Bee-keeping, baby-delivering trainee shaman produces her bird-based masterpiece.
I’m stood in the basement dressing room at Manchester’s Night & Day venue. I’m looking for Gemma Williams – the brains behind the beguiling Woodpecker Wooliams project – but she’s nowhere to be found. In front of me, just next to the doorway, is an area of wall-space entitled ‘The Dick Wall’. It’s a large, graffiti-clad section of bare plaster on which musicians throughout the years have drawn pictures of, er, well, penises. It’s a monument to phallic art and, as I’m about to interview a woman I’ve never met before, its glorious display of schoolboy humour is a tad embarrassing.
However, when Gemma appears any fears of uneasy awkwardness are instantly allayed. She giggles at ‘The Dick Wall’ and reminds me that the title of her website-cum-blog is the avian-inspired ‘Titting Around’. We conclude that tits and dicks are acceptable ice-breakers.
I’ve been really eager to meet Gemma. Her album, ‘The Bird School Of Being Human’, is a seven-song delight. Each track is named after a bird and showcases Williams’ honeyed vocal amid a backdrop of gorgeous harp, electronica and nagging drone. In short, it’s a remarkable record. Before commencing our interview, Gemma quickly consumes the provisions she’s just procured – a chocolate mousse, a bottle of 7.3% strength beer and a small plastic shot glass containing a blue liquid. Personally, I don’t recommend imbibing anything blue-coloured but Gemma is a trooper and drinks it anyway.
I have a stack of questions for Gemma. Even by a musician’s standards, Williams has an extremely unusual and varied list of past achievements. First up, she’s a trained midwife and while I was in a state of mild-to-moderate hysteria when witnessing the arrival of my two children, Gemma has a more worldly view on the majesty of birth. “It’s absolutely humbling,” she says. “Being present at such an emotional time for the families – at the start of a person’s life – is one of the most memorable experiences, even if you are trying to be the voice of calm in a bonkers situation.”
A keen nature-lover, Williams is also a beekeeper (“I have three hives with probably 20,000 bees in each one”) and reveals a deep affinity with her army of honey-makers. “They are the balance makers of the natural world,” she says, almost wistfully. “They hold so much wisdom; there is so much to learn from their infrastructure and the way they interact with their environment.” Also, on her 20th birthday, Gemma was initiated onto a shamanic path and spent several years training in the art of shamanism. A bee-keeping, baby-delivering trainee shaman – Gemma Williams was always going to make extraordinary music.
And Williams’ path into music was not straightforward. Her mother suffered from a condition which meant she couldn’t tolerate high-pitched or repetitive sounds, meaning Gemma’s childhood was largely devoid of music. It took more medical misfortune to trigger her first steps as a musician. “I was in a midwifery lecture and I collapsed and had a seizure,” Gemma tells me, taking up the story. “I kept having them for a couple of months. They thought it might be epilepsy but it turned out it wasn’t. It’s completely gone now. But, it made me leave the [nursing] training – I took some time off and moved to the countryside to try and get a new perspective on what I was doing. Previously, when I left university I went to live in a commune in Scotland with musicians but I was always really timid and didn’t have the confidence to involve myself. But, there was nothing else to do in the countryside so I thought I’d give it a go.”
“I’ve always enjoyed singing but was afraid of it. I didn’t really understand the guitar – two hands doing different things – and I didn’t know how I could make anything different with a guitar. I just wanted an instrument [that] I could play and sing at the same time. There was a music shop that was hiring harps out for £6 per month – I got a little Celtic harp - and if you hired for enough months up to the price it cost to buy it, you could just keep it.”
Williams has mixed feeling about her initial forays into recorded music. “They’ve been released and I am quite squeamish about them now. They are very wonky and naive – they are just testing the water. My singing is quite nervous; it took me some time to find out how my voice works. It was a bit squeaky at the beginning. The songs were a bit too folky in a naff way.”
If her previous releases were ‘naff’ and ‘folky’, ‘The Bird School Of Being Human’ is anything but. It’s a lo-fi kaleidoscope of brooding beauty and splashes of violence. Williams’ utilisation of delicate harp aside muggy electronica conjures mesmeric textures and a rich emotional landscape and I’m intrigued how she made the leap between the brutal feedback fury of a track like ‘Gull’ and her previous folk-tinged offerings. “I just felt it was important to get more balance,” she reveals. “The music I had been making before I felt was quite sweet and my voice was very high, which it can be naturally, but the results were too sweet when accompanied by a harp. It kind of made me feel a bit sick. I like to try and seek out balance in everything. I wanted to sprinkle something in that would hopefully make it more palatable.”
The resultant ‘The Bird School Of Being Human’ is more than just ‘palatable’. It is a quasi-concept album in which the characters of each song are aviomorphised (I might have made that word up) into a different bird. “I hadn’t written any new music for a little while,” Gemma explains, when I enquire as to how she got the idea for the album. “I had been having quite a difficult patch in my life. I went away to Italy on tour and just relaxed. I’d gotten out of Brighton and hit the road and became aware of songs bubbling up – they were like percolating. I always think it’s like a pregnancy – going back to my midwifery – you can almost feel something growing but you cannot necessarily sense the shape of it. I felt I needed a map of how to exist. The human world seemed pretty tough at the time. I have an affinity with birds and the natural world and that seemed to be what crept into my psyche and made a plea. I’d needed a way to feel human and the bird stories helped me out.”
I ask her which came first, the bird or the song. “The bird always came first. Sometimes it was appearing physically in books or in pictures. The first song was ‘Red Kite’ and I saw a picture of a badge with a red kite on it and other types of birds would keep creep into my life and a song would arrive at the same time.”
An hour after our interview, and a bottle of 7.3%-strength continental lager later, Gemma and “Mr Woodpecker” (also known as Gemma’s mate, Benjamin Gregory) take to the Night & Day stage. Their 40-minute set is wonderful. Gemma constantly changes instruments (a harp, an acoustic guitar and an array of kitchen-sink electronica all get her undivided attention) and even plays a deflating balloon as an intro to one song. Williams voice soars and swoops (you cannot expect me to get through this entire article without a bird pun) against the backdrop of pin-drop beauty and sonic storms.
Earlier, and as per the norm for my predictable interview technique, I had asked my standard question about future plans - did Gemma have any idea of what the next Woodpecker Wooliams album might sound like? As I had begun to realise when chatting to this fascinating and quietly-spoken woman, her answer was both illuminating and shrouded in intrigue. “I drew a picture the other day which will be my map of the sound of a new album in visual form,” she explained. I asked her if I was allowed to know what was in the picture. “Yeah, it was of a woman in a medieval dress with a rock in her mouth, blindfolded and strung up against a wall with an empty suit-of-armour to her right and loads ceremonial masks behind her with empty eyes.” Gemma noted the slightly bemused expression on my face. “That might be the artwork for the album,” she said, before dissolving into a fit of giggles.
From ‘The Dick Wall’ graffiti to surrealist drawings - it’s been one of those nights.
Words by John Freeman
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Woodpecker Wooliams new single ‘Gull’ is outn now via Robot Elephant.