Interview with Holly Williams
When the child of a famous musician decides to follow in their parental footsteps, auditory amazement is never a guarantee. Genetics can certainly provide a good starting point, but truly inspired creativity is an individualized trait. That’s why it’s always nice when you find a musical apple that didn’t fall far from the family tree. With her third album on the way, talented singer-songwriter Holly Williams continues to prove that she is just such a case.
Coming from a family tradition that includes a rambunctious, outlaw country father (Hank Williams, Jr.), a feisty, genre-blurring brother (Hank III) and a legendary grandfather (Hank Williams) that has reached near mythological status, it would be easy for Holly Williams to try to get by on a just a name. However, she’s far more interested in carving her own path than with riding anyone’s coattails. With a distinct voice that perfectly harnesses the honest emotion of her lyrics and a gentle musicianship that underscores the depth of her songwriting, Holly has continually shown a finesse that surpasses any family name.
Holly’s newest release, The Highway, is set for a February 5 release and she’s put together an exclusive sampler for NoiseTrade that includes a new track from The Highway (“Without You"), three acoustic versions of songs from The Highway (“Gone Away From Me,” “Drinkin’” and “Waiting on June”), an acoustic version of “Alone” from her sophomore release Here with Me and a stunning cover Tom Waits’ “Hold On.” If you’ve not had the pleasure of hearing Holly’s music before now, this sampler is a fantastic introduction to her melodic, introspective catalog and this interview is an interesting peak inside her creative process, her musical heritage and her favorite extracurricular activities when she’s not wooing the masses with her music.
NoiseTrade: Your new album The Highway will be the third release of your career. What differences can listeners expect to hear by way of your album-to-album growth and what similarities can they look forward to as well?
Holly Williams: I think the subject matter of the songs and the general style that I write in always remains. I love fingerpicking, I love playing piano, I also love a stompbox and an acoustic guitar. It's all about the songwriting for me. I still love songs that I wrote when I was 17. I was always attracted to the heavier stuff and the real stories that painted a very clear picture for you in your head. Tom Waits songs read like little movies in my head, and I hope listeners always walk away feeling like I've taken them somewhere. That desire has remained the same through and through. My voice has grown so much I barely recognize myself on my first album. I've been touring for years now, and there is a confidence level in your singing and playing that you can only achieve by playing night after night. So I've definitely matured so much as a singer and player, and obviously the older I get the more life experience there is to sink into.
NT: From an artist’s perspective, what is the experience of having an innovative co-producer like Charlie Peacock behind the board?
Holly: It challenges you to your core when you work with another talent who is not only an amazing player but also a songwriter, producer, A&R guy, etc. But it is a great challenge that makes you work harder than you ever knew you could. He is absolutely brilliant, but we're both artists so there were definitely moments of disagreement and confusion, along with moments of complete clarity and magic and great things happening. It was the hardest record I've ever made, and in turn the best record in my opinion, and the one that I am the most deeply proud of. He can pick up any instrument, which is great when we're just sitting around deciding what to put where, and he appreciates the simplicity of a great lyric and not wanting to muffle it up with too many things! I was honored to work with him.
NT: The list of guest appearances on The Highway is quite impressive! What did folks like Jakob Dylan, Jackson Browne, Gwyneth Paltrow and Dierks Bentley bring to the project?
Holly: Some damn good vocals! I'm a HUGE fan of Jackson's and he is a songwriting hero of mine. Charlie emailed his management. I was really nervous, and they said he loved the songwriting and was happy to sing with me. I've played with Jakob a few times and obviously we have a lot in common. I've always loved his strong, raspy vocal and it was Charlie's idea for him to sing on "Without You" and I think he sounds brilliant! Gwyneth is a friend of mine and always loves singing harmony, so we decided to do that one totally raw. It was 2 guitars, 3 microphones (Gwyneth, myself and my husband) and one afternoon in LA. She has an incredible almost bluegrass sensibility to her singing. Super strong and always on pitch! Dierks has such a strong low tone that I wanted for "Til It Runs Dry" and I just emailed him the song on a whim and he came in to sing it. I'm obsessed with 3 part harmonies and happy to know so many talented people!
NT: Coming from such a strong musical pedigree, what do you feel has been some of the main contributing factors to your ability to create through such an unique, individual voice?
Holly: I am a huge fan of my grandfather, and my dad (he's known for his rowdy stuff but he can sleigh you singing a simple song with his guitar or piano) and my brother's style (Hank III) is super unique and impassioned. My dad busted his ass since he was 8 years old on the stage, and went through hell to get people to focus on his songs and not his dad's. My brother's been developing his fan base for years and years, and I've spent countless of nights in my 1994 Suburban traveling the country and on every train through Europe with a backpack full of cds and a guitar (as written about in my song "Without You"). We all have a fiercely independent spirit in my family. We will keep making music, whether radio plays it, whether we sell a million records, or not. We do it because it's our greatest passion, and all we want at the end of the night is to connect with more and more people. Besides that part, it's just in the blood. I've been writing since I was a little girl. Melodies always came naturally. Instruments came naturally. You can practice and practice to play something, but writing is genetic in my opinion. It just happens when your 8 years old and you're like "How did I just write a song?" It's a wild feeling.
NT: Although you’ve been successful at carving your own musical path, what does it mean to you when you cover some of your grandfather’s songs like “Blue Is My Heart” and “How Can You Refuse Him Now?”
Holly: It's amazing! Of course I love to sing those incredible lyrics and tell those stories. Who wouldn't? People always say "What's it like, Hank Sr. is your grandfather??!! But I didn't know him, nor did my dad. He was 3 when he passed. I am blown away at what he accomplished by 29 and he truly was the hillbilly Shakespeare as they call him. I sing only one of his songs in my set each night, but it's a great honor to be in his bloodline and I only wish he could see what we are all doing now. Whenever I'm on the stage at the Ryman Auditorium (the original Opry) it just sends chills up my spine to sing anything of his where he used to stand so long ago.
NT: Apart from music, you’re also passionate about clothing and food. Tell us how you got into running your own clothing boutique (H. Audrey, located in Nashville, TN) and your website, The Afternoon Off.
Holly: I've always loved the business side of things (hence, releasing my album on my own label for the first time). I had been touring forever and knew Nashville needed more places to shop and find unique emerging designers that I was finding through all of my travels. I was in a near-fatal car wreck with my sister in 2006 and took a lot of time off after that. She had 29 surgeries and has been through hell and back (as described in her book "Sign Of Life") but I opened the store to have something to keep me busy here in case my arm didn't heal back properly and I couldn't play anymore. I was pretty messed up for awhile but I completely recovered and was ready for more music. I get to see the world through music, and my blog is just another creative outlet where I talk about my travel guides, fashion on the road, favorite local/organic sustainable restaurants on tour, and most importantly detailed recipes and pictures of my favorite things to cook in my favorite place, the kitchen. Cooking is therapy for me. I always include a playlist with each recipe so be sure to check it out!!