Before the singer-songwriter Jess Williamson came on stage with her beautiful, layered alt-country, she studied photography. As far as she is concerned, those two disciplines come from the same creative vein. “Creativity remains something very mysterious to me, but I approach it just as structurally as an office job. As long as I make room for it every day, it will come naturally.”
Written by: Jasper Willems
Photos: Katie Miller
After about ten minutes of chatting on the phone, Williamson answers a question with a question: “Do you happen to know Mike Mills' movie 20th Century Women? The story revolves around a mother who watches her son grow up. One scene in particular really touched me. The mother has an in-depth conversation with a friend of her son. At one point she says to her – and I paraphrase: you know my son as I will never see him, you see him discover the world as an individual ..' That really touched me. I realized that we only have a limited view of even the most precious people in our lives. There are so many sides of a person that we will never see. How a mother gets to know her son is completely different from how his girlfriend gets to know him.”
"To be honest, I'm still afraid of getting older. But I really want to develop myself into a person who embraces old age."
From this thought emerged 'Gulf Of Mexico', the last track on Williamson's latest record Sorceress. “A woman gets to hold her man the way his own mother can't,” is one of the many beautiful sayings. “A parent should just as well learn to deal with all those different phases of life. As a mother, you can never hold a child in your twenties like a baby. That sometimes seems hard to swallow.” Williamson eventually wants a child of her own, which means that sooner or later she will have to learn to let go. “Your role changes continuously once you have children. That said, there is also a certain satisfaction and grace in aging.” On 'Gulf Of Mexico' she mentions two archetypes from neopaganism: the 'Triple Goddess', the embodiment of the female life cycle, and the 'Crone', the wise woman who has lived through the last phase of life. In her early thirties, Williamson is admittedly in the prime of maturity; she often dwells on aging.
“To be honest, I'm still afraid of getting older. But I really want to develop myself into a person who embraces old age.” Like so many musicians, she now settles in Los Angeles, a metropolis of macabre contrasts. Fame, glamor and materialism are the well-known associations, but the neighborhood where Williamson lives is, according to his own words, rather quiet, with lots of greenery, low houses and charming winding roads. “Things like botox or plastic surgery say a lot about how people deal with death. Many people run away from their own mortality. I notice this in myself just as well: I frequently use lotions and beauty products. Still, I hope to get to the point where I accept my gray hair. A big part of the concept around Sorceress revolves around learning to live with all those different phases.” For Williamson herself, life could have gone either way. She grew up in the suburbs of Dallas and during high school she mainly listened to well-known American emo bands such as Taking Back Sunday and Brand New. Williamson says she has long been obsessed with Bright Eyes, a band that acted as a bridge between her own tastes and the country music her parents listen to. “I discovered the music of Townes Van Zandt, Merle Haggard, Patsy Cline and Willie Nelson. And especially Bonnie Raith.”
Williamson moved to Austin as a teenager and majors in photography from the University of Texas. Her love for music grows considerably during this time: she photographs and interviews various artists for the school newspaper. She also started her own radio show. After attending a performance by a local musician, Ralph Whitey, she wants to take the stage herself. She buys a banjo, learns the intricacies of the instrument and begins to secretly record songs herself. She leaves for New York for further training in photography, but in the end that turns out not to be her ultimate wish. Her studies are definitely losing out to her passion. With a friend from Austin, she starts a country duo, Rattlesnake, with whom she performs several times. Williamson: “The New York lifestyle didn't make me happy: living in a cramped apartment and without a car. So I left for Texas again. Austin and Los Angeles have quite a lot in common: you can live in a house or in a trailer and nature is always close by. That is very important to me.”
"That early love is so volatile is precisely why it is so special; because people secretly realize very well that the fire will eventually go out."
Williamson is emerging as a skilled link within the Austin music scene: as an artist, as a concert organizer and as a label owner. Her debut EP Medicine Wheel / Death Songs was released in 2011, followed by Native State (2014) and Heart Song (2016). During that period she deliberately experimented with a broader range of instruments, including the electric guitar and the piano. At one point, Williamson takes a temporary job as a substitute music teacher, a position that shapes her perspective more than she expects. “I was allowed to apply a free approach while teaching. Often I just brought my own instruments into the classroom. It took a bit of getting used to at first: I was only 25 years old at the time, not much older than my students. I mainly tried to convey a positive influence. And above all, listen a lot. As a teenager, you want people to listen to you without prejudice.”
According to Williamson, the music lessons had the character of an exchange rather than a lecture. “I think my students saw me as a person who communicates a little more on their wavelength, but a little bit further down the life path.”
With that we return to the issue that Jess Williamson mentioned earlier: the realization that life is continuously slipping between the fingers and the futile attempts to deny it. At the time of this interview, Williamson is still planning to rehearse for her tour, but due to the corona crisis, she is also returning to her other great love: photography. “It is so special to take a lot of photos during this unreal period. Henri Cartier-Bresson, a famous photographer, used the term "punctum": the decisive moment. Almost every photo has a specific point of interest. It's basically the same with songwriting: you're always trying to capture a specific moment—like snatches of a real conversation—that you can keep living on."
If the previous album Cosmic Wink captures the moment you take the photo, Sorceress illustrates the moment you first look at the photo. “Cosmic Wink emerged from a period when new love blossomed into my life, when new possibilities presented themselves. On Sorceress I sound a bit older and wiser; I sing more from my experience. The honeymoon phase is over, so what comes after that blissful period? In any case, you can't live with your head in the clouds forever. At a certain point it's a matter of plowing hard to build something that really stands up. That early love is so fleeting is precisely why it is so special; because people secretly realize very well that the fire will eventually go out.”
Sorceress, the new album by Jess Williamson, is out now on Mexican Summer. Buy the record here.
Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.