Interview: Five Minutes with Cujo Moon

                           Image credit: Rae Mercedes

Trevor Willmott is a rising singer-songwriter, teaching about self-love and forgiveness in his latest single – ‘Watch You Shine’. Dedicated to a student that took his own life (Jaden), the single is the precursor of the alt-folk singer’s upcoming album – Bridges II and was recently treated to the imagination of Ryan Usher (aka Grouch Bucket) who created a surreal music video. The first EP of the pair marked the start of the musician’s solo career and fans can expect to see the second of the set made public on the 26th March via Cujo Moon’s own imprint and Tone Tree Music. 

‘Watch You Shine’ on SpotifyiTunes

This former psych-rocker (known for working in bands such as The Wild Jays, Dream the Electric Sleep and one half of the duo Neon Rain) has managed to transform his style – embracing tender percussive rhythms and nuanced lyrics. Naturally, we were eager to discover more about the artist and further the much-needed discussion on mental health and the impact music can have on it. 

Find out all you need to know in the exclusive interview below.

Set the tone for us. Why the arts?

Oh, I could go on forever. There are so many reasons. I started playing guitar around the age of 8 and was writing little riffs and songs by 10 or 11. I started a band with some friends around the age of 12 and that same year I broke my hand playing baseball. I couldn’t play guitar for several months and from then on it was all music (and flannel shirts). I never went back to sports.

Throughout middle school and high school, I just wanted to be the best guitar player possible. I kept Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, and Pink Floyd on a strong rotation and still, to this day, I love all the old classic rockers. But when I was a sophomore in high school I got introduced to Bob Dylan. His music was quite the opposite with no fancy guitar solos but the songs had me floored. I was dealing with a lot of depression and anxiety through those years so I think powerful lyrics like Dylan’s really had me enchanted. I also became addicted to Radiohead, Sigur Ros, and Jeff Buckley around the same time. 

From then on, music was my therapy. I would scribble out lyrics and poems during school hours and make recordings when I got home. The depression and anxiety just continued getting worse all the way up until about 22 when I hit rock bottom. I finally admitted I needed help untangling my own mess, so I started seeing a therapist. It certainly was helpful at the time, but had it not been for the presence of music in my life, I’m not sure where I’d be today. So all in all, music and art to me is like life support; it keeps you going when you can’t find the will. And because I know that’s true for so many people, I can’t imagine a better path to dedicate my life to. It’s literally magic in every definition of the word. 

Which comes first when you’re producing – the sound or the idea?

It can totally go either way depending on the day. I’d say more often than not though, I will go back to a random voice memo on my phone. That will spark the inspiration to finish up the song on guitar and then from there I will layer up the production. I tend to make way more voice memos than I could ever possibly finish so they often “season” for a bit on the phone before I make them into a finished track. However, like with the track “Mirror Image,” the idea started out in Logic with some swirling synth sounds, a drum beat, and a bass line. From there it sparked the vocal melody and lyrics. I enjoy that process as well when it happens.

Does your material feature any collaborations?

Yes! My partner, Rae Mercedes, recorded vocals on Goodnight Black Sky. She has a mesmerizing voice and is a very talented songwriter. We worked together getting the melodies and harmonies to flow throughout and it definitely turned out better than the original version. Other than that though, none of the songs are the result of any collaborations. I’ve really been going lone wolf for a while now. I’m definitely open to collaborations in the future though.

What’s on your current playlist?

A ton of stuff. I’m quite ADD when it comes to music. Here are some artists that come to mind: Bedouine, King Krule, Yellow Days, Bon Iver, Radiohead, Jonathan Wilson, Tame Impala, Mac Demarco, Puma Blue, Kevin Morby, The National, Thom Yorke, Nick Drake, Jeff Tweedy, Al Green, Ravi Shankar… 

I have to say that lately, I’ve been going back to the record “Sukierae” by Tweedy (Jeff Tweedy and his son). It’s just so raw and pure. I don’t think it got much of a marketing push so it’s a bit of a hidden gem. There are some acoustic tracks on there like “Pigeons” and “Nobody Dies Anymore” that I just can’t stop listening to. I also really love the dry production. I’d like to try more of that kind of thing with the Cujo Moon stuff in the future. I’m also really digging the newest Bedouine record “Bird Songs of a Killjoy.” A friend of mine named Jonathan always has great music picks and he turned me onto that record. She’s like a modern-day Joan Baez/Joni Mitchell of sorts. Brilliant stuff.

I also sometimes just love listening to jazz or lo-fi hip hop when I’m lyric’d out. I have a habit (for better or worse) of analyzing everything I hear. I try not to but it’s difficult after producing and playing music for so many years. Listening to some instrumental tunes can really alleviate that “affliction” …at least for a bit. 

Tell us about the chemistry you have with your fans on stage.

Oooh well…none! Haha. I’ve only played one show for the Cujo Moon stuff due to COVID. It was a very small house gathering kind of thing. I get intensely anxious before live performances, especially when it’s new material. I played in a psych-rock band called The Wild Jays for a few years and I found a lot of comfort in the full band vibe. We played out a lot so it became more normalized for me. Going solo again is terrifying but I’m enjoying the challenge and looking forward to playing more in the future once this pandemic calms down.

What techniques do you experiment with to get your original sound?

Ummm… I just hit record and see what happens! But really, to be honest I can be a bit lazy when it comes to recording techniques. I don’t like spending hours getting the “perfect” mic setup or whatever. I am realizing I tend to pay for this once I start mixing everything together, so I’ve started spending more time recently trying to find the sound I want during the recording process. I just get so excited and antsy to get the tracks into the computer so that I can start building things up. Half the time I just stick with the original take even though I recorded it as a “scratch.” This comes with both good and bad…

I do spend a ton of time adding a lot of different layers on top of the bare-bones acoustic/vocal track. I like to see what’s possible and then kind of step back and see what’s working. This usually takes place over many sessions and then I’ll whittle things down from there. 

For the Bridges EP’s I was really interested in trying something I’d never done before. I think that’s why they became very dynamic tracks that go from intimate acoustic moments to huge layers of strings and percussion. I had done the acoustic thing back in college, which was always very natural for me, but I wanted to add to that. 

Take us through a day in the recording studio.

Well let’s see, I’d probably wake up at noon because I got too excited the night before about having a whole day in the studio…haha just kidding. Well, at least that doesn’t happen too much anymore. I’m pretty simple really. I’ll usually have a cup of coffee to get going. A beer midway. A little whiskey later on (and maybe a little toke). Short breaks to unconsciously eat as fast as possible and also walk my diva dog Sadie (if it’s decently sunny out). 

But mostly it’s a lot of time back and forth between total elation and banging my head against my iMac (Logic I do love you but sometimes…), talking to my microphones, occasionally listening to artists I love for inspiration (but not if I’m in a mood because it often makes me hate my current music haha), and just generally spending a lot of time sitting and contributing to my future lower back issues. I used to have a solid yoga habit….really need to get back to that. 

Was there a specific moment in your life where you thought, “this is what I want to do”?

Yes. When I was about 12 and heard the opening guitar riff to ‘Money For Nothing’ by Dire Straits. I’m pretty sure I fantasized for about a week straight about what it would be like to play that riff in front of a stadium full of people. It’s just so damn electrifying. 

And though that story is totally true, to be honest, I’m a bit of a “multi-potentialite” and have gone down many different rabbit holes over the years. One time in high school I got sucked into being a representative of a pyramid scheme. I tried selling what was essentially grape juice in wine bottles. Totally ridiculous. 

Fortunately, all these random endeavours eventually spit me back out into the magical land called music. I’ve really been my own worst enemy over the years but I’m getting better at accepting that music is what I’m supposed to do. It really is what makes me feel full of life and purpose. I’ve determined that the purpose of making music is that you are literally playing with magic and what better way to spend your time? It’s like being an uncertified wizard or healer or something…but with sound waves.

What do you keep close by while you’re playing a set?

I’ve never had a ritual of any kind for live sets. I probably should really do something though. Maybe it would help with my ridiculous nerves. I do like wearing the same rock necklace every day; it’s made of Kentucky Agate which is where I’m from. I like to think it grounds me and kind of stitches all my days together into something cohesive.

Any emerging artists on your radar?

Oooh yes for sure! However, it’s hard to say what “emerging” is these days. What’s the barrier for entry to be an “established” artist? There are so many amazingly talented artists who are under the radar but also totally not under the radar to a fairly large group of people. Technology has totally just opened the flood gates for people who want to be creative and connect with others. I’m pretty sure if you really tried, you could find a new favorite artist for your Spotify library every day. 

But to answer the question, I would say check out Jackson Wooten FOR SURE. He is a friend of mine and his new music is just heavenly. Also, definitely check out The Pheels. The new EP “MatterFact” is AMAZING. Total vibes. Also, Anthony Da Costa has to be one of the most talented singer-songwriters I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. Swell guy too. Any of his songs will do the trick.

Last but not least, keep an eye on Mr. Motes. He’s another friend of mine who I quite literally think is a musical genius. He’s been cooking up some new music lately and I can’t wait to hear what he’s got up his sleeve.

What gets your creative juices flowing?

Number one has got to be travelling. I don’t know what it is but I always feel highly creative while travelling whether it’s a road trip or something else. I think fresh scenery in general has that effect. But for the basics, ditto the coffee, whiskey, weed (sparingly), walks, and sunshine from a previous answer. Tea is also great. And cafes. My girlfriend and I LOVE trying new cafes. Bars are fun too but I haven’t seen the inside of one of those for a while. Camping and nature are always an excellent source of fueling the creative furnace and usually on the healthier more rejuvenating side. In general, getting out of the house.

BUT THE MAIN THING IS JUST DIVING INTO THE WORK. If I wait for the juices to flow, they never do. You gotta squeeze the lemon to get the juice! Took me forever to figure that one out. The War of Art is a great book on this topic of overcoming resistance.

Any side projects you’re working on?

Not really at the moment. I’ve just started recording new songs for the next batch of Cujo Moon releases. Those should start rolling out this summer. I also have a whole record worth of songs I did for another solo project called Amora Sol, but I haven’t finished producing them. Maybe someday.

How have you refined your craft since you entered the industry?

I’ve always worn a lot of different hats in most of the bands I’ve been a part of. Usually, I’m the one doing the mixing side of things while everyone else sits back and watches me go insane. I remember when we recorded The Wild Jays album, I chose to get completely sober for 3 months and just hammer out a ton of mixing when I wasn’t working. Thank god for O’Doul’s…I was ready to put that stuff on auto-ship.  

This kind of scene has repeated itself many times over the years since middle school. I always wanted to learn how to do things myself because I didn’t want to pay people (and half the time when I did hand off a task, I had a hard time accepting the end result…I can be a bit obsessive about music projects). But I think it’s all coming full circle and I’m really enjoying each part of the process these days.

Breakdown the news for us: what can we expect from you this year?

Well, the second EP comes out at the end of March and I’m hoping to have some new singles lined up for release starting in May sometime. Honestly, I’d like to have a solid 8-10 more songs out by the end of 2021. I’m really enjoying the direction of this project and want to continue experimenting with the sound. I don’t want things to stay the same but I do want to keep a common thread. All in all, I enjoy not knowing what’s going to happen next. That’s kind of the point right?

Famous last words?

Yes. Pinhook Kentucky Bourbon and Rye. Try some.

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By Sarah Britton