MONO, A.A. Williams, Pupil Slicer and more announced for Portals Festival
The stacked line-up hits EartH in London in late May...
It’s not unusual for A.A. Williams to see a few tears drop in the darkness. Playing to a congregation scattered amongst the pews of Glasgow’s historic Mackintosh Church at sunset on the second Saturday in November, there is an air of uncertainty. Many of the punters gathered for the city’s Great Western festival – a genre-hopping showcase for everyone from Russian protest-punks Pussy Riot to Bristol techno-metallers SCALPING – seem to be indulging in the London singer-songwriter’s ethereal sound for the first time. Dabbing their eyes in the long shadows, however, the real devotees in attendance are enjoying a near-religious experience.
“I’m all for it,” she smiles in the electric afterglow. “A lot of people get very emotional at my shows; it’s quite common to see fans, many of whom come alone, having a little cry over whatever memory or feeling this music is triggering in them. It’s like a safety blanket: rich and textured, soothing and calm enough for people who’re trying to deal with things to feel at ease. I want to rouse something in people. To see them not just passively enjoying these songs, but getting really invested in them, is really something. I’m very grateful for that.”
For a confessed introvert who’d “rather be hiding behind a curtain” than hogging the limelight, there is something even more poignant about such public outpourings. And while there is still apprehension mixed with gratitude when she peers offstage, A.A. – Alex – is able to dampen it with the understanding that nights like this have been a long time coming.
2018’s self-titled EP and 2019’s split with Japanese instrumental rockers MONO dropped in the pre-pandemic era. Debut album proper Forever Blue arrived in July 2020, finding success as a perfectly melancholic COVID soundtrack but existing only within listeners’ headphones and stereos for over a year after release. As its title suggests, March 2021’s Songs From Isolation was a similarly confined effort, comprised of haunting homemade cover versions: Radiohead’s Creep, Pixies’ Where Is My Mind?, Nick Cave’s Into My Arms. Second LP As The Moon Rests, which arrived last month, is a watershed moment, with the 34-date European trek to which tonight is a precursor presenting an unfamiliar exhilaration and trepidation over airing such fresh material.
“I just picked up my first-ever headline tour laminate,” Alex grins, brandishing the slip of plastic marked with her initials like a marathon medal. “Usually it’s got someone else’s name on it!”
Even further back, of course, Alex’s life was ruled by music. And, although she stresses repeatedly during our conversation that discussing her present and future is far more relevant than digging through the past – even deliberately sidestepping some specifics – context is key.
Mum was a systems analyst who’d crank rock classics by the likes of Led Zeppelin and Queen. Dad was a pastry chef prone to dabbling on keys and chilling out to Classic FM. Neither were especially musical, but the young Alex found herself drawn to the old electric organ at home and began to hit the keys aged six. Naturally, piano lessons followed. It was when she picked up the cello and began in youth ensembles, though, that her prodigious talent really emerged. Discovering her own music in alternative artists like Deftones and Nine Inch Nails was pivotal to her evolving taste, but more important was the soul-stirring exhilaration she found in performing pieces like Igor Stravinsky’s surging avant-garde benchmark The Rite Of Spring.
“Music was my way of expressing stuff,” she says. “It’s like learning some sort of secret language. It’s private. It’s cool. It’s something that other people can’t do. Even pieces I’d been assigned for exams became a way of communicating, because I wasn’t very good at doing it verbally. I never found any of it too hard. And I never liked anything in a major key. Ever. I never played anything happy out of choice. Even when I was a little kid, it was like, ‘Nah, not for me…’”
Realising that performance could be a career, next stop was The University Of London’s prestigious Goldsmiths College. Enrolling just before the music course was split into ‘Classical’ and ‘Popular’ ensured that she continued to explore all ends of the spectrum. Graduation whisked her into the life of a classical cellist, conscientiously performing everything from movie soundtracks to Mozart, enveloped in the comforting anonymity of the grand orchestra.
Then a guitar literally dropped into her life.
The serendipitous tale of Alex discovering a broken beginners’ Telecaster four doors down from her Islington flat is well worn at this point, but she recounts the details with a telling smile: the note reading ‘Please take me, just needs work’, sourcing replacement parts down on Denmark Street, carrying out the repairs with a tech friend on her kitchen table. “I’m not one for breaking rules,” she laughs, “so I felt awkward taking it, even with the sign.”
More than just another instrument, it was a catalyst. After years of formal training, the opportunity to self-teach offered a type of freedom. In search of the string instrument crossover from cello, she unconventionally tuned to DADGAD which, in turn, gave an impetus to write her own songs. (“I’m a sucker for a challenge, especially a musical challenge. I didn’t want to just sit there playing AC/DC riffs. That’s great. You learn them and then what? Be in a pub band?”) Having never sung before, either, she began to explore the potential of her own voice, then building the confidence to show it off beyond the safety of the living room. And perhaps most pivotally, delving into the world of amplification and distortion offered new levels of expression and catharsis.
“Maybe I didn’t realise it until I got my guitar and pedals, but I never really felt like classical was enough,” she reckons. “As lovely as it was to take part in those performances and be part of that world, I just needed to make a bit more noise. I’ve never been one of those kids rehearsing in garages and making a racket with their mates. Maybe I’m making up for it now!”
On the face of it, A.A. Williams’ artistic progression can seem like a fathomless descent into darkness. Perhaps it’s fairer to think of it as a difficult – and ongoing – conversation with herself.
‘Give me time and I will learn that I am only human, and I must love myself above anyone else, because I thought that I was made for this, but I lied to myself…’ So speak the first lyrics on As The Moon Rests’ magnificent opening track Hollow Heart against a crashing soundscape. Lead single Evaporate tells of, ‘Holding on, feeling everything I am come undone’, brewing its cocktail of sensuality and desperation like The Cranberries at their darkest. The seven-and-a-half-minute title-track, meanwhile, is a fantastically dirgy “love song” filled with longing, intimacy and reckonings on the balance between ‘hate and love’ that feel less likely to be about a rendezvous with any long-term partner or beautiful stranger than the need to truly know to oneself.
Sonically and lyrically, Alex admits, these songs remain a reflection of the darkness at her heart.
“It’s always been there,” she shrugs. “Ever since I was teeny-tiny. It wasn’t triggered by anything. I’ve always had that little dark cloud following me. And that’s fine. I’ve gotten used to it now. You either fight it and lose, you medicate yourself to the gills, or you try and quietly co-exist.”
Where, previously, there was a stubborn desire to fight, it has been replaced by a more mature willingness to engage with the shadows within. Hers has become music as therapy, if you will: an attempt to understand the darkness and negotiate a sustainable path through it. “Album one was very much about looking inwards, finding flaws and trying to eradicate them,” she nods. “Album two is about trying to identify these things, manage them, treat them with kindness. Even if it’s not evident on every song, there’s a thread of acceptance running throughout.”
Sonically, that philosophy is articulated through greater depth, more consistency, and a confidently realised stylistic progression. Forever Blue was a DIY record, written (and largely recorded) at her two-bedroom flat while the A.A. Williams sound was still coming into focus. As the world ground to a halt, much of As The Moon Rests was written and extensively demoed there, too “like drawing the whole sketch, but in pencil rather than in pen”, but as restrictions lifted there was a need to challenge and expand the songs with bassist/co-producer/husband Thomas Williams, drummer Geoff Holroyde and London-based engineer/mixer Adrian Hall at his Clever Pup studio. Having reworked the four tracks of her debut EP with a full string ensemble for 2021’s arco release, there was a desire to replicate that detail and texture over all 11 songs here. Having so painstakingly prepared, there was both the confidence and resource to experiment and execute across a staggering 62-minute sprawl, with – for better or worse, taste dependent – fewer of the melodramatic flourishes and occasionally jarring tonal shifts of her debut.
“People will say, ‘Forever Blue: that’s what you sound like,’” she smiles wryly, frustrated to be pigeonholed just a few records in. “That’s what I started sounding like. This is now.”
Lyrics always follow the music. While there’s no hiding behind symbolism and allegory (“I am terrible at metaphor. I’ve tried it, and it’s rubbish”), Alex avoids discussing the detail of her personal experience, keen to retain some privacy and wary of getting to levels of specificity where listeners might struggle to identify with the songs. The challenge of fitting “a feeling or intention” around the gossamer ripples of her compositions also forces deeper pondering and rationalisation of the ideas at play. It leads to some moments of thrilling self-reckoning, like the declaration on gorgeously folky mid-album highlight Shallow Water that ‘misery is only part of me…’
“It can be like, ‘Oh, A.A. Williams? She’s miserable!’” Alex expands the idea. “But there are so many other things that make someone who they are. Misery is not a person-defining feature. It’s just an annoying little friend who’s always there. It can be like looking after an inner-child sometimes.”
Indeed, As The Moon Rests’ underpinning message is the importance of personal caretaking.
“Over the pandemic, a lot of people had more time to ruminate on this stuff,” she continues. “It gave everyone a bit of an uncomfortable silence in which to realise things about themselves. I began to understand that it’s okay to look out for yourself ahead of others sometimes. I needed to show myself more kindness. Previously, I was always saying ‘Yes, yes, yes’ to everything, even if I was freaking out. Now, if I start to burn out, I say, ‘No.’ Also, you’ve got to try to do the things that make you feel good, even if just for a moment. Listen to the song. Have the extra shot of whatever in your coffee. It all adds up. And if you get to the end of the day thinking, ‘You know what? Today was alright,’ then that’s a win, frankly. You can’t expect a miracle. You’ve got to take it step by step.”
Ultimately, A.A. Williams doesn’t have a clue into which genre she should be categorised. Frankly, she doesn’t really care. Post-rock? Death gospel? Doom-folk? Whatever works for you.
“Someone called it ‘classical sludge’ the other day,” she laughs. “I don’t know how I feel about that, but I don’t hate it. I never focus on what music I’m making. I just make it. It’s never about where it sits in your vinyl collection. It’s about whether I like each song, and enjoy playing it live.” A playful grin. “I guess I’m too quiet for the heavy crowd and too loud for everyone else!”
To the contrary, praise is pouring in from all corners, with this first Kerrang! Cover Story counterpointed by high-profile exposure from mainstream outlets like BBC Radio 6 Music. And while there’s plenty to be pessimistic about at the moment – war, economic turmoil, England’s chances at the World Cup – Alex doesn’t think that her success is simply down to timing, explaining how, long ago, she felt the same downbeat resonance with the music of Placebo and Portishead as fans do in hers.
Citing her live debut at the Netherlands’ legendary Roadburn festival in 2019 as the turning point that spurred her properly down this path (“I remember getting there and driving into Tilburg like, ‘Finally, I’ve found my people’”) we wonder whether she sees her success as part of a wave driven by strong, dark female voices who’ve broken out there like Emma Ruth Rundle and Chelsea Wolfe?
“I don’t really see myself as part of anything,” she answers, with a note of weary, perhaps justifiable irritation. “I do find it very interesting that I am consistently compared only to women. And I do not understand it, because musically we are not alike. I have no problem being compared to respected artists, but if you compare my latest album to Emma’s last record, they are nothing like each other. Yet there’s that immediate assumption that we must all just be the same.”
Rather than coming from the same place artistically, it’s that female voices in the world of ‘grown-up’ alternative music are still tied as exceptions to the overwhelmingly male-dominated norm.
“There’s an emotional element to [female vocals] which, from a purely physical standpoint, is not the same,” Alex explains of how siren songs stand out in a world of growls. “There’s a soothing quality, a warmth, a soft embrace that you don’t find in the male voice. But I don’t know whether it’s that that sound is particularly popular right now as much as it is that female artists finally feel like they can get on and do their own thing. I don’t tend to mention female artists among my heavy influences because I didn’t have any. When I was a kid, heavy music was all Slipknot and fuckin’ Rage Against The Machine. They were all dudes in big trousers and hoodies. Nowadays, if a woman [or otherwise] finds their voice and wants to start a band, they start the band. So maybe it’s not a wave of sudden female creativity. Maybe it’s more that we’re finally thinking, ‘Why not?’”
That swell of growing confidence should carry A.A. Williams even higher still. Having already earned praise from Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan for her cover of Porcelina Of The Vast Oceans and, bizarrely, had photos of her sausage dog Geezer pop up on the radar of his namesake and Black Sabbath bassist Geezer Butler, no ambition seems too outlandish to pursue.
“I’m not going to give myself any limit here,” she stresses. “Aim as high as possible and you will get as close as is feasible. If you aim for an A* at school you might get an A. If you don’t, you might end up with a C. But I just love being in the very privileged position of being able to make music for a living. I want to keep doing that for as long as I can, fitting as many people who are interested in my music into the room as possible. I’m still at a point in my career where that feels like a really big deal in itself: to do a gig and have people show up. You’ve got to respect every audience member, every person who buys a record, everyone who spends their hard-earned cash on your art – especially now. Supporting artists is so important in this ridiculous shitshow of a world. It’s not just about spending money on the gig tickets. It’s about getting there, staying somewhere, getting something to eat. So, if people want to come and cry in a room with you, it’s fuckin’ important!”
And as her music therapy continues to progress, is there any danger of those tears drying up?
“Human beings are complicated,” she tilts her head. “There’s all sorts of weird stuff going on inside. And just because you feel something one day doesn’t mean that you’ll feel it the next. Maybe we get to album 10 and every song is about how great life is. But I’m not holding out hope…”
As The Moon Rests is out now via Bella Union. A.A. Williams is on tour in the UK and Europe now.
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