Author: Novak, Jessica
Date published: October 5, 2011
Journal code: SYNT
Keller Williams reaches into the refrigerator of his motor home and pauses the interview to quiet his children, Ella, 6, and Cabell, 3, who are shouting in the background. He's on his way to the "Life is good" Festival in Canton, Mass., a tyke-friendly fest that's appropriate for Williams given his 2010 release Kids (Sci Fidelity Records), complete with bopping tunes like "Taking a Bath," "Soakie Von Soakerman" and "The Fastest Song in the World." His southern drawl is endearing as he chats about his numerous projects that seem to keep multiplying even as he speaks, all in addition to the many endeavors he's completed since he began performing in the early 1990s.
Williams has kept busy with various projects including his other 2010 album Thief (Sci Fidelity). He also does solo shows, performs with his trio The Keels and soon with the legendary Travelin' McCourys, has his own radio series that is syndicated in nearly 50 markets, an online entertainment program and two records slated for a December release, Bass and Keys.
Despite that exhaustive list, Williams seems energized by the music he makes and searches out, not jaded or oppressed by the many projects he's always juggling. His creativity abounds, but what fuels it?
"Attention deficit disorder, maybe? That's one way to look at it," he says. "I would say it's real-life situations as well as just massive amounts of music that I'm constantly listening to and studying. I'm constantly listening to Internet radio channels for music that I've never heard that turns me on. It's probably all these different kinds of music that get locked inside my brain and then once I start to play music a lot of the influence comes out from all this music that I listen to."
Williams will bring his latest inspirations to the Westcott Theater, 524 Westcott St., for a 9 p.m. show on Friday, Oct. 7. (Tickets are $20 in advance at the Sound Garden, 310 W. Jefferson St., and $25 at the door. Visit www.thewestcotttheater.com for more information.) If nothing else, Williams promises that this solo concert will be eclectic.
"There's no real rhyme or reason to any specific show," he says. "I definitely first and foremost try to entertain myself and hopefully that will make it across to the audience, ya know? Because I really can't fake it. So I'll be doing the stuff I wake up thinking about."
Growing up just south of Washington, D.C., in Fredericksburg, Va., Williams had a guitar in his hands starting at age 3 and listened to his parents' music. "My mom played a little piano," he remembers. "My dad was definitely a music lover. He could play the stereo real good."
Williams' parents listened to whatever songs they wanted to hear, not substituting kiddie-oriented tracks, which is something he's still grateful for today. But around 1986, when Williams was 16, certain influences such as Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead began resonating with him and he carefully began dissecting and studying their prodigious repertoire. Then in 1989, Williams discovered another musical muse: singer, songwriter and guitarist Michael Hedges. "The two really sent me into an interesting head space," he recalls. "I had that whole Dead experience mixed with the art of Michael Hedges."
Williams experimented performing both with bands and solo, trying to make ends meet by playing music. His career got rolling after his first solo release Freek (Sci Fidelity), followed by more single-syllable titled albums such as Buzz (1996), Spun (1998) and Breathe (1999). Kids marked his 16th release.
But all those CDs are clearly not enough for the singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, whose solo performances are most easily described as one-man jam band events. He has toured and collaborated with Yonder Mountain String Band, The String Cheese Incident, Umphrey's McGee and Ratdog, as well as The Keels, a trio with married couple Larry and Jenny Keel. In 2003 he started his radio show Keller's Cellar, which features all types of music, artists and genres for a 59-minute blast. And to keep up with the digital age, in 2009 Williams developed the online program Once a Week Freek, now called Whenever I Feel Like It Freek.
Unlike the more traditional Keller's Cellar show, Once a Week Freek began as something of a promotional idea: Williams issued one song each week from then-new album Odd, until all the tracks were out and he released the hard copy CD. For nearly a year afterward on Freek, each week Williams kept pumping out other releases with live tracks and covers.
"After a year it just got to the point where I just didn't feel like listening to myself as much as it took to come up with material to release," he says. "I didn't want to release just anything, I wanted it to be good, be right." The online show reflected the new attitude with a more appropriate name, Whenever I Feel Like It Freek. And by slowing down the pace of other projects, Williams opened himself up to new album opportunities, such as last year's double whammy of the concept LPs Thief and Kids.
Thief, featuring The Keels, is an all-covers album (get the title now?) with tracks that pay homage to artists spanning Kris Kristofferson, Ryan Adams, The Raconteurs, Presidents of the United States of America, Butthole Surfers, Amy Winehouse and Marcy Playground. "Those were songs that chose me," the robbin' Williams explains. "It's a lot of songs that would get caught in my head and I wasn't looking for songs to cover. Almost all of them were road-tested and after we got a good response, that's kinda how they were chosen."
The album has a distinct bluegrass feel, helped along by the recording strategy Williams used, completing the album in just two eight-hour sessions. "In the recording world it's easy to go in there and spend days on one song," he says. "Record the bass and the drums first, then lay on different tracks and once all the tracks are in there, you can go in with a computer and change every single note. What I wanted to do is make a record as a record of an event of musicians playing music in a room. I wanted to do it live and then any kind of harmonies were done as an overdub."
Thief also comes with an explicit "Karma Warning" in the liner notes, letting listeners know that if they steal from the record, they're actually stealing double, given that the songs are covers. "This indeed will be a DOUBLE hit to your karma," Williams writes.
Given the lighthearted nature of Williams' music, Kids was a natural project choice and features his daughter Ella on several tracks. She even contributed enough for Williams to create her own publishing company, Ellaweezy Music. "Maybe it'll pay for a week of college for her or something," he jokes.
His next projects provide new challenges. Bass will features Williams only on the bass instrument, while Keys takes a similar keyboards-bent nature for covers of Grateful Dead tunes. Proceeds from Keys will also benefit The Rex Foundation, a non-profit started by the Grateful Dead in 1983 that was established to support creative endeavors in the arts, sciences and education. The album follows in the footsteps of another ongoing project, Grateful Grass, a group which features rotating musicians performing bluegrass versions of Grateful Dead Songs.
More than anything, what comes across most profoundly through a conversation with Williams, is his incredibly optimistic, upbeat attitude, one that is heavily reflected in his music. "What I'm trying to do is put myself in the place of the audience and play something or have the lyrics be something that I would want to hear if I were in the audience," he says. "I'm very, very, very lucky to have so many wonderful people around me and have my life be a really super-positive thing. I can understand why people write about pain or sadness, but my situation is different and I'm trying to have that positive happiness come out through my music because that's kind of the way it's happening in my life."