Saturday evening, as the sweltering August sun silhouettes South Knoxville’s Suttree Landing Park in shimmering shades of hazy gold, the dude taking center stage will not look anything like a contemporary classical composer.
Donning his LiL iFFy persona for this weekend’s Second Bell Music Festival, Wil Wright will spit rhymes that run the gangsta rap spectrum, if said gangsta grew up in Rockwood, played in the Pride of the Southland Marching Band at the University of Tennessee and launched a hip-hop career off of the Harry Potter canon.
Inside that fevered pudding of ganglia behind his skull, however, resides a brain that can be compared to one of the centerpiece props in the HBO miniseries “Chernobyl,” about the failed nuclear reactor that irradiated a swath of the Soviet Union in 1986. (Incidentally, it’s one of Wright’s favorite TV shows in recent memory.)
“You know the graphite that exploded out of the nuclear reactor? I felt a real kinship with the graphite,” he told me recently. “The radiation from that graphite does a different thing to a bicycle than it does to the guy riding the bicycle. It affects what it hits in different ways. But it’s all coming out of the same piece of graphite.
“And that’s my music. Everything I do comes from the same place — it just goes to a different place. With (his contemporary classical compositions), it’s kind of a quiet, muted place, but the energy can be painfully high. My creative mind feels a lot like that.”
If Wright’s name is familiar, it’s because I wrote about him back in March, when he performed as part of a 12-hour deejay set at Big Ears Festival in Knoxville. He’s no stranger to this paper’s entertainment section — I first wrote about him more than 16 years ago, around the time that his indie rock band, Senryu, was releasing its second album, “Bath of Broken Glass.” He’s part of a richly diverse tapestry of local talent, but few of his peers have found a steady rhythm in more musical lanes than Wright.
And if anything, music composition is his original wheelhouse. It’s what he studied at UT, and earlier this month, he released his second classical record, “Pale Harvest: Ritual Dances of Hookland County.” It’s the second song cycle that draws inspiration from a mythical place created by author David Southwell. Intrigued by a Twitter reference, Wright stumbled down the Hookland rabbit hole and found himself in love with the idea of Hookland: “It’s the psychogeography of a place that doesn’t exist built around the real myth circuits, Albionic shadows and actual places of a 1970s childhood. Stories told in the form of the sort of travel that used to be given away at petrol stations, a cultural artifact from when the TV news carried UFO sightings and ghosts on their nightly bulletins along with reports of IRA bombs,” according to the website.
“For a couple of years, I was creatively tired, and it was pretty hard to get inspired, but that was the first thing in a long time that every little bite of it I got, I got a musical idea for,” Wright said. “I could hear the things I was reading. I’ve always gotten a lot of song ideas from watching movies — I always get stimulated that way — but the things I was hearing when I read David’s ideas were something else. They were things that didn’t sound like anything I had made before, ideas I didn’t really recognize. For a creative person, I think that’s exciting.”
Wright reached out to Southwell via Twitter, jokingly suggesting that he could score Southwell’s account. Southwell responded: “Libretto available on request.” They exchanged messages, and the next morning, Wright awoke to “an email of thousands and thousands and thousands of words about Hookland, sorted into traditions and economy and food and all this stuff.”
He devoured it, and with Southwell’s blessing — “he created the concept to exist as a sandbox for people to discover and vanish into and make it their own” — began to write a suite that tells the story of Spitstone, a “sad, dead-end coastal town.” “Salt Mass: A Hookland Suite” became bigger than anything he’s ever done, including his iFFy and Senryu works. Released on the Gezellig Records label, it was streamed or sold copies in 28 countries, and almost immediately he began thinking about a followup.
“Seeing how ‘Salt Mass’ resonated with people, and being the only person that’s exploring it in this way, I just wanted to make something that was less specific to a town and focus on one of the things that makes the concepts so special, which is its history and relationship with ritual and the paranormal and folk traditions — not to mention, I just wanted to see what else would come out of my brain,” he said. “I don’t make things because I love to make them. It’s my purpose, and it all feels like the same thing.”
And it’s all sacred, in a sense — even the iFFy concept, which is as ribald as his “Hookland” works are reverential. He has so many projects percolating and in various stages of development that it’s a wonder his creative mind doesn’t spontaneously combust, but somehow, they all find their lane. “Pale Harvest” is out, and a piece written specifically for Knoxville’s Scruffy City Orchestra is turned in. He’s working with a local winds quintet, has another album almost ready for his electro-pop project Peak Physique and is dabbling with new iFFy material. And somewhere in there, Senryu will get a turn in the spotlight once more.
“That body of work has always been the most personal in that it requires the most emotional collateral,” he said. “Everything in life feels real weird these days. It feels like things are happening that I’m a part of more than me driving them, especially so with this (iFFy) show. I get people asking me, ‘Why now?,’ and honestly, I don’t know. I can’t wrap my brain around anything anymore.
“I’m so focused on my personal life, but I’m also completely unable to stop making things. So most of the time, these new albums and new milestones catch me off guard, even though I’m the one who agrees to do them, and I’m the one deciding to make them.”