"I was worried," Victoria Williams says with a laugh as she speaks about her new album, "Sings Some Ol' Songs." "I've never put out a record of songs I didn't write."
"Sings Some Ol' Songs" may be a decidedly different enterprise for Williams -- who since 1987 has captivated the music world with her distinctive songwriting and keening vocal approach -- but it still has the same attributes she's demonstrated on her six previous albums, namely an ability to take a song, any song, and deliver it a manner so individualistic that it becomes hers alone.
On "Sings Some Ol' Songs" Williams does that with 11 pop standards, a captivating collection that ranges from revered favorites such as Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer's "Moon River," Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies," Herman Hupfeld's "As Time Goes By" and the Howard Arlen/E.Y.Harburg classic "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" to more obscure selections like ??'s "Cobwebs," Louis Alter and Edgar DeLange's "Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans" and Eben Ahbez's "Mongoose." There's a unity of spirit and flavor that runs throughout the album, which is remarkable since Williams did not conceive or execute "Sings Some OL" Songs" as a distinct project." It's been accumulating for years," she says. "I had these sitting around, and that's why I'm putting them out. When I do live shows I include some old songs in the set, and there have been requests for me to record them. So I didn't really set out to do anything except please those people who have asked me, 'Can you please...' "
The tunes on "Sings Some Ol' Songs" hail from different points of Williams' career. Some were recorded during sessions for her 1994 album "Loose." Some come from the sessions for "Water to Drink," the 2000 release that featured recordings of three other standards. And the newest, her take of Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer's "I'm Old Fashioned," dates back about a year. And for some of the songs, Williams says, she had to go back to original DATs that were done at Chaparral Bottom, the home studio she and husband Mark Olson maintain in Joshua Tree, California, and add additional touches to the existing recordings.
Williams says that the reason she chose these particular songs was "the excellent songwriting most of them have." She recalls the indelible impact of visiting her maternal grandmother in Louisiana, listening to old Hoagy Carmichael, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland and Johnny Mercer records, or listening to old-time radio shows. They provided an influence she couldn't shake, either as an artist or as a fan.
"I always liked to sing the old songs," she says. "I feel like, when I'm singing them, I'm telling the story of those songs. I get a reward out of that." Williams revels in telling them her own way, however. "Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans" was a natural; "I'm from Louisiana," she says, "so of course that song just sits very true to me. And New Orleans is one of my favorite places in the world." For "I'm Old Fashioned," she sought to "perk it up a little," calling on drummer Danny Frankel for a more lively tattoo than is normally associated with the song. "Mongoose," she says, "is just fun," while she regards "Blue Skies," "Someone to Watch Over Me," "Moon River," "My Funny Valentine" and other tracks "as just classic kind of songs, with great melodies and really timeless."
"Sings Some Ol' Songs" adds a new dimension to what's already been a remarkable career for Williams. Arriving on the Los Angeles acoustic club scene during the early '80s, she was an immediate local sensation who sounded unlike anyone else in the crowded field. Her first album, "Happy Come Home," came out during 1987, followed by "Swing the Statue" in 1990. Sidetracked by multiple sclerosis in 1993, Williams came back strong with 1994's "Loose," while a group of fellow artists and songwriters -- including Pearl Jam, Lou Reed, Soul Asylum, Lucinda Williams and others -- rallied around for 1993's acclaimed "Sweet Relief: A Benefit For Victoria Williams," which began a series of albums dedicated to raising money for musicians who cannot afford health care.
Williams career has continued uninterrupted ever since, with the 1995 concert album "This Moment in Toronto With the Loose Band," 1998's "Musings of a Creekdipper" and 2000's "Water to Drink." Additionally, Williams, as a member of Olson's band, The Creekdeepers, has recorded several albums with violinist Mike "Razz" Russell and an assortment of other friends and musical guests. And with "Sings Some OL' Songs" safely in hand, Williams is looking forward to again recording some of her own songs in the near future.
"My goal has
always been that if I'm allowed to play music, I want it to be music that's
good for people," Williams explains. "And, thank God, I think
it's happening. I think it's been good for people. Music is such a gift;
it's something that we're given, and then we can give it back. That's
a wonderful thing. So I hope these songs (on 'Sings Some Ol' Songs') can
be gifts, too, and I hope I honor the songwriters with my renditions."
She has. Without question.
Renewal and remembrance are hardly new thematic territories for Mark Olson. They've been at the core of his songwriting from his first days in the Jayhawks. But on "December's Child," his fifth album anchoring the sparklingly loose Creekdippers, he brings those elements to the fore with a combination of fragile beauty, deep-rootedness and playful joy. And he adds the element of reunion with his first collaboration with Jayhawk Gary Louris since Olson left the band in 1995.
From the inviting opener "How Can I Send Tonight (There to Tell You)" through the sad-toned title song through the folk-rock evanescence of "Say You'll Be Mine" to the boisterous closer "One Eyed Black Dog Moses," Olson paints scenes of community and care, of dedication and love. And it's all drawn from the life he and spouse/musical partner Victoria Williams have made for themselves in the California desert, as well as from his Minnesota roots and her Louisiana birthplace.
"It's been part of my secret agenda, telling people you can't just live in a city, in a car your whole life," Olson says. "It's not good for you."
Spare and haunting,
the music too echoes worlds as far from the soulless rat race as is the
Built from collaborative efforts by Williams (electric guitar, wah wah banjo, harmonica, vocals), Joshua Grange (guitars, bass, pedal steel, vocals), Michael Russell (violin, bass viola, mandolin, vocals), David Wolfenberger (bass, vocals), Danny Frankel (drums, percussion), Jon Birdsong (trumpet) and Don Heffington (drums on two songs), the songs bear a timeless grace and unvarnished honesty.
"These are the people I like to play with," Olson says. "In their playing on the record, all their individual personality comes out. I have to take the lead in writing the songs and getting people in the studio, but once we're there, it's a group effort. They just play what they hear, make the decisions. Everyone pitches in."
Tapping that aesthetic sensibility and communal spirit, Olson offers the most personal and poetic songs of his career, none more vivid than "Nercestrand Woods," a fond recollection of stays at his grandmother's farm in Faribault, Minnesota.
"My grandmother on my dad's side lived on a farm, my dad had brothers on farms," Olson says. "I had a band that busted up - I was 21 or something - and not much was happening in Minneapolis, so I went down there for a while. It really meant a lot to me, those days. We still stop in at the farms - we were just there while on a tour."
In other songs just as personal, he celebrates the lives of a recently departed Samaritan of their desert community ("Alta's Song") and a cousin killed in Kenya while there in his duty as a priest ("Climb These Steps"). "She had a bunch of trailers, had a little thrift store and a lot of people trying to get straight from drugs and she would help them on the path," he says of Alta. "She died about a year and a half ago and this song is about going to her wake. She had all these friends and liked people like her own children."
Of his late cousin, he says, "He had a real positive take on life. I'm just talking in this song about keeping your head above water and keeping going. In a sense it's a political thing for me to write about this. I'm writing about these things because they're important things that society's been cheapening. What we're getting from the media isn't important. I write about family and people I know. I put them up as something that stands for something that's maybe a better way to go."
The thread runs through such other songs as the title track, drawn from the loss of spirit and sense of place seen in Williams' Louisiana, to the sadness of a child leaving home in "How Can This Be" to the joyous rootedness of "Back to the Old Home Place." And it's all tied together with a spiritual sense of love and mystery, as expressed in the exuberant gospel of "Still We Have a Friend in You."
"That's a gospel song in the sense of when you're younger, you go away from God," he says. "It talks about what it takes to get you back into the walk with God. A lot of times you don't go back until you're just down."
Where the previous Creekdippers albums were homemade affairs recorded at the Olson's and Williams' spread in Joshua Tree, "December's Child" was almost entirely done in one focused week at a small studio in rural Monticello, Mississippi in the spring of 2001.
"It was really fun," Olson says. "We did it while we were on the road playing shows and had a week off. We were on our way from Iowa to Atlanta and I just called [manager] Michael Nieves and when I said I was looking for a studio in the south, he said, 'I know someone in Mississippi.' A lot of times when you're making a record you've been home a while and not playing together. But this was when we had the group on the road and it was great. We spent most of our time recording, but always had to eat between 11 and 2 because that's when the cafes were open."
Williams says that
the combination of the setting and the songs made these her favorite Creekdippers
Basic tracks by Olson on piano or guitar and Frankel on drums were recorded in a rush of nine songs the first day alone, with the rest of the music flowing naturally from the band despite the unfamiliarity of the songs. And though it was, relatively speaking, a more formal circumstance than the recording of the previous records, Olson worked to keep the same feeling.
we made at home we'd try to keep to eight tracks," he says. "We
were using 24 tracks out there, and they did the drums on a number of
them, but we still like to keep it simple. Everything on the record is
first, second or third takes. When we mixed we even took some things off.
And my voice, I think it sounds good with spare sounds."
"Gary came out [to Joshua Tree] and had some chords and a few words and we finished the song in about an hour," Olson says. "It's a basic love song, bluesy lyrics. It and 'Black Dog Moses' are not as experimental as some of the other songs. You just get back to rock 'n' roll. And it was easy to record. That's Gary and me singing live. We had Don, who played on the Jayhawks' album 'Tomorrow the Green Grass' play drums.
"And 'One Eyed Black Dog Moses' is one we've been playing for years and years. Vic has that rap stuff, Mike Russell on the low voice. Vic finished that song, it's her co-writing with me."
Back at Joshua Tree after finishing the record, Olson and Williams have continued to build the life that feeds the music.
"We're working on a hot tub with a wood burning stove, making out of rock and cement," says Olson, who has also been adding to a massive, ongoing tree-planting project on their property, now having passed the 250 count. "I can't sit at a computer in an office. It's much better outside."