A compelling songwriter with a breathy voice, Holly Williams’s music is likely to earn comparisons to Shawn Colvin or maybe Kathy Mattea. However, it’s her family lineage that is drawing her the most attention with the release of her debut album, The Ones We Never Knew.
Holly is the daughter of Hank Williams Jr., and, of course, the granddaughter of Hank Williams. In this interview with CMT.com, she talks about finding her calling in music, the genetics of dark songwriting and her idea of heaven on earth.
CMT: I understand that you’re a big fan of shopping at used record stores. When you walk into one, do you have a strategy? Where do you start?
Williams: I used to jump into vinyl but now I have enough to last me forever, so I sort of stopped. … But I really like that because there’s something about vinyl. Playing it sounds way better, and I love the big massive inserts of the lyrics on the back. It’s all right there. When I first started listening to music, I kinda bought everything I could ever fathom buying, all the basics of each genre. I covered all the Son House and Robert Johnson blues and the basic rock ’n’ roll and basic punk and basic everything. Now I’m always looking for new and underground independent bands that I think are cool. I found Tom Waits’ first album years ago, and I just bought everything. I’m one of those people. Like, if I really like someone, I’m probably going to buy everything I can get my hands on.
What did you do after graduating from high school?
I started playing guitar in my senior year of high school, and right when I started playing, the songwriting thing just kinda happened. I still haven’t taken lessons yet. I literally learned two chords and a song just came out. I was planning on doing interior design or something. I didn’t know yet. Then I started writing all the time. These songs were coming out of nowhere. I really hadn’t much experience or anything I just started playing and booked a couple of writer’s nights [in Nashville] at the Bluebird and 12th & Porter. When I played live, I loved it. Loved being close to the audience and all that. I just went for it. I found a manager, Scott Siman. He paid for me to do demos and to support me while I wrote songs and recorded them and played clubs. So I just fell into that for the next four years. Played around Nashville and wrote steadily for about four years.
I was traveling a lot during that time. I’d do some shows out of town. I moved to L.A. for a while, and then I went on tour. Last summer, I started going on the road a lot more. Billy Bob Thornton, I did a tour with him. Ron Sexsmith, we went over to England and Wales. John Mellencamp and REO Speedwagon, all kind of random dates, but it was cool because it got me in front of so many different crowds, and I got to see how people reacted differently.
How old were you when you moved to L.A.?
Twenty. Yeah, it was very last-minute. I just decided and got in my car on a Sunday. I called up a friend, and we drove out there. Actually, there were three concerts. The Stones were playing at the Wiltern Theater, a really small theater, and I had to figure out how to get out there. And then Elliott Smith and Neil Finn and Daniel Lanois were also playing that week. So I was just going to go for shows, and then after I got out there, I found a little place to rent and just hung out for three months and went to concerts every night. And learned how to play piano because I had a piano in my room there. It was fun. … It was like three months of absolute freedom. I got a lot of writing done. I got to see a lot, so I had a lot of experience there.
When you got back to Nashville, did you play 12 @ 12th a lot, which is more of a rock singer-songwriter night in town?
Yeah, I did. I played that a lot in the beginning. And then I started playing there with a band. I played with a band for about two years. On the tours, I went out acoustic because it was cheaper and easier, so I’d go out by myself. I’ve been playing either alone or with one other person since then. I haven’t played with a band yet again.
And I love playing with a band, but right now, I want people to hear the lyrics and do quieter shows when I’m first starting out. Then maybe I’ll do the band thing. But I dig the solo thing now. It’s cool.
What do you remember about touring in Europe?
It was kind of weird. I went over by myself. I had my guitar and five-song demos in my backpack. It was totally gypsy-style, but I loved it like that. It was so much fun. People there are really, really huge Hank Sr. fans. I would say more than here. A lot of people my age were raised on his music, so there was always a built-in crowd from that. … A lot of people would come for that — to see what I would sound like.
The first song on the album, “Sometimes,” refers to Hank Sr. in its last lyrics. How much of a presence in your life has he been, even from the time you were a kid?
Really, not that much, just because obviously I didn’t know him. My dad didn’t know him. He died when Dad was 3. He was such a closed-off person, so there aren’t really people in my family who knew him that well. But when I started writing is when I was really interested in finding out more. Of course, I knew all the basic songs, and my dad would talk about him, but that’s when I really dug in and wanted to get everything and hear it.
My personality is totally outgoing and funny, not really dark at all. These songs I was writing, even when I was really young — 8 or 9 years old — they were all about the dark side of the emotional realm. I felt like there was something in me trying to get that out, and that’s when I definitely felt like it was the genes or the bloodline, and I couldn’t help but write like that. That’s when I really got in and started listening to all that stuff, even the spoken word stuff. “Men With Broken Hearts” is one of my favorite poems, if you would call it that. And “Picture From Life’s Other Side.” I love that.
What does your father think of your music?
He’s been really supportive from day one. I think when I started writing songs, he was really supportive. One of the first songs I wrote was about his best friend who died of cancer. He read the lyrics to that, and he totally thought I should pursue it. He was protective about it, always wanted to make sure who was managing me, who was I with, where was I playing. He’d say, “You’ve got to do your own thing. Don’t let anybody tell you what to do. Make your own music.” That’s how he’s always been. He’s really excited about it now. I mean, even yesterday he called me, and he’s like, “Send me 20 albums. I’m sending them to all my friends.” He’s always telling people about it and saving all the magazine clippings. He’s really stoked about it because he knows that I really love it, whether I sell a million albums or not. He knows that I really love the songwriting aspect. He never forced me to go to college or anything. He wanted me to try music, definitely. Same with my mom. My whole family has been pushing for it because they knew I really loved it.
One of your songs, “Between Your Lines,” is a very candid description of your relationship with your father. What did he say when you played that for him?
It’s been a slow process of us because he was touring 300 nights a year when I was a little girl, so he was never there. So we are getting closer every day. Now he lives in Paris, Tenn., so we see him a lot more and the kids and everything. I think he knew that I was writing it as a song with compassion and love, more than anger or anything like that. I think if it bothered him, he would have told me. But he was cool. He said, “I love every song on the album. The writing’s great.”
Which artists are you into right now?
I’m trying to think of anyone new that I haven’t listened to much before. A lot of times when I’m on tour, I don’t necessarily listen to new artists. I listen to more of what I usually listen to. I’ve been listening to a lot of Astral Weeks from Van Morrison. I’ve actually been listening to a lot of Dylan on this tour. A lot of Radiohead. Hmm…. A lot of Robert Johnson. There is a new band called Spoon that I really love. I’ve been listening to [David Bowie’s] Ziggy Stardust like non-stop. I’m trying to think. It’s weird because most of the music I listen to is from before my birth, pre-1981. New bands in the last few years that I really loved were Radiohead, Nirvana, Coldplay, Travis, the British bands. But it’s so hard because everyone is trying to do what’s already been done, and for me, if it’s not anything new and exciting, I’m probably going back to the first Zeppelin album and listen to that, instead of the new wanna-be Zeppelin band. Not in a snobby way, but it’s hard. For me, as a songwriting musician, I totally understand how hard it is to write a song that doesn’t sound like something else. The chords don’t sound like something else or the melody. … So I’m always looking for new things, trying to find new stuff.
Now that you have the album out, what do you want to accomplish the most?
My goals are pretty small. I would just love to be in a place, when I’m older, where I can play theaters and have a small crowd anywhere. I don’t have desires to do the whole arena thing, VH1 girl, millions of records. Playing [smaller auditoriums and theaters] for the rest of my life would be heaven, if I could get to that point. I think for me, it takes a certain person that can listen to the album, because it has to be people that are willing to think along those lines, because a lot of the lyrics are pretty introspective.
I always have people crying at shows. Last night, people were like, “I was crying the whole time.” I was like, “I don’t mean to depress you,” but I guess it takes a certain kind of person to listen. Because a lot of the songs open up on situations. They’re almost kind of vulnerable.
I never expected me to be that platinum-selling artist. I am already ready to record the next album. I just want to put out an album once a year, every year, and have songs from everywhere and be able to play them for people. I love talking to people after shows and meeting the people I play for. I really love that. So I just hope to be able to find the right people to latch on to. The fan base that is going to like that kind of music. I just hope that it can reach them, and I can find some fans that will listen through. I have so many songs. I just want to put out all of them, sooner or later.
How many songs do you have?
I’ve written the next album, so I want to go ahead and record that. But when I started writing, I wrote probably 400 or 500 songs. Maybe about 50 of those that I really, really liked. Making this album was nearly impossible because I had been writing for five years. I had gone through so many different styles, from finger-picking like John Prine to a rock band. I’ve been to so many places. I’m writing in so many styles, depending on what instrument I’m writing on, so I’m still trying to figure out how to get all these out, without sounding completely like I have no idea what I’m doing.