Interview: Jess Williamson
I was in L.A. I was new. I didn’t know a lot of people so I treated my record like a job and got up every day and made it a practice, and it paid off. Even if I didn’t feel inspired, always something comes and that was a good lesson.
Making a herbal tea backstage at North London’s Lexington venue, Jess Williamson, fighting off an untimely cold on her fifth date of her first full band European tour, suggests a trip downstairs to find a quieter spot due to support band Protection Spells plugging in for their sound check. It isn’t quite the revelatory change of location Jess partook prior to the writing and recording of her third and arguably best album to date, Cosmic Wink, but it is still a sound suggestion as we decamp to a corner of the downstairs pub to talk about the making of the said latest album, bold decision making, and being in love.
The afore-mentioned geographical change saw Jess up sticks from her Austin residence and move to California. This set in-motion a chain of events including finding herself in a happy relationship with Shane Renfro of RF Shannon, which in turn played a part in Jess trying out a different process for the making of Cosmic Wink. Jess explains, ‘”I wanted it to be more collaborative. A lot of the songs are about falling in love and Shane was the person I fell in love with, so it made sense to make the album together and have it be kind of a marriage of our strengths. It’s ours.” It was a different approach to her previous two albums as it was, “The first time I was willing to open up the process and involve somebody else.”
Cosmic Wink is an album which if you spend time to immerse yourself in the rewards are considerable, no matter whether the listener is in the deep feelings of an all-consuming love or not. Its success is that it thoughtfully captures a mood, a moment in time, and is a great escape to jump in and enjoy for the album’s duration, as Jess reflects, “If nothing else I know this record came out of that time. And my life has totally changed, and for the better. I had been waiting for the right moment to move to LA for three years. When I got that phone call they were raising my rent. It was time.”
While Shane was involved in the writing process and co-producer, Jess informs, “Only three of the songs on the record are co-writes with Shane.” Her methods in her approach to her own individual song-writing were also different this time around, “I was in L.A. I was new. I didn’t know a lot of people so I treated my record like a job and got up every day and made it a practice, and it paid off. Even if I didn’t feel inspired, always something comes and that was a good lesson. I probably keep working that way for the rest of my life because it was really, helpful. And ideas come, if you make space for them.”
Her musical career may already be viewed as a pre-Cosmic Wink time and after, as Jess explains how things were like earlier on,”I started touring a lot, and I was touring a lot solo, and playing a lot of really slow, sad songs, which was fine, but I was opening up for a lot of bigger bands and I was seeing how much fun they were having, and I envied that. I wanted to make music that would be approachable, put people in a good mood and have a good time at the show.” And as she brings a full band to Europe for the first time to support Cosmic Wink she is enjoying the change, ”It’s great touring in a band, and you can be loud.”
There are, of course, a range of influences which form it’s making from Chan Marshall aka Cat Power, who Jess describes as “a huge influence”, as well as Leonard Cohen, Townes Van Zandt, Neil Young, a little bit of Springsteen, Fleetwood Mac, have all gone into the blender. Jess explains how these influences can be broken down into each song as she reveals more about one of the album highlights, ‘Dream State’, “one of the first songs I wrote for the album. A tone for a new direction but it is a similar style, a dark country feeling to it but it is also rock n roll. It was inspired by Shane’s band, and I was also thinking a lot of Patti Smith for that song. My Patti Smith song, and a little bit of Nirvana too.” A couple of hours later the band perform a most staggering extended version which even eclipses the recorded song.
While on the surface Cosmic Wink sounds completely out of synch with the world at large, and its seemingly headless surge towards an unsavoury and untenable darkness, Jess’ focus on the personal for hope, happiness, and contentment is of equal importance as we all scramble for pockets of hope in our own lives. Her success to thoughtfully reflect on her current state of being in a happy personal place, and creating an immersive deeply rich and varied flavoured Americana sound, while also nailing an arguably career best so far, is a cause for celebration.
As for the future after the European tour, Jess has a few ideas floating about, “I’m going to focus on writing and hopefully tour in the Spring. I might do some solo stuff up the West Coast with a friend.” No pesky cold is going to stop Jess Williamson and her creative journey.
Cosmic Wink is out now on Mexican Summer Records.