Welcome to America: Wilmah’s Bold Debut
A vintage champagne poster on the wall, a funky-looking lamp and a bass resting on a stand decorate the bedroom of musician Will O’Connor’s Bronx apartment. Half of an unmade bed is visible in the frame of the video call with O’Connor lounging in it facing the camera, his bandmate and childhood best friend Matt Connolly seated in a chair on the other side of the shot.
I am catching up over video chat with the minds behind Wilmah, a Buffalo-bred and New York City-based alternative duo fresh off the release of their debut single “Welcome to America” last month, a bold inaugural statement on the pervasive injustices of American society.
“I think it’s the type of song that has to be your first statement,” says Wilmah frontman Matt Connolly of “Welcome to America,” a guitar-heavy rocker that recalls Rage Against the Machine and Beastie Boys. “You can’t just throw it on a project. It had to be at the forefront of what we released. ‘Welcome to America’ is sonically different from our other music, so I think it served as being an outlier on purpose, because it’s still important to us but it is such a statement that it had to be the first thing that came out for us.”
“We’ve wanted to put it out for a long time,” adds bassist Will O’Connor, “so it just made sense to put it out now because of everything that’s been going on.”
The subject matter of “Welcome to America” is readily apparent within the first few syllables of Connolly’s sing-shout vocals on the track, which ultimately became a point of conflict between releasing a debut single with plenty of potential and coming across as doing so for the wrong reasons.
“Over the summer when things were so crazy, we didn’t feel it would be right to release it then,” says Connolly, “because we didn’t want people to think we were trying to capitalize on the riots. People have tried to tell us that that’s what we’re doing, but we started writing the song in 2019. It’s been a long process getting the song right, and the message of the song stands now and it would stand fifty years ago. The things that we’re saying are very important to us, so we felt it was the right time to put it out.”
With the songwriting process for this single having started a year prior to summer 2020’s explosion of civil unrest, I was curious what specifically might have inspired “Welcome to America.”
“Honestly, it wasn’t any specific thing,” Connolly answers me succinctly. “I had the idea of the punchline ‘Welcome to America’ a long time ago. It was just us growing up witnessing homophobia, witnessing unnecessary violence in the world, and especially school shootings, because we grew up in the era of school shootings. When we were in middle school, that was a real fear. Growing up witnessing these things, and right now it feels like the fucking world is ending, it just felt right to put it out.”
“It’s a byproduct of nothing ever getting done about the things we talk about in the lyrics,” says O’Connor, highlighting snippets of “Welcome to America” like “God forbid boys love boys,” and “The kids do not have to die/Parents should not have to cry” that call attention to the societal issues Connolly cites as inspiration.
Wilmah: Balancing Youth and Success
Using Wilmah as an outlet for political and artistic expression has undoubtedly strengthened Connolly and O’Connor’s already-powerful friendship. The band’s origins date back to well before either member was a full-time dedicated musician.
“We’ve been playing together since I was fifteen,” says Connolly. “We played in a band together in high school. We’ve played so many shows together, we’ve written so many songs together, but Wilmah itself has been a thing for almost three years, which is crazy to think about. I get flashbacks to 2017 and think it wasn’t that long ago, but that’s four years ago! We’ve been at it for a long, long time.”
Wilmah’s origin story may date back a few years, but Connolly and O’Connor are still very young, with O’Connor being twenty-two years old and Connolly having turned twenty-one just days before this interview. The duo does not gloss over the fact that they have enjoyed moderate success for their age.
“We feel so fortunate,” says Connolly. “I was on the phone with our manager a few nights ago on my birthday, and he said, ‘You signed a deal when you were twenty. Not many people fucking do that, you should be very proud of yourself.’ Will and I don’t take for granted the opportunities we’re already getting, and I do think that it starts to happen for the best of the best when they’re young, so I feel hopeful for our careers. We’re already making such good music during a pandemic, and we’re only going to get better, and once we can play live shows again we’re going to assemble a crazy good band and take over the world.”
Weekends with Wilmah: Social Media is the New Live Music
“Welcome to America” being Wilmah’s debut single poses other hurdles to navigate, regardless of the song’s subject matter. Releasing music as an unknown or emerging band is never a simple task, much less in a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has stymied the music business much like almost any other industry in the world.
“It’s definitely been weird,” says Connolly of cutting teeth as a band during the pandemic. “You have to be really creative on the social media end of things, which is why we’ve been pushing out so much content, because we can’t play a show for people and we can’t go on tour.”
In the absence of live music, the once near-foolproof way for any band to gain a following, Wilmah has indeed turned to social media to grow a digital presence that may be built upon whenever concerts and touring can return. In fact, this video call from O’Connor’s bedroom comes on the heels of a night of drinking and brainstorming by Wilmah for a script to their weekly Instagram live show, “Weekends with Wilmah.”
The social media livestream, which consists of Q&As, fan interaction, and live virtual performances, is just one of several ways Wilmah has looked to digital platforms as the new frontier of branding as a band. Connolly and O’Connor also release a steady stream of TikTok videos and memes to generate views and curiosity that might segue into fanfare for the band.
Breaking Through as a Band in a Pandemic
While the pivot from touring to social media may seem obvious because there is really no alternative right now, making a name as a band by any means necessary is vitally important in the current musical climate.
“Matt and I are so good at playing live shows,” says O’Connor. “We love doing it and it’s the thing that we’re really good at, and we can’t do it. Now we have to focus on other means of getting ourselves out there that we’re not as good at.”
“I can’t think of any artist that popped off during quarantine that I didn’t know before.” says Connolly, “I don’t know of any new artists coming out of 2020. There’s a few, but not really, so it’s been tough.”
Generally speaking, Connolly is not wrong. The era of the “quarantine album” that came out of the initial wave of lockdowns a year ago was dominated by established and acclaimed artists like Taylor Swift and Hayley Williams, who created somber acoustic-based albums entirely in quarantine that reflected the mood of the times. Even artists who made significant strides in popularity during quarantine, like Phoebe Bridgers, had groundswell that was building toward an explosion of attention regardless of how the pandemic played out.
“But I feel like if it wasn’t for the pandemic, we don’t know if this would have even happened,” says O’Connor, qualifying the notion that the crisis has been exclusively detrimental to Wilmah’s relative success, with “Welcome to America” accumulating thousands of streams since its release.
“With the way we met our label and the way we started working with our manager, it was a product of people being inside all the time and wanting a new project,” Connolly adds. “I think our career and our discography wouldn’t look the same if not for the pandemic. I don’t know what it would look like, but I think it had a part in how Wilmah is developing.”
“I think the best thing about the pandemic was the ability for us to write so many songs,” says O’Connor. “We wrote so many songs and all of them are better than anything we’ve ever written before.”
“We do so many different genres, and the one thing that ties it all together is that all of our songs have this idea of ‘Oh my god, the world is ending, I feel so sorry for myself!’” Connolly says of Wilmah’s prolific songwriting.
To be striving musicians during the pandemic is challenging enough, but Connolly and O’Connor both also navigate the job of being full-time college students in New York as well. When I ask them how handling the pandemic as college students as well as musicians has gone, they both give weary laughs.
“I feel like I’ve grown up,” says Connolly. “I feel like I’ve matured five years in just a year. Pre-pandemic feels like a different life, and I’m trying, but it’s so hard. I feel like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, but it has definitely been hard. Music being an escape has honestly gotten me through this.”
“Definitely,” agrees O’Connor. “If it wasn’t for the band, life would be a living hell.”
Looking to the Future: The Return of Live Music
While Wilmah may serve as an effective escape from everyday pandemic life, taking over the world is still the duo’s ultimate goal, and assembling a band and playing live shows is the most direct way to do it. Our conversation has already been peppered with lament over the loss of live music and the need to find alternative methods of growth, but the duo is firmly set on taking the concert scene by storm when the pandemic permits it again.
“We would really like to open for another band on tour,” says Connolly in a mature display of music industry knowhow that tells me Wilmah is not shooting too high too fast. “I think that would help our careers so much. We just have to start playing shows and getting in front of as many audiences as possible. Next month we’re doing a livestream show through The Mercury Lounge, and there might be one happening through The Mint in Los Angeles.”
The livestream concert is one of the most unique music industry adaptations to come out of the pandemic, with countless artists turning to anything from Instagram livestreams to fully virtual concerts sponsored by major venues looking to stay afloat. Wilmah is not averse to hopping aboard the trend via venues like The Mercury Lounge, the Manhattan-located sister venue of The Bowery Ballroom where bands like the legendary New York City act The Strokes got their start, and where Wilmah played their last concert before the pandemic hit.
“That’s cool too, we love to play and love for people to hear us, but we really want to get in public on a real stage in front of a real crowd,” Connolly continues.
With in-person concerts still feeling a lot like a fantasy, we discuss the dream of headlining acts that Wilmah could open for in a post-covid world.
“The 1975,” both say immediately, with Connolly continuing, “I was thinking some smaller artists. I’d love to open for Dayglow, I think that’d be really cool.”
“Wallows,” O’Connor adds, to the immediate agreement of Connolly that Wallows is the number one dream artist on their opening list.
Facing the Music: Deciding Between College and Music
But talk of the future provokes an interesting question. As a band made up of two college students, the opportunity to tour could pose a serious conflict between earning a costly and worked-for degree versus taking the first huge chance to become strictly full-time musicians. When I ask the duo if they would pick music over college in such a scenario, the decision seems much less difficult than I had anticipated.
“One hundred percent yes,” says Connolly with O’Connor’s emphatic agreement. “I wouldn’t even think about it.”
Daring to push a bit harder, I ask what college means to them if they are so ready to pursue music full-time.
“When I was younger, I thought ‘Fuck college, I don’t even want to go to college, I want to be a musician!’” says Connolly, “But now that I’ve been at college for three years, and people might not like to hear this, I’ve realized college really isn’t about the school. It’s about learning to live on your own, learning how to make friends, and having fun and partying. It’s learning how to be an adult. I don’t regret going at all.”
Far from sounding like the musings of a disinterested, party-obsessed kid, Connolly’s answer is firm, genuine, and assured, and further bolstered by O’Connor’s own life-altering experience with college.
“If I didn’t go to college, I would not be the person that I am now,” says O’Connor, who abandoned an established friend group in Maryland to transfer to Manhattan College in New York City with the sole intention of making it as a musician in Wilmah.
“My senior year, we met our manager and signed a deal, and if I hadn’t come to New York City that never would’ve happened,” says O’Connor. “I think if you really want to do something, and you’re constantly thinking ‘This is what I need to do,’ you need to take the risk and do it and not listen to what other people are telling you about your own dreams and goals.”
On this note, we draw our conversation to a close as Matt Connolly and Will O’Connor go off to prepare for their weekly social media livestream, just one of the many new ways they are chasing their dream when so many hurdles seem to have been placed in front of them. I am left overwhelmingly wanting to hear the pile of unreleased songs they are sitting on and have been instilled with the confidence that if any band can break through and take over the world in such unprecedented times, it’s Wilmah.
With a beautifully dizzying array of genres on display and woven together in their discography from rock, to indie-pop, to R&B, and a small but loyal and growing fanbase of young high school and college age kids eagerly interacting on every Wilmah livestream and virtual show, the Buffalo duo draw undoubted similarities to their heroes The 1975. And if the UK indie-pop legends were able to achieve worldwide popularity and success, Wilmah’s global takeover does not seem so far fetched after all.