Felice Brothers drummer William Lawrence on the challenges of being a drumming singer-songwriter
William Lawrence is a drummer of some years experience who is currently a member of the Felice Brothers and has recently toured with Conor Oberst. He is also an emerging singer-songwriter who released his third solo album, ‘Fool For You’, on Christmas Eve in honour of the Polish belief that you should do on Christmas Eve what you want to spend the rest of the year doing. The album is also a true record of 2020, as William Lawrence took the opportunity COVID downtime provided to record an album remotely with his musical friends. Americana-UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with William Lawrence in his Upstate New York home to discuss the revitalised Felice Brothers, the challenges that face singing drummers and the still-thriving artistic community that once had Dylan and The Band at its heart.
How are you, I hope you and your family and friends are all OK and coping with the challenges of coronavirus?
Some people were dumb enough to get together over the holidays so I think we know it is already happening. All my family and friends are just keeping in touch from afar and trying to stay home as much as possible, if work allows and all those things. I am looking forward to the end of the year.
Hopefully, the vaccines are the light at the end of the tunnel. What have you done with your unexpected home time? Some people I have spoken to have definitely seen some benefit in the downtime.
I have made this record, ‘Fool For You’, which took a lot longer than it would have done if we were just doing it in person. Initially, it was pretty sad not to be going out on the road, there were a lot of shows booked by myself and with the Felice Brothers. The wind down was incremental as well because it was like we will cancel the June shows and maybe we will be able to play July, and that’s how it went. I’m not sure when it became very clear that there weren’t going to be any shows and that was hard to swallow. I had started recording these songs with a couple of friends of mine at the end of January, and we worked together in person for about two sessions before mandatory lockdown happened. From there, everyone seemed interested to just keep working remotely. We all have little ragtag setups at home and it was nice because we had already done the initial tracking together, so we had a feel for the way the songs were coming together. It was the rhythm section and I, so just bass, drums and guitar, who got the groundwork done on a lot of the songs. It was then just continuing to track the rest of the tracks and from there kind of expand out, and reach out to other friends, to play horns and strings and all sorts of other stuff. It took a really long time to do it all through emailing and phone calls and you know something that would take five minutes in a recording studio could take two weeks sometimes. You are just waiting on each other’s responses, and obviously, everyone has other things going on as well. I think I’ve got a couple of hours free on Friday and it is only Monday now and stuff like that. Because everyone wasn’t touring they were all scaping together various bits of side work including other jobs.
Is this a COVID album or was it always planned?
I think it might still have been a record I made this year. It wouldn’t have turned out the same as I don’t think I would have had as many people playing on it as I ended up having just because of the endless time available. The idea of getting people and mostly reaching out to friends who have a remote capability of recording themselves, in some cases, limited who I could have on the album compared to if they could have come over and tracked in the studio. It would have taken a shorter amount of time and it would have been a lot less meticulous as every single track we recorded I would be thinking about it while waiting for each piece to show. It did kind of drive me crazy because you don’t want to overthink it.
That was my next question. When you record like that how do you ensure you still maintain the feel and fluidity of the performance?
Luckily for me, I was working with my friend Ian McGuire who was mixing and initially engineered everything when we were doing the live tracking. He was the person who was kind of mixing the record as we went along and ultimately it is his production sound that comes out of the record. The tracks would come into me to clear things, and then I would farm them out to him and once they were kind of in his hands there were things I could request for changes but I had to be careful and pretty sure I was ready to say this part is done and send it to Ian. Ian’s part of the puzzle was where there was quite a bit of a lag because it went from me to a musician and then back and forth over some parts and it would eventually get sent to Ian. There were an unbelievable amount of emails over just something like a little shaker track. I’ve managed to record a lot with Ian over the last 4 or 5 years and he has helped me out a lot with not being so precious about everything in the studio, just going for it and not overthinking things. It has really taught me that to be like that in a studio or recording situation I really have to work the songs beforehand so I am not questioning like what if I did this chord or changing lyrics. I just have to be really sure about the song if I am just on guitar and singing it. After that, once I am sure, I am fine with it going in all sorts of directions playing it with new people. It makes it easier to hand it over and let other people be creative with it because you already have this solid thing and you know at least these things aren’t going to change about it. That is the reason I knew I was going to make the record this year because I had already spent the year before that writing a ton of songs and pairing it down to 10 and we then ended up using 8. That helps with allowing new things to happen in the studio.
What influence did the Felice Brothers have on ‘Fool For You’?
I have learnt a lot from those guys over the years I have been playing with them. In that group, I am playing drums and singing harmonies and when we are working James or Ian will bring in a new song and we will be talking about the arrangement and figuring things out, but it is the same thing because when they bring a song to the group there is not really a time when the band is bringing unfinished material, it is ready. We are just there to kind of help figure out the arrangement and I love that, just being a support player because you are not as pressured as when it is your song. You are only thinking about how can I make this better so it really is a whole lot of fun being in that position, and the songs are so great I am just so happy to be part of it. I feel like I learn a lot from just observing the material as we perform it every night. In general, I think I have got really lucky over the years, I have always written my own songs, but it is only recently that I have tried to put it out there. I’ve always been in bands just as a drummer, sometimes singing, and over the past 10 or 15 years I have played in a lot of bands with a lot of good songwriters and I think, whether it is the Felice Brothers or any of the other groups I have played with, I have learnt a lot just from being surrounded by other songwriters and people who are just dedicated to the craft. I was a fan of the Felice Brothers before I joined them so they were already an influence on how I thought about songwriting.
How did you join the band, because you joined them in 2016 when it had looked like they were going to break up having run their course but with a bit of new blood, including yourself, they recorded ‘Undress’ which was a critical success?
I had been living in New York City for about 5 years and then I moved to Upstate New York about 6 years ago and I was working for this friend of mine on this vegetable farm, and he was friends with those guys and I think we all went on a hike one day, and again I knew the band, I had seen them live and so they weren’t strangers to me and I was familiar with their music and about a year later, after having developed a friendship with them, they were looking for a drummer and I was like there. That was the beginning of 2016 and then I was just in the group as a touring member as I joined just after they had finished recording the ‘The Life and the Dark’ record so we toured on that. We then did a year touring with Conor Oberst as his band for 2017, then the line-up of the band changed when 2 of the guys left and Jesske Hume joined on bass and then the 4 of us made ‘Undress’. That was really nice because I had already been in the group for almost 3 years at that point but I hadn’t recorded any material, I think for Jesske and me that was meaningful because it really makes you feel part of the group, and you don’t always have the same connection to the earlier sons because they have been playing them for 10 years or whatever. There is always more heart, I think, in the things that have just been written. All artists are most excited about playing their new stuff while fans and listeners are wanting the old hits.
There are not too many sing-songwriter drummers about and playing drums in the folk and country rock genre isn’t that straight forward. What made you want to play drums and who were your biggest early influences?
I guess I started playing drums when I was pretty little, about 5th Grade so about 9 or 10, and I got hooked to it with the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Led Zeppelin and I just really loved rock’n’roll stuff and then when I was a teenager I started getting more interested in songs and artists like The Beatles and Bob Dylan who were more song centric songwriting bands. It was then a matter of I need to learn another instrument so I can try and write my own music so I took some piano lessons, I taught myself guitar and I then started writing music on those other instruments. Drums were always the thing though, they were my best bet and my goto if I was going to play music with people, this is what I am good at, and I didn’t think the songs I was writing were good enough to form a band around it. So I just sort of always kept on the side writing new songs and I performed a little bit here and there but I was mostly focused on drums rather than songwriting. Once touring live can happen again, I think I would rather play guitar and sing than play drums and sing if I was getting up there with these new songs. My friend Brian Kantor who plays drums on this record is so amazing I thought I would have him holding down the rhythm because it is a tricky thing to do. I love Levon Helm, Don Henley, obviously, there is a bunch of guys throughout history who have been great singers while drumming but if you are trying to work on a song you may have an idea you want to express and if you are sitting there with drumsticks in your hand you can’t. That happens to me sometimes in the Felice Brothers. You don’t have as much attachment to what chords and harmony are happening, you are thinking which rhythmic patterns to play, and it is always easier to figure out what is in my head if I have an instrument to help demonstrate what I am thinking about. It is hard to be a bandleader from behind the drum set unless you are really astute about what you want someone to play without touching a melodic instrument. It is a hard place to be a bandleader from if you are singing but it can be done.
A similar question, in terms of your songwriting who are your biggest influences?
Initially, when the light bulb went off I want to write songs, it was the Beatles when I was in high school. I then got more into the folk records, kind of traditional songs but also just people like Bob Dylan playing traditional songs. I love all sorts of music and I love the all-time greats like everyone else, but again, I think the bigger influence on how I learnt to write songs was the musicians and friends I was playing music with. Also, we probably became friends because we were all writing songs and it becomes this challenge. In college in New Hampshire, I used to live in this shed for a while that was way off campus in this cornfield on a lumber yard with a couple of friends. We were a mile or two from campus, but it was a really great place to have people over because it was in the middle of nowhere, so every Thursday night we would have all of our music friends over, people who wrote poetry or whatever, and it was a night to share your songs and new material as you could perform. That went on for a long time and it became I’ve got to have a new song for Thursday and I think just being part of that community was challenging because when someone writes a better song than you that week you are just I’ve really got to write something good for the next week. That competition just makes you want to get better. I was in a band for a long time called Mail The Horse and those guys were a bunch of good songwriters, I play with a local band called Nature Films and they are both great songwriters in that group. Touring with the Felice Brothers and Conor Oberst you get to play great material. If I listen to current records they are probably friends of mine, I see and hear a lot of bands when I’m touring, but when I am listening back home the records I listen to were usually made before I was even born.
As a songwriter is it the tune or the words that are most important to you?
I think it is both. The music usually comes together more easily, it is the first thing I am working with, I am kind of just waiting for the lyrics to show up and only rarely does it happen the other way round. One of the new songs on the record, ‘Working On A Painting’, my wife is an oil painter and I was sitting in her studio, our second bedroom space, while she painted this portrait of a woman she was working on and she asked me if I had any idea what to do with this little piece or whatever, and I suddenly got these lyrics in my head and I don’t think they were initially attached to a melody but after a couple of minutes I had the lyrics written down and I then went downstairs, grabbed my guitar and figured out a melody with three or four chords that made sense. I wish it could go that way more often. Generally, I’m tinkering around on guitar or piano for a while before something clicks, a melody pops out or I figure out a chord progression that is really satisfying to play and then things start jumping out. Sometimes I have a clear image in my head that just pops out but both lyrics and tune are very important to me but I think I spend more time workshopping lyrics than I do the music itself. The music comes together with a bit more ease so I guess I should just sit and watch my wife paint more or whatever haha.
How are you planning to get your record in front of people with the current restrictions?
It is tricky. I have been wondering the same thing myself. I got set on the idea of still releasing it in 2020 because I had made it in 2020. I wanted it to encapsulate the year and it felt like a nice way to end my year. It is difficult to rely so much on the internet as the main way I am getting the record heard or talked about. I have also been reaching out a lot to radio stations, which I didn’t do with my last album, and it has been really nice. I’ve been doing it one by one so people are more likely to pick up on it. I’ve also done some of the live streaming concerts and things like that over the course of the year. Moving forward in 2021, I think I am just going to continue trying to write new material and be in the studio working as much as I can. I decided to release the record on Christmas Eve because a Polish friend of mine told me in Poland they do on Christmas Eve what they would like to be doing for the rest of the year. So you should do something you like and enjoy, and feel really good about and it is always good to release a record. I also thought everyone may have spent all their money in January haha.
How much do you bother with the streaming platforms for the album?
I’m a really big fan of Bandcamp, and I have released music on there for over 10 years but I don’t think I recognised how there is a community of people who solely use Bandcamp who are really into building their collections there. They feel invested in it because they are supporting the artists they are listening to in a bigger way. I’ve been really focused on the order of the album through Bandcamp, you can do vinyl, CD or download and that felt like the place I wanted to focus the most of my energy on but the record is available from all the other places as well. I try and do a good job of having a presentable presence, you know Spotify, YouTube and all the social media that goes along with everything. You can spend endless amounts of time trying to have your social media and streaming profiles looking really good. It is weird because people put too much stock in what those profiles look like. I have friends who are really amazing successful songwriters who just don’t really have any presence on Spotify and if you looked at their profile it would be nobody knows who that guy is. You have to give those streaming platforms a lot to get anything out of them, especially if you are an artist who is not on a major label. All those big numbers you see on Spotify are based on those editorial playlists that 90% of the music on them is just automatic and pretty much owned by big labels. It is tough, a bit like Instagram, it is not how I want to spend my time but I also realise there is a certain necessity to it if I want to get the word out to people for the first time. It is even more important right now when you can’t just go and play a show. I always tell people who want to support my music the best way is to buy direct from me through Bandcamp haha. For a while, Bandcamp was my website until I got my own up and running. Streaming at the moment feels like a promotional tool rather than a way to make an actual living from music. You have artists spending a lot of time trying to get their numbers and followers to appear a certain way and they are not spending that time working on writing songs. They are working hard at trying to look successful. It is really weird. You can become a kind of professional anything on the internet if you manage your profile.
You are in Upstate New York, what is that like, how much are there still echoes of Dylan and The Band and all that?
Similar to when those guys moved up here and that whole scene and history was going on, it feels like there are a fair amount of great players and musicians and creative people around here but it is not a place where touring bands are coming through. Small shows happen and local jams and stuff, but generally, it is a place where people are working on music but not necessarily where to hear music. I don’t listen to a lot of live music around here, but I may not be a good example of that because after I get off a tour, the last thing I usually want to do is go out to a bar and listen to the band play because I’m only home for a week or so and I will be back out again. I get enough music on the road. It is kind of a quiet place to live, usually, if there is a good show going on it is once a week. I’m usually in for the night at 9 o’clock and at a lot of places you would just be going out. There are people in garage bands, folk songs getting played, some jazz bands playing occasionally. Sometimes there is stuff going on in Hudson, New York, my friend Trevor puts on a couple of festivals each year, one is Supertone Fest, which is a rock’n’roll kind of festival in July, and then there is an old-time music festival called Old-Time Fest in September. Hopefully, they will happen in summer 2021 but that is about it. Most of the people I play with around here are working on things but it is a quiet place to work and record. In that way, it could be similar to why they came in the first place all those years ago.
At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share who is currently your top three tracks or artists on your playlist?
That question always makes my mind go blank even though all I do is listen to music all day. I listened to a Dubliners record last night when I was making dinner, the other record I am really into, and I think it is the time of year for it because of the closing track, is the Bert Jansch record ‘LA Turnaround’. That one, I was talking with my friend Brian who played drums on ‘Fool For You’, and he was I have always wanted to play that record from start to finish live, get a band together and do the whole thing. I can do some finger pickin’ but I ain’t Bert Jansch. Hey, I don’t know, those are the only two I can really think of at the moment.
Finally, do you want to say anything to our UK readers?
I would really love to make it over in 2021 and play some shows. If all goes well with touring in 2021 Felice Brothers are scheduled to be in Europe in June, I think, and I would love to get over on my own maybe later but you guys need to help me book some shows. If anyone has any leads, let me know haha.
William Lawrence’s ‘Fool For You’ is available now on Triangle House Records