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Interview with Jess Williamson

Jess Williamson

Image & Video by Jan-Willem Dikkers

“I realized that it’s a lot to ask your audience to be perfectly silent
and listen to every word...
I wanted people to have fun at the shows.”

Jess Williamson

Jess Williamson
Jess Williamson is a folk singer-songwriter originally from Austin, Texas. She released her debut album Native State in 2014, followed by Heart Song (2016) and now Cosmic Wink (2018), written from her new home in Los Angeles.

Austin born, New York educated and recent resident of Los Angeles Jess Williamson first came to attention with her folk debut album Native State (2014). Having dropped-out from grad school to pursue music, Williamson garnered attention for her meandering tunes and communication like a close friend thinking out loud. Since then, she has gone through a shift in target and style, aiming at more lighthearted motifs that a listener might even dance to. Her new release, Cosmic Wink, is as playful as its title suggests, reveling in newfound love, camaraderie and sunshiney vibes without fully escaping existential scrutiny. Williamson discusses the relationship that inspired the album’s warmth and her thoughts on mortality since crossing the 30 year line.

Where are you from?
I’m from Austin, Texas, but I live in LA as of a few months ago.

When did you start making music?
I’ve been singing since I was a little girl, but I started playing in a band about eight years ago.

Townes Van Zandt
American singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt was well known for his poetic, sad songs which span country, folk and blues genres. Respected by other artists of his age, including Bob Dylan, Zandt’s songs gained even wider popularity through covers by noted country singers such as Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. Zandt released a total of eight albums between 1968-94, not including material released after his death in 1997.

Joanna Newsom
Joanna Newsom is a multi-instrumentalist, singer, songwriter and actor based in Los Angeles. Newsom’s balladesque lyrics are underpinned by classical music structures, her own harpestry and her elf-like voice. Newsom released her debut album The Milk-Eyed Mender (2004) to critical acclaim and has since delivered three more albums, most recently Divers in 2015.

Who did you listen to growing up?
Nothing very cool. I was obsessed with Blink-182 and New Found Glory and got into emo music like Dashboard Confessional. It wasn’t until I went to college in Austin that I got really into country music and had a lot of friends who were into older stuff. I discovered Townes Van Zandt, Joanna Newsom. I worked at the radio station too, so that’s when I started to learn more about music.

When did you decide that this is what you were going to do?
I always wanted to be a career singer-songwriter and performer and make records, but I didn’t give myself permission to go for it. I went to college for something else and then to grad school for photography. In my second semester of grad school in New York I realized, “Oh my god, if I keep doing this I’m going to need a good job to pay off all this debt.”

I called my mom like, “Mom, I have to leave grad school because if I stay I’m going to be in so much debt that I’ll never be able to go on tour.” She was like, ‘What are you talking about? You don’t even have a band.” But I knew that I would. That was the moment I decided to go for it. I moved back to Austin, started writing a record and made my first EP in my friend’s living room.

“The record itself is sort of a cosmic wink. A little sign that we did the right thing collaborating in this way.”
— Jess Williamson

What life events have impacted your music the most?
Love and heartbreak, mostly.

What is behind the name of your new album, Cosmic Wink?
Cosmic Wink came from this astrology website that I like called Mystic Mamma. I was reading it on my birthday, December 11th, and there was a new moon in Sagittarius. It said something like, “Really important conversations can happen at this time. Pay attention to synchronicities because they are cosmic winks from the universe letting you know you’re not alone.” I said, “Okay, I like that.”

Then that night I had this totally life-changing conversation with the person who’s now my partner. We fell in love, and a lot of the record is about that love. We made the record together. He co-wrote most of the songs, plays on it and co-produced it. I named it Cosmic Wink because the record itself is sort of a cosmic wink. A little sign that we did the right thing collaborating in this way.

How would you say your sound has evolved?
I used to think I could only write sad songs, and I was really inspired by sad songs. I had been flirting with the idea of living in LA, and then I came out here and got in a new groove of writing every morning even if I didn’t have a strong feeling of sadness that day. I was in this new place of being super in love, and I wrote all these happy love songs.

I had started touring more as a solo artist, and I realized that it’s a lot to ask your audience to be perfectly silent and listen to every word. I wanted to have a band sound that was fun and people could dance to. I wanted them to be immersed in a welcome feeling, whereas before I felt like, “I’m going to play all these really sad songs for you guys. I hope that’s okay.” I wanted people to have fun at the shows.

“I have this person that is a soulmate, and I have so many years with this person. Then what happens? Do you find them again or not?”
— Jess Williamson

What are some things that you like to address through your music?
Lately, time and the impermanence of the being here. I’m 30 now, and I’m much more appreciative of my family and of my close friends. Not that 30 is so old, but I think if we all walked through life recognizing our own mortality right here, on our shoulder, it would be a beautiful thing. It would make us appreciate things more, and take other things less seriously.

I stress out too much about little things, and I’m really working on that. It doesn’t matter. Life is good. We need to appreciate it because we’re here and then we’re gone.

This record had a lot to do with thinking about the passage of time and falling in love in this huge way. I have this person that is a soulmate, and I have so many years with this person. Then what happens? Do you meet people again? Do you find them again or not? I don’t know, but I sort of think so.

Who would you most like to collaborate with?
Joanna Newsom, because she’s amazing. She’s not even from this planet.

Interests and passions outside music?
I went to school for photography and wanted to be a professional photographer. Now it’s cool because it’s just a fun hobby. I’m always shooting on tour and taking photos of my friends in a non-professional environment.

What’s your favorite book film and music right now?
Book, I’m reading a beautiful autobiography called Memories, Dreams, Reflections by Carl Jung right now. Film, the best movie I’ve seen lately is Call Me by Your Name. Music, my favorite record last year was piano music by this Ethiopian nun named Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou. It’s called Ethiopiques, Vol. 21.

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