Interview: William Prince

The first time Americana-UK caught a live performance from William Prince was at the Indo Nashville venue as part of the Canadian Blast event at AmericanaFest in September three months ago, his warm, enveloping baritone feeling like a great big hug – while the honesty and emotional power at the heart of his songs captivated the small audience who were lucky enough to be in attendance that day. If you’ve yet to hear of William Prince, but you’re a Vodafone customer, then you may be more familiar with him than you realise seeing as his song ‘Breathless’ featured as the “hold” music for the telecoms provider earlier this year. More importantly, this multi-talented singer-songwriter and musician gained wider recognition when he received the JUNO award for Contemporary Roots Album of the Year in 2017 for his debut release, ‘Earthly Days’.

William Prince was over in Europe recently supporting Yola on her biggest tour to date, and Mark Underwood of Americana-UK caught up with William before his show at the Islington Assembly Hall earlier this month to talk about his new album, ‘Reliever’, what it was like working with super producer, Dave Cobb, and the healing power of music.

Hi William, great to meet you. I know you were over back in 2017 for the Great Escape festival in Brighton and you also had a show in London around the same time as well as one earlier in the year in London at the Slaughtered Lamb – so is this your third trip to Europe for touring purposes?
Yes, this is my third time.

So far on this tour, I understand you’ve been to Germany, Italy, France, Scotland and Ireland, supporting Yola. How have you found it?
Oh terrific. Anywhere you can go and play to full rooms for your first time, especially over here being Canadian and coming across the pond is a lot of work well done. I just recently played the Reeperbahn for the first time and it’s been a growing progression of things – not wanting to tour Canada the whole time. I came over to London for my return gig to the Slaughtered Lamb in September, so I’m slowly building things. Ever since I got the label help through Glassnote Records and Six Shooter Records in Canada now – I just signed with them this year and I took on new management – it’s been growing: “building the garden”, so they say.

You and Yola on tour together – it seems like such an ideal pairing to me – two performers with great voices and both of you with such interesting back stories.
Yes, she’s been terrific. The audiences definitely don’t want to miss Yola so they all show up early and I get to be seen and heard. It’s been really beneficial.

And is the audience reaction particularly different from what you’d usually experience back home in Canada?
Not so much. I always say it’s really songs in different rooms – so just be consistent in the performance and it seems to be well received everywhere I go. That’s the reason we’re still going after 4 years now. ‘Earthly Days’, my first record, will be four years old in a couple of days. It’s unorthodox really for an independent record to get as much attention as it did and to be kind of passed around as this secret record. I’ve always said every single fan or supporter I’ve earned has been one by one. Trying to deliver that performance each time – that’s what’s gotten people behind me over time now.

And do you find you have to adapt your approach to performing depending on the act you’re opening for such as Neil Young or Yola – or is it pretty much the same regardless?
Yeah, it’s the same performance. It’s “Don’t let the room change you”, is what I say. I try and be myself 100% – be authentic, be genuine. People are in the market now for something genuine. The songs have done a job speaking for themselves. And I think as a performer just becoming more confident in what I do -and each and every time that you do that – when the room appreciates you and gives you all that love, it cements the idea that I am ok doing just exactly this. The more people I encounter I feel there’s no one else who does what I do.

I know that when your parents were growing up that they ran a DJ business on the side – and that your house was full of vinyl, tapes and CDs. What sort of music do you remember your parents playing when you were growing up?
There was everything. Rooted in fundamentals of course. The Beach Boys were one of the first things I remember and I always say Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ was one of the first records to really change my perspective on music. My Mom was always listening to the divas – Whitney Houston, Celine Dion and Diana Ross. And then my Dad had the reciprocal gentlemen country crooners in his pocket – you know Johnny Cash and Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and all those guys. So it was a nice balance of the greats. They were listeners to the mainstream – and then every once in a while, I’d find something else. I really loved like the Gypsy Kings or something off the chart that I’d never heard of. I was always picking records by how good the album covers looked – whether it was a Green Day record – or the first time a girl from my school came over I’d put a Meat Loaf record on thinking it was cool rock and roll and instead it was an operatic, giant, really crazy theatrical record. I was always surrounded by really great music – and my Dad too being a singer helped me realise that normal people can pick up a guitar and make this happen yourself.

And your own musical evolution from playing tambourine alongside your Dad in church – who also taught you how to play guitar. Has music always felt like a calling for you?
Yes, it was a distraction. It was always there. I felt close to it, I empathised with it and I was drawn to a path of “how do I make money in life?” and I thought that studying medicine and becoming a doctor would shatter all those negative stigmas about being a large First Nations aboriginal male in Canada. And if I were a Dr Prince one day it would become obvious that I was somewhat intelligent and come from a place of knowledge and I would have some kind of wealth that would make life easier. Because my family struggled in poverty. The reason for the DJ business – as cool as it sounds – now I realise it was my Dad just struggling to put food on the table. It wasn’t always joyous to go and haul this heavy equipment by yourself – my Mom labouring over the speakers and him setting it up and playing these dancehalls and things like that. And then eventually our family got to a place where we returned to the church – and he started signing and preaching – his Dad and his Grandfather being a pastor. So yes, I always felt a natural curiosity towards music.

Do you still consider yourself a songwriter rather than a singer first and foremost?
Always. Still a songwriter. Because there was no one around to sing my songs. I guess I got better at singing. I was always fighting the idea – you know this is not what voices sound like when you’re watching Top of the Pops or listening to the top 40. There weren’t really any singers that sounded like my Dad. The sort of people who listen to Johnny Cash nowadays are considered greatest hits listeners. And I was thinking about how those songs don’t decay – they’re kind of rooted in gospel in a sense and so there will always be a place for guys like me because of just how wide those songs are and that style kind of stretches out to all the old listeners. And there will be younger generations who get curious and want to listen to the Kristoffersons of the world. But as much as I love those guys I love cutting my own path too.

And the more country based songs I know you’ve written for others that made it onto the radio? Are there any songs recorded by other artists that readers of Americana-UK would be familiar with?
Well, Canadian country radio needs songs played at 3am in the morning! The less established acts that recorded my songs – those songs get played as Canadian content. However, it was really cool to learn that Mike Farris, a Grammy award winner from Nashville, recorded ‘Breathless’ for his ‘Silver and Stone’ record. I learned that through an Instagram message from one of his fans. And I didn’t even know. It’s not a knock on your door and someone asking you for permission – as long as the royalties paid anyone can cut your songs.

Is there a reason why you prefer to keep the more folk-country material for yourself? Is it perhaps because you tend to associate more typically country music as part of your past rather the present and your future?
Truthfully yes, it’s just what I feel the most comfortable singing. I’ve always had a slower, chill approach to my music. My music has always felt like time out stuff. Regardless of how loud or grand things are, there have always been my songs to slow the pace and take the breath. Now that I’ve started playing with the band it’s growing into a place where what I want to be able to move rooms like a Yola, or a Sturgill Simpson, or a Chris Stapleton. It’s good to have those mid-tempo ballads, but I’m curious to see what I can come up with now I’ve got a drummer working with me and I’ve got a full band supporting me and I’m getting more comfortable in the studio working out of a song shop in Winnipeg with my good friend Scott Nolan and even having Dave Cobb as a friend to work with and create with, supporting me. It’s really kind of all doors open at this point.

I understand your debut album, ‘Earthly Days’ was a decade in the making, so a 4 year hiatus between that and your current record, ‘Reliever’, must seem positively brief by comparison?!
Yeah, it was my whole life – it was every embarrassing song that no one was ever going to hear before it too – it was really a growing process. There were songs on that record that were written the week of recording. It’s an evolution – my favourite way to describe it at the time was to say, “I hope nobody minds that I’m making this album.” You have these insecurities. “Are people going to like this voice?” “Are people going to even care about these songs?” To kind of sweep through Canada like this dry grass fire and then for Glassnote to pick the record up and for Daniel Glass and his whole team getting behind it – and then relaunching it. It made the B list here in the UK and that started all that interest here – and then America bringing me to work with Marsha Vlasic, and Neil Young and I now both having the same agent; he’s been helping me make my way in the US – and now to Yola. So to tour with Yola and get put in front of new audiences. That’s the best part – the unexpected return. Absolutely no expectation, no ego. And then to win the awards that come with it. That was an even bigger surprise. I never really thought it would go this far. I really thought I would make a CD and selling CDs was going to be the thing that paid the bills. That’s a really old model now, because that’s what my Dad did. So this is a bonus – and now it’s so much more – it’s a lifestyle, an opportunity to see parts of the world that you’ve never seen before. And to grow your audience. So now to have a follow up album is really great.

Production duties for the new album are shared again between Dave Cobb and Scott Nolan, the team behind your JUNO award debut album. Is having a producer supremo in Dave Cobb and the backing of a songwriter’s songwriter cum collaborator in Scott Nolan really getting the best of both worlds?
Scott first and foremost is a poet – and a songwriter – and knows the value of getting out of the way of a song. And being there to serve the song is what we always say. I was worried about going to work in another studio right away. I thought if it’s not broke we don’t need to fix anything. Working with Glassnote they pushed me beyond what I always thought for myself. Dave Cobb himself is humble and egoless for all his accomplishments – a music lover first and foremost – someone who again knows how to bring out the best out in a song, whether that be through adding layers or simply letting it breath on its own. And the biggest compliment I think I’ve gotten so far in my songwriting career is showing up to Dave’s studio with a dozen songs and picking the ones we wanted to work with, and him saying there’s really nothing to do with these but record them – which was a huge boost to my confidence.

Given their respective locations (Dave Cobb in Nashville) and (Scott Nolan in Winnipeg) how does that typically work in terms of production and mixing?
It’s two different teams – but it ultimately comes down to being mastered by the same person. Pete Lyman of Infrasonic Sound in Nashville kind of brought the levels up. I work with world class people in Winnipeg too. Jamie Sitar is a mixing master whose worked with a lot of iconic Canadian acts in his time. There was never any question about the quality of the recording of the material. And working with Dave before working with my guys again, gave us something to work towards. When you’re working with the best in the world it elevates your game at home – both in terms of performance, capture, mix, master – it was all made with the same quality and then Pete Liman was really cool to turn up the volume on the whole thing and make it sound like a huge record.

If the ‘Earthly Days’ album felt like the culmination of every song and experience you’d encountered over a decade long period, did the creative process for ‘Reliever’ feel any different?
I haven’t really stopped creating. I think I’ve lived just as much life in these past 3 or 4 years as the period leading up to the first recording. It’s been so busy what with travelling and meeting people and playing shows of all different sizes. I try to remove myself a tiny bit. I’m a bit annoying in that I don’t return emails that well. I’m always focused on living in the art and hopefully staying out of the way. That’s the best part about having teams of people like Glassnote and Sixshooter Records now, where they handle all those things. I don’t have to talk about money; I don’t have to talk about dates; I don’t have to promote myself. I’m lucky enough to deliver good songs. And for Glassnote and Sixshooter to just say “ok take the time you need – go and make us a record – and then we’ll go from there once it’s ready”. I’m already looking to make the third record. It’s been two years of working on this album and listening to it for the last year – and then I realise that 10,000 of my own listens does not equal one objective opinion, one subjective interpretation of one real listener out in the world, so it’s time for it to be born – it’s time to let the songs live on their own because there’s no use in just me listening to it and convincing myself it’s worthwhile.

Healing and empathy are adjectives that spring to mind for me when I think about you and your music – not just because of the new album title but in your music more generally and the way you convey yourself on stage. Are there any other themes on the record?
There is a lot of growing up in this; the confidence to make music the way I want to is the best part – I’m writing my own story here. Those are the things at the forefront of the way I try to live my life and be a decent person. I come from a reserve where there are tons of people in need of empathy. Everyone else working a 9 to 5 in their own struggle; I marvel in that idea that I don’t have a boss; I can just take my time and create from morning till night. The main thing now is seeing the good even in the midst of heartache and grief, such as the loss of my father. And my Dad passed away three months before ‘Earthly Days’ came out, so he never really got to see any of this. And then the following year my son was born. So parenthood – the way we feel about others, our children – that makes its way onto the record too. I’ve carried some guilt too. A catch 22 of the success is that it will take you away from those you love, but I’m doing a better job building a legacy, building a future – an orchard as opposed to a bag of oranges. It’s something that will sustain my children and family long after I’m gone. Long after whatever novelty surrounds this thing. And I also like the idea of not having to work forever. But hanging out with Neil Young now shows you that’s kind of the way I want to go too! I hope I’m still touring and singing songs from ‘Earthly Days’ well into my seventies. And I hope I’m blessed to live that long. There’s coming to terms with my health, wanting to live longer, because there’s a very heavy depressive state filled with anxiety and doubt, grieving for both my father and the relationship between my son’s Mom and I not working out – that feeling like it’s my greatest failure, forever on my back. But there are far more interesting narratives to this story than “it didn’t work out with your son’s Mom” – get over it; live – what good does it do to sit in that sadness; that doesn’t show your son how to live, to be a good person. So once I found a way to heal through that and found a love more suited for myself and put me in these places – and when you radiate these positive things – you attract more of it. So I think the fact of me leaning into the good is what’s helped cause this force of nature to surround me.

Seeing you live was a great endorsement for me of the power that showing real vulnerability brings – your performance put me in mind of that TED talk, “The Power of Vulnerability” by Brene Brown, particularly about how opening up is the birthplace of real connection between people and the path to the feeling of worthiness.
That’s beautiful. I think about Mary Gauthier’s TED talk about sad songs – how the world needs the sad songs. That’s what allows people to kind of free up whatever they’re holding back. There’s more positive things to talk about now. I never wanted it to be “woe is me” because in a world of narcissists talking about how hard it is for them, it’s nice to be described like you were saying as some kind of beacon – not a martyr – but willing to stand there amidst the crowd, whether it’s 50 or 5,000 people and say “look – I’ve endured through these things, I’ve survived”, so let’s talk about resilience; let’s talk about growth and strength. Let’s talk about these things, because when you put those out there that’s who comes and talks to you at the merch table afterwards – people say “God, I lost my father, I lost a wife, I lost a son” – and it’s like we’re all suffering – and all those people don’t have auditoriums applauding for them every week and picking them up, so I’ve a lot to be happy about and a lot to live for. And if my message through my songs in some way helps lead to this revolution of healing in whatever way – relief – then I’m doing a good job; I feel proud of that.

(Photos by kind permission of David Handley)

‘Reliever’ will be available on Feb 7, 2020 on Glassnote Records and Six Shooter Records.

1 thought on “Interview: William Prince”

  1. Thank you William Prince. For great music, a positive attitude, a wonderful interview and combining a rich mix of voice, lyrics, melody and damn fine Sound.

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