introduction by tom johnson
words by van william
Some time, long ago, when I found myself lost in that weird space between being a teenager and feeling a part of adulthood, when all the great wonder of the world feels so overwhelmingly out of your own reach, I stumbled upon the debut album by Port O’Brien and found myself fascinated by both the music and the story behind it. A solid burst of indie-rock, when that was at the forefront of most things, the album was a wind-swept, salt-laced depiction of the life its creator, Van Pierszalowski who, as the story goes, was making the most of his musical talent before he would one day return to take over the salmon farm that his father ran on Kodak Island, Alaska.
To someone pining for a life far removed from the one they found themselves smothered by, the romanticised vision of such a thing isn’t hard to understand, and the songs themselves wove their way in to such sentimental wandering: “I’m sick of the weather up here, it goes on and on my dear…my feet weren’t made for the sea, they were made for running free.”
Fast-forward a decade, and the voice behind those songs, the fisherman in waiting, is back with another new record, this time as, simply, Van William. Aged by the salt spray and the passing of time, the new music is more melodic and refined, less wide-eyed but just as wonderful, informed by his first taste of true heartbreak, that one thing that has the ability to steer us away from the path we thought we were on for good. Salmon farm, or not. His brand new album, Countries, is out now; little strands of those Port O’Brien days dangling at its corners, occasional nods to the surrounding weather, beautiful landscapes of their own. Most of us will have come a long way over the past decade, figuratively or literally, but we always carry a little of what came before with us, every step of the way; a story as old as time.
You can stream the wholesome, heartening ‘Countries’ LP right here, and we’re presenting it today alongside a special piece of writing from Van himself,
Ever since I was a newborn baby, I’ve spent all my summers up on Kodiak Island in Alaska. My dad grew up in 1960s LA, but when he was 17, he hitchhiked all the way up there, and stowed away on a ferry. That’s a 70-hour drive. It sounds like some made up Into The Wild shit, but it’s very true. He got a job on a dingy little boat fishing commercially for salmon in 1968 and he has gone up every single summer since then. As soon as I was old enough to start working on the boat (or perhaps maybe slightly before I was old enough), I joined the crew. The salmon season runs from May to September, and its beyond grueling. We wake up before dawn (which is around 4am in the Alaskan summer), and work until late at night (with scattered cat naps in between).
There is no shower or toilet (if you want more details on that you’ll have to come to a show and ask me afterwards). There is no phone or Internet. We are out at sea, without touching land, for up to 7 weeks at a time. The boat is only 48 feet long, with a crew of 4 including my dad and I. Despite all that, I’ve always loved it so much. There is so much strategy involved. My dad has decades of experience learning about the effects of the tides and wind, where the best capes and rocks are to set our net on. My specific job title was the skiffman. I operated a small boat, called a skiff, that pulled the other end of the 400-meter long net away from the main boat, the Shawnee. It’s beyond lonely out there, and I’d often sing and talk to myself for countless hours at a time.
Even though I started to slowly lose my mind out there, it was also this very isolation that contributed so much to my ability to write songs. Without any of the distractions of the modern world, it really forced me to strip away so many layers and see what sort of real shit I was dealing with, which made it easier to write songs. I’ve always been more inspired by human relationships and drama. I’m not in the business of writing songs about how beautiful the ocean is. But, the experience of being there was unfathomably important to my creative impulses. I don’t think I’d be an artist if it wasn’t for all my time on the Shawnee.
My life as a fisherman has also made life as a touring musician easier. The two worlds of fishing and touring are remarkably similar. In both, you are surrounded by the same very small group of people for weeks at a time. You are constantly dirty and tired. Every day is somehow both monotonous and completely unexpected and different. The sense of adventure and focus are unparalleled. The work comes in intensive short periods, followed by long stretches of waiting around…
‘Countries’ is out now, you can buy it here
Upcoming live dates:
(with First Aid Kit)
24th Feb – Glasgow, 02 Academy
26th Feb – Manchester, Albert Hall
27th Feb – Manchester, Albert Hall
1st Mar – London, The Roundhouse
2nd Mar – London, The Roundhouse