Part of the key to Holly Williams’ success as a singer-songwriter is that it’s never been her mission to try and live up to the legacy cast by her famous and prolific father and grandfather – Hank Jr. and Sr., respectively – nor has she spent a lot of time trying to live it down. The respect that Holly has garnered as an artist over the course of many years spent building an international fan base, and the release of two acclaimed albums, 2004’s The Ones We Never Knew (Universal South) and 2009’s Here With Me (Mercury Records), has come on her own terms, based on her own sound. Indeed, to paraphrase Freud, sometimes a last name is just a last name.
The Highway finds the 31-year-old artist putting a distinctly personal spin on universal themes like love, loss, conflict, family and desire. The Highway is heavy with references to memories of simpler times and beloved relatives; ruminations on lives destroyed by addiction; our shared need to love and be loved; and an earnest longing for the road.
Holly spent nine months recording The Highway, which she self-financed and will release independently. Just because she went independent on this one doesn’t mean she was by herself. Throughout the process, the Nashville-based songwriter was surrounded by a hyper-talented supporting cast, including co-producer Charlie Peacock (The Civil Wars), her multi-instrumentalist husband Chris Coleman, bassist Glenn Worff (Mark Knopfler), pedal steel guru Dan Dugmore (James Taylor, Stevie Nicks), and friends like Dierks Bentley, Jakob Dylan, Jackson Browne and Gwyneth Paltrow who all make guest appearances on the record.
In addition to her music, Holly carries a fondness for fashion and haute homemaking, passions she channels into H. Audrey, her Nashville women’s boutique, and her lifestyle blog, The Afternoon Off. This Q&A touches on all of the above, and more.
You say that The Highway feels like your first album in many ways. What’s different between it and your other two records?
Blood, sweat and tears. This was my baby, there were plenty of sleepless nights, and there was a lot of confusion because I was still writing in the middle of recording. I wasn’t fully prepared with all of the material when we started the record in January. But I had to keep pushing. I’ve owned my clothing store for five years now, it’s running on it’s own with a great staff so I’m not there on a day to day basis, other than handling the buying. We moved into our first house, I’m married to an amazing man, I’ve got two Labradors that I love, and I’m truly settled for the first time in my life. That is what the song “Without You” is about. When you get settled, your focus gets really clear.
I didn’t have that for my last two records. I was younger-traveling all over in planes, trains and automobiles. Touring Europe with a backpack and exploring the world. Chasing boys, worried about things that didn’t matter.
Some artists come into their own at a really young age, look at Jackson Browne writing “These Days” at the age of 16. Talk about brilliance and focus!
It took me a little longer, but I wouldn’t trade that amazing journey for the world. I finally know why I love to connect on a more intimate level in a theatre than in a bigger venue, why I’m writing the songs that I write and saying what I want to say, exactly where my voice can go. It feels good to finally get really comfortable in your own skin as an artist.
You took a few years off between The Highway and Here With Me, which came out in 2009 – and for good reason. You’ve hit a lot of milestones over the last three years.
I turned 30. I got married. I turned my store into a profitable business. That alone took months of focus and work. I wanted to fold jeans and style people in the day, and cook a good meal at night. I was bathing in domesticity. I also started a food and lifestyle blog last year. I had to take some time off from the road and focus on all of these things. It’s amazing how marriage can shock you into something you never dreamed of. Who knew I was domestic? I sure as hell didn’t, nor could any of my family members believe it when I’m offering up shallot and lemon roasted whole chickens on a Tuesday night. I absolutely love cooking, and eating, and all things related to food. I have such passion for spending hours at the stove with pans simmering. It’s very similar to songwriting and producing- you choose your ingredients, you try and fail a few times and keep trying, you taste and test and taste and test, and the moment of finding the perfect mix for a recipe is equivalent to when I’m in the studio and the perfect mix has been accomplished there. I love the gathering of friends in pajamas with great wine and good food. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to get right into baby making, and continue with my publishing company as a songwriter, or if I wanted to keep pursuing the artist life. But the highway came calling again, as it always does. There is nothing that can substitute the feeling of connecting with a live audience. Nothing. That’s why I’m back here now.
Your husband, Chris Coleman, is an important part of your musical life, and has been for a while. You guys played together for years before you got married.
I’ve known him for years, back from when he first came to Nashville as a drummer and moved to LA with a rock band. He would play with me here and there, but I would never have dreamed we would end up together. There were a few alcohol-induced make-outs years ago, but who hasn’t done that with their sexiest band members? When we started dating, I begged him to learn guitar since he was a drummer. He picked it up and we got to explore lots of places together. What was first a request since I loved him and wanted him to be with me, has turned into a truly important musical collaboration. This album would never be the same without him. We worked on plenty of pre-production at home. We wrote songs to drumbeats, something I’ve never done before. We sang lots and lots of harmonies. He sings on almost every song. We wrote “Happy” and “Let You Go” together. Our friend Cary Barlowe joined in for “Til It Runs Dry”, and the songs “Without You” and “A Good Man” are for him. I’m gushing. It’s probably annoying. But I can’t help it! He is my steadfast rock on this journey.
There’s a real sense of place on The Highway. It really sounds like you’re writing about the South, which makes sense considering you were born in Alabama and grew up in Nashville.
I’ve never really written songs about the subject matters I chose for this album. The older I get and the more complicated my life gets, memories like picking up pecans in my grandmother’s yard for a dollar a day become sweeter .We cant get back to those days now, no matter how much we want to and how hard we try. There is a constant yearning for the south that is always in my soul, no matter where I am. I just want to be back in granny’s driveway, waking up to the horses and the cotton fields. I miss the simplicity of childhood, of pre-technology Christmas dinners and summer vacations on the farm. I really do. My heart is in Mer Rouge, Louisiana where I spent so many glorious days with my mom’s side of the family.
People obviously know a lot about your dad’s side of the family, the Williamses, starting with your grandfather Hank Sr. This album talks a lot about your mother Becky’s family. Your maternal grandparents appear in both “Waiting on June” and “Gone Away from Me.”
A lot of people think “Waiting on June” is about June Carter, but it’s about my grandmother June Bacon White, who died in 2009. It’s the precise and true story of my grandfather’s relentless love for her, every character is real, even down to the order of the children and the family cook Bertha. It’s really hard for me to get through it, but I continue to try in honor of them. People need to know that kind of love and commitment is real and possible. “Gone Away from Me” takes place in the cemetery near my grandmother’s house. We have so many family members that are buried there, and unfortunately the untimely deaths of some of them influenced this song. I was really influenced by family ties on this record.
The Highway has a more simple sound than your other two albums. What inspired your choice to go so acoustic?
It isn’t completely stripped-down, but the sound was definitely born from a pure place inspired by touring. I’ve been playing plenty of gigs acoustically, either completely alone on guitar and piano, or with one extra person. The audience was relating differently to this completely raw performance. It allows me to truly be a storyteller, and not have to worry about so much production. I am playing and singing at the same time on almost every single song on this record. In the past, it’s been the usual Nashville recording of separating the musician and the music. But as a songwriter, I love having the instrument with me and flowing with my tempo and words at the same time. My favorite shows in history are the ones of Neil Young, Jackson Browne, Gillian Welch, Elliott Smith, or John Prine alone with their instruments.
What kind of album is this? Do you embrace the Americana label some folks apply to your style of music?
I’ll take whatever you want to call it – Americana is fine. I love all of the artists that are considered Americana, as much as I love Radiohead and Jay Z. Genres are truly exhausting to me. Think of how many we have on iTunes alone! Hank Williams said, “I don’t know what you mean by country. I just write songs.” That is my motto, day in and day out. Throw on a pedal steel-it’s country, add a rhodes-it’s indie, make a loop-it’s pop. However people want to interpret this sound is fine by me.
Charlie Peacock, who produced the first Civil Wars album, co-produced The Highway with you. How did you come to choose him for the job?
It really all came about because I love what he did with The Civil Wars. They have built such an amazing and loyal fan base, and made a great record. John and Joy have been around Nashville for years, it was amazing to see them finally blossom! I wanted to reach out to Charlie and pick his brain about my music and see if he had a connection. Charlie and I are both very strong-minded and though he probably needs to go on a sabbatical after working with me for 9 months, I think we are both truly proud of the end result. I’m really glad he was there to stretch me musically, even from a writing standpoint. He’s say, “You need to get back to that lyric,” or “You need to add a bridge here.” It was challenging to me, as an artist, to work with someone who had really strong musical opinions, because I’ve always done whatever I wanted to even on major labels. I never worked closely with an A&R department, but he was always pushing me to be better at what I do. I wouldn’t have traded working with Charlie on this project for the world.
You spent exactly nine months – from January 26, 2012, until September 26 – working on The Highway. What went into the recording process?
It was really emotional. There is an amazing quote by Leonard Cohen that goes, “When you get to that point where you really sweat—there’s sweat on your brow and you’ve hit a wall after spending hours and hours working and you’re really about to quit—that’s where the actual work begins.” That’s what it was like.
Of course, we thought we’d finish it in three weeks. Then my husband and I bought our first house, finished a kitchen renovation, Charlie was finishing his record. Things happened. I kept thinking we were done when there was still more to do. There is no telling how many times I wrote on Twitter that the album was finished, only for me to realize it actually wasn’t done. I had a better performance inside of me, I had a better lyric. It was draining, but I’m so glad I stuck to it and didn’t give up halfway through. Hard work feels really good in the end.
You didn’t write two of the songs until the very last minute. What’s that story?
Chris (my husband) and I wrote “Let You Go” after the album was mastered and completed. I knew in my gut there was something else to say. I walked into Chris’s man shed where he had started playing the song, I fell in love with the melody and drum/guitar combo and the song kind of wrote itself. “The Highway” is my personal favorite track on the record. I was pulling up to the gas station and I started singing the chorus (came out of nowhere, prayers answered!). I went home and grabbed my guitar, I was so thrilled about this lyric because it was exactly where my longing has been. This came from a very personal place. Recently I’ve begun to really miss the road.
In addition to Chris and Charlie, you have a very nicely appointed group of collaborators on this record.
The way we did this really reminds me of Hank Williams, Jr. & Friends. That was the album my dad put out in 1975 before he really blew up. It was pops and a few talented friends ala Charlie Daniels making music.
I love the bridge between people that is music,
I wrote with good friends, which felt very organic. Sarah Buxton and I were cooking and drinking wine one night when we wrote
“A Good Man.” I adore Lori McKenna’s writing and called her up to help me finish “Without You”.
I called up my favorite musicians and told them, “I don’t have a big record label behind me, and I’m paying for this album myself.
Will you take 200 bucks to play?” Everyone came together to help me out with this project, and I have never felt more love from fellow artists and musicians. It’s an incredible feeling to have such amazing support from my peers.
It’s not just the instrumentalists and writers. The other voices on the album are pretty impressive as well: Dierks Bentley, Jakob Dylan, Jackson Browne and Gwyneth Paltrow all sing with you.
I’d never really thought about having another person sing with me on a record besides my mother (an amazing harmonist). But these are my friends and the people that I admire. I have no words for my respect and love for Jackson Browne’s music. What a voice! I called up Dierks and asked for him to lend his perfectly raspy voice to “Til’ It Runs Dry”, and we were thrilled with the outcome.
Charlie thought Jakob’s voice would be perfect for “Without You,” which it was. And Gwyneth happens to have one of the best harmony voices I have ever heard. She is so damn talented in so many ways! Her husband, Chris Martin, kept encouraging us to cut “Waiting on June” live – just Gwyneth, my husband and myself. He heard us sing it over and over on a summer trip and we decided to try it that way after a different version of the song was already signed, sealed, delivered. We flew to LA, the three of us recorded with two guitars and two microphones in one afternoon and we finished it. I am so happy with this raw, live version of this song. I think my Granny would be too.
It’s interesting that on “Without You,” the only song on here that acknowledges your famous family name, you’re singing with someone else who knows what it’s like to go through life with a well-known surname. It’s a really small club that you and Jakob Dylan are in.
I honestly didn’t think about that until after we recorded the song. Bob Dylan has always had a lot of love for my grandfather’s music and been very open with me about it. He invited me to be a part of his project “The Lost Notebooks”. I was thrilled to do that for him, and honored to have Jakob do this for me. He’s a true supporter of his fellow artists, and it’s been really inspiring to see him continue to work so hard year after year.
Obviously, you have a wonderful music profile, but you’re also known for being a style-setter thanks to your store, H. Audrey, and your lifestyle blog, The Afternoon Off. Didn’t you originally meet Gwyneth through her mention of your store in Goop?
Yes, she featured the store in Goop and very generously spoke about my music in Vogue magazine. People always ask, “What are you – a storeowner or musician? Pick one.” I don’t know about that. I love it all. I feel like my store and the blog fit really well with my music. It’s all about being creative in every outlet you have passion for.
Clothes, food, songs – they’re all intertwinable building blocks. When I’m on tour I’m constantly inspired by all of the cultures around me. I want to soak it in, blog about it, bring new designers to Nashville, and really live inside of it all.
There are benefits to being a multi-hyphenate career woman. As a songwriter-boutique owner-blogger, you’ll always have a job and you’ll never be bored.
My little brother and sister call me almost every day after school to say, “I’m so bored.” And I’m like, bored – man, what a thought. As a songwriter, it’s impossible to be bored. There are endless amounts of piano riffs to discover and lyrics you’re waiting for and inspiration that needs to be captured. I truly have passion for everything I do, and I thank God for that everyday. I am so blessed to truly love my work! Right now I can’t wait to get back out on The Highway, continue my musical journey and play these songs for people…