Songwriter Interviews

Victoria Williams

by Jeff Suwak

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Victoria Williams somehow manages to come across as simultaneously earthy and otherworldly. She exudes Old World Southern hospitality even as she says things that are downright mystical. Her music works in much the same way. She sings about household items, nature, and common people in such a way that we're left feeling like there's something magical about all of those things. The music's simplicity runs so deep that it ends up feeling profound. In that way, Williams is a throwback to early American folk singers such as Woody Guthrie, who could translate great depths of human existence through stories that seemed - on the surface, anyway - to be mundane.

Much of Williams' stage persona and performance style harkens back to old folk roots, in fact. She honed her skills by playing for tips at truck stops and jamming in the yard with whoever showed up from the neighborhood. That brand of education comes through when she plays. In her performances, she always seems much less like someone standing up on a pedestal and much more like someone opening the front door of her house and inviting the audience inside.

Williams' studio album debut came in 1987 with Happy Come Home, which was accompanied by a documentary of the same name made by the great D.A. Pennebaker. She followed it three years later with 1990's Swing the Statue! That same year saw her perform "Why Look at the Moon" on the The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.
Before Williams could release a third album, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Because she had no health insurance, fellow musicians - including Soul Asylum, Pearl Jam, and Lou Reed - got together to do a 1993 album titled Sweet Relief: A Benefit for Victoria Williams. The album would become the inspiration for the Sweet Relief Musicians' Fund, which continues to operate to this day.

After the release of Sweet Relief, Williams came out with 1994's Loose, with tracks like "Crazy Mary" and "Century Plant" adding many children of the '90s to her enthusiastic, borderline-cultish fan base. Her most recent solo album, Sings Some Ol' Songs, came out in 2002. She also produced work over the years as a member of the Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers. Williams continues to play and record occasionally. Her version of Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come" on 2013's Sweet Relief III: Pennies from Heaven is, in this humble writer's opinion, nothing short of remarkable, and one of her finest recordings.

Williams' high vibrato and loose playing style were always too unique and unconventional to win widespread commercial success, but for those tuned to the right frequency, there are few sounds sweeter.
Jeff Suwak (Songfacts): Is the term "creek dipper" a reference to anything in particular? You've performed as part of the Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers, and you made Musings of a Creek Dipper, but I've never heard the term outside of your music.

Victoria Williams: There was a time that Mark Olson, Mike "Razz" Russell and myself toured about playing shows. We found rivers and creeks and lakes - even oceans - to take a dip and have a reprieve from the heat of the days. Creek dippers are a breed that appreciates clean water and time with nature.

Songfacts: Even though you moved to Southern California early in your music career, your Louisiana roots seem to run deep through most of your music. What was your hometown like, and how has it affected your artistic vision?

Victoria: I grew up south of Shreveport, Louisiana, near Forbing. The time was quite memorable for me, hence all the songs about the people and places. When I was a kid I would ride my bike all around the thru-trails in the woods to a small lake with a half sunk merry-go-round. Methinks it used to be an amusement park in the '20s, but it was surely overgrown with muscadine vines, and certain times of the year there were grapes. My dog was my companion. I still have very good dog friends in my life.

Songfacts: Do you generally write the lyrics to your songs first, or the music?

Victoria: The music and words can come at the same time, but it's good to have a notebook near in case some melody longs for words.

Songfacts: Is "Sunshine Country" about any particular geographic place?

Victoria: Sunshine Country is any place where man has a garden and connection to the earth.

Songfacts: Is "Happy to Have Known Pappy" about your grandfather or someone else from your life? If so, care to say a couple things about him?

Victoria: Pappy is about a man known as Pappy who had an incredible roadhouse in Pioneertown, California. He was genuine to everyone he met. I was fortunate to tour Europe with him with Giant Sand. When he died, I wrote that song about his wake, which was at that club, and it's all true... people came from all over to show their appreciation for him. Even Eric Burdon played "House of the Rising Sun," hence the musical saw reference at the end of the piece.

Songfacts: Many, if not most, of your lyrics work nicely as poems. Do you write much verse, and have you any plans to ever publish it as such?

Victoria: I have not published any of my poems.

Songfacts: You've written songs about shoes, frying pans, weeds, and lots of other seemingly trivial items. What is it about these things that inspires you?

Victoria: It's the little things that accompany us through this life that are left behind for dust. I find somebody's yesterday scattered throughout the desert, I suppose it's worth a song.

Songfacts: Was Miss Sartar of "Happy" a real person, and was Happy a real dog?

Victoria: Yes. She lived in Forbing, Louisiana.

Songfacts: Is the message of "You R Loved" intended for the drunkards in the song, for the audience, or both? Are you the narrator of that song, or is it a character you are speaking through?

Victoria: "You R Loved" came to me in New York City one evening, and I have always looked upon it as a gift.

Songfacts: Was "Statue of a Bum" inspired by a real statue? If so, where can we find it?

Victoria: Yes. You can find that statue in Oslo, Norway, at the statue park.

Songfacts: What is the significance of the line "I learnt how to read when I was just a child" in "Hitchhiker's Smile"?

Victoria: I think that line is about life... being able to read is of course essential for everyday living, but it's also important to be able to read someone's eyes—their character. It's also important not to miss another human being.

Songfacts: Clementine Hunter, mentioned in "Century Plant," was a real person. Were the other characters based on real people?

Victoria: The other characters were based on people who did extraordinary things with their time here on earth. Uncle Taylor really did ride his bicycle across China in his late '70s!

Songfacts: Speaking of "Century Plant," the song seems to be about people engaging with life and with their dreams when they are a bit later in years, but you were only in your 30s, at most, when you wrote it. Do you still recall what inspired you to put that particular message out there?

Victoria: I think the crazy bloom on the century plant inspired me to write that song!

I know it may sound strange, but that plant sends out baby plants all around it, and all of them may one day bloom. The initial plant may never bloom or, one day, as did mine, a spectacular tall bloom arises!

People, too, may live a hundred years, and in that time so many chances to appreciate life are here.

Songfacts: Is "Summer of Drugs" autobiographical?

Victoria: Yes.

Songfacts: You performed "Don't Let It Bring You Down" on The Bridge: A Tribute to Neil Young. Out of all the songs in Young's massive catalog, what made you choose that particular one?

Victoria: I think because it is the one that I had in me to do.

Songfacts: "Periwinkle Sky" creates a beautiful picture. Was it inspired by a specific place?

Victoria: It was inspired at Lake Bistineau.

Songfacts: Are Tarbelly and Featherfoot based on anything - folk tales or myths, perhaps - outside of your song?

Victoria: I wrote that song thinking it was about two different characters living together, but in the end I realize that they are one character. There is the reflective one standing in the door and there's the moving one that can't get out unless the one gets out of the door! So, that reflective one gets thrown out onto other adventures where no one can say, "but you can't chase a shadow across a day... you can't live love without giving it away."

Songfacts: The line "If you have friends in glory land/Who left because of pain" in "Blackbirds Rise" suggests that it's about suicide. Was the song inspired by any particular incident?

Victoria: That song at the end is an old gospel song.

It could be someone was in pain because of illness, which is usually the case with suicide.

Songfacts: Do you have any new projects lined up?

Victoria: Just to play Lincoln Center on July 30. I may go to the Oregon Country Fair before that, or visit momma in Louisiana.

Songfacts: Lastly, the question that I am certain you've been asked countless times over the past couple of decades: who was the real "Crazy Mary"?

Victoria: She is a fantasy I suppose I made up out of some facts... a very old black lady, she used to walk into Shreveport but would never get inside a moving automobile. One day, she met her demise when a car went out of control and slammed into her shack.

That which you fear most can meet you half way.

June 22, 2016.
Get more at victoriawilliams.net.

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Comments: 2

  • Jeff Suwak from Tacoma, WashingtonNot sure if you'll see this, Bill from Us, but I just wanted to say thanks for the comment. I admire Williams a lot, as well. Have you seen her rendition of Sam Cooke's "Change is Gonna Come"? It's amazing. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1IyHdFMAptg
  • Bill from Us"Old World Southern hospitality even as she says things that are downright mystical. "
    WELL SAID. I first heard of Ms. Williams in a PBS documentary, and well, fell in love...
    When she sang about her friend TC and the song about shoes, I watched that taped show over and over.
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