Karl S Williams: Heartworn Highways

With my banjo called Bettie Mae, my guitar called Ida Belle and my piano wearing a pink feather boa, I’m telling the Blues my own way.

So goes the self penned blurb on the SoundCloud page of Karl S Williams, his musical manifesto and tools of trade laid bare and inviting. Anthony Gebhardt chats with the man in the hat ahead of his Bleach* performance in March. ———— The music of Karl S Williams is at the rootsier end of the musical spectrum, from rustic blues and gut-bucket Appalachian fire and brimstone sermons through to wandering minstrel style vignettes and emotive piano ballads, all underpinned by a voice in turns fiery, swooping, soulful, melancholy…. sweet redemption via dusty roads less travelled.

Catching up with Karl within the inspiring surrounds of The Shed Café at the Rabbit+Cocoon precinct in Miami, I commence proceedings by asking him about his debut record Heartworn Highways, which was released in August 2013.

“I had about three albums’ worth of songs when it came to recording the record, and the songs that made it on there are the songs I like to play the most. And that hasn’t really changed even though I’ve been playing them for quite awhile now. The album itself still feels new, as it’s only been out in the public for six months, even though many of the songs have been around for quite a bit longer.”

The Loft was where I launched the album on the Gold Coast. It’s a great venue, and the very first gigs I ever played were there. They’ve been such amazing supporters of mine – even through times when they were struggling themselves as a venue they’d still have me in. So it was nice to bring that full circle.”

Having received a bit of exposure via Triple J Unearthed, Heartwood was also featured recently as ‘album of the week’ on local radio station ABC 91.7 Coast FM. I asked Karl how that came about.

“Matt Webber, one of the fill-in presenters on the station, saw me play at a café in Palm Beach and since then he’s had me on the air a few times doing some songs, as well as featuring the record. Last time I played on the station, immediately after the segment finished there were people calling in and asking where they could get the album. That kind of immediacy really impressed me – I’m after the radio generation so that kind of thing is a bit of a mystery to me.”

As Karl’s profile has steadily risen, interstate touring opportunities and festival slots have now begun to present themselves. October last year saw him head down to Melbourne for a series of intimate shows in the Fitzroy and Brunswick districts.

“The crowds were exceptional. It’s one of those cities where people give you mixed reports about what the audience is like. Some say that they can be a bit detached and are over-saturated with quality music. My experience was the opposite though.”

And March sees him featured as part of the bill for A Festival Called Panama, a two day music festival in the pristine surrounds of Tasmania’s north east.

I ask Karl if he’s happy with how the album turned out, or if it’s a case of him being too close to the creative process to listen to it objectively?

“When we’d finished recording the album I think I got a bit of tunnel vision coming out of the studio. I wasn’t sure if we’d done things the right way, there was a lot of uncertainty for awhile. But since the launch of the album it’s been really gratifying to see how people perceive it, and that gave me a new perspective on things.”

And as for the shelf life of Heartwood, Karl feels the record still has plenty of mileage yet.

“I feel like I owe it to the album to give it time to do its work. It’s a funny thing with recorded music, I can hear an album that’s 40 years old, but if I haven’t heard it before then it can still be brand new. These things have a life of their own once they’re out in the world. It kinda ensures your immortality is some small way.”

From musical immortality we move on to artistic influences, with Karl discussing the personal impact that three emotionally powerful artists have provided him with, sounds resonating across decades.

“Sun House has been a really big influence, just in the manner of his primitive, droning Delta blues style. It always used to frustrate me when I was first jamming around the place, people just getting stuck on the whole 12 bar Chicago blues thing. That kind of style often comes exclusively to mind when people think of the blues and sadly people who don’t look into it further may get discouraged. I actually do a few Delta blues style covers in my set every now and then just to expose people to that other side of the blues. To me that one chord, droning, Mississippi blues style feels very ancient and harkens back to Africa.”

“The artist that got me onto the banjo was actually (American indie singer-songwriter and composer) Sufjan Stevens! As a performer his whole discography is very expansive and literary, with a strong element of traditional Americana sounds. So he was a discovery that I made awhile back that really influenced me a lot.”

“And then there’s Nina Simone, from a piano and vocal delivery perspective. Seeing footage of her playing live at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1976 really showed me what you can do with performance, she’s pretty exceptional.”

I also asked Karl if he has any left field musical influences well outside the realm of his sound that may surprise his general listenership?

“My musical collection is pretty far ranging. I really enjoyed some of the Lana Del Ray tracks. In my mind it’s very interesting, slightly sophisticated pop music. I can’t wholeheartedly love it, but there’s a certain vibe in a few of those songs that I really dig. Good music is good music if it gives you a feeling.”

From feelings to humble musical beginnings then.

“I’ve been playing on the Gold Cost for at least six years now. I spent a lot of time initially just kicking around playing blues. I originally came from Woodburn in Northern NSW, about 30 kilometres south of Ballina. I got started performing down there – some friends of mine were running a jam session. When I moved to the Gold Coast it was a bit of an eye opener, just the way that people jammed was different. All the jam nights I turned up to, all the people there were doing these really polished cover songs, which kinda knocked me for a six and I went back to the bedroom for awhile. But that’s how I got started playing live here, on open mic nights and then I started getting my own gigs at places like The Loft and it all went from there.”

Chevron Island’s live music venue The Loft holds a special place in Karl’s heart, allowing him to organically develop stagecraft and confidence during his formative forays into the live music realm.

“I was kinda lucky that I had this venue with a grand piano and a PA, and I got to sit there and play three sets a night, initially to just a few people. Now I feel really lucky that I had that, because it enabled me to develop my performance without too much pressure from an audience. These days when I’m on stage I feel very comfortable. I’m conscious of the audience, but not as an intimidating force. But before I play I tend to get a little bit nervous…maybe more anxious and excited to play…it’s a funny sensation but I feel that it makes the performance better.”

In addition to his own canon of work, Karl also moonlights as a member of local dream-psych band Tsun (pronounced sun).

“It’s a really fun band to play with. We originally digitally released a two track single. We were hoping to do it as a seven inch vinyl single. I guess we had this vision at the start that we wanted to release our music as a series of seven inches, two songs at a time. So we’ve got another single coming out soon, and this time we’re actually doing vinyl. We recorded it late last year, but then realised that one of the songs went for eight minutes, which is far too long for a seven inch! So we sorta re-jigged that and we’ve got it all ready to go now. We’ve gotten a really great artist, Coco Monier, to do the front cover artwork for the record. He’s originally from Byron Bay but he’s living in New York at the moment. It’s gonna be a pretty special package I think and we’re really proud of the songs. It’s a different sound altogether to the previous two songs we released. Not so different that people will be alienated by it, but I think people will definitely notice that the sound has evolved into strange new directions.”

Is This Love, one of the standout tracks from Heartwood, is a touching piano ballad with a Jeff Buckley-ish vocal range. Yes he can sing, boy can he sing! Much more than just a piano and a voice though, I question Karl on his additional musical virtuosity.

“I started on guitar and had never played it until I was about 19. And the banjo seemed to call to me always. I never really listened to a lot of banjo music as such, but in my mind I could hear this banjo sound all the time… there’s something kind of primal about it.”

And as for adding any other instruments to his burgeoning musical repertoire?

“I’ve always really liked the fiddle. There’s a guy I listen to who goes by the name of Possessed By Paul James, he plays solo blues with fiddle and I really love that sound. I’d also love to pick up a saxophone, but I can’t sing and play it at the same time, so I guess I just need to focus on instruments I can sing with for now!”

In addition to his music, Karl also dabbles in pen and ink drawings and sketches as an additional artistic outlet, even compiling a limited edition art book of his drawings that was made available at recent gigs.

“I put together that book for the album launch events. I just wanted something sorta special for people to take away from those shows. A lot of those drawings were things I’d scribbled in the pages where I write my songs.”

I finish off on a non musical bent, asking who Karl S Williams is outside of his music. Being the modest guy that he is, Karl leaves it to his lovely girlfriend Yanina to jump in.

“We generally spend a lot of time outdoors, he’s a forest man! We spend a lot of time camping,” she said.

Be sure to catch prodigiously talented ‘nature boy’ Karl S Williams on one of his regular forays into the Gold Coast live music scene.

22 March, Karl S Williams at The Loft Chevron Island 6 March, with Tsun supporting The Growlers at The Cooly Hotel

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