Calm down: An interview with “Wild Child”

Fast-paced ukulele melodies mesh seamlessly with heart-wrenching lyrics crooned by Wild Child co-founders Kelsey Wilson and Alexander Beggins. Crowds of dancing fans with painted faces swish and sway to the happy sounding tunes, belting honest truths about breakups unknown to them. This atmosphere creates the paradoxical Wild Child sound: a sort of  “never trust a happy song” mentality.

The seven-piece band based in Austin, TX brings its live show to San Antonio this Saturday as a headliner for the annual Maverick Music Festival. I caught up with Wilson earlier this week to learn more about the unique blend of styles and personalities that make up Wild Child.

GF: Can you tell me a little bit about the start of Wild Child? I know that you met while touring with another band, but what brought you and Beggins together?

KW: We both got hired to be background musicians for this band called The Migrant. Neither one of us had ever had any desire to sing, but he had a little ukulele in the back of the tour van. The reason that I had agreed to go on this eight-week tour was because of a four-year breakup, and I really needed to disappear. We were both just kind of running away from home essentially. We’d be writing these riffs in the back of the van and these melodies would just pop up in my head. We kind of started piecing these songs together, and by the end of the tour we had a full record. We found out we were neighbors back in Austin and figured, “Let’s record these songs. We have all of these friends back in Austin that will play them with us “” everyone we know is a musician. Let’s just record them.” By the time we finished recording the album, we had South By shows lined up. It all just happened entirely on accident. And it hasn’t stopped yet. It’s kind of weird. It’s been a very strange, accidental five years.

GF: Was there ever a moment when you guys realized that it wasn’t “just for fun” that there was really something there?

KW: Every day. Yes, definitely. The first couple of shows were terrifying. It took us a really long time to get comfortable being at the front of the stage. Playing our music is a totally different ball game than just standing in the back riffing off of someone else’s song. It’s really emotional. It’s like you’re reading your journal to a crowd of strangers pretty much. It took a lot of shitty wine and trial and error to get comfortable on stage. But every day there’s a moment on stage where we realize we’re actually doing it “” connecting with these people through these songs. It’s pretty special.

GF: And you have such a committed fan base. At every show you can see people in the audience with their faces painted. How did that get started?

KW: I just always had face paint on. I was kind of a weird kid. I just preferred face paint and makeup my whole life, and it’s always on me. The first couple of shows I looked weird, I just had paint on my face but after a while people started showing up with paint already on their faces. I’d go out into the audience and paint some people and eventually our management started putting it on our CDs and posters and it became a real thing. Another happy accident.

GF: You touched on this a little when you mentioned reading your journal to a crowd of strangers. How do you reconcile deeply personal sometimes heart-wrenching lyrics with upbeat and happy melodies?

KW: The Wild Child secret is the ukulele bit. You can get as dark and as ominous with your lyrics as you want, and it is still a girl and a boy and a ukulele. So most people don’t even notice that they are not happy songs because the instrumentation is so granola commercial. We’ve had people use Wild Child songs at their weddings as their first dance. Like, dude, listen to what we are saying! It’s a song about infidelity and drinking too much “” not something you want your first dance to. But what it kind of turns into, it takes these horrible emotional situations that we went through and turns them into a way to connect with strangers that also went through the same thing that we did. And it takes these dark, sad, gut wrenching times and makes it into a big dance party with a bunch of people who don’t know each other. It’s really cool. It’s more of a relief than anything, like a support group. A lot of it is pretty mean, but we can’t write a dishonest or a happy song. And we’ll get close to writing a happy song, and then we’ll do something like turn around on the last line and be like, “Oh but I didn’t mean any of it” or “Oh but we’ll see how long this lasts.” We just can’t keep anything entirely positive.

GF: How do you deal emotionally with having to open these wounds again and again?

KW: We have to be so honest whenever we write. You can’t really fake it whenever you’re performing, so every night you have to get into the headspace you were in when you wrote it. It’s pretty tiring especially considering we tour nine months out of the year. And emotionally it’s pretty heavy sometimes. But the thing that makes it OK is when you look out into the audience and you see even just one person who needed that, one person who went through something similar or maybe something entirely different but they can use the song to help them deal with it. Then it just makes it so much better. It’s like, “Yeah man, that was horrible and I don’t want to think about it and I don’t want to see his face ever again.” But now there is me and this person I’ve never met before, and we are on the same exact page and they’re helping me and I’m helping them, and it’s beautiful.

GF: I think also, for me at least, listening to your music there are a lot of songs that may be hard to listen to but feel really important. Do you have that feeling while writing?

KW: Oh, absolutely. There are a couple songs where I have been like, “I’m afraid of what I’m writing” and “I’m afraid of different people hearing these songs ever.” Breakups from years ago who never really listened to what I was writing when we were together. And like years later they finally listen to the record and text me like, “Oh my god, what? That’s so personal.” It’s just exactly what was going on in my head, and it’s pretty heavy and pretty brutally honest. I just have to be that way. I can’t write about something I don’t know entirely. Because when you’re happy you don’t want to write. The only time you want to sit down and write a song is when your heart’s broken, when you have to sit down and figure something out in your head, which is why you won’t end up with a happy song too often. There’s nothing wrong because you don’t need to fix anything, you could be perfectly right if you need to figure something out. Which is why there probably won’t ever be a happy “” actually there is one. We have one on the new record called “Bad Girl,” which was a song that was initially written about something dark and honest, but it didn’t fit with the happy, dancy, Motowny feel. I had a lot of trouble figuring out the lyrics. This was meant to be a happy song. It had to be about something light and wonderful and beautiful. We had a couple weeks to finish all of the lyrics before we went into the studio when my sister gave birth to a little baby girl. I was at the hospital with her and she was the most beautiful thing. Then I got into my car and Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely” came on the radio which is a song written for his daughter when she was born. And I was like, “Oh that’s it! Bad girl.” She’s my goddaughter. That’s the only happy Wild Child song.

GF: Tell me about collaboration within the band.  How have you grown over the past three albums and countless shows, tours and festivals?

KW: I think most definitely we are getting louder. Our first record there is a lot of sweet, quiet, slow songs. The more you tour on those the more you think, “I don’t want to do this, I don’t want to sing slow sad songs every night.” When you’re in a loud crazy bar, you just want to have a good time. So we just started adding things. We got a bass player. We got horns. The songs are getting bigger and faster and louder and more fun to play live. We still have to write slow sad songs as well. But we generally have more of a party live than we ever had before.

GF: So you’re based in Austin. Have you ever thought of leaving or relocating?

KW: Unfortunately we are all from the best place to do what we want to do, so there is really no point. And we spend so much time everywhere else in the world that we appreciate Austin that much more. We’re so glad to be home whenever we are home that I don’t think about going anywhere else.

GF: How do you carve your way in such a saturated location?

KW: We definitely got lucky. Once the city decides they like you, it definitely gets easier. It makes you work a lot harder though. Because every time we come home there is a new band that’s really good that’s working their ass off, and that means you’ve got to do it yourself.

GF: What kind of mark are you trying to leave on the music industry or on your community and fans?

KW: Honestly, we’ve already done more than we ever set out to do. The fact that we connected with anyone anywhere is amazing. We feel so lucky. But now we just need to keep going. It’s just been a slow and steady build for the last five years. We’re just going to keep that going.