Under the influence: an interview with Jess Williamson
Music — 15.01.19
Texas-born, LA-based singer-songwriter Jess Williamson dropped-out from grad school to pursue music and has since then garnered attention for her meandering tunes that sound like a close friend thinking out loud.
“Love is my name now / Love, darling” she coos at the top of “Love On The Piano.” It’s a far cry from where she left us with 2016’s Heart Song; a stormy, brutally beautiful collection of prose about gnarled matters of the heart.
Her new release, Cosmic Wink, is as playful as its title suggests, revelling in newfound love, camaraderie and sunshiney vibes without fully escaping existential scrutiny. A gorgeous listen, it’s driven by a lyrical awareness that delves into her own life while continually seeking out the universal.
In this interview with Teeth Magazine, Jess discusses her love for music, fighting for her dreams, and digs into her new album.
Emilia Slupecka: What is your first memory of music?
Jess Williamson: It’s not cool at all, but my mom is a huge fan of Jimmy Buffet. Do you know who that is?
I think he might just be really popular in America; basically, his vibe is kind of beach music. Escaping to the beach and drinking a beer, his fans are super-fans, and they call themselves ‘Parrot Heads’. It’s so funny you have never heard of Jimmy Buffet, he is so popular in America! My first memory is going to a Jimmy Buffet concert with my mom, she would take me when I was in second grade, and I would fall asleep in the seat while she was dancing and singing all of the songs.
Where do you find your inspiration most?
Mostly from my life. I’m not really someone that can read a book and get inspired and write a song about someone in the book or something. It’s mostly from experiences I have or that people close to me have and tell me about, conversations with friends.
When it comes to sitting down and writing a song where do you tend to start?
Jess Williamson: Well, there is one thing that I have been doing for a while now, I have a pretty disciplined daily practise with music. I wake up and try not to look at my phone or the internet all morning, and I make coffee. I sit with a guitar and start writing. I now have a piano in my house that a friend is leaving here for a little while he is in-between places. So, I have started playing on the piano a little bit, and a lot of it is not really over thinking it, just singing and seeing what happens and sounding crazy and writing down whatever works, making quick recordings to remember stuff. A lot of what helps me is staying organised, writing down what I did that day, making a recording of it so that I don’t forget because it’s funny how easy it is to forget what you spend a whole morning on. That’s how I do it; I try to stay in that magical zone for as long as possible, as soon as I look at my phone or remember an errand its kind of over.
We are so addicted to technology and social media. The idea that you can’t look at your phone is kind of worrying, in a way.
The thing is that it’s so easy to waste time. I will hear a news story, and then I’m obsessed with it, and I’m reading all of these long-form articles suddenly. I don’t think that is bad, but I have found that I can structure my day where I can save all of that stuff. I call hours from 2pm-5pm ‘the danger zone’ because that is the time where my energy is really low, and the light is weird in my house. So, that is the time where I just need to go to a coffee shop, do my emails, read those news articles, you know. These are my best days that I am describing; I don’t always pull it off. In a perfect world, I spend all morning working on music, I don’t look at my phone, and around 1 pm I go to a coffee shop and deal with all of that other stuff.
I heard you that used to be a writer at university and then you did photography at grad school. Why did you choose to make music?
Basically, the truth is that music was what I always wanted to do, but I was afraid to pursue it. Growing up was very much, you’re going to make good grades, and you’re going to go to a good college and get a degree and get a good job. That was the narrative. I’m very privileged; not everybody gets a chance to go to college, so by no means am I complaining. I grew up in Dallas, Texas. Nobody around me was running off to follow their dreams. It was sort of more traditional. So even though I loved music and I secretly just wanted to do exactly what I’m doing now, I went to college, and I majored in Photojournalism. It was a combination of photography and journalism. I was one of the music editors for the college newspaper, The Daily Texan. I was a huge music fan, so I would interview all of the bands that would come through town and review their albums, but secretly I was just so jealous of them. I was doing these interviews and asking them questions which I genuinely wanted to know because I was so curious what it was like to be a touring musician and put out records. I also had a radio show on the college radio’s station where I would play my friend’s music, secretly jealous. I would go to shows all of the time. I knew that I wanted to be doing it, but I didn’t really know how to play an instrument yet, and I just felt like I didn’t even know where to start.
Then, when I was finishing college, I applied to one grad programme at Parsons in New York City. I thought if I get in, I’ll move to New York and I’ll go. If I don’t get in, I don’t know what I’ll do. I ended up getting in, and it was a great experience. I learnt so much! I loved photography, and a lot of what I had been doing in Austin was taking pictures of my friend’s bands. It was all intertwined with music, but I wasn’t actually making the music. I was coming at it from all sides; journalism, radio, photography. I was too shy or not confident enough to really pursue it, but when I moved to New York for grad school, the weight of that decision was coming down on me because I was taking out massive loans to pay for the private art school. It wasn’t exactly the most practical degree; I was getting an MFA in photography, I was only 21-years-old. I went when I was too young, and I didn’t know what I was doing.
Looking back, subconsciously I was just avoiding doing the thing I really wanted to do out of fear. Finally, seeing those dollar signs of all of the debt I was taking out, I realised that if I ever wanted to pursue music, there was no way that I would be able to be in school because I would be forced to get a regular salary job just to pay all of the debt off. That was finally what pushed me. I left the programme early after staying for two semesters, I worked at a bar and decided to start a band. I thought, I’m 21, and I’m just going to go for it. So that is kind of how it all started.
Did you move to Austin after New York?
Yeah, so I stayed in New York for a little over a year, and I realised that I wasn’t very happy there. I really missed Texas, and I really missed Austin. Even though I was starting to play shows and it was going well, it was a lot of fun being in a new place and starting to play music. I knew that in Austin I had a broad community. I had spent all of college getting to know musicians and people with recording studios. I knew that I could go back to Austin and actually find people to record with and people to play with me.
It was true, I went back, and it was this inviting, safe environment to get my solo project off the ground. When I was in New York, I was playing with another friend, and we had a project that was ours, it wasn’t my solo project. So, when I went back to Austin, I was getting this new thing off the ground that was just my name. My first solo show was at my friend’s venue, and they booked me because they knew me. It just felt really sweet and loving and safe there to get something going that was new. Some friends recorded my first EP in their living room at their house, and they all played on it, I had a community there that I didn’t have in New York, so it was a good move to go back and get things rolling.
What else can you tell me about your New York band looking back?
That was so fun, I was just so excited to be playing music. At the time, I was only playing the banjo, my friend was playing the guitar, and we would sing harmonies and write simple songs together, our band was called Rattle Snake. My first shows ever were with that project. She ended up moving away, and I knew that the band couldn’t exist anymore and that was partially why I decided to do a solo thing. But it was awesome! I learnt so much. I remember all of our friends came to our first show and it was so fun. It’s cool to look back and remember how new and exciting it all felt…and so scary! I loved it; I got to finally have a band after so many years of supporting other people’s bands.
What made you finally move to LA?
Well, I have been curious about LA since I was a little girl. When I was in fifth grade, my aunt took me out here for a trip, and we went and did all of the touristy stuff. Even still, I got this feeling that it was this magical place. It has always been on my mind, and when I was in college, I spent a summer here doing an internship at a magazine. Really, I just wanted an excuse to be here, then I came here on tour a couple of times and played these magical shows and met the sweetest people. Every time I came out here I got this feeling that it is a special place and it’s a place that I want to be.
That being said, there were always reasons for me to stay in Austin. Finally, I made the record, and there wasn’t anything forcing me to stay in Austin. I had this magical little house that I was living in by myself, and I got a phone call from the landlord that the rent was going up exponentially. I was like, you know what now is the time. The rent was going up to an LA equivalent which is happening everywhere in Austin. I thought, if I’m going to pay LA rent, I might as well move to LA and give this thing a try.
I came out kind of on a trial basis just for a few months, and I loved it. I then went back to Texas for a bit. The real moment that I moved to LA was when one of my friends from the house where I had been staying before said that she was moving out and that I could take her lease. For me, that was the perfect opportunity. I was presented with this perfect little house, and I knew the landlord. She didn’t raise the rent on me; it was too perfect to pass up. It felt like all of the doors were opening and I just needed to say yes. So that’s how it happened! Everything just fell into place perfectly thanks to this amazing friend that I have. So here I am.
That’s so lucky! Did LA change you as a person and your approach to music at all?
Yes! I think spending time here has made me give myself permission to treat my work like a job and take it very seriously and develop that practice that I mentioned. From spending more time out here, I have got to know more people who are working musicians that have taken that leap of faith and treated it like a job, and it becomes their job. That was kind of the significant change. There is just more infrastructure and opportunity for musicians to make a living that doesn’t exist in the same way in Austin.
In Austin, we were all juggling like three different random jobs and making our music when we could and playing shows around town. That was wonderful for me for many years, but I wanted to move forward and treat this as my career, and it is finally starting to happen. I am seeing the pieces all coming in to view, and I can see this is becoming my career which is what I have always wanted.
What is your favourite song that you have written and why?
That is such a hard question! I think it changes, even with just this record. At first, my favourite song on this record was “Love On The Piano” which might be surprising because it is the most stripped-down song. Then it was “Wild Rain”, and now it might be “Dream State”. I don’t know, it shifts. They are all my little babies, and I have such an intimate relationship with every song. I remember how I felt when I wrote it and what I was thinking about at the time. It also seems like my favourite song is always the newest one that I’m working on. Like, I’m working on some new songs, and I’m like, this is my favourite song I’ve ever written! So, it just changes.
If you could work with anyone dead or alive, who would it be?
Working in a touring sense, I would love to go on tour right now with Kacey Musgraves, I love her. She would be so much fun! I love her songs, I love her outfits, and I think that we would be really good friends.
But also in an entirely different world, I would love to go on tour with Joanna Newsom because she is my all-time favourite musician and songwriter. I think that she is a brilliant genius that is not even from this planet. I would love to make a record with her; I would love to just sit in a room and listen to her talk. I think she is brilliant.
What was the recording process like for your new album, Cosmic Wink?
I worked on writing the songs for about a year on my own. I wrote some of it in LA and some of it in Marfa, Texas which is this beautiful town in the desert of West Texas, it’s a really magical place. Then Shane and I spent a month doing pre-production on the songs in this house in Lockheart Texas, which is just a little outside of Austin. I had my own studio in the house; it was this big cool room with a chandelier just surrounded by instruments. We went through all of the songs and worked out instrumentation for them. For a couple of them, we changed some things around, and that is why he has a co-writer credit on a couple of the songs. He dug into them with me and really brought them to life, brought them to where they needed to be.
So, we did that for a month, and then we went out to Dripping Springs, Texas which is another small town outside of Austin. We recorded the album for a week out there at our friend’s home studio, and so we just lived out there. My drummer and bassist stayed out there too because we recorded some of the stuff live. We lived together and cooked meals and went on walks around the property; it was an immersive experience that felt really reverent. Everyone was respectful and appreciative of spending that time together, and we all wanted to do right by the songs which was a cool way to go about things.
One of my favourite songs from the new album is “Dream State”. How did it come about?
That was when I started writing right before I went to LA and I came up with this idea that I’m close to my dream state; it has a double meaning. I knew that I was getting ready to go to LA and I thought of California as my dream state to live in, and I had been dreaming of moving there for so long. But also, I had been working a lot with my dreams literally. I had been writing them down and reading a lot of Carl Jung trying to learn about how your dreams are allies for your life. It’s your subconscious speaking to you, and there is a lot to determine if you pay attention. Being close to my dream state, close to my dreams and working with them and trying to integrate them into my working life. But also, being close to moving to my dream state, California. A place that I had dreamt of going for so long. So, lyrically, that’s where that comes from. That was one that Shane and I really hashed out together when we were doing pre-production. He brought a lot of excellent ideas to the table, and that was one we kind of built together.
Can you talk to me about some of the challenges you have faced being an independent artist?
I was self-releasing my music for so long. I put out my first two records all on my own. I raised money for the first one from Kickstarter and was booking my tours, making all my merchandise. If you bought a record, that was just me mailing it to people. It was fun, I actually loved it. I loved the DIY ethos; I loved taking care of every detail. My very first EP I was hand-making the packaging. I learned a lot from that, and I’m glad that I was doing everything myself for so long because now that I do have a label, I’m still really hands-on, and I’m still really on top of all of the details. I know how a lot of stuff works and what questions to ask. They might find it annoying, but I’m very much involved in everything that is happening with my record.
So, now I have a label, and it is an independent label. I feel that now, for me, everything is so much easier. It’s so nice to have a team helping me and I’m grateful to all of those years doing it on my own.