When Willy Moon lived in Wellington, he was a thief and a drug-user who left school with no qualifications. Now he is one of the music world's next big names, with a song used in an Apple ad and an appearance on Jay Leno's TV show in the US. Tom Cardy reports.
He's signed to a big record label and getting the kind of attention and media coverage overseas that no Kiwi other than Kimbra could dream of.
Willy Moon is the first to admit it's a long way from his life in Wellington, when he had no idea of what to do with himself or where he was headed.
He and his family used to make ends meet in the capital by stealing, and he has told in the past of his regular drug use. The family were visited by police. When his parents, who were relief teachers, took him and his sister for a stint in London, the stealing and shoplifting resumed.
"I knew it was something you weren't supposed to do, but I never really thought that it was bad," says Moon, now 23.
His mother died from breast cancer when he was 12, and his father then worked for a time in Saudi Arabia, sending money back to his children.
Moon says he came and went from several high schools and left without any educational qualification.
His last school was Wellington High, which he left some time in the sixth form.
"I never quite got there. Before the age of 13, I suppose, I was a child of precocious intelligence. It defined my schooling.
"Everybody else would be learning things I already knew and understood, so I developed a sense of laziness through that, because I never needed to try. Then I reached a certain age where it caught up with me and I lost enthusiasm for learning.
"As a teenager I couldn't understand why I couldn't teach myself the things I was interested in."
Two months after he turned 18, Moon left Wellington for London again. He occasionally stole to feed himself.
"I really had to steal things in order to eat.
"There was a bakery in this flat where I lived and I'd wait until the early hours of the morning, when I was ravenous, and sneak under the shutter of the garage door and grab a handful - a loaf of bread and some pastries - and sidle out. I wasn't terrified of taking things."
But in the space of five years, largely under the radar of his homeland, Moon has become poised to be one of the biggest new names in music.
Signed to recording giant Island, best known for Bob Marley and U2, he has been profiled in the British and American press, and championed by The White Stripes' Jack White.
He has appeared in The New York Times, Vogue, Q and Interview magazines, and performed on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
Even more significant for any recording artist in this digital age, his undeniably catchy single, Yeah Yeah, was picked up by Apple and used in television commercials for its new range of iPods.
Now comes the next stage in Moon's story. His debut album, Here's Willy Moon, on which most of the tracks are written, recorded and produced by Moon, was released in New Zealand this week. Next week it's released in Britain.
Some of the earliest British reviews of the album have been mixed. The Guardian this week gave it three stars, saying it would transport listeners back to the 1980s, but with the qualification: "Here's Willy Moon sounds far less like a fusion of Elvis and urban than it does Sigue Sigue Sputnik and Westworld, who had exactly the same idea nearly 30 years ago."
But Moon, who has been in London for the past few days before touring Europe next week to promote the album, says he isn't nervous or anxious about the critical response. He had enough anxiety simply making the music, which includes a few tracks and covers produced by Steve Mackey from British band Pulp.
"There was designing the album cover and all the creative input - it was really nerve-racking. I got really stressed about it.
"As soon as I finished it, as soon as I mastered it, and it was all there and all done - all that kind of floated away. All I cared about was it being released and [for] other people to buy it or not buy it, and do whatever they want to it."
Moon's sound blends and samples many influences, from Duke Ellington to hip-hop, with a stripped-back rock 'n' roll feel. He says it's all an indication of his love for a wide range of music across decades.
At the same time his sartorial image - he's often pictured in dapper 30s-style dress and hairstyle - contrasts with some of the album's rawness. "I like tension between things. I always liked the idea of having a seemingly buttoned-up character who loses it, or the other way around.
"Half of Willy Moon is an intentional creation of me, trying to create a character to release my music through. But a lot of it's me as well. A lot of it is the nature of who I am."
- © Fairfax NZ News