Who Am I: A Q&A With Holly Williams
There are many reasons to have an awareness of who Holly Williams is, and with her new album The Highway coming February 5, there will soon be many more. Williams spent some time talking with us about writing, publishing, recording and performing.
What was your first song you ever wrote?
It was called “Who Am I” and I can literally sing it to this day. I still kind of love the chorus. At the time, I was obsessed with getting it to Debbie Gibson. Obsessed.
I wasn’t really listening to country music then. I was only eight years old and it was a pretty heavy song about a woman in mourning wondering where her place was in the world. I don’t know how I came up with these things!
Did you want to be a songwriter before you wanted to become a performer or was it the other way around?
Definitely, everything stemmed from songwriting. I didn’t really “want” to become a performer, I wanted to tell stories. I wanted to sit on a stool with my guitar, sit down at the piano, and sing songs and connect with audiences. I only became a performer out of necessity, to sing these songs I had been writing and get them heard.
When did you get your first publishing deal and how did it come about?
I wanted to hold onto my own publishing on the advice of my father who has always held on to his. At the time of my second record deal with Universal, the publishing company from Universal contacted me about doing a deal. It was a very fair co-publishing deal, I adored the head of the company, and trusted them with my work.
I didn’t sign a deal trying to get cuts from other artists, it was for me to get my music heard for film and TV and different outlets, and also for international purposes since I was touring Europe so much.
I signed in 2008 and my deal went up in October of 2011. Since I’m putting my new record out independently, I wanted to get back to doing everything on a smaller basis instead of with a huge publishing company. I recently did a film and tv licensing deal for a small percentage of my publishing on a 12 month basis. These kinds of deals fit where I am right now as an artist more than a big publishing company. It’s nice to talk to one person about everything, instead of multiple people and contacts within a company. For some artists who are co-writing a ton and need their songs pitched… a bigger company can be great!
What has your experience been with co-writing?
I do very little co-writing, except for a few people in a small circle I’ve met in Nashville. My last publishing company did introduce me to three of my favorite writers: Lori Mckenna, Luke Laird and Barry Dean. Great people with great talent! But in general I focus on my own writing first, and if I’m stuck on something or if I’m specifically trying to write for another artist I will call on other people.
My husband is a great writer and we collaborate plenty musically. He wrote three songs with me on the new record. Co-writing is an amazing essential for some, and harder for others. But for me personally, writing alone has always come a bit easier.
What has your experience been with having others record and perform songs you’ve written?
No one has done that professionally, except for things on You Tube. I haven’t pitched my songs to other artists. They are for me and my fans, and if someone becomes a fan and wants to cut something that is great! But I’m not forcing it, and I don’t have anyone working the songs. Buddy Miller got cuts naturally, people found him. If an artist finds something they want to cut, that’s great! But it’s not at the forefront of my mind.
What has your experience been recording songs written be someone other than yourself?
I’ve only recorded three songs that way. I recorded a cover of Neil Young’s “Birds” which was amazing. It was just myself and a piano late night in a studio, and I absolutely adore that song. On the last album I cut two songs written by other people. It’s definitely harder to find that connection. I don’t know how much I will do that in the future, I connect much more if I wrote the song. I wrote or co-wrote every song on this upcoming album.
What’s your favorite song on the new album?
“Waiting On June,” I wrote it to my grandmother from my grandfather’s perspective. It’s the precise and true story of their entire life together from the beginning to the end. So many relatives, friends and influences are mentioned in this song. It speaks of a simple and sweet time, and all the happiness and tears that come with a long life together.
You’re helping us judge “The Pub Deal.” What characteristics should the winning songwriter possess?
I love writers who can find a different way to say something that has been said 1,000 times before, someone who can connect with you without you even noticing instantly, but the song seeps into you slowly. Someone who has real life experience, real trials to speak of, hard stories to tell, heartbreaking tales, and even happy songs without being overtly obvious. Someone who can make you feel something with beats, or a guitar riff, where the melody may be so brilliant that the words are secondary.
That first song you wrote with Debbie Gibson in mind, “Who Am I” … what ever happened to it?
I sing it in the shower, very loudly, when my husband and dogs are not home. It’s a belter!
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