If you’re a musician asked what you accomplished during the COVID-19 shutdown, and the answer isn’t “recorded an album of original material, playing all the parts except one and mixing it,” then you need to get on Willa Mae’s level.
That’s the performance moniker of 18-year-old Willa McCollough, who decided six months ago to take the large collection of original songs she’s composed over the past year and turn it into a 12-song album titled “Kids,” now streaming on most major music platforms. It’s a dreamy collection of lo-fi bedroom pop that’s a natural evolution from McCollough’s roots as something of a musical prodigy.
Her parents, Sean McCollough and Steph Gunnoe, are members of the Knoxville-based “Appalachian rock ‘n’ roll” band The Lonetones, and as a young girl, McCollough struck up close friendships with Lucy, Roxie and Eliza Abernathy, who play together in the rock band The Pinklets.
“I was best friends with them, and our dads were both musicians, so we grew up around a lot of music,” McCollough, who lives in Knoxville, told The Daily Times this week. “I have very vivid memories of being at my old house with Lucy, an electric guitar on our laps because we had no idea what we were doing, just plucking at the strings. That was the beginning of The Pinklets.”
As a member of that band, McCollough grew as both a musician and a performer. The Pinklets gigged steadily around Knoxville, and their mutual talents evolved together. Eventually, however, McCollough decided to follow her own muse.
“I don’t think it was a conscious moment where I thought, ‘Oh, I want to be making a different type of music,’” she said. “I started writing and recording on my own, but I can’t really pinpoint a genre, either. I just made what I made until I thought, ‘Oh, this feels right.’”
She took her cues from lo-fi do-it-yourself artists who found creative expression in bedroom compositions. Her songs have been compared to those by Clairo, the stage name of Atlanta-based singer-songwriter Claire Cottrill.
“Like other lo-fi artists, you don’t necessarily have to know what you’re doing to make music; you can just sit down at a laptop and create something,” she said.
The simplicity of construction belies the complexities of McCollough’s songs, however. The layers are warm and rich currents of infectious sound, combined with a voice that’s part croon, part languid rumination. There’s a delicate balance to the interplay between music and lyrics that gives “Kids” an especially distinct mood, and it all started, McCollough said, when the third track, “99,” garnered some attention.
“I wrote it in one day and recorded it one day, then posted it on Soundcloud,” she said. “It was the first thing I’d put out since The Pinklets, and after I shared it with my friends, it got a pretty decent amount of plays, and my friends were really excited I was making music again. That song is pretty important to me because it was the beginning of me making and recording music. It was the song that made me realize, ‘I love this, and I’m going to do this every day of my life.’”
And so she has. She’s currently enrolled in online classes for audio production (with a minor in commercial songwriting) at Middle Tennessee State University, and she’s already thinking about her next release. She records something daily, even if she doesn’t plan on releasing it, and her laptop is full of ideas and sounds that might provide a template for a future Willa Mae release or a song for her band, Dean’s Dream.
“Kids” was put together in the home studio her parents use (and her dad’s tutelage helped her during the mixing process), and guest strings were contributed by longtime Lonetones player Cecilia Wright. The reaction to the record has been swift and positive, and it’s been the sort of validation that McCollough needed to plant her flag as one of East Tennessee’s vibrant new musical voices.
“By the end of the album, I went back and forth from being proud of what I had just made to thinking, ‘This is awful, and I can’t let anybody hear this, ever!’” she said with a laugh. “I was just extremely tired of listening to all of the songs over and over again, so when I started hearing the reaction from other people, it felt very good. It was definitely really nice to hear.”