BROOKS WILLIAMS INTERVIEW
Like good old-fashioned Blues? Then you’ll love Brooks Williams! American born and bred, Brooks plays Blues like it’s meant to be played — from the heart. Here, in an exclusive interview with “Pulse” author Steve Rudd, Brooks talks about his upbringing in Georgia, his main influences, and his new album…
Hey Brooks, how are things, and how has 2016 treated you so far?
2016 has got off to a brilliant start. I spent most of January on tour in Europe, February and early March on tour in the UK, and the rest of March and half of April on tour in the US. Just as I like it!
As a kid, did you ever imagine that you’d one day be regarded as a Blues God?
Like most kids who love music, or guitar, or sport, or whatever, I spent a lot of time dreaming elaborate stories of fame, fortune and adventure. What I didn’t imagine is that thirty years into my career, I would look back and say, “Wow! I did it. And I’m still doing it!” The “it” I’m referring to is spending most of my waking hours playing my guitar. The fact that I’m regarded at all in the Blues world is an amazing honour. But I’d go so far as to say that the Blues chose me, rather than it being me who chose the Blues. Playing and singing the Blues has always come very naturally for me. It feels like my “speaking voice” — just something that is. And I’m very lucky that that’s the case!
How early did you develop an interest in music? Is it something that your parents were into?
I’ve been interested in music for as long as I can remember. I don’t know how or why it began. I can speculate that I was influenced by my mother, who was into Classical and Church music. In my earliest memories, there were musicians in and out of our house, sitting around our table, telling stories.
So what do you recall of your first guitar, and did you play any other instruments before settling for a six-string?
My first guitar was a Greco Spanish guitar with a double pickguard modelled after the great Jose Feliciano, who was burning up the American music charts at the time. It wasn’t exactly what I hoped for, though, because I was more enthralled by the electric guitar. But it was a great starting point. Later, I got a Guild Archtop that was both acoustic and electric. It was one of those cool guitars, with f-holes instead of a soundhole. It had a nice acoustic sound, but it really rocked when plugged into an amp. Imagine my surprise when I was fifteen and the police arrived at the front door of my house to tell me to turn down my amp; it was that loud!
What was it like growing up in small-town Georgia? Did you have a happy childhood there?
My family moved around the American South a lot, so I don’t know what it’s like to be from just one place. Back in the days of my childhood, there was an overall “feel” to the southern states. It was still relatively remote from the rest of America, and it had its own subculture, with its own distinctive accent, food, music and stories. Some amazing music grew out of the region; think New Orleans, Memphis, Nashville and Clarksdale. At the same time, it had its share of turmoil and strife. That fact is well-known. The economic strife was challenging to say the least, but the racial strife was catastrophic. It was a real cauldron. Still, the South of my childhood retained a small-town feel, and small-town Georgia moved at a slow pace. The towns were such that everyone knew everyone… and everyone knew everyone’s business! My grandfather used to sometimes take me into town with him on Saturday mornings, and it took ages, because he was always stopping on the street to speak with someone or other about this business or that. It was colourful.
Was Blues music easy to access on the radio or in record stores?
I wasn’t aware of much “Classic” Blues being played on radio or sold in record stores. My awareness of that came later. But there was plenty of rock ‘n’ roll, R&B-inspired Soul music, Country, and something called “Beach Music,” which was like a hybrid of Sam Cooke and a rock power-trio! My awareness of old Blues came later, when I moved to Boston and New York. The radio stations in the northeast played Country-Blues records. The guitarists on street corners emulated the old styles, and the young, up-and-coming musicians modelled themselves on the old acoustic Blues stars. That’s when the penny dropped! I had some catching up to do!
Did you have any particularly encouraging music teachers at school?
I had some wonderful music teachers, but they didn’t know what to do with a kid whose main interest was Roots. In those days, you were either Classical or Jazz-orientated. Those of us into Roots just figured it out as we went along. We created the music, learned to read TAB, listened to records, and tried to emulate what we were hearing. There was a lot of self-teaching and sharing!
Having honed your talent as a singer-songwriter over the past twenty-five years, what do you know now that you wish you’d known when you first started out?
I wish I’d known that “less is more.” A single idea fully developed is more fun and hits the spot in a truer way than a song that tries to say and be everything. I also know more about how Roots works as a “form.” It has introduced a freedom to my songwriting that I’m not sure was there for me in the early years. Weird, right? Form bringing freedom. But it has!
Who were you inspired by when you were growing up, and were you lucky enough to see any concerts that had a particularly positive impact on you?
My earliest inspirations came from recordings. On an obscure Country-Rock album called “Reborn” (by the equally obscure duo The Talbot Brothers) is a beautiful track called “Trail Of Tears.” The slide guitar on that song literally took my breath away; it still does. It was played by none other than David Lindley. That was the point I began to want to play slide. There’s a cool band called Hot Tuna that reworked Blues classics with guitar, voice, electric bass and electric violin, and I liked them a lot. They have a track called “Water Song” that I still play. Bonnie Raitt was a huge influence, too. I think I learned to fingerpick by copying Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles.” I saw a few rock concerts when I was young, but it really wasn’t until I moved to Boston in my late teens that I began to go to shows in small clubs and bars. Some really inspirational concerts were by John Hiatt, Ry Cooder and Maria Muldaur.
What did you do for a living before making music, or have you always made money from your music?
I taught in a school for two years before making the move to “do” music full-time. I was twenty-three, twenty-four.
Looking ahead at your gig schedule for the rest of 2016, it looks like you’re set to ricochet between the US and UK for much of the year! Where do you enjoy playing the most?
I’m very lucky to be able to take my music to so many amazing places. Since the UK is my adopted home (I moved here six years ago), I love playing here. There are already some familiar favourites like Paul Sutton’s Back Room in Cottingham, The Green Note in London, and Chapel Arts in Bath. The rooms are small, but they all have great sound and a great vibe. My favourite European country to tour is the Netherlands. They love American Roots, and know a lot about the roots of Roots! That sounds funny, I realise, but it’s true. They know more about my country’s music than many people I know in my own country! Over in the US, my favourite places to play are down south. I love playing in Texas, Tennessee and North Carolina. There’s a long and lively tradition of great music coming out of such areas. I feel like I’m helping to keep the tradition going.
You’re also poised to play some dates in France this year. How do your songs translate?
When I play music in countries where English isn’t the first language, I’m relying totally on the music being the shared language. Even if they don’t know what I’m saying, they “recognise” the voice and melodies, and they can glean meaning from them. However, it is a bit troubling that my jokes don’t translate! My whole “talkie” bit on stage needs revamping when I’m in a non-English speaking country!
So tell us a little about your new album, “My Turn Now”…
I’m very excited about this collection of songs; it delves deeply into my love of Roots-Rock-Blues. That’s how we recorded the tracks, too. The band comprises me and my trusted resonator guitar, along with electric bass and drums. Sally Barker, of The Voice fame, sings backing vocals on four of the tracks. I think our voices sound great together.
Would you say that you find it easier to write songs these days?
I wouldn’t say that it’s easier, but it’s a lot more fun. I enjoy the process more. I always have a song or two “on the go,” but I’m not stressed about completing any of them. I throw away as much as I keep. The throwaway bits go into something I call “The Bone Yard.” Later, when I’m working on a new song, I sometimes find an inspiring phrase, word or melody there. Sometimes, it’s the missing piece; sometimes, it’s the inspiration for something completely new. It can be a lively process!
Finally, how can people find out more about you and your music?
Facebook, Twitter, Spotify and iTunes are the best places to go. There’s also my YouTube channel, which has a series of live tracks from my 2014 tour recorded at Blue Rock, Texas. That was a great show, and it was filmed with a proper film and sound crew. Then there’s my website at www.brookswilliams.com — still the best portal for free lyrics, chords and TAB for those aspiring guitarists and singers who want to have a go at some of my songs!