INTERVIEW: Instrumentalist & Vocalist Chelsea Williams
Chelsea Williams is a popular independent music artist releasing her debut album for Blue Élan Records, titled Boomerang on August 18th. Boomerang speaks of Williams’ personal self-expression that documents her life experiences and creative journey to date. The gifted multi-instrumentalist blended her disparate influences together including Americana, indie-folk and lush pop. She appeared on The Today Show, opened for the Avett Brothers, Dwight Yoakam and dueted with Adam Levine in Maroon 5’s video for “Daylight (Playing For Change)”. Her biggest impact and break came while performing her music on the Third Street Promenade where she met her mentor and champion Blue Élan Records president Kirk Pasich. In a wide-ranging discussion with SoCalMusicToday.com, Williams discussed here that chance and serendipitous encounter with Pasich, writing the material for Boomerang and the recording process in the studio, looking forward to a national tour with Marc Cohn and Poco and much more.
Do you think it was fate meeting Kirk Pasich president of Blue Elan Records at the Third Street Promenade?
It was definitely a bit of a crossroads in my life. At the time, I was thinking about taking a break from music altogether. I stopped writing and playing shows. I started taking classes at a local community college. I was studying at PCC and playing on Third Street Promenade to pay for my books and classes. I was seriously contemplating majoring in geology and just playing music for fun at weekend bbq’s and bar mitzvah’s. I was having trouble going all in with that decision and that’s when I met Kirk. I don’t generally believe in signs, but I guess when an opportunity like that comes around it’s hard not to. Needless to say, I didn’t end up quitting music. And I’m pretty damn happy about that!
What convinced you to sign with Blue Elan Records after your ill-fated deal with Interscope?
One of the first things Kirk said to me, maybe even before he told me his name was that I could have complete creative control. He seemed really serious about that. It sounded like something from Fantasy Island or something. I had never heard of that before. Coming from a major label experience where everything was so controlled, it almost seemed too good to be true. But the more I got to know Kirk and the Blue Elan team, the more I found out that it wasn’t just a line. That’s really how they do things. That’s what initially drew me in.
You mention Boomerang is an exercise in taking the reins and forging your own path in music and life. Can you tell me more about that?
It can be pretty scary putting yourself out there as a writer and performer, and it’s really easy to take the safe route; to stay inside the lines and do what’s expected of you. I’ve fallen into that in the past and made music that just didn’t move me. I wanted to take some chances this time, turn myself inside out a bit. I looked at this record as a real opportunity to go exploring, get a little weird, and stretch my comfort zone.
Musically, would you say the sound on Boomerang is a progression from what you previously released independently?
There’s definitely a lot more going on with this record musically than anything I’ve released before. From horn and string sections to banjo and marxophone, we had a lot of fun playing around with sound in ways that were new for me. While it’s quite different from previous releases, I feel like it’s a natural progression. I wanted to make sure all the songs stood on their own with just my guitar and vocals and that remains the core of the record. I’m also really proud that every instrument on the record was played by a human being. I know that sounds funny, but in an age of computerized music there are so many records with mostly synthetic or MIDI instruments. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but for me personally it’s just more fun playing music with people than with computers.
It must be creatively and financially freeing to work with a much bigger budget on Boomerang. Can you explain more about that experience and what it gave you as an artist?
I guess it really gave me the courage to explore a little more. Knowing that I wasn’t going to have to spend my Amoeba Music money or even my rent money on recording, I was willing to take more chances. I was able get more musicians on the record and even get things mixed and mastered at a much higher level than I ever could have without the label.
What are you looking forward most to going on a national tour opening for Marc Cohn and Poco? Are you fans of their music?
I’m honestly pretty excited to get to see such seasoned writers and performers in their natural habitat. The dates I’ve already done with Marc Cohn have been incredible. I mean, getting to sing Patti Griffin’s part with him on “Healing Hands” was pretty thrilling. I also can’t say I’ll hate the whole traveling around the country part. And the playing music for music lovers part definitely won’t suck either.
What are you most proud of so far in your career?
This record is definitely way up there on the list. But I’m also pretty proud to be label mates with people like Rusty Young, Rita Coolidge and Jack Tempchin. These are artists I grew up listening to and have been covering for years.
What famous person, dead or living, do you wish you could have as a roommate?
Oh man, I have to admit that I am probably a terrible roommate. I’m pretty messy, I like to play amplified guitar at all hours of the night, and I love stray cats. So, I think the real question is, who could I get to even agree to be my roommate. I’d like to think that someone like Charles Bukowski might have put up with me and my antics. But that might be a stretch.
What’s your favorite music to drive to?
I guess it depends on my mood and where I’m driving. I once drove from Los Angeles all the way through Utah with a friend and we played “Soul Journey” by Gillian Welch almost the whole way. And there’s something about driving in the mountains that makes me want to listen to Sufjan Stevens. But I have to say anything by The Band works on pretty much any kind of terrain.
Whose career would you most like to emulate?
Growing up, I was heavily influenced by artists like Bonnie Raitt and Neil Young. When you’re young I guess you’re drawn to music on kind of a gut reaction. Now that I’m older and I’m more aware of the bigger picture, I can appreciate how cool it is that they both seemed to have remained true to their roots while still maintaining a good deal of commercial success. It’s quite a feat to accomplish I think.
Describe your aesthetic in three words?
Lonesome, Humor, Troubadour
If you had to live in a past time, when would you prefer to live, and why?
I really do wonder what it would have been like to have walked past Blind Willie McTell or Mississippi John Hurt playing on the street. Maybe I’m romanticizing it, but that seems like such a musically rich time.
What activities do you most enjoy doing alone?
Lately, I’ve had a pretty bad cooking addiction. Quiche Lorraine and Coconut Curry are my latest obsessions. Naan bread pizza is my next battle.
What would you say was the last great book that you’ve read?
I love John Steinbeck. Cannery Row is my all-time favorite. I bet I could read it a 1000 times without getting tired of it. But I’ll let you know when I get there. I think I’m about 990 reads away.
When are you most relaxed?
There’s something freeing and incredibly relaxing about swimming in the ocean. Something about being at peace with the fact that it’s a force so much greater than me. Maybe it’s the kid in me that just likes getting thrown around in the waves.
What kind of person were in you in high school?
That’s probably a better question for the friends I had at that time. I probably wasn’t incredibly self-aware in high school. Still working on that actually.
What’s a quality about yourself that you’re genuinely proud of?
It gets me in trouble sometimes, but I can be pretty hard headed. I wasn’t always that way. I used to be a bit of a push over. I’ve worked hard not to be. But it does get me into trouble sometimes.
Do you have any phobias?
Spiders! I just can’t…it doesn’t matter how small, big hairy or wiry…I just can’t.
What’s a side of you that you think that people are unlikely to know about you?
I don’t know…I work really hard not to wear my heart on my sleeve. But it’s always sitting there on my shoulder telling everyone my secrets.
If there was one phrase that best sums up your approach to life, what would it be?
The Laughing Heart by Charles Bukowski
your life is your life
don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.
be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the darkness.
be on the watch.
the gods will offer you chances.
you can’t beat death but
you can beat death in life, sometimes.
and the more often you learn to do it,
the more light there will be.
your life is your life.
know it while you have it.
you are marvelous
the gods wait to delight
— by Charles Bukowski
Pre-order Boomerang here: http://www.blueelan.com/chelsea-williams-store
Watch an acoustic performance of the song “Lonely Girl” here:
Get to know Chelsea Williams: