My Heart, Nameless and Untamed: An Interview with Jess Williamson
Jess Williamson. Photo: Mikaylah Bowman
To sing a love song, to write a love song, is to perpetuate or accentuate an idea. Ideas are the basis of our everyday lives, our convictions, the principles upon which we stand in the pursuit of happiness. However, love is wrought with expectation. There is the feeling, but there is also the connotation of what it means. There is nothing more complex than the relation of one to another. For even as we are selves, those selves have histories, adopted and abandoned identities, ghosts of family and society running through and haunting our souls and spirit. And in this, Austin’s Jess Williamson has made an album called Heart Song, which explores these mores of love and connection; the body and mind are a political stake, for if I am to surrender this, what is there to love, and is whatever is there, me?
“I wrote these songs over a period of years, some are about me, some are about different people, but when I went to sequence the songs I thought, ‘How can I tell this story that doesn’t necessarily literally depict my life and my experience,’ but what’s the story, the heart or the truth of these songs. It’s about your heart and its wildness, and trying to get to know it, and what kind of person you want to be and grow into, and at the same time you’re trying to figure that out, you’re trying to figure out how to love other people and I know a lot of us — myself included — have had to spend time alone to learn what kind of person you want to be, or you have to leave someone or you get left.”
“My mixed up mind has a list of victims, Do you know when I need to be coddled like a child, and when I need to be ignored.” – Jess Williamson, “Say It.”
“Say It,” the first song on the album, drops you into the collapse. But within a realization — love is something you realize — the other is more enticing: I don’t want this. Which leads us into “White Bed,” the living of it; “Falling asleep to a chorus of breaths, the dog, me and you.” The weight of the moment pins you to the mattress more than relaxation. “Can I be open as a cup to be filled? Or am I a sword in the hand?” “In the tarot deck there is cups, there’s swords, there’s pentacles, there’s wands, and the cups, just to really oversimplify it, cups represent emotion and love, and swords represent your rational thinking mind,” notes Williamson (writer’s note: I was not at all familiar with tarot). “There’s another layer of meaning to that lyric, ‘Am I going to be like a cup?,’ receptive, open, you know, to love? Or a sword, divisive, thinking, rational.” And in the general malaise of the love song, rational is never celebrated, there is no song, “You Are So Rational” is never sung to embellish romance. But it is real, it is your life, who or what is there to be true to. “Do you know the power of fear? Well, there is no one to take care of you.“ – Jess Williamson, “Snake Song.”
So you’re gone, it’s over, someone’s left. The idea of freedom and actual freedom represents something different now. “See You In A Dream” is a last kiss, a thought of them in a better light, unfettered by the days, or months, it is the consideration of them without them there to hinder that considered; “I cared about your stories, I was just distracted, and now I can’t hear them anymore.” But it is, as they say, what it is, and you move on. There’s “The Last Word,” a song of a possible affair, but unapologetic in tone or sentiment; “Well I shouldn’t want to touch you but I do and I will.” No longer denying, embracing possibilities and their consequences, a distraction from the crumbling of the sand castles: “I’ve been waking up with whiskey in my coffee cup.” The conclusion of the album is “Devil’s Girl”: “It’s evil how the best men I know are in and out of hospitals fighting some devils.” Although what was the devil but a fallen angel, fallen from grace, or out of the graces of. As the album moves, it moves deliberately, each word given a chance to land and affect, to be mined for meaning.
“For me, making music has been about the words and the story,” Williamson says. “You know, it’s not really songs to dance to, the music is the vehicle for the narrative, so when I think about writing poetry I could never write poetry because I feel like. For me I would want the music there to really deliver the message and the feeling, I say that though maybe it would be cool to write poetry. [laughs] But, for me, I didn’t set out to write hits or pop songs with this record, I wanted the music to carry along the feeling and the message and the words and left a lot of space for that, let it sink in, really think about the ideas.”
Heart Song is powerful in its scope and vision. It’s about love, but it’s also about love within a life, the accepting or rejecting of compromise and the self. The self is yours, it must be protected as that, and even in giving that self over, the decision can be revisited and reflected upon. There is what was and what becomes, the ever-evolving self within in some ways the confines of relationships. Is this love or is this the fulfillment of role and duty? Is this the best love or the best love at the moment and do I create a life and continue to live this life uncertain?
“It goes without saying there’s an unfair double standard with women,” Williamson notes. “We have our biological clock, it’s ticking. If a woman is unmarried and doesn’t have a kids and is in her late thirties it’s like, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ But if a man is unmarried and doesn’t have a kid and he’s in his late thirties is almost like he’s cool, or something, like a hot commodity. I was thinking a lot about that, in my own life, realizing I was seeing a lot of my friends get married and have kids and feeling like I wasn’t really ready for that and fighting against that internally. Like the line ‘Will I grow into my body’ [“Heart Song”] is this idea. I’m a certain age and so am I supposed to act accordingly to some standard set by some society that I don’t, that doesn’t necessarily line up with my value system, but am I gonna do that or am I not, and what are the consequences if I’m not and what are the consequences of doing it, and not being ready or not really wanting it or doing it out of fear. So for me this is a really feminist record because it’s about being a woman, playing music, living a really unusual life, and questioning the idea of marriage. When I wrote Heart Song, actually, it was really largely inspired by a close friend of mine going through a divorce and I was thinking a lot about the marriage ceremony itself in America, the dad walks his daughter down the aisle and she’s in a white dress, you know. What does that mean, what does that really mean? Going to a lot of weddings and watching this scenario play itself out over and over again and really questioning, what is the message here, what are we participating in without even questioning it?”
Heart Song is one of the finest albums to come out and you would only be enriching your life experience by taking the journey of these songs. Don’t play yourself.