We caught up with Holly Williams before her Kings Place gig in London and managed to get a few answers to some questions about the new album and her life. I guess that part of the key to Holly Williams’ success as a singer-songwriter is that it’s never been her mission to try and live up to the legacy cast by her famous and prolific father and grandfather – Hank Jr. and Sr., respectively – nor has she spent a lot of time trying to live it down.
The new album The Highway finds the 31-year-old artist putting a distinctly personal spin on universal themes like love, loss, conflict, family and desire. It is heavy with references to memories of simpler times and beloved relatives; rumination on lives destroyed by addiction; our shared need to love and be loved; and an earnest longing for the road.
In addition to her music, Holly carries a fondness for fashion and haute homemaking, passions she channels into H. Audrey, her Nashville women’s boutique, and her lifestyle blog, The Afternoon Off. A week before Holly was to head to Europe in the spring of 2006, she and her sister (Hilary) were involved in a terrible car accident outside of Tunica, Mississippi on the way to their grandfather’s funeral. Her sister has endured 26 surgeries and Holly suffered broken bones and head trauma. She couldn’t play guitar for a year so while she was home recovering with her sister, she began to take the time to focus on getting the shop open.
You say that The Highway feels like your first album in many ways. What’s different between it and your other two records?
Blood, sweat and tears. This was my baby, there were plenty of sleepless nights, and there was a lot of confusion because I was still writing in the middle of recording. I wasn’t fully prepared with all of the material when we started the record. But I had to keep pushing. I’ve owned my clothing store for five years now, it’s running on it’s own with a great staff so I’m not there on a day to day basis, other than handling the buying. We moved into our first house, I’m married to an amazing man, I’ve got two Labradors that I love, and I’m truly settled for the first time in my life. That is what the song “Without You” is about. When you get settled, your focus gets really clear. I didn’t have that for my last two records. I was younger-traveling all over in planes, trains and automobiles. Touring Europe with a backpack and exploring the world. Chasing boys, worried about things that didn’t matter. Some artists come into their own at a really young age, look at Jackson Browne writing “These Days” at the age of 16. Talk about brilliance and focus! It took me a little longer, but I wouldn’t trade that amazing journey for the world. It feels good to finally get really comfortable in your own skin as an artist.
You took a few years off between The Highway and Here With Me, which came out in 2009 – and for good reason. You’ve hit a lot of milestones over the last three years.
I turned 30. I got married. I turned my store into a profitable business. That alone took months of focus and work. I wanted to fold jeans and style people in the day, and cook a good meal at night. I was bathing in domesticity. I also started a food and lifestyle blog last year. I had to take some time off from the road and focus on all of these things. It’s amazing how marriage can shock you into something you never dreamed of. Who knew I was domestic? I sure as hell didn’t, nor could any of my family members believe it when I’m offering up shallot and lemon roasted whole chickens on a Tuesday night. I absolutely love cooking, and eating, and all things related to food. But the highway came calling again, as it always does. There is nothing that can substitute the feeling of connecting with a live audience. Nothing. That’s why I’m back here now.
Your husband, Chris Coleman, is an important part of your musical life, and has been for a while. You guys played together for years before you got married.
I’ve known him for years, back from when he first came to Nashville as a drummer and moved to LA with a rock band. He would play with me here and there, but I would never have dreamed we would end up together. There were a few alcohol-induced make-outs years ago, but who hasn’t done that with their sexiest band members? When we started dating, I begged him to learn guitar since he was a drummer. He picked it up and we got to explore lots of places together. What was first a request since I loved him and wanted him to be with me, has turned into a truly important musical collaboration. This album would never be the same without him. We worked on plenty of pre-production at home. He sings on almost every song. We wrote “Happy” and “Let You Go” together.
There’s a real sense of place on The Highway. It really sounds like you’re writing about the South, which makes sense considering you were born in Alabama and grew up in Nashville.
I’ve never really written songs about the subject matters I chose for this album. The older I get and the more complicated my life gets, memories like picking up pecans in my grandmother’s yard for a dollar a day become sweeter .We can’t get back to those days now, no matter how much we want to and how hard we try. There is a constant yearning for the south that is always in my soul, no matter where I am. My heart is in Mer Rouge, Louisiana where I spent so many glorious days with my mom’s side of the family.
People obviously know a lot about your dad’s side of the family, the Williamses, starting with your grandfather Hank Sr. This album talks a lot about your mother Becky’s family. Your maternal grandparents appear in both “Waiting on June” and “Gone Away from Me.”
A lot of people think “Waiting on June” is about June Carter, but it’s about my grandmother June Bacon White, who died in 2009. It’s the precise and true story of my grandfather’s relentless love for her, every character is real, even down to the order of the children and the family cook Bertha. It’s really hard for me to get through it, but I continue to try in honor of them.
The Highway has a more simple sound than your other two albums. What inspired your choice to go so acoustic?
It isn’t completely stripped-down, but the sound was definitely born from a pure place inspired by touring. I’ve been playing plenty of gigs acoustically, either completely alone on guitar and piano, or with one extra person. The audience was relating differently to this completely raw performance. It allows me to truly be a storyteller, and not have to worry about so much production. I am playing and singing at the same time on almost every single song on this record. In the past, it’s been the usual Nashville recording of separating the musician and the music. But as a songwriter, I love having the instrument with me and flowing with my tempo and words at the same time. My favorite shows in history are the ones of Neil Young, Jackson Browne, Gillian Welch, Elliott Smith, or John Prine alone with their instruments.
What kind of album is this? Do you embrace the Americana label some folks apply to your style of music?
I’ll take whatever you want to call it – Americana is fine. I love all of the artists that are considered Americana, as much as I love Radiohead and Jay Z. Genres are truly exhausting to me. Hank Williams said, “I don’t know what you mean by country. I just write songs.”
Charlie Peacock, who produced the first Civil Wars album, co-produced The Highway with you. How did you come to choose him for the job?
It really all came about because I love what he did with The Civil Wars. They have built such an amazing and loyal fan base, and made a great record. John and Joy have been around Nashville for years, it was amazing to see them finally blossom! I wanted to reach out to Charlie and pick his brain about my music and see if he had a connection. Charlie and I are both very strong-minded and though he probably needs to go on a sabbatical after working with me for 9 months, I think we are both truly proud of the end result.
In addition to Chris and Charlie, you have a very nicely appointed group of collaborators on this record.
The way we did this really reminds me of Hank Williams, Jr. & Friends. That was the album my dad put out in 1975 before he really blew up. It was pops and a few talented friends ala Charlie Daniels making music. I love the bridge between people that is music, I wrote with good friends, which felt very organic. Sarah Buxton and I were cooking and drinking wine one night when we wrote “A Good Man.” I adore Lori McKenna‘s writing and called her up to help me finish “Without You”. I called up my favorite musicians and told them, “I don’t have a big record label behind me, and I’m paying for this album myself. Will you take 200 bucks to play?” Everyone came together to help me out with this project, and I have never felt more love from fellow artists and musicians. It’s an incredible feeling to have such amazing support from my peers.
It’s not just the instrumentalists and writers. The other voices on the album are pretty impressive as well: Dierks Bentley, Jakob Dylan, Jackson Browne and Gwyneth Paltrow all sing with you.
I’d never really thought about having another person sing with me on a record besides my mother (an amazing harmonist). But these are my friends and the people that I admire. I have no words for my respect and love for Jackson Browne’s music. What a voice! I called up Dierks and asked for him to lend his perfectly raspy voice to “Til’ It Runs Dry”, and we were thrilled with the outcome. Charlie thought Jakob’s voice would be perfect for “Without You,” which it was. Gwyneth happens to have one of the best harmony voices I have ever heard. She is so damn talented in so many ways! Her husband, Chris Martin, kept encouraging us to cut “Waiting on June” live – just Gwyneth, my husband and myself. He heard us sing it over and over on a summer trip and we decided to try it that way after a different version of the song was already signed, sealed, delivered.
It’s interesting that on “Without You,” the only song on here that acknowledges your famous family name, you’re singing with someone else who knows what it’s like to go through life with a well-known surname.It’s a really small club that you and Jakob Dylan are in.
Bob Dylan has always had a lot of love for my grandfather’s music and been very open with me about it. He invited me to be a part of his project “The Lost Notebooks”. I was thrilled to do that for him, and honored to have Jakob do this for me. He’s a true supporter of fellow artists and it’s been really inspiring to see him continue to work so hard year after year.
HOLLY WILLIAMS The Highway, Georgiana Records, released June 2, 2014 UK tour dates in June/July
Interview with Simon Jay Price.