Bruce Springsteen once said that it’s hard to be a saint in the city, but it’s even more difficult to make a living as a musician on the island of Manhattan. Still, East Village resident Billy Populus has managed to do just that, parlaying an intense combination of penetrating lyrics and soulful music into a devoted NYC club following. Deeply influenced by Springsteen and Bob Dylan, Billy’s rootsy sounds and evocative songwriting skills have also elicited comparisons to such diverse artists as Cat Stevens and Counting Crows.
Born in New Orleans, Billy moved with his family to New York City when he was still in high school, and has remained a resident of the Big Apple ever since. Though Billy has always been musically inclined (he remembers pestering his parents for a copy of Springsteen’s Greetings From Asbury Park LP while still in nursery school), and has written songs for most of his life, he worked several “straight” jobs before finally focusing on a career in music. Chasing Devotion, Billy’s first album, is an arresting thirteen-song testament to his abilities as a songwriter and performer, and points to a very promising future.
“Mirror Song,” the opening track from Chasing Devotion, is prime Populus -- a rootsy, Neil- Young-ish chord progression mixed with funky percussion (courtesy of Pete Populus, Billy’s younger brother), emotional vocals, and candid lyrics. “I wrote that tune for a friend of mine who really doesn’t have his stuff together,” Billy says. “He’s one of those people who confound and frustrate you; he’s so super-intelligent, and knows what the right things are, but for some reason he can’t turn off the switch inside of him that makes him do the wrong thing. He’s just a real self-destructive type. I wrote it and called it ‘Mirror Song’ just for him -- just like, ‘Hey, take a little look in the mirror, and think about what I’m talkin’ about here.’”
“But then,” laughs Billy, “A lot of people think that I wrote it for myself. When people say that, I listen to the lyrics and say, ‘You know what, I guess that could apply that way, too!’ It could apply to most people -- we all could use a little improving, right?”
-- Dan Epstein
Dan Epstein is a Los Angeles-based journalist and pop-culture historian whose work has appeared in L.A. Weekly, BAM, Raygun, Guitar World and the Los Angeles Times, among other publications. His first book, Twentieth Century Pop Culture, was published in 1999 by Carlton Books.