Willie Stratton still remembers one of the first songs he wrote and performed for an audience. It was for his Grade 4 music class and the tune was inspired by his then obsession with vampires and church organs. The sound was unforgettable.
“I couldn’t read music, so I made my own system,” Stratton recalls of the song he performed on a synthesizer and which he now calls “creepy horror movie organ music.”
Years later, and after lessons and practice in guitar and songwriting, Stratton has ditched the vampire themes in exchange for a fusion of old and new, folksy tunes with a progressive twist.
With two albums (Willie Stratton and The River) under his belt, one in the works, and a number of gigs at venues around the region, 21-year-old Stratton is getting a name for himself as a young Bedford talent to watch.
But despite his early attempt at songwriting, he says any real interest in penning his own tunes didn’t kick in until his was about 16. Up until he was 18, he thought he’d work as a session musician. “I didn’t like writing songs, but I kept doing it,” Stratton says. “Then I started falling in love with it and doing it more and more.”
He credits songwriting camps and working with co-writers as the reason he’s really into songwriting now. “I used to just write when something came to me. These days I am really into co-writing… I find it so easy to not finish something on your own. But when you’re with someone, you say, ‘Let’s get this done.’”
His says he wants to create music that blends together the elements of rock and traditional music that has inspired him since he was a kid. He says he’s listened to and been inspired by everything from Jimi Hendrix, the Beach Boys, the Doors, Joel Plaskett and Dylan Guthro.
“I just want to create this weird fusion,” he says. I’ve always been interested in the history, the journey behind the music we listen to now.” That, he says, it was he calls the “building blocks” of music.
But he loves foresight in his songs, too. “I love the idea of being progressive. All of my favourite artists from the ‘50s like Buddy Holly were really ahead of their time. I love the idea of pushing the limits.”
Stratton says his parents have always had his back with his music. “They’ve always been supportive of my music,” he says. “When I was little they had me in music classes.” And his sister, Grace, plays bass in the band now, making his music a family affair. Together the band has played at venues like Michaels, The Company House and the Seahorse.
Stratton’s early presence in music class at CP Allen High School wasn’t memorable for his then teacher Nathan Beeler. Stratton started out playing the trumpet in Grade 10. “He really liked music, he really enjoyed being there,” Beeler recalls. “But as far as being an all-star trumpet player, not so much. Later on when I heard him sing and play guitar, well, that was a different story.”
Beeler remembers hearing Stratton sing during a class trip to Cuba. The students were all staying at a resort outside of Havana and singing one night. Stratton, he remembers, was a stand out, especially when he sang his original music. “They were really great,” Beeler says. “They were really inspiring songs at that point. I thought, ‘This kid has some serious chops.’”
Beeler has no doubt Stratton will make a mark with his music. “He has a real strong sense of himself, a really strong presence,” says Beeler, who invited Stratton to perform in his class at CP Allen where he’s taught for 14 years. “His songs have a lot to say.
Still, he has advice for his former student: “Always keep your music moving forward, getting better, working harder. Success comes from those kinds of things.”
Stratton does have big plans for those songs, a long way from vampire organ tunes. “I want to create something new. To me a movement would be ideal. I guess I want to make a difference somehow.”