In love with New York, the inestimable Jim Carroll wrote:
I sleep on a tar roof,
scream my songs into lazy floods of stars,
and the sounds return, pure and easy.
Ah, the city is on my side.
It’s difficult to listen to Faye Webster and not feel the same awe, reverence, and affection about Atlanta. Her hometown’s presence looms large in her work. There’s the namechecking, 2019’s Atlanta Millionaires Club, and its track “Come to Atlanta”. But there is something more profound with Webster’s relationship with the city. Her music embodies Atlanta’s diverse, dichotomous spirit, a city at once forward-thinking and cosmopolitan, but also a city within a half hour’s drive of somewhere more rural and breezier. Over the course of four records, Webster has developed into an aural chameleon, defying a record collector’s need to categorize. Her debut record Run and Tell, recorded when she was sixteen, is a lovely, gentle acoustic affair. Starting with her next self-titled album, Webster not so much reinvented herself as flourished and evolved with an effortless collage of folk, alt-country, soul, lounge, R&B. Perhaps most indicative of her sound is her famed inclusion on Barack Obama’s 2020 year-end playlist, a distinction shared with a diverse cast, including Travis Scott, Jeff Tweedy, Waxahatchee, Bruce Springsteen, and Megan Thee Stallion. Webster’s records fit seamlessly among these acts.
Webster’s latest record I Know I’m Funny haha is album-of-the-year material, worth the hype and your time. It’s a headphone masterpiece for languid summer afternoons that bleed into evening. Idiosyncrasies charm: Matt “Pistol” Stoessel’s pedal steel is both traditionally rustic and unconventionally synth-like; twangy guitar sways in an R&B groove; candy floss orchestration dazzles alongside plaintive strums. Most powerful is Webster’s eschewing of traditional song structures and lyrical arrangements, relying instead on instinct and improvisation. There are beautiful moments when Webster hangs on to a word or phrase, deciding to stay with it, riding out the song in repetition, not because she’s run out of things to say, but perhaps because she’s finally found the right words and doesn’t want to let them go just yet.
Much has been made of Webster’s melancholia, but there is as much joy as there is yearning. If there are broken hearts, there are also tears: “You make me want to cry in a good way.”
The city is on her side.
I’ve spent a good deal of my summer walking through Kirkwood, my Atlanta neighborhood, listening to Faye Webster, soaking in the same city and her music, so it was an honor to have a few moments to talk with her about her eclectic tastes, artistic development, and the return of live music.
CF- What was the catalyst for your artistic development? Your first record has a singer-songwriter feel, but each release, you’ve expanded your sound– fuller, richer, almost genre-less.
FW- I feel like, for most artists, there’s just like a natural kind of evolution through making work when you age for so long. My first record was when I was sixteen. I’ve obviously grown and every day, I’m being inspired by something different or influenced by something that I wasn’t then. I naturally evolved, I’m still figuring out who I want to be.
Your sound is eclectic, all over the place in the best way. Where do you turn to for new ideas?
It can be something so simple as playing Legos. Then it can be new music, obviously, but it’s kind of hard to find music that I can really relate to so deeply. But when you do, I feel like that’s really special.
How do you avoid a comfort zone and creative ruts? Last week, I was reading an article about how people tend to fall back, gravitate to the music they loved when they were fifteen. Is that something that concerns you in the long term?
I think everybody changes whether they know it or not, but there’s still music that I loved from when I was growing up– but there’s music now that I think younger me wouldn’t have appreciated.
I definitely wasn’t listening to indie bands when I was young. It was just mostly mainstream stuff. I didn’t have the time, as a kid who doesn’t know what they want, to sift through underground music.
Your music has come a long way from the more acoustic and folk of your first record. Did you ever feel burdened by your roots? I know there are fans of the genre and purists who don’t take to change so well. Have you ever felt that pressure from that scene to maintain a loyalty with that? Or are you able to just grow without?
I don’t know. I mean, I think doing things at your own pace and not whatever you’re told to or whatever is the norm is the healthiest way.
What’s your relationship with your older material? Do you revisit it for setlists, or are you focused on your newer records?
There’s always a few songs from [Atlanta Millionaires Club], that will make it. And then I’ll play one or two from the self-titled, but I haven’t played anything from my first record since that record came out.
I wanted to talk about your lyrics. You have a very personal and confessional style that reminds me of poets like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, who are very honest with their particulars. Is your approach intentional or is it something more subconscious?
I don’t know. I just think it’s how I express myself, how I am. It naturally happens, but it’s definitely inspired by something. I really love Patti Smith, just low-key influences like that.
Are you always autobiographical in your approach, or are you able to step out and write from a different perspective, maybe from a third-person point of view?
I haven’t really been able to write from another perspective. I feel like it’s already hard to write about yourself. I feel like writing about yourself takes a lot of guts, you know? I know people who can read a book and then write a song about the book, but I don’t know how to do that stuff. Yeah, it has to be personal.
So many of your reviews bring up the sadness in your work. Do you find there’s a virtue in sadness? I know when I assign poems or stories to my students, they complain, “Why is everything you assign so sad?” I’m not sure I give them a satisfying answer. Have you always gravitated to music or movies that are sad?
I feel like sadness is something that everybody relates to. When people do touch on it or speak on the subject, it’s way more impactful than other feelings. So I’ve always related when people talk about sadness like that. I feel like it’s a rare thing to talk about, so it’s nice to feel understood or heard.
What are your feelings about perfectionism and your lyric writing? Does lyric writing fill you with anxiety, or is there a joy you get from the process?
I feel like I avoid being a perfectionist when I write just because, one, I feel like there’s a lot of overthinking when it comes to that. And also as a listener to other music, I feel like I appreciate the raw moments more than the really fine-tuned stuff. I definitely feel like when I write a song, and I’m done, I’m like, “Okay, that’s it. I’m not going to revisit it. I’m not going to change anything.”
Did the pandemic affect your writing process? Were you productive during that time?
Not really. I feel like the pandemic kind of took the fun out of everything. There was all this pressure to be creative, so I was kind of struggling a bit. But I think it was a nice challenge for me to be creative even though I don’t want to or don’t feel like it. But yeah, I was struggling a little bit.
Did you write anything that you think will stick? That you can use down the road?
Some of the songs on the record are from the pandemic. If I was a listener, I probably couldn’t tell [which songs were written during the pandemic], so I don’t feel like it affected my writing style or anything. But there’s definitely some pandemic songs that I feel like I’ll always relate to.
Did you pick up any new creative habits?
The pandemic was weird because when I’m not touring, I’m just at home anyways. It’s my comfort place, my place. I don’t really like know how I’ve changed other than thinking about stuff that I didn’t have time to think about before.
I wanted to talk about your song structures for a bit. I love that you don’t often follow a traditional verse-chorus-verse arrangement. Do you set out to avoid traditional structures, or is that something that’s more organic and improvised?
I feel like it definitely happens naturally. When I sit down to write, I don’t know what I’m writing about necessarily until I start, and then I feel like sometimes, I have so much to say that there’s no room for a chorus– like I already have too many words that I’m trying to get out. And then sometimes it’s just a lazy, leisure song where it’s just in a moment.
Do you have a collaborative process? Is it something that you handle by yourself, or do you bounce around ideas about instrumentation and orchestration?
I write all the songs by myself, and I don’t show them to my engineer or my band until we’re there together just because I don’t want them plotting on what to do and take away from the natural way it ends up being recorded. But I spend a lot of time perfecting the group I work with. It took so many years to find these people that I feel help represent me so well. I’ve been using the same band, the same people that I work with, which I think is important to me. It’s an “I wouldn’t do it if they weren’t available” kind of thing.
Could you talk about your relationship with Atlanta? The city plays a large role in your songs. A lot of artists might not mention their hometown a lot, and I was wondering what it means to you. Why is it important to write about it? To represent?
I feel like it’s just all I’ve ever known. It’s played such a big part in who I am because I’ve only been here. Even in the short time that I did leave, it only made me realize more that I wanted to be here. I feel like it’s home, and I happen to have a very strong relationship with home and family.
Has your relationship with Atlanta changed over the past two years with the pandemic, the social unrest, the protests? Have you felt a change in the city?
Seeing family and friends is such an important thing to me because I feel like it keeps me sane and happy. It was difficult not doing that as much this past year, especially when people move. That’s really sad to me even though I really have no say in it. I feel like Atlanta’s only getting stronger; it’s not what it was growing up. I feel like there’s way more conversation and growing and supporting that I really admire.
I was wondering if we could talk about your song “A Dream with a Baseball Player”. So you’re a sports fan, I suppose?
There’s a poet named Terrance Hayes who writes about “living between worlds,” being able to be involved in different scenes, being unconcerned about conflicts of interest. I have friends who are only into music and resent athletes and sports, or my sports friends who don’t like art on principle. I was wondering how you manage to live between worlds. Have you always been able to do that?
Yeah. I feel like whatever makes a person happy and content. Because you’re an English teacher doesn’t mean you can’t have passions for other things. Even if you do spend a lot of time doing those other things, that’s cool (laughs)! Whatever makes you happy! It’s how I grew up. It’s really just the Braves that I follow, but growing up and going to the Braves games all the time, it’s a reminder of childhood to me, so I still have a pretty strong connection to it.
If you were a ballplayer, what would be your at-bat music?
Probably an Animal Crossings song.
What would be the worst at-bat song?
Probably an Animal Crossings song (laughs)!
You’re getting ready to play live shows again. What are you looking forward to the most as live shows resume?
I think mostly traveling with my band and my friends, who are my band, also seeing people, seeing faces again onstage, which was a kind of a fuel to touring for me.
How has taking a break affected your feelings about live music?
It made me realize how underrated or under-appreciated it was. Going on tour was just like, “Argh, here we go! We have to go again!” Like, this is just what we do! But thinking about it now, I understand why that’s what we do because it’s so important.
Now that you’re four records into your career, how have your feelings about the power of music evolved? You released your first record at sixteen. What feels different now?
I think the most important part of it is, like I said earlier, just feeling understood by somebody, not having to say it because somebody else has said it. The more relatable music can be for you, I feel like that’s the best kind of music.