Aug 11 2011: An Interview With Kathryn Williams on Cover Versions, Ivor Cutler and Not Being Dido (Big Issue In The North, 2004)
The following interview took place at the Kensington Garden Hotel, London, on 29 April 2004, when Kathryn Williams was launching her album of cover versions, Relations. This was her fourth album, following her self-released Dog Leap Stairs (1999), the Mercury-nominated Little Black Numbers (2000) and Old Low Light (2002). A feature put together from parts of this transcript appeared in The Big Issue in the North the following week.
Wayne Burrows: First of all, Relations is an album of covers, and in the sleeve-notes to the record you mention that you put it together to escape a sense of ‘cynicism’ you said you were beginning to feel about music – could you explain what you meant by that?
Kathryn Williams: Well, I did a tour, and after that tour I was starting to feel I didn’t want to be part of the music business anymore – not music, just the business – and it was because I’d started to take on board other people’s idea of success. I was starting to feel like a bit of a failure because I’d started to believe other people’s idea about what success is – it’s to be famous, to be in the charts, all those things I’ve never really thought of in my life. I realised I was worrying about the wrong things, all these things that were beyond my control to do with the music industry, and I wanted to get back to thinking that I was going to make an album that I didn’t care whether people liked it or not, and to do that I needed to sort of fall in love with music again.
WB: So you went back to the music that got you interested in writing songs in the first place?
KW: Yeah, just to have the opportunity to get all my records out and play them, and tell people ‘hey, I’m a musician, it’s my job to listen to all these records – oh, and send me some of your favourite songs, too’. So my business for a couple of months was just to kick back and listen to music, and it was fantastic!
WB: So did you decide to do the covers record and do that as a research, or did you do that for its own sake, and came to the idea of doing the covers record through it?
KW: Actually, I did a gig in Regent’s Park last August, and I played Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’, which is a song I always play live, and people have always asked me to put it onto a record. I’ve never put covers on my albums before, though, I don’t know why, really. Anyway, the day after I had a meeting with my managers who liked it, and were interested in putting it out, maybe as an EP or something, and I said I’d rather do an album of covers. So they were like, ‘okay, go and do it’. By the end of the next tour, I felt I needed a change, so I started listening to these songs again, and at first it was just a hobby, I mean I already have my next two albums ready to release, you know, but they’re just sitting in the dark like lonely children at the moment. When I played the covers record to the label, they were keen to put it out, and I’ve been surprised they got it so quickly, but the result of that is that I’m slightly scared by the idea that I’m supposed to have answers to questions about it, because it was an album that really did feel just like a hobby while I was doing it, and I’m not sure I have any, really. Now everyone’s got a copy of my hobby, and it’s just a bit weird.
WB: I guess the most interesting aspect of it is the song selection, which is often things I’d suspect people who know your work wouldn’t imagine you’d have been into – not just things like Nirvana, but things like Ivor Cutler’s ‘Beautiful Cosmos’, too, which is such an odd, quirky song…
KW: Well, I’ve always loved Ivor Cutler, and one thing I knew as soon as I’d decided to do a covers album was that I’d do an Ivor Cutler song on it. But a lot of the people on the album are basically eccentrics, people whose songs will never see the charts, which isn’t something I’ve done to be snobby – you know, ‘bet you haven’t heard of this!’ – but because I love those songs and wanted to introduce them to people.
WB: I suppose Ivor Cutler’s one of those people who’s been around for donkey’s years, with one foot in the publishing and music industry, and one foot completely outside them both, someone who’s always been around doing what he does, but never quite on the public’s radar. I guess it seems like that’s something you’re interested in pursuing in your own career, to the extent that you seem equally happy to release your own records yourself, or to put them out through a major label, but basically just to do what you do?
KW: Yes, that’s another of the inspiring things about people like him, and it’s funny, there are some odd connections between him and what I do. First of all, there’s my manager, Alan McGee. When I first met him, he thought I’d wanted to meet him because of Oasis and all that, when in fact I couldn’t care less about Oasis. I wanted to meet him because he’d put out some of Ivor Cutler’s records. He was like, ‘ah, I knew I’d put Ivor Cutler out for a reason…’. So anyway, he’s now my manager, mainly because I knew he could appreciate Ivor Cutler. I really love the way Cutler doesn’t fit in or belong to any genre, and I don’t feel I fit in or belong to a genre either, which sounds a bit…well, you know, the usual ‘I’m so unique’ musician rubbish…but there it is. And with the record label, the deal I have with them is that I deliver an album, they either like it or they don’t, and that’s how it is, they have no influence over it, they just sell it.
WB: If EastWest don’t like it, you’re free to issue it yourself on Caw?
KW: Yeah, absolutely. Which is kind of scary, because you have to make something with your own money and then find out later if anyone wants it.
WB: One thing about all your records I’ve heard is that there’s a very stripped down sound, a very live feel to things, which I guess might be a by-product of not feeling the need to spend huge advances on studio time, lavish production and the rest. I know on occasion you’ve said that the demo versions were the best takes, and the versions that you released, so I wonder if there’s a preference there for that simpler, sparer sound?
KW: Well, previous records were produced by Head, but I produced Relations myself, and this is the first time I haven’t worked with him, so I now understand a lot more about production than I did. It’s driven me half-mad, getting to grips with the way you can move the elements of a song around like the parts of a still life. And whenever I’ve been mixing, it’s always come down to two options – add things, or take them away. When it’s working with just two or three things there, you should leave it at that. I do believe that necessity can be a great thing, and I don’t like to over-do anything, just get it to the point where it works and then leave it alone.
WB: I suppose you hear a lot of albums where it sounds like because they had 24 or 48 tracks, the band or producer felt they had to use all of them, when it might have been better done on just four or eight of them…
KW: Some of the songs on the album were recorded on 40-odd tracks, so on ‘All Apologies’ there are definitely at least 30 tracks in there. But it’s about trying to make it feel as though it’s just about wrapping the song up, nothing more or less than that. All the tracks – apart from ‘In A Broken Dream’, which is a song I got from a friend, my manager, who said ‘you should do this’ – but with all the others I was really aware that I wanted to do the songs justice, and I was aware I didn’t want to do shock tactics versions, like when people do covers and just bastardise them or whatever. Making the record for me was like buying a load of watches, then taking them all apart, seeing how they work, and putting them back together again. But pushing them just enough within the boundaries of their own structures, which was a really beautiful thing to do. God, I learned so much!
WB: Was that process part of the reason you decided to produce this album yourself?
KW: Yes, I think so. As the idea grew, I didn’t want it to become something it wasn’t, if you know what I mean. I think cover versions have a very bad press, it’s just not a very cool thing to do, what with all the bad Pop Idol type things, where people just jump on the back of a popular song to get commercial success – it’s easy, because if people like the song, and it’s been a hit before, they can just do their thing with it and it’s likely to be successful again. And I didn’t make this album for those reasons, this isn’t really my stab at commercial success here. It’s not to add to my cool or credibility either. I did it because I wanted to learn about how these songs worked, and also about how other people wrote songs. When you get involved in a song, and start trying to play it, you start to really question it. Doing this made me think about what possessed, say, The Bee Gees to sit down and write ‘I Started A Joke’, or how Ivor Cutler starts when he’s going to talk about a ‘Beautiful Cosmos’. Where do these things come from? And where do my things come from? It was like joining a club of songwriters, and feeling I belonged in that club.
WB: Do you think having done this will change the way you write songs, or does it just confirm things about song-writing you sort of already knew, but maybe hadn’t thought about too much? I guess spending so much time learning about the craftsmanship in other people’s songs might have an influence on your own?
KW: I have thought about that, and I’ve written a lot of songs before doing this, but having just started writing new songs these last couple of weeks, it is interesting to see that what it’s made me do is stop worrying so much about being strange with ideas, and to stop being quite so self-conscious about it all. I suppose it could have influenced me more directly, having just done this album, but it’s really just convinced me that there’s a space for all kinds of songs and approaches. All songs come from people, and people are different, so there’s a beautiful long line of variants for every song that comes from that. But really, it makes me feel more settled as a songwriter to know that just because my stuff isn’t in the charts, or because I don’t write around break-beats or whatever, it’s not rendered invalid.
WB: Didn’t you do a break-beat type track with Badmarsh & Shri on the Signs album, though?
KW: Yes, I wrote a song for them, and I’ve just written five more songs for the new album by them, which has been great fun to do…so yes, I have dipped a toe – maybe even a whole foot – into that more break-beat driven, dance music end of things I suppose.
WB: Quite apart from the range of people on the album, and the fact that many of them seem to one side of the mainstream music industry, it also struck me that a lot of them also seem to be quite reluctant as performers – people like Lee Hazlewood, Tim Hardin – who wrote songs, and did them, but perhaps weren’t the most enthusiastic or natural frontmen…
KW: …yeah, they had to perform because they didn’t trust anyone else to do the songs right!
WB: I wonder if that’s another feeling you share with those songwriters? Do you see the writing and performing as part of the one thing, or could you separate the songs from your own performance and interpretation of them?
KW: It is funny being a songwriter and the person who performs the songs sometimes, a bit like the two extremes. On the one hand, it’s about me writing stuff down that I’m too afraid to say to people’s faces, and feeling like I need to spend weeks on my own, within myself, in a room, and then going and playing them to huge crowds of people. Sort of introvert and extrovert at the same time. And I do get stage fright, I always have and still do, but I’m trying to get over it. I mean, I’m okay with people one-on-one, because most people are, but when there’s hundreds of people waiting for you to say something cool or funny after a song, well it’s just me, and I’m just there thinking ‘shit! What do I say?’.
WB: Funnily enough, I’ve heard the same kind of thing from several singer-songwriters, all talking about the way you can use songs to say things you can’t say to people’s faces, but also about that feeling of it being nerve-wracking to actually perform. I think it’s intriguing that so many of those who do this are in some way uneasy with it too.
KW: Well, I guess songwriters just aren’t the kind of people who’d go off and do parachuting or a bungee jump or something, and I’m a coward, so maybe it is like my cowardly version of the bungee jump. I find it terrifying, absolutely terrifying, to be onstage in front of people, but when I’ve done it I have a real sense of achievement, because I’ve faced my darkest fears and a bunch of strangers. I don’t want to be someone who just writes, and I try not to be shy, or to come across as some sort of fey, girly songwriter – I don’t want to be that! I want to be like, you know, a tough, motherfuckin’ rapper, or whatever. So every new year my resolution is to be more brave, and to say what’s in my head, and in interviews to try and be honest and avoid the voices in my head that tell me I sound stupid, and just get on with it.
WB: I guess it’s a sort of paradox, that song-writing is something that extroverted people, by and large, aren’t going to be doing …would an extrovert look that deeply inside, generally speaking? I suppose it’s an odd business, because it’s mostly less extroverted people who are up there performing.
KW: It’s also the same with writing of any sort, or even when I was doing painting. There’s the thing you do, but then there are other completely separate things you have to do in order to keep doing that job. Like now, you’re asking questions, but the questions are a completely different thing to the writing of songs. When I write a song, it’s because I get up and something inside me makes me want to do it, or something I feel suggests a song…not necessarily to be cathartic, and not necessarily to be noticed, it’s just in me, that that’s what I do, how I respond to things and process them in my life. The whole seed of creativity – and now I’m sounding really naff – but the whole basis of it is that creativity comes, and that’s what happens. So if people ask questions, and I start to explain my reasons for doing Relations, or my reasons for writing songs, it’s just a way of doing another job, which isn’t even my job, really, but I do it, and often feel like I’m lying, because there aren’t really any reasons for those things that I can explain, at least not in clear sound-bites.
WB: One of the things in the biog that came with the CD was a comment that you’d made, maybe jokingly, saying that the stage fright might have come from having to perform at school assemblies in a white denim skirt, with your sister as a synth-pop duo. It sounds like the urge to perform might always have been there, even if it turned out you were uncomfortable with it?
KW: Well, when I was doing that biography, we just chatted, and were having a laugh, and when I saw it I was, like, ‘bloody hell!’, especially with the stuff about “my sister should be ashamed of herself because she was 16”. I mean she’s going to phone me up and kill me when she sees that!
WB: But I guess the reason it’s an interesting anecdote, and maybe why it was put at the beginning of that biog, is because it does tend to cut against the image a lot of people will have of you and the kind of song-writing and performances you do. The idea of Kathryn Williams in an 80s teenage synth-pop duo is an interesting image and something unexpected, a contrast to your work now, isn’t it?
KW: Yeah, it is, and the thing is I never thought I had any history with music. I’ve got a terrible memory for things in my past, whereas my sister knows everything about my childhood. I have to phone her up and ask her if there’s anything I want to know. I just don’t dwell on things, or, really, remember much at all. So I always thought my interest in music started late. But then my sister tells me there are tapes of the two of us singing when we were four or five at my Gran’s house, and that we’d sing to my mum in the car, and she’d harmonise while I did the main vocal lines…apparently I was a very bossy younger sister! She says we’ve always sung, and we even wrote songs when we were in that duo together, you know, me, my sister, and one of those Yamaha keyboards with its own drum-beat, we did it with that. And then at 19 I got a guitar and moved to Newcastle, and played secretly in my room, writing songs without anybody knowing I was doing it. I really thought for a long time that it came from nowhere, but it obviously came from all those years of doing it with my sister.
WB: I know you began making and selling CDs, hand-painting the covers and so on, but did that phase of recording come before or after performing live?
KW: I’d done songs at a couple of local song-writers’ nights, and was making tapes of my stuff at home, and then I bought a load of cd-rs. I did a few local radio shows where they recorded the songs, and recorded a couple of things live, and put it all together as something to sell when I was playing live again, I guess. But I don’t know, to be honest. I get a bit confused about myself, and actually I really don’t know how one thing led to another, or how it all happened.
WB: One thing that struck me when thinking about what to ask today was that reading over some of the early reviews there was a real emphasis on how unusual it seemed back in 1998, 1999, to have an acoustic CD by a woman, and all the comparisons were to Suzanne Vega, maybe Beth Orton, people like that. Yet in the last few years, it’s as though you suddenly can’t move for acoustic CDs…a very commercialised version of the kind of thing you’ve been doing all along.
KW: Yeah, I feel like people now lump me in with Dido and Katie Melua and all those people, but to me they’re further away from my music than OutKast are. OutKast have that homemade feel, it feels like they’ve had fun, put the stuff together to suit themselves, constructed it all very craftily, and so I do get quite wound up about the way I’m suddenly referred to as being part of that thing. I mean, I’ve got nothing against Dido or…well, Katie Melua I’m not impressed by, you know?…but that’s personal taste. I get annoyed that people associate me with them, and call them female singer songwriters, but even if they do write some of their own songs, it’s all basically commercial pop. And I think people in the business still think in those terms, as though I could still maybe be some sort of commercial success for them, but I don’t think I’m populist enough in my instincts for that to happen.
WB: It’s been going on for a long time, though, hasn’t it? There’ll occasionally be someone who’ll break through, but generally individualistic writers will have more ‘cult’ kinds of success. Someone like Kristin Hersh, say, or Ivor Cutler who’s been going for years releasing records, but never really gets close to chart success or big major-label type sales.
KW: And how do you define that ‘success’? It is very much like that, and in a way that was the cynicism I was feeling when I began putting together this record. I’m ashamed I was thinking like that, but I was getting jealous that so many other people writing songs and playing acoustically were suddenly getting big sales and chart success, and I’d bought into the idea that I was failing and they were succeeding…which is why I needed to get away from the business, and back to the music. I don’t want to be recognised in the street, and I don’t care if I sell loads of records or not. I was talking to my manager last night, and I said that all I can do is concentrate on making what I think are good records, and I can’t worry about whether other people think they’re good or not. If I start worrying about whether the record company might drop me after this because it’s not successful, well, so what? I can put the next one out myself on Caw records. It’s not the end if that happens, and, you know, I’ve made four albums now, and I’m a survivor, and, well, fuck ‘em all. I’m just going to keep making music. That’s why I needed to push back from the industry’s idea of what success is, and just get back to listening to songs and playing music again. None of the rest of it matters.