A great songwriter makes you feel what they feel. Holly Williams takes you gently by the hand, grabs you forcefully by the heart, and walks arm in arm with your soul to a lonely cemetery to painfully rue the loss of a loved one gone too soon. Such is the power of her songwriting brilliance.
The acclaimed Nashville-based singer-songwriter released her third highly regarded album, “The Highway,” earlier this year. The new record is just the most recent instance of Williams’ affecting tunesmithing, following up on her outstanding debut album, 2004’s “The Ones We Never Knew” and 2009’s stunning sophomore effort, “Here With Me”.
Featuring 11 exceptional original compositions written or co-written by Williams, the remarkable album includes guest vocals from Jackson Browne (“Gone Away From Me”), Jakob Dylan (“Without You”), Dierks Bentley (“’Til It Runs Dry”) and Gwyneth Paltrow (“Waiting On June”).
I caught up with one of CMT’s “Next Women of Country” after her impressive set at this year’s Austin City Limits Music Festival to chat about her inspiring career and moving music. If singer-songwriters are your gig, then ACL should be at the top of your list. And the talented Williams – the daughter of Hank Williams, Jr. and granddaughter of the legendary Hank Williams – was at the top of this year’s ACL list.
Given the breathtaking intimacy of her music, a festival performance might have presented a challenge to Williams. But the practiced artist was up to the task. “Usually I would bring our drummer down and just change a few of the tempo songs, like maybe a drummer and fiddle player. Today we only had the three piece, which is hard in a festival setting, like you said, strictly just because of the noise around you.”
“But even then, with touring so much I've managed to find my own fan base who can get through it no matter what because they’re coming for the song and not for the up-tempo or down tempo.”
The simple reason that those music fans are coming for her songs is Williams’ innate ability to take a dreadfully complicated life and distill it down into something uncomplicated. “That was always kind of natural to me,” she admitted.
“Some people didn’t really understand that, like family and friends, because my personality is very different from who I am as a writer. But the reason I'm a musician is because I love songwriting. I could’ve probably gone to (Nashville’s) Music Row and put on a cowboy hat and gotten a mainstream country record deal and done that whole thing.”
“But I just love being a writer and a storyteller. I spent years driving around in a suburban and touring with people like John Prine and John Hiatt – any songwriter I could get in front of. It always happened naturally that the very, very, very personal stories were the easiest for me to write. I go and co-write things, which I don’t do very much, and try to write more universal songs. But it’s nowhere natural in me.”
“'Waiting On June’ and ‘Giving Up’ are completely personal songs. ‘Drinkin’’ is not at all, but it’s about a story that I was familiar with and a friend of mine was dealing with. So if it’s not something I went through, it’s still something around me that I feel close to.”
“Whether it happened to me or it happened to a family member or a friend of mine, it’s much easier. I write story songs much better. Complicated stories, I think, are even more my specialty. I love telling stories of real life and things around me.”
To add a little musical fuel to the Williams’ songwriting fire, the extraordinary artist actually completed the tunesmithing of a couple of tunes from “The Highway” as she was recording them. Always the perfectionist, Williams somehow managed to fight off the urge that another ordinary performer might have had to just “throw something together.”
“Well this time I didn’t have a record label pushing me, so it was all on my own label. But it was just frustrating, like, ‘I just want to be done with this and I want to get on tour. I want to be done with this process.’ It was very hard.”
“But I always stop myself and go, ‘It’s not gonna kill anyone if we wait another month if I need to write a new song, if we need to finish a couple new things and see if I get something that I like better than the other songs.’’
“So it was supposed to be a month of recording and it took nine months instead. It was literally like having a baby. But I'm really glad that I let myself go slow with the process, because I only went in with five songs. I had to go through a lot of stuff with writing and players, instruments and everything to make it happen.”
And just like any other baby, “The Highway” was definitely well worth the wait for Williams. “Oh yeah. I feel like in a way this was my first album. There are songs that I love from the first two. But just being on tour for years and maturing so much as a vocalist and instrumentalist and just the way that I tell stories and phrasing, I feel like I'm definitely in the best space I've been yet. And it feels like I finally have a real artist statement that I didn’t have before.”
“A real artist statement” could make a serious run at “understatement of the year.” Here’s just one example of Williams’ affecting lyrics from “Giving Up” from the new album: “I tried myself, I cried with her / I held her hand, we talked to the Lord / But we’re only human and we can’t change / Somebody’s will to leave their ways.”
The song hit close to home for Williams. “Well, we can’t change somebody’s will to leave their ways. That was about a very close friend of mine who’s been struggling with alcohol for three years. I don’t think we can change others. We can only change ourselves.”
“It’s like you’re sitting there begging someone to get sober for years with their family. It took me a long time to realize I can’t save everyone, whether it was boyfriends, whether it was friends struggling with addiction.”
“We can only do it if we want to. We can’t waste a year of our lives trying to get someone else to get their life in order and then we notice ours is falling apart at the same time. It’s just like keeping that boundary in there.”
The exceptional title tune of “The Highway” provides another instance of Williams’ lyrical mastery, providing a profound glimpse into the sometimes lonely life of a musician. On it she sings, “I’ve been sitting here asking him everynight / For a brand new song and a peace of mind / The road is all I think about these days / All I need is out there I will be just fine / With a 6-string guitar and a jug of wine / When the lights go down around that stage.”
Williams described the double-edged sword that is life on the road as she spoke about the tune. “It has really high highs and really low lows. And when you’re at home you feel the same way. When you’re on the road, you have amazing days in amazing cities with amazing fans and you have horrible days in horrible weather in traffic and no one shows up for the show. I love the balance of it, that every day is new. You have no idea what it’s gonna bring, every hour. You don’t know how the show’s gonna be and how this is gonna turn out, but I love it.”
Williams no doubt also loved working with the impressive list of collaborators on the new album. The insightful Browne just happens to be one of this music fan’s favorite songwriters. And though Williams’ time with the legend was brief, she made the most of it.
“We were all writing together for about an hour and a half. He came to the studio and we had already read the lyrics, had sung the whole song, it was done. So he said, ‘Yeah, let’s sing on this.’ We were together very, very briefly. But I was obviously thrilled just to be in the same room with him and work with him for a little bit.”
“He did say something to me like, ‘You know, it’s amazing our age difference. These lyrics just cut right down to my core.’ He said, ‘This just sounds like you’ve been living forever.’ He gave me some kind of really lovely compliment on songwriting. That was my big great day. All I wanted in life is for Jackson Browne to say I'm a good songwriter, you know?”
Williams’ prodigious bents go far beyond her inspired musical adventures. The dazzling performer channels her passions for fashion and haute homemaking, into H. Audrey, her Nashville women’s boutique, and her lifestyle blog, The Afternoon Off. She sees an important parallel in her diverse pursuits.
“I'm a business woman in a clothing store. I love being involved in the day-to-day stuff. I love just really knowing what’s going on, I guess, inventory, product, selling it, where to invest. I always want to have a part in it, even if I sign with a smaller label. But there is definitely a freedom you feel. When you're with a major, you have no idea what’s going on. You don’t talk to the distribution guy, you don’t really talk to the day-to-day people.”
Five minutes with Williams is all it takes to realize that the grounded artist is one of the “day-to-day people” – which is quite the feat given her talented gene pool. But Williams’ has obviously learned how to perfectly balance living up to it with living it down.
“My grandfather is, if you will, the founder of country western music and is one of the biggest forces in the American culture of music in history. So obviously I can’t live up to that. My dad has sold 60 million records, and obviously I can’t live up to that.”
“Here we are in 2013, so I never even think about it. It’s literally never crossed my mind my whole life, like, ‘Oh God, I've got to live up to them.’ My dad is a rowdy, party guy, puts on these amazing shows and shoots guns and hops instruments. And I'm a girl who plays piano and likes to sing for the intimate theater. It’s such a different career path. My goal is to one day be selling out theaters, when he’s been selling out 40 thousand seat stadiums.”
“So I've never thought about it like that. I want to let the people know that I'm very proud of the family – that I love to do a couple of their songs now and then. But I don’t really feel the pressure. I think if I wasn’t a songwriter myself and I just wanted to do it for fame or something, I could’ve probably signed some bad record deal and sang other people’s songs.”
“I just wanted to do the songwriter thing, you know? It’s a much less glamorous way of doing it. I'm in a Suburban touring all over. I'm not in tour buses and planes that people think – these crazy things they think because I’m Hank’s daughter.”
“My music just does not fit in these major categories, so I've gotta do it the harder way. But it’s also more rewarding because you’re building fans on a very long term basis, they’re not just coming to my show to see one song that’s on the radio.”
With her penchant for success in so many different areas of her life, it’d be easy to call Williams “Queen Midas.” The ability to manage it all is more than just an incredible gift. The different paths all seem to lead her in the same triumphant direction.
“I feel like I'm just gonna try to keep juggling it all. Yeah, it is very overwhelming at times. Sometimes I just want to turn my brain off for 24 hours and get out of my own head. I literally cannot stop ‘wanting to’ – whether it’s the clothing store I've had or a new antique store, or a new album.”
“For me, the music and the cooking and the fashion are all kind of equal forms of expression. I love getting off a really long tour and going to store and folding jeans for two days and selling to people. It just pulls me out of that music thing that you get so sucked into.”
“It makes you feel less important, which every musician needs. Like, ‘The world is not going to die if I don’t release an album within the next 30 days. Maybe I can take off two weeks and work at the clothing store or work on my food blog and just take a break.’ For me, I need that break to get back into the writing. It’s very important for me to have those moments and it makes me a better musician to take those kinds of breaks.”
“I have a lot of friends that their breaks are hanging out and watching movies all day, which is fine. But for me, I literally need something to separate my brain to focus on cotton fabrics for three days and then go back to songwriting.”
“So yeah, it can get really distracting, but I'm just gonna continue it. Of course there’s days when I go, ‘Where would my music be if I only focused on that?’ But I can’t. It’s not in me to only do one thing. It’s just never been in my personality.”
Music may not be Williams’ only thing. But the singer-songwriter plans to be a stellar “part-timer” for years to come. “My goal is 30 years. It’s long term. I want to be playing for fans that love my music and festivals forever and doing theaters.”
“Nothing against arena acts, from Radiohead to Jay-Z to (Lady) Gaga. I love all kinds of mainstream music. But for what I'm singing in these story songs, I fit better in a listening crowd. So as long as I can keep doing that, building this fan base, getting these songs heard and getting to go to fashion week in Paris and cook every now and then, it’s all good.”
Holly Williams couldn’t have said it better. It is all good.