Jess Williamson :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Jess Williamson was just about to embark on a brand new life when everything fell apart. The Texas native had finished her second full-length Sorceress, a break-out success that Pitchfork hailed as “a mature and freeing record” and in which Mojo heard “a gently-assured, incantatory feel.” She was set to spend the summer touring and promoting the new disc. It was the spring of 2020. You know what happened next.

As the COVID pandemic gained momentum, Williamson found herself holed up in Los Angeles, newly single after a long-time personal and musical partnership ended. She began furiously writing songs to fill the time, recording them by herself with just a guitar and drum machine for company. Meg Duffy of Hand Habits contributed guitar to an early single called “Pictures of Flowers,” and Williamson began, cautiously, to believe that she could continue to create—with or without a partner or a band.

The result is Williamson’s lovely Time Ain’t Accidental, an album that balances the lilting heartbreak of classic country with the fresh, modern sound of pop. The songs are restless and yearning, powered by the ache for change and movement. They are gorgeously simple sounding but subtly sophisticated, showcasing Williamson’s clear, pure, vibrato laced voice.

A lot of them are about driving, so it was oddly appropriate that I caught her in the van, traveling between tour stops in the van. Our connection flickered in and out, but she persisted. It’s what she does, apparently. | j kelly

Aquarium Drunkard: Could we start by talking about how you connected with this older country tradition that you can hear pretty clearly in this album? What are your origins as a music fan and performer?

Jess Williamson: I grew up in Texas. My parents are really big music fans. All through growing up, we always had music playing in the house. My parents were always taking me to concerts and telling me about music. The greats of country music, like Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton, were my parents’ heroes. They also were really into Neil Young and Bonnie Raitt. I was just raised on this music. Also, growing up in Texas it’s not even like country music is a separate thing from other music. It’s just like what music is. It was in my DNA from my earliest days.

AD: Did your parents play or were they just fans?

Jess Williamson: They were mostly just fans. My mom was actually a drummer in college and high school, but once I was born, they weren’t playing music. They were just fans.

AD: And how did that love of music and seeing shows, how did that evolve into you deciding that you could do this yourself?

Jess Williamson: I started to get into music on my own as a teenager. I started to develop my own taste and I started going to shows in Dallas and Denton where I grew up. Just really in my own way I started to idolize the musicians that I look up to. I was always a singer, but I didn’t see a clear path from loving music and loving singing to making my own music. At least, other than being a pop star? Like growing up in the suburbs of Dallas, it wasn’t clear to me that there was any in-between, I guess. I ended up taking a little bit more of a conventional path. I went to college and studied photojournalism at UT in Austin.

Then I moved to New York City in order to go to graduate school for photography and that when I was like, wait, all I ever wanted to do was be a musician and be a singer and write songs. It was kind of like a come to Jesus moment where I was like, I need to try this now or it’s never going to happen. Now is the time. It was almost like I had ignored it for too long and I was going to have to just try now.

AD: That’s interesting that you were a photographer. Do you still do that, on the side?

Jess Williamson: Yeah, I do. More as a hobbyist now. I look back and I see that photography was actually my way of trying to get closer to music. I photographed bands .I’d go to shows. I also was a journalist, so I worked at my campus newspaper writing about bands, interviewing bands. I had a radio show on the college radio station. I just was such a fan and such a music head. I was just dancing around it, on the periphery all the time, and finally I admitted to myself that I wanted to be making music.

AD: Now, I understand that this album came out of a really difficult period of your life where a relationship that you had, both personal and professional, ended and the COVID happened. Can you talk about how you turned all that trouble into art and music?

Jess Williamson: It was such a dark, scary time for all of us. I had a record come out in May of 2020 and then all of my tours got cancelled. I had this plan that I would be touring and busy and promoting this new album, and then that changed, and I had a lot of time on my hands, and I was also going through a really hard time personally. It was just the natural next step to channel all this into writing a ton of songs. I had this energy and inspiration. I had a lot of motivation to try to turn it into something and spend my free time writing a ton of music. I just wanted to work as hard as I could to have another record ready to go.

AD: Were you holed up in LA or in Texas?

Jess Williamson: I was in LA at first and then I went to Texas in the summer of 2020. For like six weeks that summer. Then I went back to LA.

AD: Because I think the pandemic was horrendous for everybody, but if you were living by yourself, it would be especially bad. Besides people with small children, I think people that were living alone got hit the hardest. It must have been really difficult. How did you stay connected with people?

Jess Williamson: Yeah. I had a little bit of a pod. I think the people that lived alone had to find the other people that lived alone, you know? I wasn’t totally alone at all times, which was nice.

AD: I guess the first song you wrote during this period was “Pictures of Flowers,” which is not on the album?

Jess Williamson: “Pictures of Flowers” is a song that I wrote right after Sorceress came out. I recorded it myself at home. I worked with two collaborators, Meg Duffy of Hand Habits and then Jarvis Taveniere who is a producer.

AD: Right, from Woods.

Jess Williamson: They recorded their parts remotely. It was my first experience of being on my own after that break-up. I was without that person who I really thought I needed to make music. I didn’t think I could do it on my own. And here it was COVID lockdown and that was the first thing that I wrote by myself and recorded by myself and then released it. That ended up being a little bit of a template for the new record. That way of working, using the drum machine and working by myself.

AD: I was noticing that you have these killer first lines. Like the title track is “There’s a life somewhere real far away/you wouldn’t make a lick of sense in that place.” There’s a real sense of leaving the familiar behind and moving forward. Were you feeling that?

Jess Williamson: Yeah, when I went through the break-up, I felt like I had to start a whole new life. I had to figure out who I was outside of that partnership. Los Angeles felt like a really important part of that story. It felt like, okay, I need to really put roots down here and lean into being here and lean into what might happen or what new path I might go down now. And then it was COVID. You know? So it was this crazy time of trying to move forward, but then being in this totally unprecedented moment in history where there really wasn’t a lot that could be done. In any normal way.

AD: There’s so much driving on this record.

Jess Williamson: I know. It’s appropriate that I’m driving while we’re talking.

AD: Is that a way for you to think about things? In the car?

Jess Williamson: It’s just a really big part of my life. I drive a lot between LA and Texas. During COVID times, I did that. I left LA because it was such a scary, lonely place to be, and I drove to Texas where I spent most of that summer. That was a pretty trippy experience. I remember being really scared of the virus and not knowing what was going on, but feeling that I needed to leave LA for my own sanity. Just being out on a highway feeling like I was breaking the rules a little bit, but being so happy to be out there.

A big part of the story of this record is that I tried so hard to lean in the LA thing, and then I ended up falling in love with a person who lives in Marfa, Texas. Now I split time between LA and Marfa, so I make that drive all the time. I’m on these highways a lot of the time, by myself, listening to music, stopping in these little towns, feeling a little bit outside of society, if that makes sense.

AD: It’s a common trope in popular music, and especially country. There are a lot of road songs. It’s not a shocking thing, but there’s definitely a lot of movement on your album and restlessness, I think.

Jess Williamson: I think the reason that it’s trope in music is because it’s such a big part of being a musician. Just being out driving around. And being on tour and traveling. And going from place to place. It’s been part of my life from touring. And then just part of my life, being in Texas and California and going back and forth.

AD: I know Marfa is a very cool, arty part of Texas, but it’s still Texas, where all this repressive stuff is happening. Does that bother you? Is it enough of a home that you can look past it?

Jess Williamson: It’s difficult. It’s hard to explain to anyone that’s not from Texas, how we’re able to love and call home a place that has such absurd politics, particularly right now. I don’t know how to explain it other than by saying that I think that it’s important that people that love Texas, that have progressive politics, it’s important that they don’t give up on Texas.

We have these pockets—Marfa is one, Austin is another one—that are really fighting for progressive beliefs and helping people. For example, in Marfa, a lot of the women got together after the overturning of Roe Vs. Wade and started something called the Big Bend Reproduction Coalition. And it’s literally just young women in West Texas that started this to help people that need access to abortion services.

It’s been amazing to see the way the community has come together and individuals have come together to help people. But I also don’t live there full-time. So in a way, I feel shielded from the harsh reality of what it is to live there full-time. I was speaking to a good friend about that recently. She just moved to LA from Austin. And I was musing with her about maybe moving back to Texas full-time and she was like, “Jess, it’s scary right now as a woman in Texas.” And in ways that I have not fully grasped because I don’t live there full-time.

AD: People don’t realize how dangerous it is, to be a woman, to be able to get pregnant. They don’t think about all the things that can go wrong. Doctors can’t help you. They’re leaving anyway. I don’t know what they think they’re doing down there.

Jess Williamson: It’s so insane.I agree with you.

AD: Anyway, back to the record, there’s some really nice playing on this record. I know you mentioned Meg Duffy.C an you tell me about the people you played with?

Jess Williamson: Meg Duffy played on “Pictures of Flowers” but not on the record. Meg played guitar on that song in 2020. I made the record about a year ago. February of 2022 was when we tracked Time Ain’t Accidental. I worked with Brad Cook.

AD: He was in Megafaun.

Jess Williamson: Exactly. I went into Durham to Brad’s home studio. Brad played on the record. He played bass. He played a little guitar. He sang a little bit. Some really low harmonies. And his brother Phil Cook played banjo, played guitar, played some piano and Matt McCaughan, who is in Bon Iver, played drums and did some other auxiliary percussion and some synth stuff and some cool sounds. Like one day, he was just walking over to Brad’s house for the session, and he recorded, just on his phone, he recorded some birds chirping in the neighborhood and that ended up going on “Topanga Twostep.” He was like, “Listen to these birds,” and we put it on “Topanga Twostep.” And then DaShawn Hickman played the beautiful steel guitar that you hear.

AD: I was going to ask about that. It’s a beautiful element on a lot of these songs.

Jess Williamson: So special. And then the flutes and woodwinds and horns and stuff is this guy named Matt Jones. And that was it. It was relatively small collection of musicians. I played some guitar and some keys as well. Sang obviously.

AD: You just mentioned my favorite song on the album, “Topanga Twostep.” It has that beautiful chorus, “Take Me for a Ride.”

Jess Williamson: That is a song that I wrote during that period when I was really trying hard to put roots down in Los Angeles. We were coming out of super strict COVID times, and people were starting to socialize at little bit and find these ways of coming out into the world. I was starting to date in Los Angeles for the first time. And it was pretty…It was pretty confusing.

For a very brief moment, I got on dating apps, because that was something that everybody was doing. It was the only way to meet people because we weren’t going to shows or whatever. I’d never done that before, and it was a very brief thing. I was only on for two weeks, and I didn’t like it. But I did meet a couple of interesting characters during that time.

One of them was a person that I hung out with for a brief time who inspired that song, “Topanga Twostep.” I had this experience of like, when you put yourself out there in a place like Los Angeles, you never know where you’re going to end up. I certainly experienced my own “otherness,” as a Texan, as a musician, being in a situation where I was spending time with a person who grew up extremely wealthy in Los Angeles. I just had this funny period of trying to orient myself with this person and trying to imagine a way that my life could look with this person and ultimately realizing that we were so, so different. But it was this experience that allowed me to see myself more clearly, kind of in relief. It’s like, what does this person think of me? I’m this Texan, singer, country musician entering his world that’s so different from mine. It was this interesting way of reflecting on who I am. I’m like, I have so much more of an edge than this guy.

AD: Do you have any favorite moments or lines or sounds or anything that really pops for you on this record?

Jess Williamson: That’s a good question. It changes for me because each song is so special for different reasons. But I think I’m really proud of the song, “Stampede.” For me, usually my favorite songs are the slow, sad ones. Lyrically that song is really important for me.I put a lot into it and there’s a lot of imagery that I’m proud of. So I would say that one.

AD: You did a record last year with Katie Crutchfield (Waxahatchee) as Plains. Could you talk about how that happened and how you know her?

Jess Williamson: I met Katie through her boyfriend Kevin Morby, who is a good friend of mine. I’ve known Kevin for a really long time, and we’ve toured together. I met her through him. I really liked her and we got along great right away. Then we both put out records that came out right at the top of the COVID pandemic and had to cancel all of our tours. We would both go for walks, me in LA and her in Kansas City, and talk on the phone. One day we just had this idea, like what if we do something together? We had all this time. We had all this energy. And we’d both been writing a lot. So it was just a really organic thing. We both were starting to lean into country sounds with those records that came out in 2020. We both really felt this desire to lean all the way in. So that’s how it started.

AD: Your voices really go well together. Did you know that when you started or was it a surprise?

Jess Williamson: Thank you so much. Yeah it just happened that way. We had never really even sung together. We just decided to try something and see what happened.

AD: I really like that record. I was going to ask you what you’re doing next, but clearly what you’re doing right now is a big tour. Are you working on anything else? Do you have any collaborations or side projects you want to talk about?

Jess Williamson: Right now the tour is the main focus. I do have a collaboration. I did a song with Shakey Graves, are you familiar with him?

AD: Oh yeah.

Jess Williamson: There’s this album called The Texas Wild album. It’s going to come out in the fall and it’s going to benefit the Texas State parks. It’s Texas artists covering other Texas artists. So Shakey Graves and I did a cover of “True Love Will Find You in the End” by Daniel Johnston. So that’s going to come out in the fall.

Mainly I’m really excited about these shows. The record is coming out in about two weeks. I’m releasing the title track of the record tomorrow with a video. That’s really what I’m focusing on.

AD: I wanted to ask you about this Carl Jung quote that you mentioned in the bio.

“To this day, God is the name by which I designate all things which cross my willful path violently and recklessly, all things which upset my subjective views, plans and intentions and change the course of my life for better or worse.”

It’s clear that you have faith in some kind of deity and this quote explores that. I was wondering if you could talk about that, maybe in the context of the song, “God in Everything.”

Jess Williamson: Yes, I’d love to. The word “God” is a difficult word for a lot of people. A lot of people don’t want to use that word, and I understand that. Over the last couple of years, I’ve kind of redefined what the word god means to me, and that quote sums it up in a beautiful way, because I know that word can be kind of triggering for some people. I don’t mean a big man in the sky with a white beard. It’s a little bit more of an energy and something that I can’t put words to, but that quote to me is the best I’ve ever heard it.I wanted to include that in the liner notes.

I look back at the last couple of years and I see the way that things didn’t go according to my plan, but they actually worked out exactly as they were supposed to. And to me, that’s what that quote is talking about, and to me, that’s god. That’s the higher power that we can’t really explain.

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