#LiverpoolLessOrdinary exists to surprise you. Remember our ‘Ten Great Songwriters From Liverpool’ last year? Many people didn’t believe Kathryn Williams was a Scouser. Well, she is. The crystalline-voiced singer is something else as well: our greatest female songwriter. Nearly twenty years on from the Mercury Music Prize nomination that made her name, Williams is still regularly releasing records of renown and restless rigour. By Alan O’Hare.
When we published a list of ‘Ten Great Songwriters From Liverpool’ this time last year, all hell broke loose. Sure, it was the site’s first shot across the bow, but the interest went way beyond that. Scousers care about songwriters. They care about songs. They care about other Scousers. But they don’t care about telling you straight if they feel you’ve slighted one of their favourites! Etc. was inundated with messages here and on social media about the list. A pattern emerged, though, and that was that the songwriters we were alleged to have done a great disservice to all had one thing in common: they’d made the same record throughout their career.
The surprise (to some, apparently) inclusion on the list, Kathryn Williams, has never made that mistake. Williams, perennially described as a ‘Mercury-nominated songwriter’, has enjoyed a successfully restless and relentless career. “I’m always up for a challenge,” she reveals. “I like to make different albums each time, that way they become personal to you and take on a character.” She’s not wrong. The melodic shots of wonder that populated 2013’s ‘Crown Electric’, for example, represented the best of her most ‘pop’ album. Then you’ve got 2015’s taut ‘Hypoxia’, a collection of laments based on Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’. Or we can look back all the way to the turn of the century and the Mercury-nominated (there it is) ‘Little Black Numbers’, the record that initially introduced music fans to Williams’ gorgeous voice and lo-fi magic.
“It wasn’t perceived as ‘cool’ capturing a moment in time, but I suppose I’m more well known for those early albums,” she says. “I’m proud of the journey my songwriting has taken, though, and it’s definitely had the right trajectory. I was on my own label in those days and that wasn’t easy.” Williams, of course, was ahead of the curve with the idea of music as a cottage industry and can be looked upon now as a kind of pioneer for the DIY aesthetic (though she’s been the homegrown gem of One Little Indian for a while now). The softly-spoken singer, especially noticeable when you’re having a gab via a train that insists on going through tunnels, is the perfect subject for another #LiverpoolLessOrdinary, then, and one that can look at the city from an objective distance…
You’ve lived in the north east since going to university. What does Liverpool mean to you now?
I left Liverpool when I was nineteen, but lots of my family and friends are still there. I remember the massive influence of singing the songs of The Beatles, working at The Pilgrim and hanging out at Ye Cracke. My dad’s business was selling leather jackets and his store room was upstairs where Leaf is now!
There should be a blue plaque! Why did you stay in Newcastle after uni’?
They’re good people and it’s very similar to Liverpool, with lots of art and humour. I still come ‘home’ every month or so though to smell the Mersey… I never used to be able to smell it, but I do now! It stays in your blood.
Your songwriting gets under the skin of things, too. What’s your secret?
Jumping in and doing it! There’s lots of better songwriters out there than me, but it’s all in the doing… it’s a craft and I like to ‘point and go’.
Does that always work?
‘Hypoxia’ was heavy. It started as a writing commission to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of ‘The Bell Jar’, but I couldn’t stop after I’d completed the five songs I was asked for. I was haunted by it and touring and playing those songs every night was heavy.
I can imagine, it’s a relentless listen. Playing live used to always be a struggle for you, didn’t it?
Always. I was riddled with nerves every night when I started. I used to have to sit down to play…
… you’re a captivating presence now. What changed?
I remember touring as support to Ray Lamontagne when I was pregnant and something happened in front of those bigger crowds: I realised it wasn’t ‘all about me’. People will you on. That tour turned me around and now it’s an absolute joy to connect with people.
You help other performers these days, too, don’t you?
I run retreats, yes. It can be lonely being a performer on the road – I used to always be lonely – but at the retreats you can hang out with other people who do the same thing for a living as you and be there for each other. It’s kind of like giving back… the likes of Roddy Woomble (Idlewild), Chris Difford (Squeeze) and Michelle Stodart (The Magic Numbers) all get involved.
Like a union?
Definitely! It’s about serving other people’s creativity. The likes of The Musician’s Union are alright, but things are changing. People won’t buy a song, but they’ll stream one and the songwriter is paid something like 0.0006 pence per stream/track… a song pays everyone, but everyone won’t pay for a song.
Beautifully put. Tell me about your next set of songs…
It’s a ‘greatest hits’, but with a difference! It’s a collaboration with the author, Laura Barnett, and Romeo Stodart is producing. Laura has written a book about a fictional singer who has lots of success in the seventies and I’ve written the songs that they’re supposed to have had hits with… it’s funny, my label have been wanting me to a do a ‘box set’ thing and now I’ve written someone else’s ‘best of’!
Sounds intriguing. What else can you tell me?
After ‘Hypoxia’, I didn’t think that I would be collaborating with another author so soon – and a living one to boot! But I got a call from Laura after she had heard me on Cerys Matthews’ BBC 6Music show and she asked me if I was up for bringing her fictional songwriter’s songs to life. Since then, we’ve co-written a group of songs, cried, laughed and become close friends…
Another one of those records that becomes ‘personal’ and takes on a ‘character’, then?
Yes! It’s got a bit of an early seventies vibe, too. We were thinking about the sound of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Rumours’.
… which is a million miles away from the record you’re currently on tour with!
I’ve always wanted to do a record of jazz standards, but work kept getting in the way! We recorded the album live (‘Resonator’, a collaboration with renown jazz vibraphone player, Anthony Kerr) with ‘Astral Weeks’ in mind. I did lots of listening before we made it and got really interested in voicing and phrasing – it’s like the songs have been tailor made for you and you can just sing them. They’re great.
You’re bringing it to The Music Room at the Phil next month…
Playing it live is really interesting and seeing Anthony play the vibes puts you in a daze – he casts a spell on the room.
You’re looking forward to coming ‘home’, then?
Definitely. It’s interesting, I was never really a Scouser until I moved away. Moving away from the place where you’re from determines who you are from then on, if you get me. You become where you’re from when you move away.
The Music Room, Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool
Sunday 23rd April 2017, 7pm
Pic courtesy One Little Indian