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Wearing experiences like a mane

interview: Annar Veröld
image: Mikaylah Bowman

Singer-songstress and photographer Jess Williamson’s debut EP Medicine Wheel/Death Songs evokes a solemn West Texas summer tinged with hope. The banjo gives Williamson’s tracks a hint of optimism, the lyrics are of a headstrong and graceful Southern woman, but her voice has an obscure and harrowing sadness. This perfect concoction makes a cold nostalgia graze your mind.

Every artist has a certain way of creating, where do you ideas stem from, and how do they turn into an album or a photograph?

A lot of inspiration comes from conversations that I have from friends. Studying photojournalism, you learn to pay attention to the moment. I became very sensitive to special moments. In a way, little magical inspirations have formed a lot of my songs.

Can you tell me a little about the songwriting and recording process for Medicine Wheel/Death Songs?

I was living in New York, and I was in a band called Rattlesnake. One of the songs that I wrote, “Kids Like Us”, became the first track for Medicine Wheel/Death Songs. The next one was “Soft Heart”. Both songs are literal. Both songs are about this person I thought I was so in love with.

The process of writing, what I do is put lyrics in my phone. Over a few weeks, as I'm learning new stuff on banjo and guitar, I'll look through my phone and sing some lyrics I jotted down. Slowly, I piece these ideas together and it becomes a song. My friend, Eli Welbourne (Silent Diane), was working at Cheer Up Charlies when I went to pick something up. I was talking to him; he was like, "why don't you come to my house? Me and my roommates record people in my house, we can all play on it and do that there." So, I went over to Eli's house and his roommates were Jason Chronis (Belaire) and Matt Simon (Belaire). Matt mainly recorded everything. First we recorded me and the banjo at the same time. Then over the next three weeks, the three of us worked together to write their parts. Afterwards, we basically overdubbed their parts on top of everything.

Medicine Wheel/Death Songs encompasses an array of emotions. What is the inspiration behind this particular EP? What imagery were you seeing or trying to create?

I wrote the first four songs over the course of a year. The first two are love sick songs. The third song is by anxiety, and the fourth song is about returning to a relationship that I knew was totally doomed. I wrote the song “Medicine Wheel” after the break up. I wanted to do something for myself. I decided to grow my hair out super long. To me, it was this symbolic gesture of holding on to my experiences. Everything. Wearing my experiences with pride, like a mane.

I participated in this ritual with my friends called a medicine wheel. That's where that last track stems from. The first four songs represent a part of me that was dead. The last song represented a different direction in songwriting and the kind of person that I wanted to be. I called it Medicine Wheel/Death Songs, because I feel like "Medicine Wheel" needed to be set apart from the other songs.

If the Medicine Wheel/Death Songs EP was a soundtrack, which film do you think it would be featured in?

Clueless. That's not even true; that's just the first thing that came to mind. Basically, any movie where the girl gets really bummed out and then empowered.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a solo artist?

It feels very alone in the whole fight for trying to be successful as a musician. In a band, everyone is working on the band and has equal say as to how the band goes. But when you write the songs and get your friends to play with you, it's hard to get your friends to really be that dedicated. It's my project—that's the biggest challenge—I can't expect other people to care that much about it yet.

Have you had any thoughts creep into your mind about integrating your photography and music together?

I kind of do in a way. I take portraits, and we use them on the internet for the band. I want to collaborate with my friends for a music video for "Medicine Wheel".

So you are going on tour the last two weeks of June. Because living on the road is kind of rough, have you put any thought into your wardrobe?

I have to pack so light. I want to have cool outfits. We are going in my car, so we won't have much space. I will definitely go to Laced With Romance—my favorite store—before the tour and find some stuff. I love to wear a lot of high-waisted stuff and boots. I think that I really like the '90s.

What are your plans for 2012? Where are you headed?

Going on tour. I think I'm going to put out another EP, release five more songs.

+ Jess Williamson website

The first four songs represent a part of me that was dead. The last song represented a different direction in songwriting and the kind of person that I wanted to be.