More People Really Should Know About: Jess Williamson

Photo: Richard Parkinson

Jess Williamson studied to be a photographer and her songs can often seem composed with a visual as well as an audio perspective leaving the listener with images in their head. Musically. Williamson started out as an indie/ alternative folk artist  self-releasing her first two albums ‘Native State’ (2014) and ‘Heart Songs’ (2016).  Both recorded in Austin, the former is very much at the folkier end of the spectrum with several numbers featuring Williamson on banjo.  ‘Heart Songs’ emphasises the alternative with the instruments firmly plugged in and a slow burn intensity to the performance and vocals.

A move to Los Angeles and a tie-up with indie label Mexican Summer, marked the next phase of Williamson’s development.  Her third release, ‘Cosmic Wink’ (2018) continued the musical trajectory with a distinctive indie rock flavour.  The album sees Williamson wearing her heart very much on her sleeve celebrating new love on many of the songs.  Musically this is also an electric affair.  Then boyfriend Shane Renfro co-produces, along with Dan Dusyinski, and is also given three co-writing credits.  On ‘Cosmic Wink’, Williamson’s writing and singing is disarmingly open and passionate while musically the songs range from lo-fi slacker rock to the whimsical, taking in the swampy and the ethereal along the way.  In ‘Thunder Song’ the humidity is palpable.  As well as love, she addresses the uncertainty of moving from the security of Austin to LA.

The next Mexican Summer release, ‘Sorceress’ (2020), wrapped up just in time to be released into lockdown. Recorded in Brooklyn and Austin, ‘Sorceress’ has Williamson adding a touch of country to the musical palette with pedal steel a key component of the sound on several tracks. At the same time, the record also features a creative use of keyboards.  Lyrically, the themes retain the honesty at the core of her songwriting but demonstrate a wider reach. ‘Sorceress’  features some truly excellent songs including the intimate ‘Wind On Tin’ inspired by hearing a flute sound at a friend’s memorial, the celebratory title track and the beautiful ‘Ponies In Town’ which builds into a glorious finale.  All three featured in the sets of her recent London shows.  The album’s closer ‘Gulf of Mexico’ is just over 4 minutes of a meditation on aging and relationships and creates an awful lot of mental cinematic images alongside the listener’s emotional response.  Williamson’s relationship unravelled pre-Covid and the pandemic also prevented her touring ‘Sorceress’ although she did manage some performances from home.

During lockdown, Williamson teamed up with friend and fellow musician Meg Duffy (Hand Habits) to perform ‘Pictures of Flowers’ a one-off download-only single release.  As well as featuring some superb harmonies, the song also highlights the inclusion of country influences in Williamson’s work.

Coming out of lockdown, Williamson collaborated with Katie Crutchfield (aka Waxahatchee) to make a duo album as Plains.  The record was recorded in Durham, NC with Brad Cook producing as he had for Crutchfield’s 2020 standout ‘Saint Cloud’.  The supporting cast included Phil Cook, Mipso’s Libby Rodenbough, Andrew Marlin (Watchouse) and Spencer Tweedy.  ‘I Walk With You A Ways’ was issued on Anti- in 2022 and contains 10 songs mainly written by Williamson or Crutchfield set to a folk-country musical backdrop.  Williamson’s contributions include ‘Abilene’ which leaves regret and disappointment in the driver’s rear view as she moves and the almost spiritual title track with which Williamson currently closes a lot of her solo shows.  The album hit a lot of best of lists and attracted award nominations.

Williamson returned to Durham for her latest album ‘Time Ain’t Accidental’ (2023) with the Cook brothers playing a lot of the instruments with support from some local players.   Williamson found new love in the making and the title track is so personal as to feel slightly intrusive at times.  A side effect has seen fans asking for copies of Raymond Carver books to be signed (witnessed first-hand by this writer at a show in September 2023).  The record is wall-to-wall highlights.  One that would definitely get a smile of recognition in AUK-land is ‘God In Everything’ with its opening line “The boys back home all worship Dylan and Townes”.  An album that hit an awful lot of 2023 best of lists, it’s worth 36 minutes of anyone’s time.

The opening months of 2024 have seen back-to-back sold-out solo shows in London, to which some people travelled hundreds of miles, and a US tour selling out some pretty large rooms which may soon render this piece justly obsolete.

About Richard Parkinson 127 Articles
London based self-diagnosed music junkie with tastes extending to all points of big tent americana and beyond. Fan of acts and songs rather than genres.
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Jordan Ceri

‘Time Ain’t Accidental’ on high rotation since its release. Not one dud track… great music from start to finish.

Tom

Jess Williamson is such an underrated artist and has done some great stuff and has a great voice

I saw her in London in January – whilst waiting for her to come on at the moth club – I was near the front and got a tap on the shoulder and an excuse me – it was Jess trying to get through the crowd on to the stage – you don’t get that at the O2