Jess Williamson’s Heart Song is an ode to the big, empty skies of Texas. A looming daunting space that Williamson embraces on her second full-length, out this Friday. The album’s only seven tracks long, but three of the seven last at least six minutes.
Williamson has a beautiful singing voice. Her voice can be gentle like Leonard Cohen’s, or aggressive in its yelps like Conor Oberst’s. These are two of her biggest inspirations, and while their respective work has fingerprints on Heart Song, Williamson’s sound is a unique one. It’s desert music with sober intentions and hallucinogenic results; like most desert experiences. I spoke with Williamson over the phone—who was at the time decamped in Marfa, Texas—about the influence of Paris, Texas on her work, the valuable lessons of touring, and falsely advertised recording contests. —Will Schube
Where are you hanging out these days?
Jess Williamson:I’m in Marfa, Texas right now. It rules. I’m at the laundromat.
Do you live out there now?
Jess Williamson:I have been for the last little bit, a month and a half or so. I have another two weeks here. I just came out for a self-imposed writing residency. I’ve been trying to finish writing my next record.
Oh wow, already?
Yeah it’s pretty much done. I hope to be able to record in January. I’m so excited to get the next one out. Where are you? Are you in LA?
I am. Although I’m actually headed your way to Austin.
Jess Williamson:You’re gonna love it. I love Texas. It’s been weird the past few years, it’s been changing a lot which is kind of a bummer, but I still love it.
Are you from West Texas originally?
Jess Williamson:I grew up near Dallas, but I don’t really claim Dallas because I left when I was 17 to go to college. I just grew up in the suburbs.
Are you going on tour for your new album, Heart Song? Or are you going straight back to the studio?
Jess Williamson:Right now I’m trying to fly to New York to play a few shows after it comes out and play a few shows around Texas in December. We’re working on some Europe dates for early 2017, which will hopefully pan out. It’s so funny with touring. You just never know. I just got off tour with Kevin Morby. We played in Europe and I headed straight to Marfa after that.
How was the tour in Europe?
Jess Williamson:I love Kevin’s whole band. I just went solo which was great because I could just hop in the van with them. We all kind of bonded and I love their music. Getting to watch them play every night was amazing. I really felt like I learned a lot. Even just watching them soundcheck was educational.
Are you planning on doing full band shows in the states?
Jess Williamson:We’re playing around Austin and San Antonio. I’ll hopefully do some duo stuff as well.
Your first record, Native State feels very rooted in space and location. Do you look to Texas or wherever you are for inspiration? Or does that seep in naturally?
Jess Williamson:I think it seeps in naturally. I think a lot about Texas, though. I want to have a Texas sound, if that makes sense. I grew up here, it’s my home. I love Texas music and this landscape. I love the hills and the hill country around Austin and all of the natural swimming holes. There’s so much water around here. And then you come out to West Texas and it’s so epic and big and desolate. So yeah, I think about those landscapes a lot while I’m writing and bringing in other instrumentation.
I definitely hear a big Texas influence on the new record, especially a song like “Say It.” It just sounds like that world.
Jess Williamson:I’m glad you picked up on that because that song was actually written about a specific drive on a specific stretch of highway in West Texas between Terlingua and Alpine. It’s epic desert landscape, so I wanted it to have that desert driving feel.
Were there any non-musical influences that helped inform Heart Song?
Jess Williamson:Maybe it’s an obvious one, but Paris, Texas.
That’s such a great movie.
Jess Williamson:Oh my god. It’s kind of cheating to say that, because the soundtrack is so perfect. But it’s everything. The soundtrack married with the tone and the images. That film was always on my mind while writing and recording these songs. Those sort of feelings.
I saw it so late, too, which is hilarious. I had been obsessed with the soundtrack for years but didn’t see the movie until we went to record the album. There’s a theater in Austin called Violet Crown that was doing a special screening of it. I’m really spoiled because I got to see a really nice copy of it on the big screen for my first time. After I saw it I just had to go to the bathroom and just take a few breaths. I was so overwhelmed [laughs]. I couldn’t just go hang out after.
“Devil’s Girl” closes the new record. I read somewhere that you initially recorded it after winning a contest through a magazine.
Jess Williamson:Weird. What?
Is that not true?
Jess Williamson:I don’t know, maybe.
I was reading an interview and it said you won some contest with Deli Magazine.
Jess Williamson:Oh yeah! That’s so funny. I never recorded. It was so weird. I won some contest on the Internet. It was like, the winner gets free studio time. I thought it was great. I got the free studio time, but they didn’t tell me it was with a student studying at a recording school. It ended up not working out with his schedule and I totally forgot about it until right now. Maybe I can still take them up on it [laughs]. It kind of felt like false advertising, it just had really specific parameters.
The new record is a little less sparse than the last one yet it definitely retains a sonic identity. Do you have specific goals about things you want to accomplish when you enter the studio?
Jess Williamson:I feel like I’m still learning. I’ve made four recordings. There was an EP that you can’t find anywhere, then I did Native State and a 7”, and now this record. Each one has been a totally different process. Each one I’ve gone about differently. I’m still learning, and with each one I’ve taken different people’s advice and tried different things. With Heart Song, I’ve been playing these songs for at least a year with the band I was working with at the time. It was cool because the songs were road tested before we went into the studio. We had already been playing them live. So we recorded live to tape for the most part, adding things here and there. We were just capturing the live show.
Did you record Native State with a band or was that solo?
Jess Williamson:At that time I was only playing with a cellist. A wonderful musician who’s also my close friend named Kelly Hernandez. That was a totally different thing because we were playing the songs just me and her. I was playing the banjo almost exclusively at that time, so when we went in the studio, we really shaped the songs there. I never played live shows with them. Each recording experience has been a different thing. I’m still trying to figure out what my preferred method of recording is.
For the next one, I want to do a combination of recording stuff live and shaping it in the studio, I think. With Heart Song, I wanted it to sound the way it sounded live. Watching Kevin Morby live, I realized they’re not the same thing. Singing Saw is a pretty mellow album, but live, they’re a total rock band. The live show can be an interpretation of the album.
It’s also a way to keep things fresh. If you have to spend a year recording songs in the studio, spending another year playing those exact songs live can be pretty boring.
Jess Williamson:Exactly. It reminds me of when I saw Bob Dylan play in 2010 or 2009. We were so bummed because he changed all the songs. But he has to! He must be tired of playing “Just Like a Woman” the exact same way. It’s weird as an audience to see that, but I don’t blame him.
What sort of music were you listening to while writing and recording?
Jess Williamson:We recorded “Snake Song” and “Devil’s Girl” in the studio, which I eventually re-recorded in my house way more lo-fi. That was definitely inspired by Lost Wisdom, the Mount Eerie record. I love that album. I also listened to Cat Power’s Moon Pix a lot while getting ready to record. I also just spent a lot of time thinking about Patti Smith. I love Horses and Easter. She’s a poet who realized she could use music to be the vehicle for her words. And that’s how I thought about Heart Song. These songs are poems but they need the music.
Do you head back to Austin when you leave Marfa?
Jess Williamson:Yeah. Austin’s pretty much my home base. But I’ve been pretty nomadic for about a year now. I was in LA, then I went on tour for a while, but Austin is home for sure.
What’s your favorite thing to do around Austin?
Jess Williamson:Swim and eat really good vegan food.
Are you a vegan?
Jess Williamson:Yeah. Well, I’m a bad vegan. I like to say I’m a really bad vegan but a really good vegetarian. I eat cheese sometimes if it’s around. I’m not super strict but I try to be.
Every review I’ve read of your music mentions Karen Dalton or another female folk singer to help describe your sound. Does that ever get frustrating? I don’t think you sound anything like Karen Dalton, you’re just both women.
Jess Williamson:[Laughs] I’m glad you said that. I think it’s a huge compliment being compared to Karen Dalton, but I kind of don’t get it. I understood it more when I was only playing banjo, but there’s no banjo on this record and they’re still comparing me to Karen Dalton. It’s fine, but I don’t really understand where that comes from.
Your use of detail reminds me more of Conor Oberst than anyone else.
Jess Williamson:I grew up obsessed with him. I was a Bright Eyes superfan in high school. He’s a huge influence on my music now, even if that’s a little bit embarrassing. I think it just crept in because I listened to him so much during my teenage years.
Do you keep up with new music?
Jess Williamson:Not really. I’m pretty bad about it, actually. I get way more excited about old stuff. I love the new Kevin [Morby] record, I love the new Weyes Blood and Angel Olsen albums. I love listening to my friends’ stuff. But I’m bad at keeping up.
Do you think there’s an ideal setting for your music to be heard?
Jess Williamson:I think in the car on a long drive through a beautiful place is always a great way to listen to a record. I guess the ideal setting is with some candles, eating food with a friend. But people don’t do that anymore! Everyone’s on Spotify.
Do you use Spotify?
Jess Williamson:Oh yeah. Especially because I don’t really have a house anymore, I had to sell my record player. I don’t have a great listening environment at the moment. But that’s what I’m looking forward to the most when I move into a new place.
I first heard your record during a summer day and it was hard to listen to. I think your record is made for nights, especially as the weather cools. Do you believe in a time and place for music to exist?
Jess Williamson:Definitely. This record was supposed to come out during the summer, but it’s just not a summer record at all. It’s a winter record.
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