Kathryn Williams first came into the public eye when her second album ‘Little Black Numbers’ was nominated for the 2000 Mercury Music Prize. Since then she has produced a string of excellent albums and forged a career free of the typical pressures and constraints of the mainstream music business. Her latest album ‘Leave to Remain’ (2006) was described by Word magazine as ‘emotional stealth bombing at its most devastating’.
Originally from Liverpool, Kathryn writes songs which are often quiet and always compelling with an accompaniment she has jokingly referred to as a ‘trellis’ of sound. Her gentle melodies, delicate songwriting and ‘crippling, vomit-inducing’ bouts of stage fright have led her, unsurprisingly, to be compared to Nick Drake, an artist for whom she has great admiration. In fact she made her first major live appearance at the Barbican’s Nick Drake tribute concert in 1999.
While Kathryn is widely known as a Nick Drake fan, her own songs draw from a wide range of influences and she began writing long before she had heard of Nick Drake. Perhaps the link between her music and Nick’s lies more in the delivery than the substance, a delivery described beautifully in the press release for her latest album Leave to Remain as ‘the immensity of softly-expressed passions’.
Kathryn is eager to point out that, despite being happy to be associated with the English singer-songwriter tradition, she has strong roots in American song too:
‘That’s more what I grew up with than the English tradition. I was listening to Dylan and Joni Mitchell… I also love The Velvets and grungy New York stuff. The things that influence you aren’t necessarily gonna come out in obvious ways, unless you’re trying to copy. I don’t sound like Lou Reed or Tom Waits. But when I listen to them, I learn.’
This influence can easily be spotted on her 2004 album of cover versions Relations which features songs from Leonard Cohen, Nirvana, Tim Hardin, Neil Young, Lee Hazlewood, Lou Reed, The Byrds and Big Star (and Ivor Cutler).
Kathryn was kind enough to answer a few questions via email about her work and what she’s working on at the moment.
NickDrake.com: It’s fairly widely known that you’re a fan of Nick Drake, when, and how, did you first become aware of Nick’s music?
Kathryn: I first heard Nick Drake when I was at art school, a friend gave me a mix tape of his stuff. It took me a while to get it but when I did I was really into it.
NickDrake.com: In 2004 you released an album of cover versions (Relations). Were you at any point tempted to cover one of Nick’s songs for the album?
Kathryn: When I first thought of doing a cover record I thought I could just choose all my favorite songs and show everyone what a good collection I have, hahaha! But songs choose you. They are like the people in your life, it's chance that you meet and then you click but you can't quite understand why. I don’t think I would have brought anything more toNick’s songs. The songs I chose were because I felt I could say something different. I did enjoy singing a couple for the (Under Review) DVD though, it always gets you into the frame of mind of how it felt to write a song when you play it.
NickDrake.com: Do you have any particular favourites amongst Nick’s songs or a favourite album of his?
Kathryn : I listen to all three albums. ‘Parasite’, ‘One of These Things First’, ‘At the Chime of a City Clock’ - actually they change and swap as favourites.
NickDrake.com: You’re clearly not afraid of holding back and writing understated, sparse songs (such as ‘Sustain Pedal’ from your latest album). Do you think sometimes a quiet song has the effect of drawing the listener further in?
Kathryn: It takes a lot of nerve to sing quiet stuff that people have to listen to in a live setting. I've lost my nerve and run a few times but I think there is too much big music around. Everyone wants to be the next big thing - where are the little precious things? The quiet love, the stillness and breathing?
NickDrake.com: Nick’s music has obviously had an effect on your songwriting, what do you think you’ve learned most from his songs and who are the other big influences on your writing?
Kathryn: It's strange when people say other artists have an effect on my writing. I wrote songs before I heard his stuff (and since) and the way I write is the way I write. I think I was more influenced by my mum and dad singing to me than by records I like. There is a big difference in being a fan of music and trying to emulate it. I have never wanted to sound like anyone else; this is just what comes out when I write.
The biggest things (which influence me) are musicians I work with, and what happens around me in a day. The fact that I am limited on the guitar makes me play the guitar the way I do. When you are being creative, you aren't thinking about sounding like this or that, it's the moment, and it can be a shock what you end up with.
NickDrake.com: What’s happening for you at the moment and what’s in the pipeline for 2008?
Kathryn: I have a record coming out with a bloke called Neill MacColl. We wrote, sang and recorded an album together. I think you might like it.
For more on Kathryn Williams go to http://www.kathrynwilliams.net.
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Where do I start?
We recommend 'Little Black Numbers'