Name: Tiffany Williams
Occupation: Singer, songwriter
Recent release: Tiffany Williams's full-length album All Those Days of Drinking Dust is out via Blue Redbird.
Recommendations: The artwork of John Lackey, based in Lexington, Kentucky. Southernmost or the forthcoming Lark Ascending by Kentucky author Silas House.
If you enjoyed this interview with Tiffany Williams and would like to find out more about her work, visit her official website. She is also on Instagram, and Facebook.
When did you start writing/producing/playing music and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I didn't really sing until college, when I was offered a choir scholarship, sound unheard—they only knew I could play euphonium.
I started playing guitar and writing songs when I was in my mid-twenties. I've always been very interested in music, from replicating melodies I'd heard on my keyboard to obsessing over the flutophone they gave me in elementary school. And as a writer (in addition to being a songwriter), musicality of language is very much a feature of my creative process.
When I listen to music, I see shapes, objects and colours. What happens in your body when you're listening and how does it influence your approach to creativity?
I'm with you on colors—mine are usually solid swaths that sweep along with the melody. If it's a story song, I'll play the scene out in my head. I pay a lot of attention to the spatial—where the sounds are placed in relation to each other and to me. I love picking out the parts and really noticing what each instrument is contributing.
Hopefully the influence of this is that I'm immersed and homed in on every aspect of a composition and how everything interacts to become a unified piece.
How would you describe your development as an artist in terms of interests and challenges, searching for a personal voice, as well as breakthroughs?
I always think of the taste-talent gap mentioned by Ira Glass. Even though you can admire a work of art and know it's good, and, even beyond that, understand why it's good, it's really hard to hit that mark yourself at first—the frustrating coupling of discernment and lagging ability. So I think knowing that my work was pretty bad in the beginning (and still even now sometimes) has been the toughest creative challenge.
But as a creator, you're always trying to close that gap between what you're doing and what you know is good.
Tell me a bit about your sense of identity and how it influences both your preferences as a listener and your creativity as an artist, please.
I'm an Appalachian from Southeastern Kentucky, and that very much influences the music I make. Home is a topic I keep coming back to, and I hope I always will.
Being from a rural mountain area, I'm sure that laid the foundational love of bluegrass and country. But I've listened pretty widely since I can remember.
What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to music and art?
Attention to detail. A deep love of words—their denotation, nuance, musicality, and synergy, when combined in inventive ways. A desire to tell the truth and to write songs that nudge people toward feeling or thinking things they might not otherwise.
How would you describe your views on topics like originality and innovation versus perfection and timelessness in music? Are you interested in a “music of the future” or “continuing a tradition”?
I really love a new song that feels timeless. I think that's one of the best compliments you can give a songwriter—your song sounds like it's been around forever.
That being said, of course originality and innovation are important. It's like with "dead" languages—a language becomes dead when it's no longer spoken and no longer evolving, as "living" languages inherently do. A dead language is an artifact, complete and locked in.
To be alive is to grow and change. I think that goes for music, too.
Over the course of your development, what have been your most important instruments and tools - and what are the most promising strategies for working with them?
Being in Nashville and co-writing—being really aware of structure and all that—has had an influence on my songwriting. You learn something new every time you collaborate.
Other than that, I think listening to songs I love and trying to figure out why and how they work. Finding ways of doing things and then making them my own.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please.
I work a full-time job, so it's up at 6:30am, fight traffic, work til 4:30pm, get home at 5:30pm. If I have any fuel in the tank, I create.
I wish I were more intentional about carving out space to create. I think I would be living a richer life if I could. But sometimes circumstances turn you into a haphazard evening and weekend warrior.
It always finds a way to the surface, though. If you're a creator, it'll push its way through sometimes, even at inopportune moments.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece, live performance or album that's particularly dear to you, please?
There's a song off my first EP called "You Were Mine." I wrote it after someone I grew up with died from an overdose.
For a week after I heard the news, I was sort of numb toward it. Once the weekend came, I was able to feel the grief of it, and that song followed pretty quickly as a way for me to process it. I cobbled together lines and ideas from various places.
My friend, when I told him the news, said that his grandmother used to say, "Some people are born half damned." So that's where the first line came from. And the imagine "I'd sit in your lap, chew your hair while you smoke Winston Lights," is me when I was little.
Not every song comes that quickly; some songs you have to wrangle for months or years. But every one feels like an unexpected, unearned gift. To me, at least.
Listening can be both a solitary and a communal activity. Likewise, creating music can be private or collaborative. Can you talk about your preferences in this regard and how these constellations influence creative results?
My favorite part of being a singer-songwriter is creating alone.
We talk about being conduits, but in those moments of discovery when you're forming the thing and you just feel it moving through you—either when the words rise up or when you're singing something wholly new onto the air for the first time. Those private moments of creation are holy sometimes. I think sharing your songs in performance can create a similar feeling, especially if the audience is really with you and feeling it. It can be a sort of communion at its peak.
And not to be precious about it all—sometimes writing is frustrating, clomping futility and sometimes performances are painful and flat. But the good stuff is always there waiting to show up again.
How do your work and your creativity relate to the world and what is the role of music in society?
"Art for art's sake" is plenty good enough reason to create, I think.
But it's so true that music can be a catalyst for real change—a rallying cry, an inspiration, a motivator, a revelation—on a personal level or societal level. You can run the risk of being too heavy handed if you set out with the intention of song-as-tool.
But I think if your aim is true and you're speaking from an inspired place, you can write songs that serve a purpose beyond "l'art pour l'art," and that's great.
Art can be a way of dealing with the big topics in life: Life, loss, death, love, pain, and many more. In which way and on which occasions has music – both your own or that of others - contributed to your understanding of these questions?
When I'm feeling a big emotion or going through something, it's not even something I think about—I'm compelled to write through it. Our understanding of the big topics you mention will always be colored by our internal resources and our experiences, but the great thing about songs and all art really is that they can give us new perspective. Or they bring to the fore or put into words something we vaguely knew already.
The Eagles line "We may lose and we may win, but we will never be here again" is one I heard as a kid and has always stuck with me.
Or Jason Isbell's perspective on God being "something like a pipe bomb ready to blow."
Or Phoebe Bridger's flash forward to old age, saying she hopes "you kiss my rotten head and pull the plug," which puts us right there with all the other organic matter.
How do you see the connection between music and science and what can these two fields reveal about each other?
Music is patterns and math if you want to break it down in that way. Cymatics is fascinating—to have a visual representation of sound and to see the way sound affects its environment.
There's also this really cool study / video of rappers' hyper-generative brains vs. those of non-rappers.
You can "do science" to anything. But the great thing about music is, you don't have to in order to experience it or to feel like you "understand" it fully.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you feel as though writing or performing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
Anything we do can be a creative act. I think the thing that makes the difference is being conscious and intentional.
We're all of us creators in our own way. Everyone is creative / generative, daily. It's just your approach to the act—are you resonating with the inherent magic of this moment of being alive or not.
Music is vibration in the air, captured by our ear drums. From your perspective as a creator and listener, do you have an explanation how it able to transmit such diverse and potentially deep messages?
Tesla said, "If you want to find the secrets of the universe, think in terms of energy, frequency, and vibration," and when I hear that, I think of music, i.e., if you want to find the secrets of the universe, think in terms of music.
So much is encoded in movement and sound—you can pick up micro-expressions on someone's face, even if only subconsciously; you can say a sentence with ten varying intonations, each giving a new or nuanced meaning; you get "vibes" from people and spaces. Think of all the variations in music, from the timbre, pitch, and tempo to the inflection of words. And there's meaning in all of it because we've given it meaning or it persuades us to interpret it in such a way.
Music is just another vehicle for meaning making—a multi-faceted and really interesting one.