There's a fine line between homage and expropriation, and Willy Moon is fast erasing it.
The 24-year-old New Zealand native first garnered attention with "Yeah Yeah," which went viral last fall after its placement in an iPod Touch ad. The insidiously catchy gospel-tinged song has since given rise to the unapologetically retro Here's Willy Moon, which was released two weeks ago on Interscope.
The 12-track, 30-minute debut album ranges from cabaret-soul stomper "Railroad Track" (originally released as a single on Jack White's Third Man Records) to "I Wanna Be Your Man," which sounds like electronicist Junkie XL covering Bo Diddley. There's also the '70s boogie-soul "Get Up (What You Need)" and the Zoot-suited swing of "Working for the Company."
As if to prove that Moon either has no shame or no fear, the singer even includes renditions of Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell On You" and Little Willie John's "I'm Shakin'."
"When I started, there was no sense of there being an audience," admits Moon. "Initially the whole thing was constructed for my personal pleasure, which is what the references to all these records in the past are about — things that I love, in little, self-serving orgasms."
One challenge for Moon was to think in terms of a full album, even one that's only a half-hour long. "I don't really know what an album is. It's still a complete mystery to me," he says. "I grew up listening to music on digital devices and downloaded on computers. So the idea of putting something on and playing it all the way through is very foreign to my experience of music."
Ironically, the success of "Yeah Yeah" had the opposite effect from what Moon intended when he sent the song to his label with the hope of "getting everybody off my back for a couple months" while recording the album.
"It's a very weird thing when that happens, because it's completely out of your control. That experience made me realize that, as soon as you release a song, it doesn't belong to you anymore. At all."
A devout lover of American music in just about every form — blues, soul, roots and rock — Moon has made '50s rockabilly his most consistent touchstone. He dresses the part with his slicked-back hair and thin-lapel suits in classic black-and-white style, a focus on presentation that brings to mind the likes of Brian Setzer, or Justin Timberlake, or even, God forbid, Rick Astley.
"Nobody experiences music in a vacuum," figures Moon. "Everything has context. The visual and aesthetic part of music has always been part of the experience. It's merely an extension of records."
Moon's musical approach, meanwhile, is not entirely vintage. He samples Wu Tang, combines a boomy sound with tinny snare-drum loops, and piles on layers and layers of subtle (and not-so-subtle) background textures. The result's familiar, yet strange.
"I tried to do each thing differently in order to challenge myself and keep the process interesting," he says. "I find it a constant battle as a creative person against your own instinct to be lazy, become self-referential, and fall in to the same old patterns."