Jess Williamson has always been drawn to the world beyond words.
Her music is littered with references to the intangible, and nowhere is this more apparent than new album 'Sorceress'.
Out now, it's divine indie-folk tapestries are bedecked in references to tarot and the occult, using this as a lens to view her own feelings through.
A series of intriguing puzzles, 'Sorceress' is a beautiful listen, so inviting but yet also so perplexing in its never-ending word puzzles.
Clash invited Hand Habits' own Meg Duffy to cross-examine Jess Williamson, in an attempt to unlock the secret of 'Sorceress'.
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Hand Habits: How, if at all, have your expectations, dreams, ideas of what being a musician full time changed in the last few years?
Jess Williamson: It’s funny, over the last few years I’ve been able to see first hand that it’s possible to be a full time musician, but I’ve also learned it’s way less glamorous and an even longer road than I’d ever imagined. I used to think that if you toured in Europe once it meant you’d made it. Now I know that you’re just barely getting started when you do your first Euro tour!
And I’ve learned that even really established bands are still losing money on tours sometimes. It’s wild. The financial aspect of being a full time musician is a slippery little mystery.
HH: What was the last job you had before dedicating all of your energies to making music? JW: I was babysitting and working at a store that sold fancy bedding in West Hollywood. I once sold a set of sheets to Vince Staples. He was very nice!
HH: You reference the occult, the dream world, spells, sorcery and the like in your music a lot. Was there an event or clear cut moment where you became interested in this world? Or was it always a budding curiosity for you?
JW: I had always been intrigued, but when I moved back to Austin in 2010 after living in New York for a little while, I fell in with a cool group of women who are still my good friends today. It was through them that I learned more about astrology, tarot, herbal medicine, and how to be more in touch with my body and the natural world. I didn’t even know what essential oils were before those days!
I also worked at a juice bar for a few months in my early twenties in Austin, and I learned about the regenerative power of super foods and how food really is medicine. It was a pretty hippie establishment – they had crystals everywhere and would draw peace signs and write “love” on the filtered water pitchers to infuse it with healing vibes.
We'd be taking shots of wheatgrass and watching Dr. Masaru Emoto videos on YouTube in the back (check out his water and rice experiments if you haven't already... trippy).
It may not seem directly related, but health and wellness are tied closely to my spiritual practices. I got my witch education in Austin throughout my twenties for sure.
HH: Do you have a meal that is the most comforting meal for you?
JW: Yes! My homemade Pomodoro pasta with a simple arugula salad. It’s the best, I want to make it for you sometime.
HH: Sometimes I write a song and it feels really like mine, something that came from me, tangible and concrete. Other times it takes a while and a lot of repetition for a song to feel close to me. When you write, do you ever feel as though you're at a distance from the song you've made? Or does it always feel original and close to you?
JW: I know exactly what you mean, and I’ve never quite been able to put that feeling into words before, so thank you for this question. Some songs feel like mine, very close to me, and others I take a little while to warm up to. Some songs never feel quite like mine, usually those are the ones with more instrumentation. They’re fun to play live and I’m glad they’re enjoyable for people, but I sometimes feel less of me in the song. There is something freeing about that – it’s less personal. The songs that I enjoy singing the most are usually the ones I feel closest to, and often those are the quieter songs.
HH: Forgive me if this has been asked of you a lot - but when I met you you were living in Austin, Texas, and since then you've relocated to Los Angeles. And in the song of yours I played on, you mentioned LA by name so I know it does influence you. How long did it take you to feel like you had made the right choice after moving? And how do you know if something is the 'right' choice?
JW: I knew pretty instantly that it was the right choice to leave Austin for a time and immerse myself in Los Angeles. I still miss Texas deeply, and I’m torn because I don’t really know where to live. I always thought I’d spend a few years in LA and then move back to Texas and live on some land outside of Austin and raise a family. That was my dream. But very recently LA is starting to feel more like home.
A part of me feels really right here, there’s a connection starting to come through that I haven’t felt since I lived in Austin. It’s kind of freaking me out – this wasn’t part of the plan! I’m taking it one day at a time, and trusting that the answers will come when they need to. In general, I have a hard time making decisions; I labor over the options and second-guess myself a lot. I only ever know that a choice was right after I’ve made it – and that feeling just clicks, or in retrospect, when I can put the pieces together and see why something needed to happen the way it did.
HH: You used to have a very very special dog companion named Frankie. I had the privileged of dog sitting her a few times when you were on tour. Since then she has passed on to the next realm and is probably being a badass comforting healer there as well. Do you have a favorite memory of being with her? And now that the world is rapidly restructuring and touring has been indefinitely postponed - do you ever consider getting another pet?
JW: Thank you for bringing up Frankie! I miss her every day and I’m really glad you got to have some special one on one time with her. She was truly a legendary being, I feel lucky to have cared for her.
I haven’t felt emotionally ready to bring another dog into my life until pretty recently, the last few months or so, and my reason for not getting a dog was that I knew I had a lot of touring coming up. But now, you’re right, that’s all changing. Maybe this is the perfect time. I secretly spend a lot of time on dog rescue websites....
HH: What's better - the fantasy or the real thing?
JW: Dude. Great question. Honestly… the fantasy.
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JW: We recently collaborated on a song together, and I was struck by how sensitive and elegant your guitar work is. I have always admired your playing, and to hear it on my own song was arresting and emotional for me.
I love it. You never get in the way of the vocal, you work off of it, and your leads are powerful because they are understated – they don’t need to take up a lot of space to be strong and moving. Who are some of the guitarists you admire who have influenced your style?
HH: Thanks Jess! I typically approach adding guitar to a song by letting the melody shine and giving the lyrics and emotion space. It's funny- sometimes people ask me to play on a song and my initial response is- this doesn't need another melodic source here. I think that comes from recording guitar on my own songs and filling the space between the lyrics and adding harmony or rhythm in an interesting but not overbearing way.
I don't really listen to music 'guitar' music (on purpose) but Blake Mills has taught me a lot about the guitar's function in an ensemble, and I've always loved Nels Cline. I think restraint is something that is not often taught, not often encouraged in the world of music, but to me it's one of the highest forms of creativity- just because you can do something, doesn't mean you should.
JW: An old room mate of yours once told me that you practice guitar for five hours a day. Is this true? How much time do you spend every day practicing? And if you can’t play for a day, is it hard on you?
HH: Ha! I wonder which room mate.... I definitely go through phases of playing a lot of guitar at home, but it depends on my mood. If I had just returned from a tour, I wouldn't typically be playing five hours a day. I actually can't remember a time that it was so marathon, but if I'm working on a song, I'll definitely obsess and play the same thing over and over and over. If I'm feeling uninspired or unmotivated, I will try and at least pick up an instrument and just fiddle around just to keep the brain in that world. But taking breaks from being 'creative' in an active way I think can be really important to wiping the slate clean.
JW: Over the many tours we’ve done together, I’ve noticed you taking handfuls of vitamins and traveling with big bags of Epsom salt for baths in hotel rooms. I love this about you. Can you tell me about your tour health and wellness regimens?
HH: As you know touring is a wild world of constant change of environment, and I am a creature of habit and comfort. I need my little rituals- my essential oils and my bath time. I never realized how much of a freaking hippie I was until I was away from home. On the last few tours Hand Habits did, we were doing Yoga with Adriene ( who I know is a friend of yours! wow! such a fan...) every day even in the green room or a weird hotel hallway. I try not to drink too much on tour, will treat myself to a healthy meal because I know these small things will help me be in a better place to perform.
JW: You were recording with and touring in Kevin’s band for a few years before really setting out on your own with Hand Habits. I’ve always envied that about your experience, because it seems like the best way to learn how to be a bandleader and steer your own ship. Once you left Kevin’s project and started doing Hand Habits full time, what were some aspects of being a bandleader and a solo artist that surprised you?
HH: I never realised how much emotional energy needs to be transmuted and held and redistributed when running a band in a way that feels compassionate- I lean on my band mates for so much extra help and at first I tried to do it all. I realized I'd be burnt out and wouldn't be able to sustain running my own ship if I didn't let go of control. I used to feel guilty about leaning on them, but in the end everyone enjoys what we do and wants to make it run as smoothly as possible. I was also surprised by how much I enjoy practicing MY songs more than anyone else, ha.
JW: An amazing piece of advice you gave me a couple years ago was to ask for things. You told me your life changed when you started asking for what you wanted. I think about that a lot. When and how did that shift happen for you, and what are some ways that your life changed?
HH: I think growing up in disjointed ways - I moved around a lot and didn't have a classically nuclear family situation - and often I would try and stay out of the way and keep to myself. This carried over into the way I was moving through the world - and then I would find myself wanting for different circumstances, only to realize I'd never voiced my needs or wants.
I rarely touch on this - because I have my qualms about gender and politics, but I do think I have witnessed men asking for things in a way that has been helpful for me to se, regardless of the judgement. I'm not even thinking about asking for money necessarily - even just letting it be known that you are available for a certain role - whether it's collaborating, or helping a friend. It's a fine line between entitlement and inquiry.
JW: Has this strange moment of the whole world shutting down, and with touring more or less indefinitely paused, shifted your perspective on being a working musician, or changed your ideas of what the future may look like for you?
HH: Jess, to be honest I have been trying to avoid thinking of what my future might look like! Because I have no idea at this point. This was supposed to be such a different year for all of us - and I'm just taking it day by day.
JW: What’s next for Hand Habits?
HH: I'm working on a record!
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Jess Williamson's 'Sorceress' is out now.
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