wears the trousers magazine

a guide to the new kathryn williams album, by kathryn williams
January 27, 2010, 10:03 am
Filed under: feature, special | Tags: ,

Back at the beginning of December, we gave you our track-by-track musings on the new Kathryn Williams album, The Quickening, her first for new label One Little Indian. If you recall, we liked it very much, calling it “perhaps the most accomplished album of her career”. In the interest of completeness, however, we thought it only fair to let Kathryn herself tell you what each song means to her and shed some light on how they came into being. So, here it is, the definitive guide to The Quickening from the fingertips of its creator. Anxious to hear it yet? We’ll have a free track for you on Friday.

* * *

This record was made in four days, live in a room, no more than three takes per track. No one had heard the songs before the recording. I wanted the musicians to play it without trying to emulate demos, to create a newness, a blindness and a trust. That’s how the songs took shape, us looking at each other, playing off one another, immersed in the song.

When I listen to the songs now, I can see that room in Wales, remember what each take felt like, with my heart in my mouth, wanting to get to the end without a fuck up! All of the nights round the table, in the cottage, [her husband] Neil’s food, laughter, drink, black mountains and wind at the windows. This record was given to me by the kind, open generosity of those people. Them and luck and fate, by a moment happening once…and someone there to record it.

Here are a few little things that went through my mind when making the songs. Some of these things were starting points, some just images that made it into a line or two. I always wonder if people get the same pictures in their head as me from the lyrics and music. I see the songs as shapes when I sing them, as journeys through pictures or film. If that sounds twattish…I’m sorry. It’s just I’m not good enough at explaining how the writing thing works for me. It’s a little world of rules I couldn’t write down but I work to them and around them, and I know my way around that world. I’m forever scared that the way of making the songs will leave me. But in the end, this is part of what drives me.

* * *

’50 White Lines’

Written with David Scott, former guitarist and long-term collaborator. I was talking about all the nights of travel you have on tour and how you are always leaving a city and watching it behind you. I said that I imagined I was on the run, and that’s how this Bonnie & Clyde song came about.

When I think of the song, it’s like a film. A close shot of two faces looking ahead to a border where they will be safe from what they are escaping. The adrenalin, the fast heartbeat, thoughts flashing like car lights passing by: “Lights on the dashboard darting like fish, if I can drive through this town I can vanish.”

‘Just A Feeling’

I wrote this song in the back of a car driving in LA. We were going up a big hill listening to… I can’t remember… but it was melancholic. Out of the window was the Hollywood sign and below us, lines of tall palm trees in really straight lines. The sadness of the song sounded more like a sleepy sunbather in this bleaching sun. I couldn’t believe the traffic. Coming in to LA the roads looked like molten lava, just wide moving rows of lights in the dark: “Our car in 20 million like a ghost.”

Being away from people you love in such a vast city makes you ask yourself things: “Is belief a scratch you’ve got to itch, what if love is just a feeling?”

‘Winter Is Sharp’

I wanted to write a song that sounded like a found folk song. I imagined a storm not bringing boats back to a fishing village. The hardness of that life, the toughness of the women. I asked Marry Waterson to sing on it. She’s the daughter of Lal Waterson, whose songwriting I admire. Marry has an amazing voice that carries weather in it. I went down to Robin Hood’s Bay to record her vocals. She lives in a farmhouse, on a cliff overlooking the bay. It was like the song was made for her.

‘Wanting & Waiting’

This is about working on the other side of a city, wanting the buildings to part so you can wave from your window. Thinking of them, wanting days to go quickly and nights to go slow. A longing love song.

‘Black Oil’

My son saw rape seed growing and thought that it was the sun growing. We told him it was a plant that they turn into oil. It made perfect sense to him because he thought there was fire in the flowers. The song came from that seed and grew.

‘Just Leave’

A wife knowing that her husband is cheating on her. I used feeling from my past to get into the role of the woman. I remember the sinking feeling, the weight inside pulling down, the shell of bodies no longer connected: “We’re both in the room… separately.”

A friend was so convinced it was about his situation, but it was written years before. Sometimes you write and then it happens. Sometimes it happens, then you write.


Thinking by holding on to the thing that’s burning will capture the smoke. When something is free and you want to own it, eventually you just have to watch it go.

‘Cream Of The Crop’

Written with David Scott, this is about someone wanting to climb the ladder. Knowing there is a space to succeed. “I’ve seen there’s room at the top, because first class on trains are always empty.” It has a ’40s feel to it; a gold digger, a chancer; but at the heart of it, just finding any way to escape where they are.

‘There Are Keys’

This is a train journey. It’s what passes. And what my imagination does with it.

‘Noble Guesses’

Written with Nev Clay [of Kathryn’s side project Ish Inventors]. This song is about Mendeleyev, who invented the periodic table. He couldn’t make the elements fit in any sort of formation. Then in a dream it came to him that maybe they weren’t all discovered yet. Once he had the holes, he had a table that worked. I love that the answer to something scientific is holes. And that dreams are where inventions sleep.

‘Little Lesson’

Written with Nev Clay, and sung with my sister Emma Williams. Simon the bass player was playing a sentir [a Moroccan three-stringed lute] in the studio while we were having a tea break. I came in and he was playing the music to the song I had written with Nev. He said he’d come up with it in Africa. I sang the song over what he played. The song wasn’t up for being on the record. [But that’s] what happens when everyone is staying at a studio and playing and adding and jamming.

‘Up North’

I wrote this on the same day I wrote ‘Winter Is Sharp’. It’s singing a song of where you are. Not where you are from, but how that place shapes you each day, how you become part of that landscape. I moved from Liverpool to Newcastle, and the place has become my home. But I left behind a lot that I miss everyday.

* * *

Kathryn Williams

The Quickening is out on February 22 through One Little Indian, followed by the single ’50 White Lines’ b/w ‘Nothing To Offer’ on March 8. Kathryn is on tour throughout the UK from February 21 to March 6. See her Myspace for more details.


3 Comments so far
Leave a comment

I really appretiate it when artists offer an insight into their work….yet not giving too much away…like Kathryns’ article. Looking forward to the album.

Comment by Rob Neal

I love this interview, not only because I love the artist, but because it’s rare that a poet/songwriter has the luxury of talking us through the album song by song. Lovely!

Comment by Ruth Gordon

[…] back with The Quickening (February 22), the first of three albums she’s been working on. As she described to us earlier this week, the record was made over four days with no more than three takes per track, and […]

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