By David Ertischek ’01
Given George Watsky’s eclectic career, it makes perfect sense that he created his own major, Writing and Acting for the Screen and Stage, as an individually designed interdisciplinary studies program. Watsky ’10, which is also his stage name, continues to forge his own career path as a rapper, poet, author and more. Earlier this year, he toured to promote his most recent album, Complaint, which dropped in January 2019.
Watsky answered questions from Emerson Today while on the road from someplace…
Q: Why did you choose your last name to be your stage name?
Watsky: It has always been a nickname people called me so it felt really natural. I didn’t need to change my name. It was basically using my name and simplifying it. I never felt like I was anyone other than myself with my work. Creating an alter ego or persona didn’t make sense to me.
Q: What do you like about touring?
Watsky: I love playing live. The concert experience is an opportunity for people to live in the moment without distraction and we are so distracted these days. It’s an opportunity to experience a commonality with people at the same time in the same room and not be displaced by technology or other entertainment options we have. Since I was a kid, I’ve always been a performer. I always liked being on stage. It’s really fulfilling for me. I love this lifestyle. It took me a while to like this lifestyle. I like seeing a new city every day, I like living out of a suitcase. It has its downsides. But it’s really a fulfilling lifestyle for me.
Q: Wikipedia lists your occupations as a rapper, poet, producer, harmonicist and author. If you met someone at a party – and they asked what do you do for a living – what would you say?
Watsky: I usually say I’m a writer. I think that’s the broadly encompassing thing. I am definitely not a harmonicist, I’ve played it on a few songs, but that’s a bit of a stretch.
Q: Your “Pale kid raps fast” video went viral in 2011. Why do you think it hit upon pop culture?
Watsky: I think the way that video was titled people clicked on it with a morbid curiosity. Just the thumbnail and title [drew people in] and not knowing if it’d be good or terrible — and they were willing to watch it either way. Then people were pleasantly surprised I was rapping well. It had all the ingredients to be a viral video. It’s one of those things that is hard to predict. You can’t know what’s going to work and you can’t engineer it. [The video] is very sharable; it was 90 seconds long. It showed my personality, which is what I was trying to do. I wanted a short video for people who do not know what I do, and then [I had] a pitch to see what I do and then decide if they want to go down the rabbit hole or not. It also had a cat in it. In 2011 [having a cat in a video] was definitely pretty much a boost in virality. But cats may have gone away and dogs may rule now.
Q: Your latest album, Complaint, came out in January. How would you describe it?
Watsky: It’s a sleek album. It’s nine tracks long. The aim for the album is to lead with emotion and honesty. My previous album, x Infinity, was a sprawling maximalist 18-track album that had all these heady song concepts. In Complaint I’m trying to process the stages of a relationship I was going through. I knew with it being nine tracks long it had emotional raw tracks. I would call it a pop album. A dark pop album.
Q: How would you describe your rap style?
Watsky: I would say it’s hard for me to do. I leave it to other people. [It’s like what I do with my poetry and] other writing — I lead with humor and sincerity. It disarms people and doesn’t sneak-attack people. I kind of go back and forth with storytelling and an acrobatic style. I am basically always trying to subvert people’s expectations. I storytell sometimes, and sometimes I do the fast rap stuff. Sometimes songs are based on specific concepts and it makes it hard to define. The constant is the personality, which is what you get from hanging out with me for a while. I can be funny, then a downer sometimes.
Watsky: I wouldn’t say I’m waiting for an opportunity to do it again. I loved being in Epic Rap Battles. If they offered me another famous person I emulate or a famous author… If they came across with Allen Ginsberg, Ernest Hemingway – if I could step in the shoes of a poet or novelist I like and try to work in their style a little bit — that’s probably why I would do another rap battle.
Q: You’ve got a very eclectic career. Who or what would you say has influenced you?
Watsky: My biggest earliest influences were spoken-word poets that I saw when I was getting into it: Beau Sia, Saul Williams, Steve Colman. They really influenced my early poetry and bled into my music. My rap music influences were Outkast, Andre 3000, Eminem. I grew up in an era when there was more separation between underground and mainstream rap. Those early influences were Quannum Projects, Rawkus Records, Blackalicious, Aesop Rock. I’ve been influenced in my prose by David Sedaris and Jhumpa Lahiri.
Q: What would you like to accomplish in the future?
Watsky: I’d like to live a sustainable life as an artist and be doing this for the rest of my life. I’d like to live a balanced life. I don’t want to be continually obsessed with work. I like travel, being in love, spending time with my family and constantly experimenting creatively and never trying to emulate things I’ve done before. And if I have an audience who shows up and keeps supporting me, I’ll be super happy.
Q: Anything else you’d want people to know about Watsky?
Watsky: I would just say that if your expectations are based upon my previous work, you’re not going to get something like what I previously did. Expect to be surprised and come see a live show. I take special pride in performing and my band is really awesome. Everything I’ve done has been elevated by the awesome creative people I’ve been lucky to collaborate with.