Interview: A.A. Williams

By Phil Scarisbrick

A.A. Williams on misery, metal and the homegrown theatricality of her stunning debut, Forever Blue

Within seconds of Forever Blue‘s opener – All I Asked For (Was To End It All) – it is plainly obvious that the record’s sonic tones will permeate your defences and keep a cast-iron grip on you. A.A. Williams’ theatrical soundtrack ebbs and flows from mournfully sparse to frenetic crescendos to create a dynamic and endlessly interesting listening experience. As stunningly beautiful as these melodies are though, there is a darkness that inhabits this record that makes it an uncomfortable listen at times.

‘I don’t think I’ve ever felt comfortable really so it’s just my natural state. My base level of misery is just a bit lower than other people’s I think,’ says Williams of the mood of the record. ‘I think I would feel more strange waking up and being really happy than doing what I’m doing now.’ 

Despite only making her stage debut in April 2019, Williams has already managed to release a wonderful self-titled EP on Holy Roar, following up with her debut longplayer on Bella Union. This swift career development has seen her have to adapt quite quickly. ‘I think it’s been an interesting learning curve because generally I’m quite an introverted person. So going from being like that to making music, to being on stage and being the centrepiece of a live performance is a very new experience.’ And it isn’t just the live side of things that has created new experiences, ‘I’ve been trying to learn to be more confident and not doubt myself too much. Getting used to the idea that the press wants to talk to me and ask about writing. That’s really cool, but not something I thought would happen so quickly. Every day is a new learning curve and it’s about taking it in your stride.’

The move from Holy Roar to Bella Union is one that is quite interesting on the surface, but for Williams it was more a practical decision. ‘I approached Holy Roar at the beginning because I thought there would be a kind of heaviness in my music that they understood. I thought that that would be a good starting point and it was great to work with them and to be able to emerge with the EP. In the end though, it just became a logistical thing. Now being on Bella Union, and being able to reach a new and different audience, and expand my audience from where it was before – I don’t have an intention of moving out from where I am, I just want to expand. I didn’t want to leave one audience and get a new one – I just wanted it to grow. It’s just about expansion.’

This ambition to reach new audiences is certainly reflected in the expansive sound of the record. The darkness of the eponymous EP still looms large, but the music crosses over several genres. A classically-trained pianist, Williams found metal music in her teenage years which created a eureka moment for her, even if she didn’t realise it at the time. ‘I think when you’re a kid when that does happen you don’t realise how that is going to make a difference to your life from there on. You just think “this is cool” and that’s about it. Then ten years later you look at it and go, yeah that’s important.’

The importance of metal music to Forever Blue‘s composition and feel though is more organic than willfully constructed. ‘I’ve always been interested in heavy music, but I just went where the songs made sense for me. I never went into it thinking, “Ok, I want to involve this and I want to involve that, and I want to try and get this in there.” The subconscious takes over I guess and starts to suggest things and that’s just how they come out.’ And this approach often started out in the simplest way. ‘When I wrote the EP –  and the same with the album – all the songs start typically with just a piano and a voice or a guitar and a voice. Then I record them into my computer and I start to layer things on. Sometimes more obvious stuff like a second guitar part, sometimes I’m just mucking around with textures to really decide what fits and what doesn’t. Sometimes you’ve got to put on a lot of stuff that doesn’t work to understand what does work.’

Another metal hallmark that makes an appearance on the record is the throat singing of Cult of Luna’s Johannes Persson. Used as a backing vocal on Fearless, it is somewhat surprising the first time you hear it, but only adds to the drama that makes up the record. Again though, for Williams this felt more of an organic development of the song than anything else. ‘It wasn’t necessarily an active choice like “Hey, let’s make something really dramatic.” When I approached Johannes to put on the heavy vocals in Fearless, I didn’t think for a minute, “oh this is metal,” I just thought, “Johannes is going to sound great.” It’s a different thought process I suppose, and because I like that kind of music just as much as I do anything else it doesn’t seem strange for me to be putting in.’  Although it does contrast with other areas of the album, Williams doesn’t see this as a problem. ‘There is always the concern that someone is going to listen to Dirt and think “isn’t this nice” and then get to Fearless and think “oh my goodness what’s that?” I don’t think there’s an issue juxtaposing these things and putting them all in the same place.’

The album itself was recorded in the flat she shares with husband and bassist, Thomas, which is quite an astounding feat when you hear the scope of the record. ‘Created in a small second bedroom that the estate agent said was too small to get a bed into. I think the estate agent was lying.’ Home recording was the choice that made most sense to them though. ‘It’s practicality more than anything else. My vocals for example, I did all of my vocals at home. Partly because when I’m demoing, I do it all here and the demo sounds very close to the original. Maybe the sound quality isn’t great and I’m probably not the best at mixing, but all the parts are there on the instruments in the right way, just lo-fi versions of the final track. In that process of demoing, a lot of the guitar parts and stuff like that end up staying there because you realise that you can’t recreate that sound again. You did it once in the moment, you were there and made a demo line of it and you just keep it.’ 

This setting also gave them the time they needed when recording with another guest on the record, Tom Fleming – formerly of Wild Beasts – who added backing vocals to Dirt. ‘It was a really fun one to record. That was one of the only ones where I was actually able to do it in person because Johannes and Frederick (also of Cult of Luna) were both in Sweden, so they did their vocals remotely for me. It was really low in his range and we spent quite a bit of time figuring out how it can work, or if there’s anything we need to change. Just playing around with it to make sure it is comfortable for him physically, because if it’s not you can tell on a recording. It was really lovely.’

The home recording set up is also something that will allow Williams to carry on working during the current global pandemic – something that she is planning on doing now that the release of Forever Blue has happened. Despite being able to do this, releasing a record at this time creates a number of hurdles to jump. ‘The ultimate challenge that we’ve all got at the moment is that we can’t play live. I did a couple of live streams last week and the actual amount of work, people and all that is required to do a decent quality live stream, you would not believe. It’s crazy when you start thinking about it. I’m not that bad with tech stuff, but I started looking into how to actually get this to work with multi-cam, all the audio and I was like “oh my goodness, I can’t sort all this out. I need other people here.”‘ Despite this, she also sees the advantages that smartphones have in the current climate. ‘The technological elements of living with this Corona situation has made things a lot easier, but there are definitely some things that have become a lot trickier. Engaging with your audience, I suppose in a way it’s good that everyone is at least a little bit online more than usual. Having said that, people can now go to the pub, so I don’t know if the evenings are now going to be so receptive. But ultimately, people being able to stare at their phones actually makes them engage more and connect with the outside world whilst being stuck inside.’

Despite Williams’ admission that her ‘base level of misery is just a bit lower than other people’s,’ her outlook on life and music is one that is pragmatically positive. ‘It’s frustrating, but also I’m pleased to have put it out because at the start of the pandemic I saw a lot of people saying they were going to wait to put their music out. Whereas I’m pleased to have it out, because people are engaging quite differently with media it’s not a bad thing. People are more aware and having more of a look around, maybe out of boredom, but spending more time on social media. You’ve got to take the positives from it. I’d rather that, than release when all this has been sorted – because, realistically, we don’t know when that is going to be.’

We should all be glad that she has this outlook and that Forever Blue is out there in the world. Despite being only eight songs, it is a journey through many dark and bleak moments set against a dramatically beautiful backdrop. As the final minute of the record whiles away with strings and bird song, you can’t help but feel captivated by what you’ve just heard. If this is what she can achieve in a little over a year and with a global pandemic to deal with, then hers is a future that we should be truly excited by.

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