Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
People like Victoria Williams don’t come around very often. Part front-porch soothsayer, part quirky bayou princess, and part eternal child, Victoria Williams writes songs of indescribable originality that embrace the earthly and the divine with wit, charm, and understated vision. She makes the line between songwriter and storyteller even more difficult to discern than it already is.
It is surely one of the cruel ironies of illness that it took an MS diagnosis and last year’s all-star fundraising album, Sweet Relief to prick the world’s ears to William’s extraordinary talents. Her first two albums, 1987’s Happy Come Home (Geffen) and 1990’s Swing the Statue! (Rough Trade), as well as the just released Loose (Mammoth), are like little else in the world of popular music. Moving through folk, country, gospel, and rock, Loose is packed full of ample musical evidence as to why so many have already fallen in love with Victoria Williams. With help from such noteworthy friends as Dave Pirner, Peter Buck, Mark Olsen, and Van Dyke Parks, Williams delivers her finest collection of songs to date. A quirky angel of song practiced in the art of dreaming and the poetry of rambling, Victoria Williams brings music back to the world of whimsical spirit.
New Mexico, phone interview, early October, 1994
Josh Kun I wanted to start by asking how you’re feeling.
Victoria Willaims I’m feeling good. I’ve just been out in the desert for a week, it was beautiful. You could feel fall in the air and the moon was full. Pretty wonderful.
JK I always wanted to ask you this but never got the chance. What brought you from Louisiana in the first place?
VW Well, when I was a child, hearing about California dreaming and that if you go to San Francisco you gotta wear flowers in your hair. (pause) This may sound strange to you, but there was this lady who worked for us when I was a child—her name was Mary. And Mary always ate in the kitchen and we would eat in the dining room. And that was a southern custom, I suppose. And one day Mary left and we didn’t have anyone else work for us after that. We would hear news of her: “She’s gone to this place called California.” One day, we heard that she was back in town, so we had her out for dinner with us and we all sat at the same table, eating. And I remember thinkin’, I wonder what made her come back and be able to eat with us. It must be because she went to California.
JK So how are you feeling about the new record?
VW Oh, it’s done! I mean, I haven’t listened to it very carefully—but I know I like it. When we were in the studio making it, it kept my interest up.
JK It seems like there are a lot of friends on it.
VW Yeah, a lot of people came by and played on it. That was really nice.
JK I heard a lot more gospel.
VW That’s ’cause I put “Psalms” on there direct from the Bible. The drummer actually wrote it straight from the Psalms. Did I do anything else that was a gospel song?
JK No, just the style of the backup vocals and some of the arrangements sounded more gospel-influenced.
VW Oh yeah, on the song, “You R Loved” I wanted to get somebody else to sing the third “Jesus” refrain. So I got Rose and Jean, gospel singers … They come in there singin’ that. “Yes!” Jean would say, “That’s the truth!” after she sang it. “And that’s right! And that’s the truth!” (laughter) She was beautiful.
JK Do you ever think of your songs as musical fairy tales?
VW Some of ’em, yeah. Yeah. There are all kinds of stories within stories in fairy tales.
JK A lot of your songs celebrate youth and the innocence of being a child. What is it about children that you find so inspiring?
VW Let’s see, there’s that ancient verse that says, “Unless ye becometh a child again, ye can in no way enter the kingdom of heaven.” And I thought, well what is it about a child? And then I thought, it’s unconditional love. Somebody’s scratchin’ at my screen door. Can you hold on for one second? (returning) ’Coons are nocturnal.
JK It was a racoon?
VW I think that’s what it was. I have this ’coon out here. He gets into my dog’s food, he knows all the different ways. I put it in a five gallon drum and he knows how to take the lid off that and he rips open the sack. So now, the dog’s in the desert with a friend and I left some food out there. Gosh, he’s just right there. I could just open the door and say, “Hey ’coon!” and look straight at him. I’m sorry, what were we speakin’ about?
JK Fairy tales, how they combine realism with magic and fable through simple language and stories, the way many of your songs operate. Both are rooted in the everyday but contain bits of magic and fairy dust—something special that hints at the otherworldly that lives right around the corner.
VW I think that’s a very astute observation. I see them working in the same sort of way. I have this fairy tale book by a guy named McDonald about this world we can go to … (pause) I had such weird dreams last night. It was really strange. It’s like they were making some sort of film and I was supposed to be in it and I had to get beat up in this film and I couldn’t look at the script beforehand. I had to just be there. I didn’t really know what was going to happen. And people would come up behind me and start beating me up and then say, “Oh, gotta go now, gotta go.” When I was leaving I looked at the camera person and I realized that he hadn’t been filming this whole weird scene, but only a corner of it. Very odd dream. Really kind of nightmarish. (pause) Let’s see, fairy tales. Maybe it’s my Welsh blood. I was told that before by someone.
JK How do you think growing up in the South, specifically Louisiana, affected the way you approach writing songs and making music?
VW It’s a bit repressed. There’s a lot of things going on under the surface and also some very horrible things that you see. But in the South the pace is very slow so it gives you time for reflection and absorption of things around you. There is an odd mechanics at work. One time I was home sick from school and my mother had been out painting and had heard that this woman, a neighbor, had gone crazy. And momma came back to the house and said, “Come on, you’re coming with me. Betsy’s gone crazy and I don’t want you in here alone.” So I went in my nightie out to the car with my mother and sat with her while she painted. Now, when it started to get dark we went home and there was this old fish on the door. It turns out that that crazy woman had come by and left that old fish on the door.
JK But it does seem to me, just from the few years I spent living in the South, that storytelling, exchanging stories, making up stories, changing and re-telling them—just sitting on the porch, was a major form of communication.
VW Yeah, stories are a major part of my life. Definitely. As a little child you went to bed by telling stories. Slumber parties at my friend’s house, we’d lay there with the lights out and go around in a circle and tell a story. You didn’t even think that you had to know the story. You just made it up when it came your turn. I suppose that’s probably what started me off really. It’s fun still. Have you ever done that? When a bunch of people are sitting around and you start to tell a story, you’re making it up and you can’t finish it because the next person has to come in and they take off from there and it turns out to be such a wild tale. Quite an interesting little game.
JK How much do you think that goes on when you make music, especially on the new record with all the friends who drop by to play with you?
VW It does, it certainly does. You have such different mixtures. You get conglomerations of different people. Everybody has a different kind of energy that they bring in. It was nice. The only song we wrote completely in the studio was “My Ally” [co-written with Dave Pirner]. It was a little picture of our friendship, really, and the celebration of D-day. All the TVs were talking about allies. We didn’t consciously think we were gonna write about war-type allies. But we were allies, friends.
Seattle, Washington, October 28, 1994
JK Victoria, is it through this process of storytelling and your love for storytelling that your love for the Bible fits in?
VW I like stories in the Bible. At different periods of my life I’ve delved quite deeply into the Bible.
JK Can you remember your first interaction with the Bible?
VW Apart from when I was a very small child, it was when I was in Louisiana and I had this boyfriend I really needed to leave and I couldn’t seem to break up with him. But it was a very unhealthy relationship and I opened up the Bible haphazardly and it seemed like it told me that I needed to leave or I would die. (laughter) Bizarre! It didn’t tell me that per se, but that’s what I got out of it, that I needed to leave and hope the best for him, but I couldn’t be in charge of his life. And then I began reading it a lot, when I was out on my own, crossing the country. There’s a particular verse that really makes me think: “The streets paved with gold beneath a layer of lust.” That’s a very strange scripture. Let me see, I’m in a hotel. Maybe there’s a Gideon’s. Yep, here it is! Good ol’ Gideon’s. (searches through some pages) “Lord, I cry unto thee. Make haste under me. Give ear unto my voice when I cry unto thee. Incline not my heart to any evil thing. To practice wicked works.” It’s all so good! “Our bones are scattered at the graves mouth as when one cutteth and cleaveth wood upon the earth. But mine eyes are unto thee O God, the Lord. In thee is my trust. Leave not my soul destitute. Keep me from the snares which they have laid for me.” Boy, there’s some good things in there. I haven’t been reading it lately. But then I open it and think, what has been keeping me from reading this? Oh well. I’m kind of drifting. I’m sorry. It must be because I’m under a fever.
JK I wanted to ask you about a few of the characters who are hanging around this new record, like Harry and Mary and Pappy …
VW Pappy is somebody who I feel very glad to have known who died this spring, right when my dog Belle died. And they were the two closest people to me and they both died within the same week. He was an old man. He was a friend I could talk to. Harriet’s his wife. She runs the saloon in Pioneer Town. Pappy’s Saloon. Pappy sang. He had his family band in the earlier days and he’d take the family band out on the road. And he’d say to Cheryl, “Cheryl, you’re playing bass tonight.” And she’d say, “Well, I never played the bass.” And he’d say, “Well, you’re playin’ the bass tonight.” They’d just pull into those places and play their songs. He had a way of makin’ people feel (pause) like they were all right. No matter where they’re comin’ from—if they’re convicts, or if they’re movie stars, or insecure little boys, or old women. He would treat everyone with the same dignity. I was just happy to have known him. His wake was one celebration. There were just so many people at his wake. Cars were all up and down the highway. Giant Sand came in and sang. You know, I toured Europe with Pappy and Giant Sand. And both Pappy and I got sick then, but neither of us knew how sick we were. We thought we had the flu or something. But a year after that, he got sick and he never got much better. (pause) Eric Burdon was there at the wake, and he sang, “House of the Rising Sun” like you never beard it before. That’s why at the end of that song, “Happy to Have Known Pappy,” there’s a piano playing “House of the Rising Sun.”
Now, Harry was somebody I knew when I moved into a hotel room in Shreveport, Louisiana back when I was a teenager ’cause I didn’t want to live with my boyfriend out on the farm and I didn’t want to go home to my mother’s house. So I moved into this old hotel. And Harry lived across the street, he was an old man even then. In younger days, he played guitar in New York at a lot of clubs. And I wrote the melody to that song, “Harry Went to Heaven,” when I returned from his memorial service. And then, a year or two ago my friend John had his hair slicked back and I said, “Well, you look like Harry.” And he said, “Who’s Harry?” We had been playing—he was playing drums and I was playing guitar. And I said, “Well, I wrote a song about him.” So I started playin’ it and made up those words to go along with it. But up until that time, it had been an instrumental.
JK One of my first memories of hearing you sing, way back, at McCabes [in Santa Monica, CA], is hearing you sing about your dog. It seems like, on every album you’ve recorded, there’s a dog hanging around somewhere. There’s always a dog in your life.
VW I’ve been fortunate that way. You know, that last dog Belle, she came into my life completely on her own. She just wandered in. The door was open and she barked at me like she wanted me to follow her, so I followed her and she took me on an incredible walk. And then I started giving her a little cheese every couple days and then one day she came over and she was cut and I thought, Oh, I better take her to the vet. The neighbors said, “We’re so glad somebody finally took in that old dog. That dog’s been hangin’ around here for about three years.” She became my best friend. But she just died this last spring. I wasn’t even planning on getting another dog. I ended up getting Mollie before Belle was even in her grave. She was lying cold up there at the vet waiting for me to pick her up to bury her. But Mollie’s on the cover of the new record.
JK Why do you think you get so close to them?
VW I don’t know, there’s just certain particular dogs. I feel like I can communicate with them. Of course in the Chinese thing, I’m supposed to be in the Year of the Dog. I’m a dog, I guess. I like dogs because you can go on long walks together. And it’s pretty much unconditional love.
JK Let me ask you about one of my favorite songs on the new record, “Polish Those Shoes.” On it, you sing about running away from something and trying to get home without being caught, and making it safe and sound back to “your own private hiding place” where you can “stand on your head/make a mud pie instead … lose complete sense of time,” you know, where you can do anything.
VW Yes, it’s kind of like a child’s game. You’re off in your hiding place and you’re playing hide-and-seek. But it goes from the childhood essence to the worldly condition. I was talking to this girl the other day who asked me for my favorite childhood memory. At the time I couldn’t think of anything except for my dreams when I was a child, of flying. I used to fly a lot. She said, “When you fly, your being’s in a good state.” Something like that. Maybe I was in my own private hiding place when I did fly. (pause) You’re brave to like that song, to hear through it.
JK I had forgotten this but in talking about “Polish Those Shoes” I just remembered hearing you sing “Shoes” way back when. How come you like to sing so much about shoes?
VW (laughter) Oh, the original “Shoes” was about “soul.” Actually, I made shoes into a metaphor for the soul. But then, on this new song—my husband thinks I have a shoe hang-up. I end up always putting on my old, favorite, most comfortable shoes even if I have new ones. I like to be comfortable and not be aware of them. I like shoes that don’t make you feel confined. But that’s another story!
JK So I’ve heard that you want to record an album of children’s songs?
VW I’d love to do that. I really would. I’ve written two children’s books, I’ve written a bunch of children’s songs but I don’t know what I’m gonna do on this record, if it’s gonna be one long story-type connected thing, or else just put all these songs together. I haven’t figured it out. I haven’t actually worked on it.
JK What did you like to listen to when you were younger?
VW I liked all those musicals when I was a kid, like Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. The Sound of Music, I liked that a lot. My best friend had a recording of “Tie Me Kangaroo Down” and we used to dance to that. Mostly musicals, the flute in Peter and the Wolf …
JK Whenever I listen to your music, I definitely feel something. It’s a presence. I don’t know how to describe it. Maybe it’s faith. But I think it’s more like spirit. And not just a Holy Spirit or Nature’s Spirit, but your spirit—something that is yours.
VW I think all those things are correct, I would hope. ’Cause I always say that my music is not really my own. It comes through me. I always say, “Thank God for this music and I pray that it will be good for people in some way.” Every individual is different. But that’s all I ever hoped for. You’ve given me great joy in telling me that, because I know it’s not me, it’s totally not me.
Josh Kun lives in San Francisco. His music criticisms appear regularly in SOMA and East Bay Express.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.