Kathryn Williams

You may remember Kathryn Williams from her moment under intense media spotlight back in 2000 when her self-released record was the outsider bet for the Mercury Prize. Since then she has forged a lasting career that has kept her writing to this day. We chat to her as she releases her 10th album to find out why this record might just be the one...

Anita Awbi
  • By Anita Awbi
  • 1 Aug 2013
  • min read
You may remember Kathryn Williams from her moment under intense media spotlight back in 2000 when her second self-released record was the outsider bet for the Mercury Prize.

Her DIY effort Little Black Numbers was up against studio opuses from the likes of Richard Ashcroft, Coldplay and Nitin Sawhney, attracting acres of column inches from journalists eager to find out more about the little known Liverpudlian songwriter.

She missed out to Badly Drawn Boy that year, who took the prize for his classic debut The Hour of Bewilderbeast. But Kathryn’s moment under the microscope helped her forge a lasting career that has kept her writing and releasing records to this day.

For her latest set, Crown Electric, she has assembled friends old and new to create a slice of classic songwriting and elevated musicianship. Lamb’s Jon Thorne appears on double bass alongside Cinematic Orchestra’s Luke Flowers on drums. Meanwhile respected folk musician Neill McColl plays guitar and oversees production.

The lush string arrangements, which Kathryn says were influenced by Simon & Garfunkel and Beck’s Sea Change, were arranged and recorded by cellist Ben Trigg (Dexys, UNKLE, Arctic Monkeys). Backing vocals come courtesy of Ed Harcourt, Andy Bruce, James Yorkston and Chris Sheehan.

We caught up with Kathryn before her gig tonight at St Pancras Old Church, London, to find out more about her journey from songwriting apprentice to artisan.

She reveals how she handled the early pressures of fame and explains why her latest LP might just be her seminal record…

You’ve been in the public eye for nearly 15 years now – how has your songwriting changed?
It changes all the time. I’m starting to write for other people now, so it’s what I’ve always wanted: a long journey of learning.

Who are you writing for?
I can’t say at the moment because none of the records are ready to come out yet. Some pop people, and a few bigger names as well.

What’s it like to write for others?
Because I did an art degree it makes sense. My own work is like painting for myself and saying what I want. When I write for other people I have more of a brief. I have to consider them as a person and their voice. You have to think about where their voice will go when you’re writing a melody. It’s more like graphic design!

Do you enjoy it?
It’s really interesting. The nice thing is, whether you’re doing co-writes or writing on your own for someone, you’re always learning. I always think of David Hockney when I write. He said that the cleverest people can explain the most complex issues simply. So I always try to write without clichés and in a way that anyone could sing or understand.

When did you first discover you could write?
I was really young. I didn’t pick up a guitar until I was 18 and I’m still not very good. Bar chords are a total pain – I still can’t do them! Before that I had books and I was always writing poems and stories. No one noticed any of that at school. When I was doing an art degree I started to write more seriously. I never try to be clever when I’m writing, all I want to do is put an idea in someone’s head.

Your first album Dog Leap Stairs was self-released wasn’t it?
Yes, I made it in 98 and put it out in 1999. I got a lot of labels wanting to sign me when I’d played a couple of gigs and didn’t really know what I was doing. I didn’t trust anyone so I said I’d put it out myself. I made that album for £80 and it was quite well received so I self-released my second album Little Black Numbers. It was before MySpace and Bandcamp and all of that. There wasn’t really anyone doing that back then.

What was it like to release your music without an online support network?
There was no social networking – it was old school. It was about going to the manufacturers, getting a distribution deal, working things out like that. I think I got a lot of respect from the industry for doing it. People like Jeff Barrett of Heavenly, and Geoff Travis from Rough Trade and Laurence at Domino. They treated me like I was another label boss! That was really fantastic.

You received your Mercury nomination around that time didn’t you?
Yes, I got nominated while the album was still on my own label. It was at the awards ceremony when I did the performance that EastWest Warners wanted to sign me. So I signed to them for two records.

What was it like to be up against the major label nominated albums?
I remember I wanted my whole band to come to the show but the tickets were really expensive! I got help from people so we could afford to go to the Grosvenor House Hotel for the night and I bought a skirt from a real shop, not a charity shop!

Were you nervous?
Definitely! I expected someone to come along and tell me I didn’t have the qualifications to be there! I had quite bad stage fright back then, so I messed up a lot of the chances that the nomination brought me. But it was amazing.

Everyone says the music industry is a people business. It’s interesting to hear you suffered from stage fright and weren’t very self-promoting. How did you get on?
It’s a dichotomy really. I was driven to make music and go on tour, even though I found the performing side quite painful. I don’t know what was willing me to go on and what was stopping me to do things. But I could probably count on half a hand the people I don’t get on with and I’ve met hundreds of people. It’s a wonderful industry to be in.

Do you regret anything that you did or didn’t do back then?
I remember I got asked to do Later… with Jools Holland and I said no because there was no way I could go on TV and play a song on my own. I could definitely do that now but it’s all about timings. You can’t go through life regretting things. If we could rehearse how we lived our lives we could live much more perfectly – but that’s not the deal any of us have.

Considering all your experiences, how has your songwriting changed since that very first record?
It’s changed quite a lot over the last few years. I went for a songwriting week away with my friend Chris Difford who’s in the band Squeeze. That was a really big turning point for me because it gave me a whole wealth of other writers to work with. It changed me. I had to socially get on and work out how I write, and how that would work within a group.

Did it affect your solo writing too?
I think I’m more aware of the things I’d like to write and that has become part of the process. When I first started out it would all come from the ether. But now the lyrics and melodies are more muscular and considered.

What were you trying to achieve with your new record Crown Electric?
I wanted to achieve a classic album. I always note Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen - all of those songwriters who have made long-standing albums. I’m not into fashion. I feel like this album is a very seminal record – I think this is the one.

Have you tried anything different with this one?
We took the idea for recording this one from when we recorded [last album] The Quickening with the band live over four days. So most of Crown Electric was recorded live together with the band - Luke Flowers from Cinematic Orchestra, who’s amazing on drums, Jon Thorne from Lamb on double bass, Neill McColl on guitar and Ben Trigg on cello. It’s all live but we recorded it at two different studios.

How do you deal with writers’ block or know when a song isn’t quite right?
I don’t have massive fame, I’ve just plodded along on my path. I’m not on a major label, surrounded by people who say yes to my every tantrum. I’m surrounded by people who constantly tell me when I’m a dick or if I’m wrong and it’s set me wonderfully on my way. Long may it continue!

Crown Electric is released through One Little Indian on 30 September.