There’s a quote on Christopher Williams’ webpage that says it all to me. An astute journalist at the Grand Rapids Press wrote this about Christopher: “In his own quiet way, Williams forces the listener to slow down and really listen. And in a very loud and fast world, that’s long overdue.” After spending time absorbing and delighting in Christopher’s latest recording, Gather, I came away with the exact same impression. It’s difficult, maybe impossible, not to listen to every single word in these songs. There’s a gentle urgency about the messages that Christopher Williams relates in these songs. Listen. Pay attention. Then repeat.
To learn more about Christopher Williams, visit his website.
Here’s a video of “Do Not Be Afraid.”
You’ve been performing for over 21 years. Do you still feel the same pre- and post-show energy that you felt since your early years on stage?
That’s a great question and I was actually thinking about that recently because I was remembering a season a bunch of years ago where I would come off stage and then go for a short walk before I interacted with anyone. It wasn’t the best business decision, in terms of audience interaction and selling CDS… but I remember being so worn out, yet so grateful in the midst of that, that I needed a few minutes to collect myself. I still love performing so much and I very rarely get nervous anymore… but count it a privilege and have a different attitude and purpose behind why I’m doing it… which makes the pre- and post-performance look different than it used to.
If you had to list the songs of yours that resonate the most with your audiences, what would they be and why?
The one that is resonating the most right now is “Do Not Be Afraid,” Track 1 off the new GATHER album. And funny story, that song is why I made this new album. After thinking I was done making music and recording, after my 10th album, I wrote that song and from the response, I received from folks came to realize I needed to make another album and so I set out on a journey to write enough songs to make a full-length album. The other one off GATHER, would be the title track. I think there is such a desire and need within our culture to actually be known and to feel connected, despite our ever-constant connectedness through our devices, that when people hear that song… they join in singing and want to hear it again. From my older catalog, I’ve found that the songs that tell stories are the ones that people gravitate to the most – songs like “Dry Bones” and “Stone Water Wood Light,” off the album of the same name.
Your newest CD, Gather, is a profoundly beautiful recording. Your messages about love and hope are universal. As a lover of live music and being part of a music community, I am touched by your clarion call to encourage people to get out of their own ways to become part of something bigger than themselves. Do you have any additional words of wisdom to impart to people to embolden their spirits to action and become a bigger part of communities?
Oh man, thank you for that! That’s really kind to hear… I appreciate it! My encouragement, I think, in the culture and generation that we are living in… would be to unplug and be present with one another. Because we are being tricked into thinking that we are more connected than we actually are. When you go out to dinner with someone, leave your phone in the car. Call instead of text. Write a letter instead of an email. Get back to those forms of communication that are deep within our being and nature… because it’s in those places where I feel like we’ll be more real and honest and therefore, be more connected to those around us and to our Creator.
Tell us a bit about how you first started to get into songwriting. Were you always musical?
I’ve always been singing, as long as I can remember… in choirs in church and school and I picked up the cello as my first instrument in elementary school and then picked up the guitar late in High School and promptly dropped the cello, which I still regret! I started writing songs in college after I got my heart broken by a girl, which is how most dude songwriters start writing songs. From there, I started gravitating to the new folk movement of the 90’s with artists like Shawn Colvin and John Gorka and Patty Larkin, and that began to expand my songwriting skills as I dove into the heart and smarts of the songs they wrote… and I began to expand my songwriting skills. I tended to write solely of personal experience, or stories from my life or from those I came into contact with.
Which musicians influenced you at an early age and have they continued to be your north stars? Or are you continuing to learn from others whom you admire?
Great question, and what I’ve found is that I don’t listen to nearly as much music as I used to early on. I still love going back to old albums from my beginnings that inspired me… and I’ll do that periodically when I’m listening to music. And then there are some new songwriters that I really admire, like the band Dawes. The lead singer Taylor, is one of the most brilliant lyricists and the way he brings you into a scene is unparalleled, with the melody and the hooks and production. I think those guys are my favorite right now
Have you always incorporated both guitar and djembe as part of your live act? For many loves of folk music, I’m guessing that your powerful hand drumming comes as a surprise for some who are more used to the typical singer-songwriter with a guitar fare. Do you recall the first time you attempted to sing and play percussion on stage?
That’s a great story! I started playing djembe after a bunch of in-the-round shows with my friend Tom Prasada-Rao down in DC. It became a joke because both of us wanted to play the djembe and back the other one up… and he said to me at the end of the week, you should pick up one of those on your way out of town and so I did. And a month later I was backing up Tom at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival and David Wilcox saw me and invited me to play with him and I said yes, because David was a songwriter hero of mine. I didn’t tell him I had no idea what I was doing… and there I was, playing percussion in front of thousands of folks and learning on the fly. It was pretty awesome and fun! But it has served me well because it’s given me a sense of listening that is required to be a supporting musician. And yes, I have used it exactly like you said, to break up the dude-with-guitar stuff and it surprises folks for sure. I honestly can’t remember the first time I did it solo during a show…
You were a fixture in the Boston music scene for quite a while, but you moved down to Nashville many years ago. How do the two scenes compare?
They are really different and I’m thankful that I didn’t start playing music in either of these cities because there are so many talented people! I’m not sure I would have made it in either city if I was just starting out. When I lived in Boston I was pretty entrenched in just the folky singer-songwriter world, so I wasn’t really attuned to what was going on elsewhere. Here in Nashville, most folks think this is just the country music capital of the world… but honestly, it is the songwriter capital of the world and there are so many genres represented here… and the level of writers and talent is staggering! As well as the number of venues… the only difficult part here is when you are local and play, you don’t often make any money. Because of all of the reasons above, folks play for free or very little pay often.
In your spare time, what do you listen to? When you’re touring, are you a music, news, or podcast kind of guy?
I actually don’t listen to a whole lot of music when I have time. At home, I’m usually just home catching up. And on the road, when I do listen to music I’ll go to The Spectrum channel on XM and enjoy that, or listen to the news, although that is getting really old these days with our current political situation… and I’m a little late to the Podcast train but have been listening to a few more of those recently, which has been fun. Anything that can help transport me somewhere and get me to think about other things or provide songwriter fodder… is a good thing!