Country singer-songwriter Will Day has released a powerful ballad Dear Dad in tribute to his late father. Co-written with fellow country music artist, Hayley Jensen, the track touches on the love of his father, the times they shared and how he wishes he were here today to have a beer, share special moments and watch his young family grow up.
2019 was a breakout year for Will, where he enjoyed performing at iconic music festivals such as Tamworth Country Music Festival, Gympie Music Muster and Groundwater Country Music Festival. After releasing the single, The Real World, which went to #1 on Australian Country Radio, he went on to release the summer anthem Here to Party in October which reached #23 on Australian country music airplay charts.
Many artists have spoken recently about how restrictions caused by the ongoing-COVID pandemic has given them time to write and record music. Has the pandemic been creatively good for you in that way too?
I’m very wary of using the words ‘good’ and ‘pandemic’ in the one sentence, but you’ve gotta take positives out of a whole bunch of negatives in the world we live at the moment. I’ve been able to be creative, do some writing on Skype and Zoom with artist friends [and] lucky to be teaching at a music college in Brisbane. So, I’ve been creative in that sense, as well with my students. That’s been good because I’ve still been involved in music, [but] strange because I’m mentoring people that are wanting to have a career in music in what is a very tough time for creative industries, but spirits are high.
I read you had plans to record an album this year. Did the pandemic affect your plans to move ahead with the recording as well as your decision of when to release the new single, Dear Dad?
The album has been put on the shelf for the moment. I still plan to record in the latter part of this year. So next year, the album’s coming and it’s been a long time coming, so I’m really excited for that. But the plan was always to release the new single, Dear Dad this Father’s Day. I made a choice probably about three months ago, I’d been sitting on it for a few years, so I stuck to the plan and I’m glad I have. I had another cracker single lined up that I was gonna release in May, and I decided against that due to the obvious reasons – radio not being what it was and everything shutting down –so that’ll be next year.
You wrote the Dear Dad with fellow country music artist, Hayley Jensen. How did that come about and what was it like working with her to pen such an emotionally raw and powerful song?
Hayley and I knew each other from the industry, but it would have been Tamworth Country Music Festival in 2017 that we caught up. I heard through following Hayley on socials that she lost her Dad to cancer and I reached out to her. She lost her Dad to cancer a couple of years before I believe. I lost my Dad to brain cancer when I turned 18. He was 49.
We wrote the song on the front porch of the house we were staying in Tamworth in the heat of Tamworth. I remember the afternoon very clearly. A couple of hours we wrote it in, and some real magic was created. I’ve been sitting on it since then. I finished off the vocals over the last couple months and it’s nice to have it out onto radio and into the world.
I’ve said to her recently that I’m glad we caught up that day and wrote that song. We should write more [together]. Seeing as I’m a couple songs to go off the album, I’m sure we’ll catch up again and write.
Dear Dad was released on radio and digital services on the 21st of August. Has there been any feedback or touching stories you’ve heard from people who have already heard the song?
There’s been heaps so far! In the lead up to the release, I was putting up pictures of my Dad each day [on social media]. My Dad was a principal in a small community where he grew up. He was a bit of an icon in the community – 5000 people in the town – and many reached out, commented and sent me messages. It was this outpouring of memories of Dad. And then, since I’ve released it, lots of people saying, “I lost my Dad X amount of years ago to cancer and I can relate to it all” or “I lost my wife a few years ago to cancer so the song is for me.”
It’s about my story and that’s the key, but it’s also about a sense of grief and loss that we all feel as human beings. Listen to the song, I’m wearing my heart on my sleeve. You’ve gotta be open about these things. As songwriters we want listeners to feel something, and it’s a bit of full box of tissues song, but if we’re feeling something from a song, I think we’ve achieved our goal.
Was your Dad an inspiration to you musically as all?
There’s a line in the song that directly relates to hearing him singing when we used to go to church when I was a kid on Sunday mornings, [but] Dad wasn’t musical. I’ve been gigging since around 15, playing around pubs, and he got to see that part of my life before he died. He didn’t see me get right into it where I studied and then made a full-time career out of it, but I remember him being quite encouraging when he’d hear me play guitar.
A lot of the records Mum and Dad would put on growing up during our trips and camping holidays – James Taylor, Cat Stevens, 70s folk – always influenced me as a musician and why I got into music and started singing. My Dad had a very successful career. He went above the levels of principal. That sense of hard work and trying to achieve something was definitely a big inspiration.
You have two young children of your own. Have your kids taken up music or do you recognize any music or otherwise qualities in them that they’ve gotten either from you or from your Dad?
My little boy is five and my little girl is one. She’s starting to dance a bit but she’s just working her way in the world. When I’m sitting around on my guitar, my son will put on his Will Day hat and start acting like me, singing and making up a song, so I’m seeing that part of music in him already. He reckons he wants to play drums when he’s older, so we’ll see what he chooses. He can do whatever he wants in life and if music is part of it, that’ll be magical, but it’s up to him. So, he definitely responds to my music.
It’s funny what kids pick up on because he won’t listen to Dear Dad. It makes him too sad. Little people have emotions as well and it’s an emotional, raw song, so I’ve got to be careful when I’m playing it.
That’s interesting considering he was born years after your Dad had already passed, so he doesn’t have that connection of having personally known him. Do you think he’s responding to the lyrics of the song or picking up on the obvious emotions in your voice when he hears it?
I like to speak about mental health issues and I’m quite open at home about what I’m feeling. I think it’s important, and my wife feels the same way, for our kids to express their emotions and feel comfortable doing that. He’s seen me have moments where I’ll get teary or something will make me think of Dad and I’ll cry. He’ll say, “Why are you crying, Daddy?” And, in a way, you want to protect them from that kind of thing, but it’s also good for them to feel emotions as well. It’s a fine line. Being a parent can be tricky.
Directed by your cousin Jim Henry, the music video for Dear Dad was released on Father’s Day. Was Father’s Day a significant day for you and your family? And if so, does that make Father’s Day a personally difficult and emotional day for you or is the anniversary of his passing worse?
I find the anniversary of Dad’s death hard every year because it directly links back to the moment and the day that he died. I was there by his bed side. There are some intense memories that dawn up, especially on the 28th of August on the anniversary. It was also a week before Father’s Day.
Father’s Day was never anything specific. It was a day to hang out. When my Dad was still around, it was about appreciating him for a day, when it should be all days that you appreciate your parents. Now that I’m a Dad, that’s the crazy thing; although it’s a bit of a solemn day for me, it’s also a beautiful day for me to appreciate and spend time with my kids. And, being a Dad myself, it’s almost gone full circle.
It must be different watching someone go through brain cancer knowing their life is coming to an end. Furthermore, it’s never easy losing a parent, family member or anyone close to you. However, many deaths are sudden and unexpected. I don’t want to say it is a good thing, but in a way was it a blessing having that time and foreknowledge to be able to say goodbye?
Grief is something that every single human being goes through. Death is part of life and life is part of death – so we’re gonna go through it at some point. But when it comes to the way we die or the way that our death happens, it’s quite varied. My Dad got an awful disease. Brain cancer is fast moving. He went from being quite a fit man to being in a wheelchair and not being able to talk. In saying that, he was diagnosed and 18 months later he was dead, so we had 18 months of knowing what was coming. We had a chance to give Dad what some people call a ‘good death’ – and it’s okay to call it that – to have special time together in that period and say a heart wrenching, very intense goodbye.
Our oncologist in Brisbane [had] said, “We can’t operate on that part of the brain. It’s too dangerous.” There was no hope, basically, given to us. So, my Mum, being the brave and smart woman she is, did some research and found a surgeon called Charlie Teo, based in Sydney, who tends to operate on people when no one else will. He did a great thing for us. He took the risk. Charlie operated on my Dad. He took some pressure off the brain, removed part of the tumour and then my Dad was able to go off the drugs he was on. I remember him dancing with my Mum at my Year 12 graduation, which was a very special moment. Now he didn’t cure my Dad, because my Dad’s cancer was incurable, but the quality of life improved almost 100% until he went downhill again the next year and passed away.
What Charlie Teo is doing to this day, and the Charlie Teo Foundation is trying to raise money to find a cure. Brain cancer research has very limited funding. It’s appalling really, considering this is the cancer that has killed more people under 40 and more children, than any other cancer in Australia. That’s a scary statistic and something’s gotta happen. I feel passionate about it. I’m selling merch and donating $5 to the Charlie Teo Foundation, but lots of support and awareness is needed around that.
Unfortunately, anyone can and does get cancer. It doesn’t discrimination against race, age, wealth, diet or location. In case some people don’t know what to look out, what were the early warning signs leading up to your Dad’s diagnosis?
My Dad got a piercing headache – that was the first symptom. He went to the local GP, nothing against him, and said he had a headache or migraine. It got worse, so we ended up going to a specialist and got some tests, and that’s when we found out it was brain cancer. I can’t talk for other people on other things that happen, but headaches are a common one, which is quite scary.
Dear Dad is out now.