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Jess Williamson

Decisive Moments

Feb 13, 2014 Photography by Matthew Genitempo Jess Williamson
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There’s a cinematic quality to the music of Austin folk singer/songwriter Jess Williamson that makes the seven tracks on the 26-year-old’s debut LP, Native State, feel pivotal, whether she’s singing in a gently aching voice over hypnotic instrumentation or howling in a falsetto during dramatic pauses. The ominous guitar notes that open the first track, “Blood Song,” bring to mind a widescreen shot of a barren landscape in a western. With many of the tracks, their meditative tone and lyrics would play well during movie montages, the kind where characters are depicted moving through stages of reckoning, acceptance or transition. Yet, every song stands up on its own, equipped with distinctive scenarios and enchanting images, such as weeping forests, moon-bathing, and wristlets made of moss.

On the morning of January 28, Native State‘s release day, Williamson learned that Pete Seeger had died the day before. For the time being, that news clouded her occasion to celebrate. “I really admire him,” Williamson said. “Very rarely does a celebrity death affect me, but it really shook me.” Seeger had been an influence on Williamson when she started to write songs in 2008, just a few months after beginning lessons on banjo, her first instrument. “I made a CD for my mom for Christmas, and it included a couple of original songs that I had written. This is a time when I was really into Kimya Dawson and Pete Seeger and excited about playing the banjo and learning a lot of old-time songs. But I was pretty new to it.”

Banjo is a prominent instrument on Native State, but the songsexcept for the winkingly titled voice-and-banjo closer, “Seventh Song”are fleshed out sparingly by everything from dobro, electric guitar and cello, to synth, percussion and mountain dulcimer. The recording of Native Sate was funded by a Kickstarter campaign that Williamson launched in September of 2012. She created her own label, Brutal Honest, to release the album digitally and on limited vinyl. As she watched a tribute episode of Democracy Now! devoted entirely to Seeger, she tended to the business of her record’s release, sending out emails. That day, she also took to the icy streets of Austin, where schools had been closed on account of the weather, to mail off records at the post office.

Under the Radar spoke with Williamson by phone late that afternoon.

Chris Tinkham (Under the Radar): Going into making this album, you had hoped to have it out much sooner, more like a year ago. Can you talk about some of the challenges you faced being an independent artist?

Jess Williamson: Yeah. So, I did the Kickstarter, I raised the money for the record, and the record was done last May. It was totally finished. Some things delayed it early on, like the mastering. I got most of the tracks mastered at this nice studio that’s really expensive. And the guy, David Boyle, actually let me trade him in hours of babysitting his child. [Laughs] One hour of his time mixing my record was worth four hours of my time babysitting his son. So, it took a while to work up some time with him. I ended up only getting to a half day with him, and I said, “Pay the rest,” ‘cause it was taking so long. That was one of the first delays. And then, all summer, I was just sending it around to record labels, hoping that someone would want to put it out for me. And it didn’t happen. I had some responses; people were nice. But, what I’m learning is, nobody wants to work with you if you come to them. Everybody wants to find you. So I decided to put it out on my own label, Brutal Honest. Then it was a little bit delayed getting the art and everything.

Native State‘s third track, “Medicine Wheel,” appeared on your 2011 EP, Medicine Wheel/Death Songs. You’ve talked about how you considered “Medicine Wheel” as separate from the other songs on the EP, therefore its title. Was that song a springboard for the writing of this album?

Yeah, totally. I lived in New York for a while, and I had a band with one other girl at the time. We wrote some songs together. A couple songs I had written for the band. I included those songs on my solo EP. I wrote “Medicine Wheel” once I moved back to Austin, but I included it on the EP because I wanted to have five songs on the EP, and I was proud of the song. But really, it was totally separate from the other ones, ‘cause the other ones were written when I was in New York and sort of in a band. It wasn’t a very focused project yet. And then, once I came back to Austin, the intention was to make solo music, a solo project.

I read that the writing on the rest of the EP was inspired by a breakup. Where did the Native State songs come from?

A lot of different places. The unifying aspect is that I wrote all of the songs after I moved back to Texas, and that’s partially where the title of the record comes from.

How does someone who was into Bright Eyes and The Smiths in high school end up taking up the banjo?

[Laughs] I credit moving to Austin with developing a real love for country music and folk music and old-time music. I grew up in Dallas, and I was into Bright Eyes and Taking Back Sunday and all this stuff in the early 2000s. And then I came to the University of Texas, and I started making all these friends at the radio station. I was a DJ, and it opened my eyes to all kinds of music. For the first time, I realized that country music is really cool. The old stuff is really cool. In high school, I was reading all the blogs, trying to find out about the new bands, and then in college I realized, “Oh, the ‘60s, that’s what I want to learn more about.” So I developed this appreciation once I got into college. But then, my friends had this house called Rancho Relaxo, and they would have house shows there, in their backyard and in their basement. And one day, probably like January of 2008, I went to a show there. It was this guy, Ralph White, this old Austin guy, he’s been around forever. He plays a couple things, but he primarily plays the banjo. And I had never seen that before. He has his own style. I was totally transfixed, and watched his whole set, and sat on the floor, right in the front. I couldn’t get it out of my head. I kept thinking about what I had seen. And a couple of days later, I decided to pick up the banjo and ended up really loving it, took lessons and had a great teacher that made it approachable for me, ‘cause it can be intimidating. But he was really good. So, that’s how it started.

Before you discovered older music in college, when you were keeping up with new bands on the blogs, did you envision yourself as getting into music or songwriting?

Totally. It was my secret dream, but I was super shy about it. I had lots of friends in bands. My first year at UT, I was one of the music writers for the school newspaper. So, every week, I was interviewing bands that were coming through town and writing articles and reviewing records, and my major was journalism, and I was secretly so jealous. I always liked writing, and I liked music, so it seemed like the perfect combination. But yeah, I secretly really wanted to be the one making the music.

What instrument do you write on now?

Lately it’s been guitar. I started on the banjo. I really didn’t know any other instrument before I picked up the banjo. But, the past two years, maybe a little less, I started playing guitar, and I’ve been really into it. I don’t think that there will be any banjo on the next record.

What else can you tell me about your New York band, Rattlesnake?

I was going to New York for graduate school for photography. I ended up realizing while I was there how much I wanted to be pursuing music. So, while I was still in school, I started a band with my friend and neighbor. It was just the two of us. It was me playing the banjo and the both of us singing together. She played guitar on a couple of the songs. We only had six songs and only played shows for less than six months, ‘cause she ended up moving away. It didn’t last for very long.

What spurred your interest in photojournalism?

I always liked writing in high school, so that’s why I wanted to be a journalism major. At UT, you have to choose what kind of track you want to go on within journalism. At the time, they offered a couple of other things, and one was photojournalism. I hadn’t declared my specific track, and I took the intro to photojournalism class, just for fun. I’d always been a little bit interested in photography, but I’d never really tried it. And I ended up really liking it and decided to make that my major or track or whatever they call it. They don’t even offer the program anymore, actually, at UT. Now it’s like multimedia or something, but yeah, I had to pick something, and I ended up really liking it. A classic finding-yourself-at -college move, I guess. I went down the photo path for a couple years. It went as far as going to graduate school to get an MFA in photography, and then I freaked out and realized that I had never pursued my dream.

I know it’s a big school, but when you were at UT, did you ever cross paths with Nöel Wells?

Yes! Do you know her?

No, I interviewed her last summer when she was based in Los Angeles. She was in a film, made by a group of UT alums, that premiered at the LA Film Fest. It’s called Forev.

That’s so awesome. Yeah, I knew Nöel in college, totally. That’s so funny, and now she’s doing so well. [Laughs] I’m so happy for her and so proud to know someone on Saturday Night Live. At Christmas, my whole family was freaking out. [Laughs] We didn’t know each other super well. I’m pretty sure she was a Radio-Television-Film major. And that’s part of the communications school. And journalism is in the communications school. And also, I had a show on the radio station and wrote for the newspaper, and I feel like she had something to do with one of those. We were kind of in the same buildings on campus, had a lot of the same friends and would go to the same parties. I remember this one day, I was sitting outside of the communications school, and I saw this really pretty girl walk by. I remember, I kind of looked at her a little too long, ‘cause I really liked her outfit, and she kind of looked at me, and we both smiled. I didn’t really think about it. And then, later that day, I got a Facebook message from Nöel, and it was like, “Hey, sorry if I seemed creepy when I walked by you earlier. I just really liked your outfit.” [Laughs] And I wrote back, “No! I really liked your outfit! Wow!” And then we were always on good terms. It’s funny. We both had that thing of being, “Oh, I’m being awkward looking at someone too long.” [Laughs]

Back to photography, does something like Henri Cartier-Bresson’s idea of The Decisive Moment play into your music?

Yes, completely, but I haven’t figured out how to articulate it. I know that being 18 and starting college and taking a photography class right away really did teach me how to see the world in a different way. Which is so cliché, but true. It definitely plays into the way that I observe moments. I’m really inspired by just snippets of conversations that I’ll have with people. At the same time, I feel that there’s limitation in every kind of medium, so I felt limited by photography. There are also limitations in writing songs, but I kind of touch on that idea in one of the songs on the new record, “You Can Have Heaven on Earth.” The first part of that song is about this experience that I had the very first time that I went on tour with my friends who are in a band called Mirror Travel. And they were nice enough to let me open for them for a few of their shows. We were in Oregon, and we were driving through the Willamette National Forest to get to a show in Boise, and it was so beautiful, with big hills and all these trees. I think pine trees. They were like Christmas trees; I don’t remember exactly what they were. And without saying anything, Paul [Brinkley], who was driving, pulled over. And we all got out, and we jumped over this guard rail, and we went through the forest. It was so wet, and there was moss everywhere. The trees were so tall, and there was this huge rushing river that was so loud, we couldn’t hear each other talking. I remember, I had this thought of, “I’m not gonna take pictures. This is too good to take pictures. I just want to be here and have this moment with my friends.” It was so beautiful and so special and really felt transcendent. Like, one of those moments where you really feel like you’re living in a movie. In the song, “You Can Have Heaven on Earth,” one of the lines is “All of us thinking what we can’t photograph, we can sing.” For me, that’s about transitioning away from photography a little bit and becoming more serious about writing songs and finding that I could capture an experience or moment, not necessarily better, but in a different way with songs, in a way that I felt more connected to lately than with shooting photos.

I saw a great clip of you singing “The Long Black Veil” in Silverlake. You mentioned being shy about music earlier, but judging from the video, it looks like performing comes naturally to you.

Thanks. I’m definitely not so nervous anymore. I was really nervous at first. But, more than being nervous about performing, I was just shy about even saying that I wanted to be making music. I wasn’t confident. I didn’t feel like that was something that I could do, ‘cause I didn’t know how to play anything. I just knew I liked to sing. Since I was always a singer as a kid, and in high school I was in choir, I actually was never super afraid of being in front of people.

You mention Barcelona in the title track, “Native State.” What brought you there?

To study abroad! I did an exchange program when I was at UT, so I went to a Spanish university for one semester in Barcelona.

I understand that this information comes with a steep price tag, but can you tell me anything about your out-of-body experience there?

No! [Laughs]

Okay. Let me phrase this differently. Have you had that kind of experience any other times in your life?

No. I guess I can kind of tell you about it. I think what I experienced is called astral traveling, but I’m not totally sure. Essentially, I had an out-of-body experience where, what I saw in my mind’s eye was as if I were traveling at a very high speed through outer space, and I could see stars and other kinds of debris going past me in the other direction, and that was how I had the perception that I was going so fast. And then I saw the planet Earth also travel past me. The biggest thing that I took away from that experience was my reaction, in that moment, to realizing that I was leaving the Earth behind: it was to laugh. It was really funny. I was sort of laughing at how ultimately unimportant all of this is. So, that is the Reader’s Digest version of my experience.

Do you know what triggered it?

I fainted. And then I woke up and realized that that was not real. Or maybe it was. [Laughs] I need to do more research. I need to talk to some more people who have had experiences like this.

And it happened during a doctor’s checkup?

Yeah, everybody was talking Spanish to me, and the doctor didn’t speak English. After everything was finished, they left the room for me to change, and I was so overwhelmed and stressed out that I ended up fainting, which is weird, and I don’t totally know why. I was alone and fainted, and suddenly I’m astral traveling or whatever you call it, and I woke up to this Spanish nurse screaming in my ear and holding this thing for me to smell. They let me lie there and gave me apple juice and thought that I was really weird. [Laughs] It’s very unusual. I don’t have an explanation.

Will this year be your second at SXSW as a performer?

Yeah, the second one as an official performer, but I guess the third that I’ve participated in. The first year, I wasn’t an official act.

When you were in college, did you attend as a fan?

Oh yeah, definitely.

What SXSW memory sticks out the most, either as a performer or fan?

Definitely meeting Joanna Newsom. I went to SXSW in 2007, and that was probably the height of my Joanna Newsom fandom. Now, I’ve chilled out and I respect her a lot as an artist. But, at the time, I was a mega-fan. I was working for the school newspaper, so I had a platinum badge, somehow the best credentials, and so I went to this performance that Thurston Moore was doing during SXSW. And, I was with a friend who also wrote for the newspaper, and Joanna Newsom and Bill Callahan were there, and they were with this guy that randomly knew my friend. It was this situation where he was like, “Oh hey,” and they kind of walked over, and we’re all talking, and I’m trying to be cool. And then they started to walk off, and I looked at her, and I said, “I love you.” [Laughs] And she was so nice to me and ended up talking to me for a while. I said, “I just really like your music. Sorry, I had to say something.” You know, it was kind of under the auspices of, “Oh, we’re just all a bunch of friends standing here talking. This is what all people do when they run into each other.” But I couldn’t not say anything. That’s the first thing that comes to mind as far as SXSW memories.

Have you seen Nöel Wells’ impression of Joanna Newsom?

Nooo. I bet it’s so good.

There are clips out there.

Okay, I’ll have to go look. I’ve seen her Zooey Deschanel impressions, of course, which are amazing. [Laughs]

And you have a video coming out soon?


For which song?

“Spin the Wheel.” My friend is putting it together. I’m waiting on him to change the fonts that he had originally chosen, and then it’s going to be ready.

Does directing interest you?

Yeah, definitely. I recently figured out how to use iMovie. Once I get a little more time, I want to make a music video for myself.

And you recently won a Deli Magazine poll that gets you some studio time. Do you have any plans for that?

Yeah, I’m going to go in, in April. It’s just one day. It’s with a student who’s in school at this place to learn how to be a sound engineer. It’s a nice space. I looked it up online. It’s really pretty. So, I’m going to go in by myself and record a song solo and see how it goes.

Have you decided which song?

Yeah, I’m pretty sure I’m going to record this song called “Devil’s Girl.” It’s new, and it’s not on the record. I want to get really experimental with it and see if I can find somebody who plays a sitar or something [laughs], to come in and add something to it. ‘Cause, for me, it feels for fun. You know, to kinda see what happens.

This week, Williamson embarked on her “World Tour” of Texas, Arizona, and Southern California.

02.11.14 - Marfa, TX @ Lost Horse
02.12.14 - Tucson, AZ @ Club Congress
02.13.14 - Los Angeles, CA @ Silverlake Lounge
02.16.14 - San Diego, CA @ Sycamore Den
02.17.14 - Los Angeles, CA @ Bardot
02.18.14 - Phoenix, AZ @ Crescent Ballroom
02.19.14 - Arcosanti, AZ @ Arcosanti
02.20.14 - El Paso, TX @ Black Market
02.21.14 - Terlingua, TX @ Starlight Theater
02.25.14 - Austin, TX @ Red 7 w/ Angel Olsen
03.11 - 03.15 - Austin, TX @ SXSW


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