Garrett Sale, the singer-songwriter at the heart of William Wild, has written a lot of songs over the years, but he keeps coming back to one that may very be the defining moment of his career to date.
It’s called “When I’ve Been Gone,” and it’s the next-to-last track on the new William Wild EP, “Steady Now,” which the band will celebrate with a Friday night release show at The Bijou Theatre in downtown Knoxville. And it’s one of the most searingly honest and painful songs he’s ever written, he told The Daily Times recently.
“It’s about the last experience I had with my dad right before he died; an accounting of that, I suppose,” Sale said. “My dad died as a homeless man after suffering from addiction for years and years, and that song was about me dropping him off at a homeless camp; him trying to get help from me; and me saying, ‘No, you have to get better on your own.’ He died two days later, and I felt really remorseful about that for a while, but the song is coming from his perspective, basically asking the question why did any of this happen — 50 years from now, when you’ve learned to cope with all of this, and nobody remembers my name, why did I have to go through this?
“It’s really heavy, but the big moment happened when I was halfway done writing the song and trying to come up with some sort of redemptive outro that planted a seed of hope. I had this moment where I said, ‘I can’t see the happy ending here. I’m going to leave it like it is; I’m going to ask the question, why did it happen, and just sit in it.’ Two days later I thought, ‘Wow — this is probably the most meaningful thing I’ve ever done in songwriting.’”
Given the breadth of music Sale has created in his short career as bandleader of William Wild, that’s a bold statement. After an injury during his senior year of high school put an end to a promising baseball career, he turned inward, channeling his disappointment into the vulnerable indie-folk sounds of Bon Iver. That artist’s album “For Emma, Forever Ago,” introduced him to a new world of music, and at the University of Tennessee, the Bearden High School graduate began putting together the foundation stones for a band that would come to be called William Wild.
As inspirational as “For Emma” was, he didn’t set out to recreate Vernon’s sound, but he did spend a great deal of time figuring out how to craft songs that have a similar feel — a slight sense of unease layered with sweeping beauty, the crushing weight loneliness on a wounded heart that refuses to stop beating, the swirling kaleidoscope of emotions so intense they can’t be labeled. He taught himself how to write and record, holing up in his bedroom and eventually emerging with a batch of songs that he and a friend recorded at an East Tennessee lake house. The beautifully layered arrangements would become William Wild’s self-titled debut, and the band’s moniker came from a conversation with a homeless man Sale had in downtown Knoxville.
Sale found a warm reception by East Tennessee fans, but after playing the same low-key songs repeatedly, he wanted to take a different direction on “Steady Now,” he said.
“These songs are way more straightforward than the old record,” he said. “Last year, I spent time playing with a seven-piece band, a three-piece band and by myself, so there was just a lot of switching around. And what I realized was that I was relying so much on the sonic landscape I created on the first record, that I wanted to write songs that stand on their own, songs that I can play by myself and don’t lose anything with all of those elements.
“I think I got my start making music because I was inspired by idea of recording and producing music on my own, and what I didn’t know was that I love songs. I kind of feel like I’m just now tapping into songwriting for the first time, honestly. On the first record, I composed it all on a computer and came up with melodies and stuff, but I didn’t think about the songs as one cohesive statement. I don’t think I’ve ever indulged myself in songwriting until now.”
The songs on “Steady Now” are sweeping and majestic, built around intricate layered harmonies and instrumental flourishes that expand Sale’s sonic palate — steel guitar notes that linger like the moan of wind through cracks in old barn boards, piano that climbs over gentle percussion like the waters of a mountain stream colliding with millennia-old rocks, bass licks that lope around the edges like a bobcat on the edge of a campfire’s glow. The subject matter deals with the life challenges he’s experienced over the past couple of years, primarily his own independence and his anxiety about the future ... and then, of course, there’s that song about his late father, which was almost an afterthought.
“That song came together when the EP was completely finished and we were about to send it off,” he said. “I wrote that song in a day, called my label and asked if I could have some money to go to Nashville and record it. I did, and now we’re putting it out and letting it be, and it’s what has inspired all of the songs since that moment.”