The Willy Nillies life of George Ireland
“If you ask a dragon, why does it fly?
“You’ll get more file than reply,
“If you ask a troll, good sir, what’s the toll?
“It would probably most indefinitely cost your life.”
Throw that verse underneath a Dark Ages circus folk sound and you may be able to imagine Edmonton’s very own outlandish troubadour, George Ireland. With his band, The Willy Nillies, the singer-songwriter has presented Edmonton with a range of alternative gypsy folk tunes comparable to that of a travelling musical freak show.
Before his show at Denizen Hall on Sept. 10th during Edmonton’s Bermuda Festival, Ireland had a chance to talk about his musical inspiration, his fascination with folklore, and a life “riddled with oddity.”
Saying Ireland has had a peculiar life is an understatement. After the misfortune of losing two siblings in high school, Ireland basically went on a pilgrimage, beating addiction on the streets, living in forests, and forcing himself to eat wild plants and bugs while living in a cave. He remembers attending and completing high school in Peace River while he was sleeping behind the town’s welcome sign. Every day Ireland would be woken up by the school bell, roll up his sleeping bag and race to make class. But the kid was no slacker – he earned top honours and was even appointed to be a teacher’s aide.
“It was bizarre,” says Ireland. “Here I was, this full-on punk rocker, covered in studs, chains, and makeup, but I was a math tutor finishing with top marks.”
Throughout his unorthodox life, music has always seemed to follow Ireland wherever he goes. It’s obvious he’s not into music for fame, but rather for self-necessity. “I’ve always been the type of person who needs music. It’s not an option,” says Ireland.
He has even dreamed a song or two. Though his lyrics may sound like something of medieval folklore, Ireland’s music is full of cryptic double meanings. The line, “A midnight dragon and his watchful eye, waning and waxing within in the sky” – heard in the song Awaken off his most recent album Waning & Waxing – was written immediately after Ireland awoke from a startling dream. For as long as he can remember, Ireland has always thought of the moon as a dragon’s eye. “It’s like the dragon closes its eye on the world every night,” he says.
Recently, his band shortened its original name George Ireland and the Willy Nillies to just The Willy Nillies to reflect a more collaborative effort. With the transition comes a more rock aesthetic. They even have some “surf rock” songs now,” the singer says.
“Chemistry is nine tenths of the law,” says Ireland. “I’ve gone through so many bands and paid musicians to play my music, but it’s very intimate writing a song together as a real band. Without the other members I’m nothing.”
On top of music, Ireland is also working on a comic book that details his “fictional biography.” Stories follow the band members as time travellers who meet different reincarnations of their frontman at different points in history. It begins after Ireland is hatched from a dragon egg and born with various mystical powers. Every time he dies (almost every time by the hand of a woman), he is re-birthed as a different George Ireland in a different time period with a new distinctive power.
“I have a huge list of powers I want to use,” he says. “Most of them are humorous – like the one where I could be so crass that I could melt a tank.”
The Willy Nillies have even adapted their live show to parts of the comic. They all wear goggles on stage because of the intense radiation of light from time travel, for instance, while Ireland dons a white contact in one eye. Concerts are theatrical glimpses into a post-apocalyptic world where the band plays its own genre of music, dubbed “outlander.”
“I have always had a kinship with strange fantasy worlds and I wanted to incorporate that into my life somehow,” says Ireland. His origin with the dragon egg comes from a running joke between him and his friends. “They have always been like ‘well surely he doesn’t actually have a family. He was hatched from a dragon egg.’”
Ireland says he feels like he’s lived many lives already. During his time living in a coastal cave, he had to push himself to survive by living off of various bugs and wild plants.
He says with a laugh, “I can honestly say that I wouldn’t change a thing about my life – except that moths are gross and taste disgusting.”