Old songs, new life

Pre-1993, Victoria Williams was perhaps better known to fellow musicians than the listening public.

A songwriter’s songwriter, she didn’t become a significant recording artist till after the release of Sweet Relief: A Benefit for Victoria Williams. The album — recorded to help offset her high medical expenses from Multiple Sclerosis — featured covers of Williams’ songs by such notable admirers as Pearl Jam, Lou Reed, Soul Asylum and Lucinda Williams. The record initiated a series of albums dedicated to raising money for musicians who can’t afford health care.

Though she’s long been prized for her originals, on her seventh release, Victoria Williams Sings Some Ol’ Songs (Dualtone, 2002), the artist experiments with her sound by recording an album of 11 pop standards. Songs on the album are recognizable classics like Henry Mancini’s “Moon River” and Howard Arlen’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” but Williams delivers them in that startling, reedy trill that makes them her own.

Recently, Williams talked to Xpress from her home on a rare wet day in Joshua Tree, Calif. about her two new albums, the present state of an ever-changing music industry and a 20-year career that started when she played the streets of Venice Beach in 1983.

“It’s raining finally,” she shares. “It hasn’t rained in a year. Out here things that you think are dead come back to life when it rains.”

Williams’ music fuses traditional jazz, alt-country rock and world-music rhythms with a unique, old-time vocal style to create an original sound with inspiration drawn from her roots in Louisiana and her current life in the desert.

“The jazz stuff comes from my dad,” she says. “He used to play clarinet in a Big Band. The first band I played in, though, was kind of a country band, more like new country, like Jerry Jeff Walker and John Prine. My writing, I would say, crosses a gamut of influences. I’ve always liked Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch. Then I got into these Ethiopian rhythms. I just like music from all over the place.”

About Ol’ Songs, she reveals, “I had a lot of them that were already recorded, and every now and then at shows I do a cover and people always tell me that I should do an album of standards. I just went ahead and put some of them together that I already had recorded. Some of them have special meaning from growing up, like ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow,’ of course. I guess it was mostly for fun.”

Another recent project for Williams is the new release by her husband and band mate, Mark Olson (former front man of the Jayhawks) and his band, the Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers, titled December’s Child (Dualtone, 2002). On the album, Williams focuses on musicianship and shows off her chops on electric guitar, banjo and harmonica behind Olson’s fluid songwriting.

“I formed the Creekdippers as my summer band, but then Mark kind of took it over,” Williams says with sarcastic laughter. “But that’s okay.”

Olson and the Creekdippers have gone on to record five albums of intelligent folk-rock with thought-provoking lyrics. Williams, Olson and the band have just embarked on a 21-show coast-to-coast tour, bringing a combined set of Creekdipper songs and Williams’ solo compositions to small theaters and clubs.

Williams enjoys touring and prefers it to the constricting monotony of studio recording “I like playing live and I like it for music to be alive, when people are not just going through the motions,” she says.

And when she says ‘live,’ she means it. “Before my very first record deal, I would just make up new songs right there on the stage,” she confesses. “That used to be the way I would do it. Then my record company put me on a tour and told me I had to play the songs on the record. I did that, and it made me feel very stifled after playing those songs over and over again. I think all artists feel that way. They don’t want to paint the same painting over and over again.”

Over her 20 years in the music business, Williams has obviously watched the industry go through major changes, but she’s tried to create a career apart from the maelstrom.

“I pretty much have to stay true to my own music, just because that’s all I know how to do. But I’ll tell you that as far as the music industry goes, it’s really great right now because so many people are getting their music out with home studios. The only problem is that people in the different local radio stations are sucked into playing songs that the big record companies want them to play, and then the people are being deprived of hearing all the art that is out there. There are outlets, but not that many, but I guess that’s the way corporate America is. They like to look after something they can sell millions and millions of records of. I think the people suffer for it.”

Williams feels fortunate to have been able to share her art through a long career despite an ongoing battle with MS that can hinder her creative process.

“Sometimes I don’t have energy. That’s the thing I hate about MS. I have been very fortunate, though, to be able to play music. I never even thought I would be living this long. I didn’t think I’d be dead. I guess I just didn’t think about it.”

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