Name: Astrid Williamson
Current Release: Astrid Williamson's Into The Mountain album is out now via Incarnation. For UK tour dates go here.
Recommendations: Middlesex by Jeffery Eugenides, Mozart’s Requiem and The Hissing Of Summer Lawns by Joni Mitchell.
If you enjoyed this interview with Astrid Williamson, visit her official website for more information. She is also on Instagram, Facebook, and twitter.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
As a kid I’d play on all the black notes of the piano as they tend to produce minor 7ths played together, which sound brooding and sad. My parents both played music, my dad plays the banjo, and my mum was my piano teacher, and there were instruments around the house, so I was very lucky to have music be such a normal part of life.
I learned fiddle and flute too, but I didn’t start ‘producing’ my own music until I was about twenty when I discovered actual song writing.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
Though I was studying classical piano and composition at the RSAMD in Glasgow, it wasn’t until I was twenty and met a guitarist called Anton Kirkpatrick who was a professional musician that I really began evolving towards my ‘own’ voice. I wouldn’t say I ever emulated anyone, but he was very influential and encouraging and I also learned about bands and gigging from him.
The first song I wrote was called "Katie Stood On The Benches".
I honestly had no idea of whether it was good or bad but realised later that the ‘joy’ feeling of creating was what mattered, and if it was missing, take a break. Forming Goya Dress in 1993, alongside Terry de Castro and Simon Pearson, I wrote on electric guitar, as well as on piano, where I’m more comfortable, writing these very Joni Mitchell circa Blue piano/vocal ballads alongside a PJ Harvey-esque powerful thrashy guitar style so it was never easy to categorise my song writing.
On Rooms, "Scorch" appears next to "Katie Stood On The Benches", and on Here Come The Vikings, "Slake" next to "The Starts Are Beautiful".
But this diversity can be good if sometimes difficult. For instance, in the 90s, Goya Dress never fitted into the ‘Brit-pop’ stereotype.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks about the creative process in his book Flow.
If you are fighting with yourself in any part of your ‘inner’ life it can be harder to achieve this flow state. Being conflicted doesn’t mean you won’t be creative, but it can be problematic.
I have found being authentically yourself will usually yield the more satisfying results. I think it’s something to do with the truth, personal or otherwise. Truth likes to walk through one door.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
I think I was guilty of people pleasing and not having the courage of my convictions. I’d let songs be edited or changed, against my better judgement. Back in the early days of my career, “Cocaine and chocolate” became “Coco la chocolate”, FFS? I’d not let that happen now.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
As a musician I play piano far more proficiently than guitar, but ironically, I found not knowing what I was doing on guitar was really liberating as a song writer.
At the start of my career, around 1992, I borrowed a JC120 amplifier, 4-track tape recorded, SM58 and a small reverb unit, from a friend in Glasgow having written half a dozen songs, and these tracks would become the early Goya Dress EPs and album Rooms. A decade later I would no longer be able to deny that I needed to use a computer and learn Logic, so from then I started to create music with this software.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
In the studio, Malcolm Burn (producer Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris) who produced Boy For You, once said “decisions are your friends”, which is my favourite phrase of all time. Making decisions was easier on reel-to-reel analogue technology. Now, in the digital era, I often drown in a sea of choices.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
I was part of a song writing retreat Kathryn Williams was running a few years ago with about a dozen other song writers. We would write songs all day and do a concert in the evening, it was quite frankly terrifying, but in the end fantastic and was a revolutionary experience for me as I seldom co-wrote with other artists.
Technologically on Into The Mountain, and the previous two or three albums, it would’ve been impossible to complete had I not been able to send files to other artists living all around the world.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
Doing music for a living can be very varied. Sometimes you’re on tour and that has its own dynamic. If I’m at home in Brighton I try to swim in the sea as much as possible, mad in January, but I’m assured by Wim Hof it’s spectacular for your immune system. Sometimes I run or do yoga. I started meditating a few years back and if I’m starting to lose it, I find even a 5 minute break meditating will shift me into a calmer place.
I get coffee and start to work on whatever I’m writing, arranging etc. Sometimes, especially at night I’ll hear something in my head and know that if I don’t go and play it or sing it and get it down, it’ll fly away. My phone is full of voice memos like this. I do so much music that I’m a bit lazy about discovering new music, but I listen to Gideon Coe who’s always playing something new and interesting.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
When I wrote ‘Scattered’ (off We Go To Dream, released by One Little Independent Records 2015) I felt I might’ve written my last ‘love song’.
I felt as if something had shifted in me. If I’d been writing music to ‘heal’ I must’ve healed already as I didn’t feel it was necessary anymore.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
Most important thing is to show up EVERY DAY and turn off your phone.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
When I was working with Lisa Gerrard on her album Twilight Kingdom, she once said we (musicians) are here to “soften the heart of the world”. I think this is profoundly true, especially if the ego can be bypassed.
[Read our Lisa Gerrard interview]
When music is flowing most easily it feels like you are a channel, and for want of a better word, a servant. I don’t really want it to be about me, see question #9 re ‘Scattered’.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
I think whatever genuinely moves and inspires you, will lead you to some kind of personal truth. Everyone is a unique voice, if you can access and express that and own your individuality that’s the most empowering thing.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
When I feel inspiration in my body and heart I know I can trust the work that’s unfolding. Maybe, usually, this will make me cry, but for happiness, even if the music is sad. It’s a paradox!
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
Art is vital to culture, which is why totalitarianism will always try to control, and / or destroy it. It can do amazing things politically, consider the song ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ by The Specials.
At the risk of sounding grandiose, I think art is the creation of the inexpressibly Devine in our shared human experience and with music, in particularly, transcends language.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
Music reaches the body in ways that bypass the intellect. Great music which makes you want to dance doesn’t ask your brain’s permission.