups like Gaslight Anthem and Titus Andronicus later on.
Of course, none of his music sounds anything like those artists. Even after a high school talent show debut of one of his original songs went over well, Westerman kept songwriting as a solitary and insular activity, never forming a band and always opting to play as a solo musician. For a few years, there was a detour as Westerman went to school for a degree in philosophy, but music has had a way at coming back to him over the course of his life. “I knew this was something I needed to give a go more seriously at some point,” he says.
In hindsight, Harvard was one step in a development that later continued with last year’s Call And Response EP. With Westerman’s ongoing collaborations with Bullion as his producer, Call And Response was still rooted in the ruminative folk of his earlier work but started to signal that a transformation was afoot. Now, he sounds and presents himself as almost a completely different artist. Seeking to shed the folkie label that had been applied to him and having decided he no longer wanted to hide behind a mess of long curls, Westerman buzzed his hair and adopted a slicker, minimalist breed of singer-songwriter music — still rooted in the core elements of his voice and guitar, he located an urbane, nocturnal pop that benefited from Bullion’s textural influence.
For Westerman, the new sound was about a rebuilt sense of confidence and a desire to strive for directness and concision in his songwriting. “I’m still proud of [my earlier work], it’s all part of development,” he says. “But I didn’t feel like I put enough of myself into that music.” He realized that his earlier songs were “so full of words, and maybe too many melodic ideas … cluttered.” It was a natural consequence of playing alone all the time, only having two instruments with which to fill up a composition. But recording, and working with Bullion, unlocked a different part of his creative approach. Now, he’s more conscious of leaving space, thinking of where they might have an opportunity to explore an interesting sound rather than another vocal part. “I still think melody is at the center of what I’m doing,” he explains. “But I’m getting more interested in how you can create a sonic world now.”
This is what set the stage for Westerman’s new songs, but those almost never came into the world. After Call And Response, Westerman split with his former manager and found himself in a bit of an existential spiral. “I was not feeling totally good about releasing more music,” he recalls. “My confidence had been a bit knocked.”
But “Confirmation” and “I Turned Away” were already written, and his label convinced him to let them out into the world, quietly. They wouldn’t push them to radio, they’d simply release them and see what happened. “It’s funny how life works, when the pressure was completely taken off,” Westerman wryly says, given the heightened interest that surrounded him upon “Confirmation.”
Ironically, the songs that barely saw release, the songs that reignited Westerman after a lull, also came from a more disenchanted period. Supposedly inspired by Westerman’s head-on attack on a streak of writer’s block, “Confirmation” was a song that grappled with the modern condition of “infinite choice,” the debilitating fallout of having everything at your fingertips and having no clue what you want out of it, or what you want to do with once you do make a choice.
Westerman often writes songs that can operate on multiple levels, with a little room for a listener’s personal interpretation. That infinite choice could apply to songwriting, to his own experience, or to … grocery shopping. “I get quite freaked out in supermarkets, these rows upon rows of the same thing with different brand names,” he explains. “I used to notice people walking around in these stupors, and I’m not exempt from that either.” It’s an image that seems to have stuck with him long enough to inspire the accompanying video for “Confirmation,” in which an alien Westerman drifts through a candy store and later escapes to a fantasy world removed from the quotidian pressures of contemporary life.
There are relatable qualities that may have made “Confirmation” so immediately appealing, but there’s also the song itself. A gently undulating track built on twilit streetlight synth ambience and jazz-pop guitar flickers, it sounds like a long-lost collaboration between Sting and the Blue Nile. But it was really that vocal performance, that melody, that makes the song impossible to ignore.
“Confirmation” unfolds subtly, almost imperceptibly, with Westerman teasing out the melody, trying out the chorus, reframing it at the song’s plaintive conclusion. It’s a place where you can hear his roots as a musician — the jazz interest, or the fact that singing in a choir made him think about harmony and of “pure melody” without the need for rhythmic backbone. “[The melody in choral music] is sort of less linear,” he says. “It tends to be more expansive in range.” There’s a freeness to the surprising twists in how Westerman works his way around the track, as if there was improvisation that went all the way out to sea before he reigned it back in and confined it within an unforgettable yet still elusive pop hook.
The song’s new b-side “I Turned Away” operates in a similar space. Driven by a laidback bass thud and humid flashes of synth and guitar, it’s another new Westerman piece that is warmly seductive at the same time that it has the cold sheen of a listless, solo night walk down rain-slicked streets. There’s also a rawness to it, attained by keeping it to one take — you can hear Westerman nearly breaking at a few moments, a more ragged peal over a song almost as sinuous as “Confirmation.”
“[‘I Turned Away’] was part of this new way of trying to make stuff more direct, more honest,” he says. “I struggled a bit with that track, because I found it quite exposing to write.” Personally, Westerman wasn’t in a great place then: The roots of “I Turned Away” and “Confirmation” go back to 2016, when the constant doubts that come with being a young artist met a depressive episode brought on by the political implosion that occurred in both Westerman’s native UK and stateside. He found himself going silent for a while, not writing or thinking about writing music. “I Turned Away” was the first thing to come out in the wake of that, his response to battles both internal and external.
Though those songs refocused Westerman after his feeling of defeat in 2016, they too were then met with 2017’s own downturn. As a result, he has a lot of leftover material in a half-completed state from last year. He has four more songs on the way over the course of this year, songs that came from a similar time and space and marked a continuation of his quest to combine a more direct approach to songwriting with a more attentive ear for atmospherics in the process. Along the way, he may have gotten closer to who he actually is as an artist.
“My confidence grew so that I could maybe push things a bit more and be a bit more adventurous and a bit more experimental, because as a personality I think that is more fitting to what I’m about,” he says. “Why not do that with the music? You only live once, I guess. Let’s go with it and not limit yourself on purpose since you’re shy or whatever.”
Westerman was bound to be an outsider one way or another — off alone with his guitar, first the mystic folk singer but instead the sophisticated and enigmatic pop craftsman, operating in a zone aesthetically removed from any discernible indie scene in London or here. In a way, that’s what made “Confirmation” feel special on the very first listen. And, in a way, that might’ve been the final argument Westerman needed to keep forging ahead.
Amidst these singles, he’s going to go mostly quiet again — the move that, paradoxically, has worked out for him in the past. Waiting until the music strikes him again. This time, however, it’s not with lingering anxieties about whether he’ll continue writing; it’s about working on his first full album, and the prospect of that format’s “freedom and larger scope” are exciting to him. Whatever form it takes, he’s accepted that, perhaps, this is something he can’t divorce from his DNA even if he wanted to.
“I took this time off and I ended up writing again anyway without really thinking about it,” Westerman says of last year. “I thought, well, maybe I don’t have to get so wound up in what happens and what your expectations are and thinking people are expecting a certain thing. It seems to be the case that I’m someone who has this compulsion to write anyway. That was sorta scary but reassuring. I guess this is just what I’m doing, so I better get on with it.”