John William Watkins, an Iowa native living in New York City, showcases his songwriting and singing in minimal acoustic arrangements on The Oracle EP, released June 21. His lyrics deal with evergreen topics of love and loneliness, from his point of view as a gay man. Watkins sings blunt, personal lyrics in a gentle, quavering voice that belies their directness.
Emotional candor fights with emotional confusion in “Mr. Porter”: “I still do not know what love is / (Well, I mean) I know love is kind / and it’s not really something you say but more maybe something you do.” The delicacy of the melody and the quiet precision of Williams’ voice give a prettiness that takes away some of the sting of the loneliness and self-hatred he describes.
“Little Worm” is a country waltz, with a hint of a nursery rhyme to it: “Little worm, little worm / You’ve flown to Chicago / May your bones grow as tall as a beautiful tree.” It seems to be addressed (again) to a lover, but the whimsical language leavens the emotion.
The three songs of The Oracle leave you wanting more — and, luckily, you can go back to Watkins’ album of home recordings and demos, Olds, released in April. Taken together, you get a fuller appreciation of Watkins’ unique voice and perspective. The Oracle is more professionally recorded and arranged, but the performances on Olds sound full and clear even though most were recorded on his iPhone.
In the past, there was a “gay ghetto” for out artists, as though their concerns and emotions were not relevant to the wider culture. A growing audience of all genders and sexualities is beginning to recognize that queer voices are human voices. Watkins has mastered the art of expressing human emotions in a way that keeps them relevant to anyone with heart, while remaining true to his specific experience.
This is not the moon, or June romanticism enshrined in 20th-century pop songs. Nor is it the hyper-hetero macho of rock. It’s something else: lovely and valuable.
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 269.