INTERVIEW: A.A. Williams

A creator of heavy, beguiling soundscapes; London-based musician A.A. Williams has been compared to the likes of Chelsea Wolfe and Emma Ruth Rundle, but she’s captivating in her own right. Her 2019 self-titled debut EP caught the attention of critics and fans, and now she’s set to return to the prestigious Roadburn Festival in April this year, as well performing a headline show at London’s Southbank Centre in March. We caught up with Williams to ask her about her EP, her collaboration with Japanese instrumental giants MONO, and her anticipations for her London gig…

 

It’s been just over a year since you released your debut EP (Congratulations!) What are you most proud of about this record? And do you have a favourite track?

Thank you! I’m so pleased that the songs resonate with people. Hearing so many positive words from people at shows makes me very proud of what these tracks have become. I don’t have a favourite song. They are each important to me in their own right.

You beautifully cover Dolly Parton’s track ‘Jolene’ on the EP. If you had to pick someone to cover one of your tracks, who would you pick?

I think Johnny Cash would have done a beautiful version of ‘Control’.

The EP also features three “stripped down” live rehearsal recordings. What process do you go through when deciding which songs you’re going to strip back? What elements of a live recording do you enjoy the most?

Generally, each song can be stripped down, because each song begins in that form, as a voice and with either guitar or piano. The hardest thing is to decide how to treat the instrumental sections, sometimes I’ll sing a guitar line or incorporate a few melodies into one piano part, but generally the main focus is to ensure that the arrangement has enough space and doesn’t sound too mechanical. I love all elements of recording, I’d spend every day in a studio if I could. The best thing is to press record when you’re running a song, just in case, even if you don’t feel fully prepared! You never know what magic will happen.

You’ve just released a split EP with MONO. We know you toured with them last year, but talk us through how this collaboration came about, and what the reaction to the record has been like so far.

Taka heard my EP and got in touch to see if working together would be something I’d be interested in. I’d met the band briefly at Roadburn 2019 (I was performing with them during their headline show. They performed ‘Hymn To The Immortal Wind’ with a string quartet, of which I was a part), I couldn’t wait to take on the opportunity! We emailed some ideas between us and gradually found the time to record in July last year. I’ve been so pleased with the reaction. It’s great to see that fans of instrumental music are open to the inclusion of vocals and a slightly different approach.

You’ll be making your Southbank Centre debut when you headline The Purcell Room on March 12th (tickets available here). What are your anticipations for this gig?

I’m so excited for this performance. I’ll be extending the full-band line up to include a string quartet and adding some guest vocalists too. Up to this point, all of my shows have been supports or festivals, so it’ll be a joy to be able to spend more time on stage and create a fuller show.

Do you have plans to release new music this year?

I’m always writing, so fingers crossed!

Who, or what inspires you to create your music?

I find writing a very therapeutic process, so I’ll often begin working on a song because purely because I find it enjoyable. I don’t deliberately write inspired by anything or anyone, though ultimately we are each a sum of everything we’ve ever heard, seen and felt.

You’re returning to Arctangent festival this year in August. Is there anyone on the line-up you’re looking forward to seeing?

I’m really looking forward to seeing Maybeshewill and Amenra, and I’d like to catch Swans and Svalbard too! The weather was so awful last year that I didn’t really get to see many other artists, so hopefully I can remedy that this time around.

As we’re a new music blog, we always ask the artists we interview to name a new band or artist they’ve been listening to. Who would you like to recommend?

Gaupa’s 2018 self-titled EP is so good! It’s as if Björk had formed a psych-stoner band. Also, I know they’re not new, but I was recently introduced to Khemmis. I’ve really been enjoying their album, Absolution.

Thanks to A.A. Williams for answering our questions.
Follow her on Facebook & Spotify for more updates.

FIVE FAVOURITES: PETSEMATARY

Oxford newcomer PETSEMATARY creates atmospheric, shoegazey soundscapes that in spite of their clear production, brood with a raw intensity. She recorded her first EP VOL I, independently, with all proceeds going to the charities Mind and Shelter.

We think one of the best ways to get to know a new artist is by asking them what music inspired them to write in the first place. We caught up with PETSEMATARY to ask her about her “Five Favourites” – five albums that have influenced her songwriting techniques. Check out her choices below, and make sure you listen to her track ‘Tall Boys’ at the end of this post.

 

1. Jeff Buckley – Grace
This album pretty much made me want to make music. There’s no other way to describe Jeff’s voice other than pure self-expression in sonic form and it’s just fucking magical to listen to. It was the first time I’d heard music that made me want to smile and cry and scream and sing and it just made me want to use my voice in the most true way possible. Singing is a really intimate and personal thing. Your voice is you and there’s not much you can do to change it, and I think that Jeff’s music encouraged me to be as true to that as possible. The album is a kind of beautiful mess of different sounds – Grace is like an orchestral and cinematic love song, whereas tracks like ‘So Real’ and ‘Dream Brother’ are dark and abstract and dreamlike, and Jeff’s voice traverses to whatever depths the songs take him. There’s a lot of darkness in the songs but also there’s this hopefulness and light which really inspires me.

2. Emma Ruth Rundle – Marked For Death
I love everything about Emma. Her songs are dark and twisted and raw and I just think that she’s one of the most powerful female musicians around at the moment. I admire that her songs are both honest but also elusive – she manages to paint scenarios that don’t need to be explicit lyrically, and that makes them all the more powerful. Her guitar work was also a massive turning point in how I approached writing. Even though I’ve been playing guitar since I was a kid it has always been something I’ve felt self-conscious about or something I should always work a little harder at, and something that I have always felt I am inferior at among my male peers. Listening to Emma’s work made me realise that being good at guitar doesn’t need to mean being able to shred scales as fast as all the other guitar guys, but that you can make hauntingly beautiful and unique soundscapes through space, open tunings and effects.

On the title track ‘Marked For Death’ she has these beautiful sparse reverb-drenched plucked guitars that implode into a haze of delayed slide guitars in the chorus – this album pretty much made me want to put slide guitar on every track I make ever. Lyrically I also really admire her. Tracks like ‘Medusa’ and ‘Hand of God’ made me think a lot about female characters in literature and mythology and how they can sort of serve as a way of communicating my own experiences. I think there’s a lot of power in reclaiming those old tropes about women – the seductress, the woman scorned etc. All of those ideas are constructed as reactions to (and fear of) female power, and I feel like in reclaiming them in songwriting or any narrative they can become a way of coming to terms with your own experience. I feel power in reclaiming my own experience through that lens.

3. Elliott Smith – Figure 8
Elliott was the master of making the most bleak things sound melodically beautiful and uplifting. My favourite Elliott record constantly fluctuates, but for songwriting I always seem to go back to Figure 8. His lyrics can be both candid and enigmatic, and just in the way he sings there is an honesty and vulnerability which I find really inspiring. His songs are all feel and no bullshit, and it’s that sort of understated genius aspect which I love so much about all of his music.

The songs are vulnerable and raw but not afraid to hit where it hurts, and I think it just shows that being able to saw how you really feel is a lot of the time more powerful than dressing stuff up in metaphor. That sort of honesty opens you up in songwriting and that really inspired me in how I wanted to communicate my ideas through my songs. I love the arrangements on this album. Obviously his acoustic tracks are beautiful enough as they are but tracks like ‘Wouldn’t Mama Be Proud’, ‘Junk Bond Trader’ and ‘Happiness’ are just really powerful and dynamic to me in terms of their instrumentation.

“All I used to be will pass away and then you’ll see that all I want now is happiness for you and me” – the lyrics really are just bleak as hell yet he manages to twist them into an uplifting and harmonically beautiful track, and I guess its that incongruity between the dark and the light which makes this album and Elliott’s songwriting in general all the more twisted and brilliant to me. It’s all just so beautiful and haunting.

4. PJ Harvey – Is This Desire?
This record has so much depth and dynamic, and PJ is the mistress of dark and light and just everything to me. There’s a lot of noise and dissonance to the songs and I think they all speak to this theme of instinct and rawness which lie behind a lot of the tracks. Tracks like ‘A Perfect Day Elise’ and ‘The Sky Lit Up’ have these hazy distorted soundscapes, and PJ’s voice can go from whisper to growl to scream to ghostly wailing, and I think she’s just an incredibly powerful songwriter and performer. It’s sorta like a constant fluctuating between chaos and calm.

My favourite track on the record probably is the title track, ‘Is This desire?’. The simplicity and honesty of the words, the stripped back accompaniment and vocal are just really evocative to me. It’s my favourite record of hers because it just feels really raw and intimate, and again no-bullshit. I like the idea of these female protagonists which drive the story of the songs – Elise, Angelene, Catherine and so on. From that angle it speaks to me as a record about raw female experience, passion and desire, and I think that the same honesty in reclaiming your own desires and instinctual emotions is what inspired me when making Petsem Vol I. Desire as instinct, possessiveness and anger as instinct and so on.

5. Smashing Pumpkins – Siamese Dream
Billy Corgan for me is one of the most important songwriters (although he is eminently memeable) and I think Siamese Dream is testament to that. It’s just one of my favourite guitar albums ever. There’s a sorta surreal circus-like feel about the songs – it’s sludgy and psychy but has a really great pop melodic feel to it. You have the spacey sleepy-eyed dream tracks like ‘Luna’ and ‘Spaceboy’, which are really beautiful and surreal, but then you also have the way songs like ‘Soma’ and ‘Silverfuck’ soar between sparse reverby guitars to heavy sludge vibes. It’s dynamic and exciting, and an album I go back to again and again when I feel uninspired or am struggling to write. The songs constantly travel to parts you aren’t really expecting. They can be grungey and dark and heavy, but also upbeat and light, all the while with fucking great vocal melodies and harmonies. Also Corgan is a gift to this earth and we don’t deserve him.

Thanks to PETSEMATARY for sharing her favourites with us. Follow her on Facebook & Bandcamp for more updates.