George Watsky, who simply goes by the name Watsky, is a spoken-word artist, poet, writer and rapper. While he transcends multiple genres, “spoken-word–influenced rap” is a fairly appropriate tag.
The Complaint recording artist grew up heavily involved in the spoken poetry scene in the Bay Area — something he describes as “uniquely SF.” Having gone to school for screenwriting and playwriting, the San Francisco native in 2016 wrote an essay collection called How to Ruin Everything, which became a New York Times best seller.
Five years after graduating high school, Watsky made the move to Los Angeles partly due to an interest in filmmaking. Fast-forward to 2019, after more than a decade touring and consistently making meaningful records such as his self-titled Watsky in 2010, the 32-year-old proudly deems music his biggest passion in the current moment.
L.A. WEEKLY: Bring us back to the poetry scene in SF.
WATSKY: There’s poetry scenes everywhere but the history SF has with poetry is pretty awesome. My friends in the music world are kids who came up with me when we were poets in the Bay. A lot of us started off at 15 and went on to become original artists in different ways. It’s impossible for me to separate the music from the poetry. The scene we had for young people was wild. I grew up listening to all that Bay Area hyphy music. I don’t make hyphy music but somewhere in me, it’s in there.
How important is it to come to L.A. as an up-and-coming artist?
I actually don’t think it’s that important anymore. With the internet, honestly I would encourage kids to stay home. Get a great mic, mastering and recording software, and be a hometown hero and do it themselves. Don’t come to L.A., kids — I mean, if you want to. … I went to a college where a bunch of my friends, we came out together. If I hadn’t had my friend group here, I probably wouldn’t have stayed.
You’re on tour right now. What was it like coming back to sunshine in L.A.?
We hit the sunshine when we got to Phoenix. We had a lot of cold parts of the country. We started in Madison, Wisconsin — it was -30º for a second. Crazy. We were lucky because if we’d been there that week, we would’ve had to cancel our show. It was still hella cold, below 0º Fahrenheit for the first week and a half. Then we went through the Rockies, they had another big storm. When we’re back in West Coast time, it always feels really good. My girlfriend’s flying in this afternoon so it’s just two days off, homecoming, chill out.
At what point did you realize this music thing was for real?
I was touring doing my poetry on college campuses. I was getting paid and making a living off my art but I hadn’t gained any traction from my music yet. When we had our first tour in 2012 as a band, we had some good shows, but it wasn’t till we got to New York and played Gramercy Theatre. It was like “Damn, there’s a lot of people here and they all know the words.” That was the first time I was like, “This is a thing, I could keep going.”
Congrats on Complaint! How are you feeling?
I feel really good. It was really personal. I’m not used to getting that personal on my records — that’s something I had to get ready for. Knowing I was gonna let people into my life that way, I had a little anxiety. Now that it’s out, I feel a big weight off my shoulders. I’m glad I got honest. It was a bit of a public therapy session.
I went to therapy this past year, which I’d been avoiding for a long time. I started dealing with some stuff that I’d been putting off to the side for a while. I’ve been growing up and maturing, doing it through my music. It was important, which is kind of weird ’cause my dad’s a psychotherapist. His solution to all my problems growing up is “Go to therapy!” I’m like, “Nah, I don’t need it! I’ma meditate and do my own thing. Pull myself up by my bootstraps.” But it actually turned out to be really helpful.
Was it depression or anxiety you were struggling with?
I haven’t had crippling depression. In 2015, I had a streak of depression when I broke up with the girlfriend I moved to Brooklyn with. I had a hard year. In general, I’d been able to pull myself out of it. I’ve been falling into patterns with relationships. That year, my therapist called it “embracing your shadow side,” which is the idea that everyone has a negative side to them. It’s yin and yang. You can’t be a perfect person and please everyone. You just need to let go of the idea that everyone’s gonna like you. That was helpful with my music, too.
“Welcome to the Family” has an incredible message. Talk about your state of mind creating that one.
That song does three different things at once because it operates on multiple levels. For the first time in a long time, I could really picture myself spending the rest of my life with this person. I introduced her to my parents. On a literal level, it was about, “Hey, welcome to the Watsky family.” That’s my last name, it’s my family.
So that’s what the line “it’s not so bad to be a Watsky” means…
“You can do whatever you want with your last name.” Keep your last name if you want to but if you want mine, it’s not so bad. But also the idea of welcoming people into the community of listeners that come to our shows, too. We’re a family in this room together. When I get to that line of the show, everybody in the crowd is singing it.
I also wanted to explore that uncomfortable fan relationship. Especially in 2019, where the artist is this cultlike figurehead leader. If you’re making hashtags, naming your fan bases, encouraging people to see you as this perfect idol figure — people want somebody to look up to and admire. If you start fanning those flames, you’re doing a lot of the same things cult leaders and politicians are doing.
That’s awkward. People want to get tattoos of my lyrics and I’m really honored by that — it’s cool as shit, it’s flattering — but at the same time, I’m a flawed individual. I’m a human. That idol worship makes me uncomfortable, too.
Talk about filming the music video.
I watched that documentary Wild Wild Country about the Rajneesh cults in Oregon all wearing the maroon stuff together. I took a lot of that imagery and put it into the video. Because I use a lot of the same tools that other artists use to try to connect with their fans and build a sense of real, genuine caring.
You’ve been in the game for over a decade. What’s the biggest life lesson you learned thus far?
It’s never that serious. Unless someone is injured, dead or has been assaulted, it’s not that serious. Our lights went wrong, we’re late to our show, we’re behind schedule, we played the wrong chord progression or missed our cue — who cares? It’s so much more important if we’re having fun. Making music is supposed to be fun. If it stops being that, why the hell are you still doing it? That’s been my biggest thing: stressing less, relaxing and enjoying the ride.
What are some of your goals as an artist at this point of your career?
Have no filter between what I want to make and what I make. Don’t worry about commercial considerations. Don’t worry about what my audience is gonna think about my stuff. Be totally free to experiment without any little voice in the back of my head censoring me or telling me to try and follow a trend.
If you could change one thing in our society, what would it be?
’ A lot of things wrong with our world are interconnected with each other. I wish everyone would just empathize with each other. There’s so much separation, myself included; we build these walls to protect ourselves. Social media can be wall-building. When we’re trolling someone online, we remove ourselves from the impact it has on the person we’re trolling. If we actually cared about everyone — if Donald Trump truly cared about everyone his policies impacted, he wouldn’t be wilding out.
It all comes from selfishness: an unwillingness or inability to truly empathize and feel for what someone other than ourselves is feeling. If we can start breaking those walls down, a lot of what’s wrong in the world right now would change. We wouldn't even be thinking about a second Trump presidency.
You came up at the same time as social media. Was it hard for you to adjust at all?
I was young enough to have had one foot in the pre–social media world, and one foot in [social media]. You’re around my age, we remember barely what it’s like to not have a cellphone, not be emailing, etc. I’m super lucky because I can relate to my parents’ generation, and the generation a little older than me. I know how to write a thank-you note and put a letter in the mail for somebody. But I grew up on AIM, MySpace, etc.
What was your screen name?
JazzHipStar, because I liked jazz and I felt hip. My second one was CarlMarksmanship, because I started getting radicalized. It wasn’t too hard for me. I still feel shame taking a selfie. Kids younger than me, there’s no sense of shame at all for selfies or putting your entire life on the internet. It still feels like an act of narcissism to me, which is a product of being older. I’m uncomfortable with putting 100 percent of myself on the internet.
What was your reaction when hip-hop became the most popular genre?
My first album on heavy repeat was Chronic in 2001, then I had all the Eminem records. Country Grammar from Nelly, I wore that shit out. All the Bay Area hyphy stuff. When I grew up in the Bay, we didn’t listen to rock. You were either a rock kid or a hip-hop/R&B kid. Kids didn’t sit together at the same cafeteria tables. I almost didn’t even notice that hip-hop wasn’t the most popular because it was always the only thing we listened to.
The biggest impact for me is that my music has more rock in it than I ever would have expected, and I was anti-rock. I was close-minded against rock. Now, I wish kids had more of an appreciation for live band music, because I play with a live band and love rock music now. I’m way more open-minded to it. A lot of people’s mentality is anything but country, but I like country too. I like good country music. People should have an open mind for every genre.
Talk about going to see How to Train Your Dragon alone.
It’s always on the off day I’ll have a field trip/adventure idea for my band. Usually it falls apart because everyone is so tired and wants to stay in the hotel room. I love going to the movies, I feel like junk food doesn’t exist in the movies. I eat a bunch of garbage and pretend it doesn’t matter.
It depresses me because — this was in Amarillo, Texas — I can see how in five years, these big movie theater chains are gonna start closing. Whether it’s AMC or Cinemark, because I’ve gone to movie theaters across the country when I’m on tour and see these megaplexes with four people inside. Kids aren’t going to see movies the same way they used to.
And it’s expensive.
It doesn’t make sense, it’s an old model. Three years from now, I might not be able to get a popcorn at a movie theater, so I’m gonna appreciate it while I can.
What inspired you to dance in the bear mascot?
For my music video “Limo 4 Emos,” I ordered this giant 6-foot teddy bear to be in this woman’s bedroom. After the shoot, I wasn’t about to just throw it in the trash without doing something with it. My friend Mike had this idea to pull the stuffing out.
Although I got really claustrophobic. I was breathing in the stuffing, which was this polyester stuff. It was more fun when I pulled the head off and got to dance. When I had the head on, I couldn’t see shit. I didn’t even know if my back was facing the camera or anything.
Do you still get nervous before shows?
Yeah, but mostly when friends or family are there. When I’m in Oklahoma City performing for people I don’t know personally, I feel a lot freer than I used to.
I actually had the pleasure of seeing you at Ace Hotel two years ago. What goes into your live performances?
I take it very seriously. I do a big meeting with my band before each tour and talk about how we wanna change our arrangements, what we want to up our game from the previous tour, what our aesthetic is gonna be. The show at the Ace Hotel was an outlier, a one-off where I’ll never do something like that again. I did 18 big-budget videos, spent my entire life savings.
I have a lot of pride in our music video production. I’m able to do for $30 grand or $40 grand what a Def Jam artist will have to spend $200K to do, because I’m involved in all the production phases. I know how to cut deals, do stuff myself and not outsource it. Still, for an artist on my level, that’s a big spend for a music video. Doing 18 of those, I coulda bought a house. But instead I made a visual album because I was really obsessed with it.
I’m gonna keep finding ways to make it more creative, more interesting. Every tour, every show, if I’m not experimenting and doing something I haven’t done before or seen from anyone else before, then it’s back to the drawing board.
Favorite song to perform in a set?
I like doing this track “Tiny Glowing Screens, Part 1.” It’s just really good vibes. It makes me feel like I’m in a rally in the ’60s. I love the arrangement we have for it, the way that it develops.
What can we expect from your show at the Fonda?
I’ll probably do songs I haven’t done in other places on tour, because it’s L.A. and we wanna make it epic. People haven’t seen the Complaint Tour. Every single song on this tour has been hitting hard, whereas in the past, it’d be four or five high-energy songs, then it dips down. Now, it’s boom, boom, boom, one after another. I’m really proud of our show.
Anything else you wanna let us know?
People are gonna be impressed by our new drummer, Sarah Thawer. Goes by the Drum Guru, she’s an absolute beast with her own following. Shout-out to Chukwudi Hodge, who’s played with me for seven years and is doing his indie artist thing now, too. Listen to all my band’s side projects. Feed the Birds is my singer. My keys player Kush Mody’s pop project. My keys and trumpet player Max Miller-Loran has a project called Max Daniel. Pat Dimitri is my guitar player. Support independent musicians!
Watsky plays with Beau Young Prince and Feed the Biirds at 9 p.m. on Saturday, March 23, at the Fonda Theatre.