Holly Williams

by Dan MacIntosh

I got here on crowded trains
With old guitars and a famous name

- "Without You" by Holly Williams

Hank Williams' granddaughter is remarkably domestic. Her lifestyle blog has recipes for Zucchini Cheddar Bread and Heavenly Camembert Dip. She runs a successful women's clothing boutique in Nashville called H. Audrey. She has labradors.

Still, she is the granddaughter of Hank Williams and the daughter of Hank Williams Jr., which means that the songs - and the crowded trains and old guitars that come with them - are in her blood. "It's hereditary," she admits.

At age 31, she has three years of marriage (to her musical partner Chris Coleman) and three albums behind her. The first two albums - The Ones We Never Knew (2004) and Here with Me (2009) - were on major labels. Her 2013 release, The Highway, is independent. With Charlie Peacock (The Civil Wars) in the production chair, guest vocalists include Jackson Browne, Jakob Dylan, Dierks Bentley, and that other singing/lifestyle maven, Gwyneth Paltrow.

Music is far more than a side project for Holly - it's her calling. It's why she hasn't yet birthed the next generation of musical Williams offspring ("If it wasn't for the music, I would have started having babies a long time ago," says Holly). It's a passion so intense that she scrapped the artwork, the title, and a few songs on the album because she realized they could be better.

In our talk with Holly, she explains how it's all connected; how cooking and songwriting are essentially the same process. We spoke on the day before, according to the Mayan calendar, the world was scheduled to end.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): Considering it's the day before the end of the world, so I wanted to get at least one last interview in.

Holly Williams: Exactly. Very important for that.

Songfacts: I saw that NASA had to put a FAQ on their Website for people that have been calling them.

Holly: Yes. I read that this morning. They're having like three to six hundred calls a day, it's been wild.

Songfacts: So let's assume the world won't end and talk about your songs and songwriting. You come from a long line of great songwriters, so the first thing I wanted to ask you was how are you most like your father as a songwriter, and then how are you most like your grandfather?

Holly: Wow. I can honestly say I've never been asked that. That's a good question.

Well, I'll start with what I think is the easy one for me and similar to my music first. With my grandfather, I don't profess to be comparing myself to him. He was, in my opinion, a living genius, the hillbilly Shakespeare. All these accomplishments at 29, all the amazing songs written.

But I find that a lot of his songs are just verse, verse, verse, and with one line at the end. That's always been very natural to me to write a really simple song, with repetitive verses and a story. "Drinkin'" off the new album is more in the Hank Sr. style of writing. "I'll Only Break Your Heart" from my first record. And also, I'm fascinated with the darker side of things, so I tend to write about those subject matters. In my real personal life, I have the clothing store, I got married, I love to cook, love my animals, I'm super outgoing - my personality type is very different than who I turn into as a songwriter and on stage. So I write about matters of the heart and fiction and God and all these things that I relate to from a subject matter standpoint.

And with my dad, even though he's known for his super rowdy party songs, like "Family Tradition" and "Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound," his songwriting skill, I think, is very underrated. If you've ever seen him live, he does about two hours with his band. He plays every instrument: drums, bass, all over the stage in these killer party songs. And then he'll sit down with a guitar and a piano and just rip your heart out with songs like "Old Habits Are Hard to Break," or "Blues Man."

So I think we both just have this great songwriting talent. And I hope that people compare us. Definitely the biggest difference in my dad and me would be that he writes the party songs really well. That is not my forte. I'm not very good at that. But my dad has a great range and great voice, and he loves to do this whole light bluesy side of things, and there's really a soulful side of things. Maybe I got some of that from him, but I love both their songs.

Songfacts: Do you think that songwriting or musical talent is hereditary or do you think it's learned?

Holly: I believe 100 million percent all day long it is hereditary. A friend of mine is a teacher in a music class, and she said, "I have these kids who are just naturally brilliant. They're amazing songwriters, they can hear, they sing in perfect pitch, they can play piano by ear. And then I have these kids who want to learn so bad and they practice for three and four hours a night in their bedroom after doing homework, and they try so hard and they can't hear the pitch, they're not natural on the instrument, they're not natural at rhyming and lyrical." So I really believe it's hereditary.

Now, some kids are born with musical talent and there's not much evidence in music maybe in their parents or grandparents, but I firmly believe that somewhere down the line there was. So it's hereditary. And I know that because at a very, very young age - 8, 9, 10 - I had lyrics, a book full of lyrics. I always loved to write stories. I was singing melodies all the time as a kid, and when I picked up a guitar the first day, I had these songs; now I've got to find something to put this melody to. I learned three chords, I think my first guitar lesson was D, G and C. So I really picked up a guitar out of necessity of somewhere to put these lyrics versus me wanting to be the next Bonnie Raitt, a great guitar player.

I don't play anything by sight. I have no idea how to read music. I don't know anything about keys and notes. I play by ear. People can learn how to play an instrument, but I think that the songwriting gene is definitely hereditary for most people.

Songfacts: You've talked about songwriting and compared it to cooking, like you're finding all the different ingredients to add as you're creating. Is it the same kind of feeling that you get when you're cooking?

Holly: It's not like when I'm slicing up garlic I'm thinking about choruses and verses, but it's a creative process to me that is similar. When you're producing a song, when you're in the studio, when you're playing live, you're figuring out which works best. Does this song need upright or electric bass? Should we put a little bit of cello in there or is the fiddle better suited? Does this need anything at all or is this a great piece of meat that doesn't need any seasoning, or does it need like lots of salt and pepper and olive oil and garlic?

I know it sounds crazy, but I feel like it's a similar thing that, as a cook who loves to cook, it's all about keeping things simple and organic and real. The great taste you can get without muddling it down with all these sauces. I hate going to restaurants where it's like 1,000 ingredients. I like a simple style. Same as my music. I'm a simple girl. I still adore Radiohead and Sigur Rós and bands that put a lot of instruments on their stuff, but for my writing, it's pretty simple and straightforward.

So I think that's one reason I love cooking so much. It's a challenge: you have all these ingredients and you're putting it together. That's what it feels like to me when I'm recording in the studio.

Songfacts: I think it's interesting that you chose Charlie Peacock to produce this album. I've been a fan of his work for a long time, but I think you said that it was the Civil Wars project that really attracted you to him. What was it about the production on their recordings that made him appeal to you so much?

Holly produced her album The Highway with Charlie Peacock, an artist who continues to reinvent himself. He started out as a jazz player who developed into a contemporary Christian singer/songwriter. When he moved to Nashville, he became an in-demand songwriter and producer, penning songs for Amy Grant and producing early Switchfoot albums. These days, he's best known for producing the Nashville folk/country duo, The Civil Wars. Said Holly, "He was always pushing me to be better at what I do. I wouldn't have traded working with Charlie on this project for the world."
Holly: Well, I've got to admit this: I had only heard one of their songs before I went in with Charlie. But I knew him from mutual kind of groups in Nashville, like Civil Wars. And I really loved where their career path was going: they're filling theatres, they've got this great songwriting fan base. What I'd heard was just really raw music and soulful and broken down and acoustic and real. And so throughout the process I started listening a lot more and fell in love with it.

But he obviously had a talent in not muddling things up too much and keeping it simple and raw and about the song. I met with him one day; I just sat on a stool in his living room and played the songs. And he said, "I want to do it like this." And I'm like, "It's really hard for me to find a producer willing to work with me like this, where I want to do no clicks, I don't want to track to a drum click, I just want to go in there with my instrument and microphone and cut things." And that's hard, when a bass player may come in and overdub something and there's no click. For musicians I haven't played with who aren't used to me, it's tough because I don't really play in time that much. It's all about the feel of the song and the emotion of the lyric.

With Charlie, I just loved his vibe when I met him the first time. He seemed really easy about it. I had a really strong opinion about certain musicians I wanted to use and he had his people. Like any long project, we definitely had our moments of disagreement, but in the end that's what made it so good. We kept working and working and working till we were both happy with it.

I didn't know that much about his writing before, but I loved that he was a writer and an artist and really could understand versus being a producer and just going, "Let's add all these instruments." He could understand the fragility of the song and wanting to keep it about the story of the song.

Songfacts: I read somewhere that you said that you're both strong willed people. How did you resolve issues when you were at loggerheads, where you had diametrically opposed opinions?

Holly: You know, I think it's just all about communication. I got better at communication after I got married. If there's an issue, you bring it up. We had a few moments in the process where either he would love a big part that I wasn't into, or I would love a certain drummer and he didn't want to use it. And all of those things that come along when a producer and artist work together on a level that I work on my albums. There are artists who go in for the vocals or just go in a little bit, but I was there every day, involved in it, in the middle of it.

So we would call it a day and go, "Okay. We need to sit down and have a talk about this and here's how I feel about that, we've got to find a happy medium on this song or that." There are certain songs where Charlie added lots of input - just did them brilliantly and he's a total creative genius. And then there were certain ones that I'd been playing a lot on the road and I was more familiar with wanting them a certain way.

So it was all about the communication. I think that's what makes a good project. You have the days where it's going great and you have the days where everyone's tired. And it's unclear what path we're going to take or what the verse will be or any of this stuff. You just communicate and keep fighting through it, and at the end of the day sometimes you do agree to disagree on certain things - as long as one of you loves it. We had moments where I trusted him on stuff and he trusted me on stuff, and it ended up where it ended up. And I'm super happy with the whole project and so proud of it.

I think we thought we were going to do it in about three weeks and it took nine months. But it was just a process. I did not have a label, so here I was running all the budgets. I didn't have an A&R team, just me and Charlie hashing out who likes what. So it was a great thing. I learned a lot from this experience. I learned a lot about communicating and when to stand up for what you really want and when to back down and go, "You know what, you're the pro at this. Let's do it your way." And then sometimes let's do it the artist's way and just kind of figure that out.

Songfacts: You call the album The Highway, and you talk about how you were pumping gas and you got this itch to hit the road again. And yet you have your shop and you like to cook and you like a lot of domestic things. It almost seems like you're a split personality. Do you ever feel like your passions move in opposite directions and tear you apart?

Holly: Yeah. Definitely. I mean, if it wasn't for the music, I would have started having babies a long time ago. I want at least three kids that I keep putting off because of music. I love to cook. I love being at home, I love serving people. We've got the in-laws in now, I'm doing all the meals. And I just really love that. I had no idea I would. But I think it's because I didn't get married till I was 28, and I spent 10 years from high school to 28 traveling all over the world in trains, planes, automobiles, vans, Toyotas, doing tons and tons and tons of touring.

When I did get married it was a nice break for me. I took a few years and spent time with the store and cooked. We'd do shows around town or regionally, and it was really just focused on writing. That urge to play in front of people and sing your songs every night and hear why they relate to people just doesn't go away.

So I definitely do. I mean, I'm 31, and we put off starting a family because of this. But I love it. I love being on the road, I love playing for people, I love traveling and exploring new towns and meeting the fans that are connecting with our music. And with what I'm doing, I'm not on Top 40 radio. So the way that I meet fans is to be in person and sing for them in public and do the songwriter path. Some of my favorite artists, like Patty Griffin, don't have kids. And some other women that I love, like Sheryl Crow, started really late. So that's been hard for me, because I love the home stuff, but I love being on the road. So yeah, I go in and out a lot. One day I'm going, "I've got to sell the store, I've got to be back on the road and totally focus on music," and the next day I'm going, "I want to cook all day!" So it's kind of confusing.

But I do know that at the end of the day the most important thing to me is the music and touring and playing for people and putting out records. I've already got four songs done for the next album. I definitely want to keep putting them out within 18 months of each other and not do this whole four year break. But I got burnt out. I got burnt out for major labels and I was ready to start it up on my own again and do independent.

Songfacts: How has having your own store and running your own business prepared you to excel in the new music economy where you can't really depend on a label and you can't depend on management? You have to do so much yourself. Do you think that has helped you to handle some of the new realities of the music business?

Holly: Oh, yeah, definitely. I remember when I first opened the store, I was so afraid of anyone being mad at me. So if someone would show up an hour late for work, I'd be like, "Oh, my gosh, do you mind showing up on time tomorrow?" I was a total pushover creative musician. At the store I have six employees working. I'm not there every day physically, but I do all the buying, every contract for the vendors. So that teaches you a lot about life in general, communication with people, responsibility, time management, getting things done on time versus procrastinating. The store didn't open till I was 26. I was your "creative" personality: messy car, always about 20 minutes late for every appointment. Just used to living that kind of lifestyle. And then when you have a business you can't do that stuff. So that's why there was such a big break in albums, because it took me about four years to get it running where it was a possible business, they weren't losing money, learning how to do the day to day stuff.

And now, with my label, I've got about six people in contact every day: booking agent, manager and publicity and doing all the merch designs. It teaches you how to work with a group of people on a daily basis and make sure everything's getting done on time. Efficient living, I guess, is really what it taught me.

Songfacts: You mentioned that you already have four songs for the next album. And it makes me wonder, as a songwriter, there are different kinds that I've met. There are some that can only write songs when they have a deadline, and then there are others that are constantly writing. Where do you fall in that category as far as how you write?

Holly: Mine is definitely not based on doing a record. I think also, since I do own a business, I can't do that whole six weeks go to a cabin and write, like some people do, and hole up before an album. So with me, they literally drop out of the sky. And I'm not kidding. I'm not the writer who sits down with my guitar and piano and sits there and kind of plays trying to wait for the songs. When I wrote "Happy," I was doing dishes when that song started. "Drinkin'," I was driving at night. A lot of times I'm driving in my car at night, and if I'm on the road, it's total quiet and there's not Internet and computers.

So mine usually come to me first, the melody, and then I sit down on the piano and guitar and that's when I take the time to do it. I mean, this year I've written four or six songs. I've been in the studio. So it's definitely late at night, at the end of the day. Sometimes I'll sit down with an instrument first, but usually it's just a lyric that's popped in my head or something that I've gone through to make it kind of happen. But it's not very frequent. A lot of people in Nashville do this every day, they're writing stuff. And plenty of our friends do it and they're super talented, but that's definitely not how I do it. I'm not very good at that. Three of the songs I wrote, they came out of either me or my husband in the living room or my friend coming over for wine and writing.

I don't have talent in terms of trying to force it. Like if I say that at 11 a.m. tomorrow I'm going to write a song, nothing happens. So I kind of wait on inspiration. I literally pray for songs. I feel like they're little droplets from God and he gives me ideas here and there, and that's how I do it.

Songfacts: I want to wind things up by asking you about the new album and some of your favorite songs from the album. What are you most proud of on this album as far as songs that you've written?

Holly: The #1 song I'm most proud of is "Waiting on June." It's a song I wrote from my grandfather's perspective to my grandmother. And every single line from the first one about eight years old Mer Rouge to the war, the kids, to heaven to the nursing home, every single thing is exactly true. Even the order of the children work out in the lyric. The cook, everything. So that's the song that is really hard for me to get through when I sing it live. Usually people come up to me crying. It wrecks the family emotionally.

But it's such a sweet memory to me of my childhood and what my grandparents left. So that's definitely my most proud songwriting moment, I think probably ever.

I love "Drinkin'," that came out of nowhere. That was one of those 10 minute songs that just fell out. And I love the melody of it. It's a really fun song to play. "The Highway" means a lot to me, because I was actually done with the record. I'd paid for it to be mastered, the artwork was done, and I wrote that song. And I kept telling Charlie, "There's something else I need to say. I don't know what it is, but I know there's something else that's going to come out." And that was just such a true story of where I am right now, that longing for the road and the highway.

"Giving Up" is a really special song for me. It's about a family member who's been battling with alcoholism and she's a mother of two, and that's been a really hard thing for 19 years going on. That was hard to put into words, so I'm glad I got that out. They all mean something different to me for different reasons.

Songfacts: If the song "The Highway," which is the title track, came after everything was done, did you have a different album title in mind?

Holly: Yes.

Songfacts: What were you going to call it before that?

Holly: It was called Railroad. And actually, it had already been sent to my booking agent. It had not been sent out to the press yet, but it had been sent out to friends and family and music city people and here it is. So I called it Railroad, and I still had the same kind of thing. Like I've been at this crossroads for years doing a thousand different things. And all these different subject matters and songs. So that was the title of the album.

And then last minute I went in, everything changed. The album cover, I think that's going to actually be the next one. So yeah, it was just a stressful time including poor Charlie Peacock, who had to deal with it. But I'm glad I went back. Because I actually recorded two new songs. I recorded "The Highway" and "Let You Go." "Let You Go" was not on there, that was a brand new song, too.

Songfacts: That took a lot of guts, though. Because you had to really believe that you had something important enough to say, Okay, we're going to call an audible at the line of scrimmage. [We figured the daughter of Hank Williams, Jr. would get the football reference - she did.]

Holly: Yeah. It was really nerve wracking, because it was done. And "Waiting on June" was a completely different version. What happened with that song is I kept singing it acoustic. Gwyneth Paltrow's a good friend of mine. We were at her house this summer. My husband and her and I were sitting around, and we sang it together. And we were like, We have got to cut it like this. It has not been cut right. We've got to do this. Just acoustic, raw, it had all kinds of instruments on it and stuff.

So we left to LA, did a recording session one afternoon with "Waiting on June," came back to Nashville, cut "The Highway," cut "Let You Go." "Waiting on June" is just literally two guitars and three microphones completely live and raw. And it was really nerve wracking, it was really stressful. But I knew in my heart, I was like, if I do this and bust my ass and the stress that it's going to take to completely call this right now and start over, it's going to come out better.

So my poor husband lost 15 pounds in the recording process and had to live with me during the whole thing, me waking up at 2 a.m. going, "It's not right, we've got to recut a song, I'm telling you it's not right." And so I can honestly say I've never been more proud of a project. Leonard Cohen had this great quote about the sweat and the tears and how when you think you're at the end of the road, that's where the work begins. And I really felt like that on this record. We thought we were done in March, and looking back, we had not even begun. Some of these songs were so new I didn't even know what key I wanted. I would think about playing them live and go, "You know, I did it in this key and it really went over with the audience," or "I added this verse and I really think it's special," all those things happened throughout the process. So it was a severe labor of love.

But I felt strongly enough that that was going to be a really important song on the record and part of my story. When people go, "Where have you been and why have you been off the road for a couple of years?" It's like, "Well, this is where I am now. It's all about The Highway."

Songfacts: Well, the good thing that's come out of this is that you can trust your instincts. You have the confidence now that if it doesn't feel right or if you feel like it needs more work, then you're going to go with that because you've been rewarded for it.

Holly: Oh yeah. I've learned so many lessons, especially before the next album project. I went in with only six, seven songs. There were so many lessons that will make the next time much less stressful. But I had to go through all of that, every little bit learned. I've got good instincts.

March 6, 2013. Get more at hollywilliams.com.
More Songwriter Interviews


Be the first to comment...

Editor's Picks

Glen Phillips of Toad the Wet SprocketSongwriter Interviews

The "All I Want" singer went through a long depression, playing some shows when he didn't want to be alive.

Martyn Ware of Heaven 17Songwriter Interviews

Martyn talks about producing Tina Turner, some Heaven 17 hits, and his work with the British Electric Foundation.

RamonesFact or Fiction

A band so baffling, even their names were contrived. Check your score in the Ramones version of Fact or Fiction.

Eric ClaptonFact or Fiction

Did Eric Clapton really write "Cocaine" while on cocaine? This question and more in the Clapton edition of Fact or Fiction.

Francesca BattistelliSongwriter Interviews

The 2011 Artist of the Year at the Dove Awards isn't your typical gospel diva, and she thinks that's a good thing.

Adam Duritz of Counting CrowsSongwriter Interviews

"Mr. Jones" took on new meaning when the song about a misguided view of fame made Adam famous.