As a student covering local music for the school paper and radio station at University of Texas, Jess Williamson became so inspired by the artists she observed and interacted with that she started writing music of her own, developing a knack for creating gorgeous, unconventionally-structured indie folk on guitar and banjo.
Following an EP, “Medicine Wheel / Death Songs,” in 2011 and a stint in New York City, she returned to Austin where she released her debut full-length, Native State on her own label, Brutal Honest, in 2014. The album received accolades for its stark, confessional, and often dark songs that were born out of a period of quiet and reflection in Williamson’s life.
Williamson will perform at She Shreds’ SXSW party at Studium on March 19 but before the festival action gets underway we caught up with her to learn more about her path as a songwriter and musician, and how she went from a solo artist to forming a full band.
You were inspired to start playing music while you were studying at the University of Texas. Did those activities shape your approach to music when you began writing your own songs?
From observing other musicians, I learned what kind of musician I wanted to be, and by that I mean in regard to attitude. I went to so many shows and saw bands that looked like they didn’t want to be there. I would be jealous of their opportunity, wishing I could be doing what they were doing, and they’re up there looking bored! To be fair, I’m sure a lot times that was due to nervousness, which we all have our own ways of mitigating. But being a music fan and audience member for so long helped me to really appreciate the privilege of playing music for people. I hope that never goes away. The love for this kind of lifestyle is something I have to hold onto and take care of like a delicate little treasure. Sometimes it is hard and it can be easy to go to a negative place, but musicians are so lucky to be able to live this way.
For that matter, has your background in media and communications shaped your approach to lyrics?
I was a writer before I ever played an instrument, so the lyrics are the most important part of the songs for me. Usually the words start coming to me first and I shape the music around them.
What drew you to the banjo? What is something you think most guitarists and bassists don’t understand about the instrument?
When I was in college some friends of mine lived in this house called Rancho Relaxo and they would have shows in their backyard and basement. It was such a special time. I saw this guy Ralph White play there, he’s been in Austin forever and he is an incredible musician. He plays a lot of instruments, but that night it was mostly banjo and I’d never heard anything like it. He brings his own style to it and I was blown away. I started learning to play the banjo like a week later.
Native State was written shortly after your return to Austin after living in New York and its title song describes growing weary of the world outside your hometown. How did the experience of leaving your hometown and returning affect your songwriting?
When I got back to Texas I felt this weight like a warm blanket but also like a skin I needed to shed. It was a powerful and transformative time where I realized I needed to change a lot about myself. I’m very grateful for it. I spent a lot of time alone and finished writing the record. When I was in New York I was projecting a lot of energy outward because I was new there and I wanted to make friends. Connection is a beautiful thing, but at that time in my life I was younger and seeking validation from others. I neglected my own inner world. Coming back to Texas was a time of looking within and being still.
Native State has some very dark, isolated overtones that you have attributed to that particular time in your life. Two years later, do you find yourself writing songs in that same vein, or have you moved into new musical ground. If so, how?
I’ve been playing with a full band for about 2 years now and the sound is really evolving, and I’m still drawn to the darkness. I’m a pretty happy person in general but that’s just not where the songs come from.
How did you pull your band together? How has playing with others impacted your performance and songwriting?
It happened gradually and I still pinch myself because I feel so fortunate to have them playing with me. My drummer Andrew Stevens approached me before I’d ever considered playing with a drummer. I was very skeptical at first because it was new territory for me, but after our first practice I knew it was a perfect match. He mentioned having this freaky friend in New Orleans who was an amazing musician and down to tour, and the next thing we knew, Jesse Kees moved to Austin and he plays bass with us. I’ve known Shane Renfro for a long time. I asked him to play guitar with us when we went on tour with his band RF Shannon, and fortunately he has stuck around. It’s a beautiful little weird union the four of us have and I hope none of them quit. They’re each incredibly talented and I love them very much. They help me with the songs and add so much magic. I’m not alone in this anymore. It’s been maybe the most nourishing relationship of my life.
Austin and its music community are in a state of change these days. For example, the Austin American-Statesmen has reported the loss of over 1200 music jobs in the last four years. What is the climate like for independent musicians? What are the pros and cons compared to 5-10 years ago?
Even with all the weird changes, I still feel like it’s a great place to get started with music. There is a strong sense of community within the music scene; it’s incredible. The problem is that Austin as a city is a really desperate slave to the almighty dollar. It’s a bad look, a little embarrassing. I’ve long said we need a Design Czar in this town that has to approve every building that goes up because so many of them are heinous. I would like to choose the Design Czar. Anyway, artists are getting pushed out. A lot of people with money are drawn to Austin because it has this reputation for being a creative and special place, but this influx of newcomers is directly responsible for uprooting creative types. So people are moving here for an idea, a concept, but what they’re getting is an overpriced condo haunted by the ghost of what Austin once was. We all just keep heading east. Lockhart is the new Brooklyn, you heard it here first!
Do you have a favorite (or dream) piece of gear?
I’m not really a gear person; I like to have a real simple set up. My guitar is rad. It’s a special edition Fender Jaguar Thinline that I got for a great price at my friend’s shop called Street Legal Guitars here in Austin. I like to think it releases the Jaguar within me.
As a local, what is the first thing you’d recommend to other musicians traveling to your town for SXSW?
Just know it’s not always this crazy, and go swimming.
What’s next for Jess Williamson?
We are finishing a new record that will come out this year. Pretty stoked on that!