If “alt-rock countrybilly serial killer blues” as a genre doesn’t pique your interest, nothing will.
This is what Shawn Williams dubs her sound.
The Americana-noire artist tackles the dark, mysterious, and ever-prevalent problems shaking up the public in her poetic new single, “Society.” A New Orleans native whose spirit is guided by the hauntingly beautiful elements of Bayou culture, this somber yet jazzy single wrestles with the hardships of the human experience, particularly in her beloved hometown.
Williams doesn’t shy away from cut-throat guitar melodies fused with pure muscle jazz as she builds on tension, danger, and the city after sundown. With powerhouse frontwoman vocal abilities and a controlled Cajun folk twang, the songstress sets the scene for her listeners deep within The Big Easy.
The alt artist is no stranger to darkness, but Williams manages to tackle wickedness with grace all while paying homage to the historic culture of her city through complex orchestration and bluesy backup vocals.
“Society” is one of the first hard-hitting singles to be released from her fifth studio album, Sulking In Love, which was produced by GRAMMY Award winner Mark Howard (Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Lucinda Williams, U2) and features legendary musicians such as Michael Chaves on guitar (Marianne Faithfull, Leonard Cohen); Daryl Johnson on bass (The Neville Brothers, Emmylou Harris); and Omari Neville on drums (The Neville Brothers). It is a collection of songs that seamlessly weave together a multitude of genres, or rather encapsulates her “alt-rock countrybilly serial killer blues” sound. It is due out in April of this year.
Williams talked shop with us about the new single, the upcoming record, her views on the decline of New Orleans, and much more.
I see you’ve been busy with shows this past month. How has touring been treating you, and any notable highlights this year so far?
I’ve actually been on tour for what seems almost consecutively for a year, a lot lighter since winter.
I love touring and bringing the show to new cities and to cities that I visit regularly. I just played in Jackson, Mississippi, and Clarksdale, Mississippi, this past weekend. I always get so much love and appreciation in Jackson. Clarksdale… that energy there, you can just feel the rich music history. I played at the unique Shack Up Inn, a place I’ve played six or seven times. This time I had fans and friends of mine roadtrip there from different states, so that was really cool and to get to spend time enveloping myself in the blues was so magical.
It seems that you’ve created a very unique sound you’ve dubbed “alt-rock-countrybilly, serial killer blues.” How has this sound evolved over the course of your musical career?
People always ask what kind of music do you play, and for me, each song almost had its own genre, so that’s how I came up with that title. Now, I feel like almost every song incorporates all of those individual genres into one. I never wanted to be labeled a certain genre artist and neither does my music. When I write, I write without intention and just let the music flow into its own outcome.
How has your New Orleans upbringing impacted or influenced your music and creative direction?
Music is constantly playing around me in New Orleans, even if there is no audio spewing out… you can just hear and feel it in the air, architecture, people, cultures, smells, sky, conversations. There’s a continuous rhythm lurking and floating and playing and it stays within me and others who connect with the soul. There’s also this darkness and romanticism… and I think a lot of that vibe reflects in my music.
Your music consistently incorporates raw and honest lyricism, and your newest single, “Society,” is the latest example. What event or idea inspired this song?
I gave up my apartment in New Orleans to go on tour in my RV last May, in support of my 4th album release. I had an apartment lined up for when I returned last August. That fell through and then rent had doubled all over the city, gentrification taking over our city, chasing out people that are from there and the culture. I couldn’t afford the new rent prices.
So, I was staying in my RV on another musician’s farm in Pensacola, and it all just hit me. Society was making me feel sick… so much greed and corruption, homelessness in our city (and everywhere) with no help, a mayor who is killing our city, its culture, and trying to turn it into L.A. or run it to the ground. The pumps and flooding, the drinking water, the 5G towers popping up all over the Quarter, the violence instead of helping and teaching that there is a better way, the closing of so many businesses and the music scene taking a turn… it just didn’t feel like New Orleans.
I’m to blame, everyone is to blame… but our brains have been trained to feed into the commercialism and social media but only because of what the few people in control feed into us. So, I sat down that day in my RV this past August in Pensacola and away from my beloved New Orleans, and the song just came out within a few minutes.
Is there a definitive message or feeling you’re hoping to get across with this track?
I wrote it almost as a way for me to calm down and let out my frustrations. But what would I like out of it… conversations about how we can fix things and then have actions taken. Our leaders are hired to serve the community, not vice versa. They should be held accountable to do their job, just like anyone in any profession. We can all do our own part, starting with kindness and getting back to the basics of family and community and neighbours and what’s really important, not keeping up with the Joneses.
In regards to your upcoming album, Sulking in Love, are there any overarching themes or motifs throughout?
Not really. It’s not a concept album. Another album from me with sad love songs, haha. Hence the title. Although, I have to say, the love songs on the album lean a little more to the hopeful and happier side than my other albums.
How did you get hooked up with producer Mark Howard, and what made him the right fit for this project?
I didn’t know about this, but a new fan of mine had emailed Mark some of my music and Mark reached out to me. I thought it was fake at first, haha. Mark has worked with some of my favourite and legendary artists, albums that I’ve been infatuated with forever… no way in hell I was passing up this perfect opportunity!
What was the most challenging song to write/record on the upcoming album and why?
None of them were challenging to write, but I think the most difficult emotionally was “Lonesome Blues,” which is why I put it last on the album.
Where would you send people to see great live music in New Orleans and get an authentic experience?
Maple Leaf, Tipitina’s, and just walk through our streets to get the authentic experience with the second lines, parades, street performers, and marching bands rehearsing. Also, walking by homes… you can always hear someone playing some sort of instrument in their homes while you’re strolling on the sidewalk.
Who are you listening to at the moment? Do you have any current blues or jazz recommendations?
Pieta Brown, The Kills, Avail Hollywood, Andrew Duhon, and Leo Nocentelli.
What else might 2023 have in store for you after the release of Sulking in Love?
I plan on touring after the release and through summer. I haven’t toured in the states out west since 2020, so I’m ready for dat! I also hope to finally get to head back out of the country and do some tours. Maybe record album number six, ha.
Featured photo by Chris Dennis