Personally, I find that few secular songs can get away with peppering in “Hallelujah” as its hook, and not sound anything like Leonard Cohen’s infamous song of the same title.
For Chelsea Williams, however, the task sounds quite simple upon listening to her single “Dust.” Williams’ latest album, Beautiful and Strange, which hit streaming services earlier this month, is certainly an eclectic collection of music that’s hard to pin down (in a seriously cool way).
In listening to “Dust,” my mind floats towards a celestial Priscilla Ahn-sound because of the lush vocal harmonies and panning Fender Rhodes keys throughout. After hearing the album, I caught glimpses of the Dixie Chicks and Joni Mitchell in her tone (a modern day space cowgirl comes to mind due to Williams’ unique use of instruments). Her husband and producer, Ross Garren, helped enliven the album’s influences from Hank Williams, to The Beatles, to Pink Floyd. See: “Muskegon” and “Something Sweet” for a point of reference. Before getting too comfortable with her sound, the steel guitar weaves throughout her discography, keeping you on your toes for each soundscape she captures.
When it comes to her songwriting, singing, and performance, Williams’ fondly regards busking as “an important part of [her] core identity,” to this day. Beyond this, her mother (a vocal instructor) lent her a few tips and tricks on singing along the way. Her Patsy Cline-esque production shamelessly pays homage to the way she allows just enough room for her voice to permeate amongst its instrumental counterparts (including, but not limited to: the toy piano, acoustic guitar, steel guitar, Rhodes piano, and other clever noisemakers of the sort).
We got to talking with Williams about all things inspiration (from psychedelic to Americana), production, the idea behind the album, and more.
So your single “Dust” is what initially caught our ear. What’s the central idea and inspiration behind this track?
“Dust” sprang out of my passion for human equality and my frustration with how difficult it seems to attain. Growing up, I was taught that it was our diverse citizens and our ability/willingness to lend a helping hand to those in need that made America a great country. It’s frustrating when I see the opposite being preached by some in power. So this song developed out of that notion and the hope that one day enough people can rise up and spark change for the better.
There’s a cool symphonic moment in the outro, which was a lovely contrast from the beginning’s solo cello and wurly vibe section. How would you say the lyrics relate to the almost celestial music behind it?
Lyrically this song starts out pretty personal and introspective but when the chorus hits it sort of blossoms into a big euphoric statement, “Hallelujah, I’m finally free”. I think the layered musical outro really expresses the hopeful euphoria of the chorus lyrics.
Your album Beautiful and Strange dropped May 8th. Can you tell me more about what influenced this collection of songs?
Before the release of this record, I hadn’t released a new record for three years. So a lot of these songs were written in that window. But some of them came from my digging through old unreleased material and excavating whole and partial songs. It was a fun process. Kind of like reading old journal entries. It was a fun challenge to try and pinpoint what genre you might fit into.
Who would you say are your primary vocal, lyrical, and musical inspirations?
My influences are all over the board. I grew up listening to classic rock artists like Yes and Pink Floyd and country artists like Hank Williams and Patsy Cline. Definitely went heavy on the Beatles for a while and they influenced me a ton musically. Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell were big heroes of mine lyrically along with more modern artists like The Wood Brothers. Oliver Wood is brilliant.
If you could open for any artist, dead or alive, who might it be?
Wow, that’s tough. But I think I’m gonna go with Willie Nelson. I’ve never seen him play live so opening him would kill two birds with one stone.
What does your songwriting process look like?
It definitely varies from song to song. Sometimes I sit down with a guitar specifically to write and other times an idea hits me while I’m driving or something and I’ll have to record a voice memo. But lately I’ve been having fun writing on different instruments like the autoharp or banjo. I don’t play them that well but there’s something about the mind set change of playing a new instrument that opens up the songwriting process for me.
The waltzing acoustic guitar sandwiching the trippy echo riff section sneaks up on you in “Something Sweet,” in a super cool way! Who were your musical inspirations behind this one?
That section of “Something Sweet” was heavily influenced by The Beatles. I even sing some lyrics from “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” in that section. And the vocal going through the Leslie speaker is a total throw back to their musical production style.
If the pandemic magically disappeared tomorrow, how and where might you spend your day in LA?
I really miss live music (both playing and listening). And I definitely miss my yoga studio. I used to take the train to class and back. Oh the good ol’ days.
I noticed that you and your husband (Ross Garren) worked together on producing Beautiful and Strange, which indeed contains a vast range of beautiful and strange compositional styles. Did y’all go into the recording process with the intent to make such a sonically dynamic album?
Absolutely. One of the albums we used for inspiration was Harry Nillsson’s Nilsson Schmilsson. That record is all over the board from classic pop ballads to psychedelic jams and everywhere in between. It feels like a journey through space and time and that was an aspect that I wanted to emulate on Beautiful and Strange.
Do you have a favorite cafe or bar spot when visiting Nashville?
I haven’t gotten a ton of time to just hang in Nashville. Whenever I come in, I’m there for 1 night playing a gig and gone the next day. But I did make it to Jack White’s record shop (Third Man Records) the last time I was in town. And even recorded in the straight to vinyl recording machine they have there. So much fun!
And finally, what’s something you hope people will take away from these incredibly strange, tough, and gratifying times?
Firstly, I really hope we all walk away from this with a better appreciation for “essential workers” (Medical staff, people in food production, anyone working at a grocery store or pharmacy… the list goes on) and hopefully better pay for these people. And I hope we come out of this as a more united nation and realize that we’re all in this together no matter where you were born, your skin color, what gender you identify as or what political party you support. I hope we can all be a bit more empathetic and loving towards each other.