With his slick side part and tailored suits, singer Willy Moon is a man that wants to be noticed.
His leg-shaking, energetic performance on The X Factor NZ may have surprised some Kiwi viewers, but the Wellington-born 23-year-old, whose single Yeah Yeah just went gold in New Zealand, knows how to make an impact.
And it’s not just Kiwis who are taking notice – The White Stripes singer Jack White released Willy’s song Railroad Track on his Third Man Records label, Apple picked up Yeah Yeah as the theme tune for its iPod commercial, he was named “One To Watch” by UK newspaper The Guardian, and was profiled in Vogue UK and the New York Times.
“I’ve never really cared about what people think of me. I’ve always been inspired by people who give everything, like James Brown and Iggy Pop – these freaks of nature who are so electric,” Willy explains.
“I think even the shiest people in the world on some level would want to walk into their office, stand on their table, scream and let go of life – my job as a performer is to do that for people.”
But Willy’s confidence didn’t come easily and stems from the love of one woman who helped him turn his life around. Born Willy Sinclair, the singer almost gave up music when his mother, Elizabeth, died of breast cancer at age 12 – she encouraged him to explore his talents and used to sit with Willy when he practiced guitar.
When his father was forced to take a job overseas to make their mortgage payments – leaving a teenage Willy and his sister without much adult supervision – he began taking drugs and dropped out of school at 16. A move to London at age 18 saw him fired from several minimum wage jobs and he relied on stealing bread to survive.
“It was a disaster – I was completely ill-equipped to deal with London. I had no plan or anything to fall back on, I was completely adrift. It can really crush you emotionally and physically. I had no purpose, I spent a lot of time doing things that weren’t necessarily good for me.
“I think I just wanted to go to the biggest, dirtiest city I could get to. I grew up in Wellington, which can feel quite small, and I always hated that thing of running into people I knew and feeling like I was trapped within an identity that was built for me. I was obsessed with having the freedom to be in a place where nobody knew who I was and having the power of anonymity.”
But Willy’s dire situation changed when he met his girlfriend – fellow Wellington expat, photographer and filmmaker Sasha Rainbow.
“She moved in with me the second day we met and then two or three months of living together we moved to a different city. It was very, very fast. We were both in the same position and had the same feelings about things – neither of us wanted to be in London, we hated it and were frustrated with our lives and so we moved to Berlin together.”
Sasha introduced Willy to vintage music greats such as The Andrews Sisters, Buddy Holly and Bo Diddley, and while living in Berlin he began experimenting with making music again.
“I had the time to sit down and think about things like what I wanted to do, who do I want to be, what do I want to create, how do I express myself? – how can I put myself in a position where I can make music that I’m proud of. It’s the beginnings of Willy Moon, that kind of thing, where I was taking this music from the past and resynthesising it for the modern day.
“Even though life wasn’t always great, I could come home from work and work on something I was proud of,” says Willy
Sasha directed the music video for his first single I Wanna Be Your Man – written about Sasha – on a shoestring for ￡100. The black and white video, which simply has Willy dancing in front of a spotlight, has now had more than one million hits. The duo worked together again on his heavily stylised video for Yeah Yeah. Willy can’t imagine what his life might have been like had he not met Sasha, who he has now been dating for six years.
“She’s been a very big part of my life. She’s my best friend and the person I bounce ideas off. I don’t know what I would have done without her support. There were many times when I felt like giving up on music and I was thinking, ‘This is ridiculous, what am I doing with my life?’ but she encouraged me to keep going and not to give up.”
“She’s incredible – it’s incredible to have that relationship with somebody who is not only your partner, but to have that creative partnership as well. There’s that level of trust with her that I can really let go – because I know her so well I can trust her and I think that’s the most important thing in any relationship.”