Better All My Days: Jess Williamson Talks Plains, Teases New Solo Effort

I Walk With You A Ways, the debut album from super duo Plains, is country because it can be, pop enough to meet the sun or start the evening’s revel, and elevated by deceptively arresting songs– while you’re baited by harmony and distracted by melody, Jess Williamson and Katie Crutchfield are setting the hook and reeling you into the light.

Only slightly straying from their respective solo paths, Crutchfield (aka Waxahatchee) and Williamson bring together unique voices and original tunes dreamt apart but lived together, lush tales of epiphany and private moments delivered as blue sky, porch swing philosophy. Recorded in Durham, North Carolina with producer Brad Cook (American Aquarium, Hiss Golden Messenger, Brent Cobb), I Walked With You A Ways is a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too album highlighting the power of collaboration while also leaving plenty of breathing room for both artists to showcase their strengths.

The album is something of a watershed for Jess Williamson, a chance to develop new muscles and reconnect. Her gorgeous 2020 release Sorceress dealt in warmth and ambiance, sharp songs dressed in soft tones cultivated for candlelight or gloaming drives, but with I Walked With You A Ways, Williamson is especially unencumbered, skin-close to the material, and singing straight from the spring. Revelation or restoration, the experience made an impression that persists as Williamson shares details about a new solo project while delving into her songwriting and the dynamics within Plains.

AI- You’re originally from Texas, you’re out in LA now– is that right?

JW- Well, actually, I split time between LA and… Do you know where Marfa, Texas is?

I’m aware that it exists although I’ve never been there.

It’s a small town in far West Texas. My boyfriend lives there, so as of a few months ago, I’m half-time in LA and half-time in Marfa.

And then Katie is from Alabama but lives in Kansas City, and then you all convened in North Carolina to make the record. I think that might make it possibly the most American album to come out this year!

Oh my gosh, I love that!

Tell me about workin’ with Brad Cook. I’m making the assumption that Katie is how that connection came together.

Yeah! She had such a good experience making [Waxahatchee’s] Saint Cloud with him, she was like, “I think we need to do this record with Brad,” and I love Saint Cloud, so I trusted her. She was right! He was the perfect person to do this with! It was so seamless. He’s done a lot o’ country stuff, which I didn’t realize. He’s really versatile as a producer, and so yeah, it was a lot o’ fun making this record with Brad.

One of the most fun things, I have to imagine, had to be the harmony work that you two do. I’m a sucker for harmony– I love Freakwater and the Everlys and the Louvins and Gram & Emmylou… But that was a new approach for you, right?

Yeah! I’ve always done harmonies on my own records, but I’ve never really gotten to sing harmony with someone else like this. That was one o’ the coolest things to learn and get to do. It’s very magical to sing harmony with another person– you get locked into this vibration and it sounds so cool. It’s like a weird little trick!

Did that affect anything in your mind in the way you’ll approach writing songs or composing songs in the future?

Actually, because I had such a good experience, I went into the studio with Brad myself and made an album that’s gonna come out next year and put harmonies all over that thing!

You and Katie came together with songs that you had written individually, but did you write the songs specifically for the Plains project, or did you already have these and you’d just been looking for a home for them?

For me, I wrote “No Record Of Wrongs” and “Summer Sun” before Plains was even an apple in our eye. I was writing a lot and I was writing a lot o’ songs for my next record and those two felt like outliers– they felt different from the rest. When Katie and I decided to do Plains together, I was like, “You know, I have these two songs already that I think could really work for what we’re talking about.” I brought those in and they set the tone for the record, really. Katie had some ideas about some melodies and the first one was “Problem With It”. She had the melody and she had this repeating thing of like, “I gotta problem with it.” But “Summer Sun” and “No Record Of Wrongs” were the beginning and that was kinda the jumping-off point for the album. And then I wrote “Abilene” and “I Walked With You A Ways” after we already knew what Plains was gonna be and what the record was gonna be. Those came later.

Those two songs feel like siblings.

Oh, I love that!

I read where you talked about writing “Abilene” and not being a hundred percent about the song itself, but what struck me was your question about how many songs never get recorded because the artist second guesses themselves. I’ve often wondered that myself. Does that happen to you a lot? And how do you overcome that feeling?

It happens to me a lot and the way I overcome it is by having one trusted collaborator. With Plains, it was Katie because I knew that if Katie thought it was good then it was good. With my new record, it was Brad. I knew that if Brad thought it was good, it was good. Having just that one person that you can bounce things off of, and if they like it, they can give you the confidence to take it out into the world. For me, just having that one person I trust has always been the thing that helps me keep going if I’m not sure.

You mentioned “No Record Of Wrongs”. That line, “Can’t untie a candle, can’t blow out a knot,” at this very minute might be my favorite line. The candle is a recurring totem for you. Tell me about that.

I know! And it’s funny ’cause it wasn’t intentional! I am a person that loves candles and has a lot of candles around my house. I do a lot of things by candlelight (laughs), and so it naturally found its way into all of the songs that I wrote for this record– and it was something we realized after the fact! It just kinda happened that way!

Strange song– wonderful song– that’s on the album… “Bellafatima”. I’m not familiar with Hoyt Van Tanner and I have attempted to go down the rabbit hole, and you might already know this– there’s just not a lot out there about ol’ Hoyt. Tell me how that song ended up on the album.

I’m so glad you asked ’cause I love talking about this song! I’ve known [Hoyt] for over a decade– lotta mutual friends living in Austin– and he would occasionally play that song. We’d just be hangin’ out around a fire, have a guitar or whatever, and I always knew of him as this person that had this song that I was so in love with. Anytime I got a chance to hear him play it, it blew my mind! It was a song that was always in my mind– and he had never recorded it! So I could only hear it if I was lucky enough to be around him when he had a guitar or he would play shows sometimes around town.

When we started working on the Plains record, I reached out to [Hoyt] and I was like, “Hey, what is that song?” I couldn’t even remember the title! I was like, “What is that song, and would you be open to letting me record it? Since you haven’t recorded it yet, can I record it?” And he was like, “Sure!” He made a quick demo of it for me and sent me the lyrics and the chords and I was like, “Katie, listen, there’s this song and I have this idea of us recording it.” She was immediately like, “I don’t know about that. I feel like every song on this record needs to be a song that we write. This just feels like such a songwriter album…” And I was like, “I don’t disagree– but can I just play you the song?” She was like, “Okay,” and so I sat down with an acoustic guitar and I played it for her. As soon as I finished, she said, “We have to record that song.” (Laughs) And so we did!

Since then, [Hoyt] has recorded his version and it’s out. I love that one too, but it was just so special for us to be able to record it for the first time and get it out. It’s a song that’s meant so much to me for so long, but I was never able to listen to it. It was such an honor to be able to put it on the record! He came out and did it with us at the Austin show, which was really cool!

That initial idea of Katie saying they should be songs that you write… Have you since that point in time taken the opportunity to write together? Or would that be too much like work? 

I would love to. I think we will, but we’ve just been so in the mode of this record. It hasn’t really gotten into new writing mode yet, but I’d love to. She’s such a great songwriter! I think with this record, it’s pretty much fifty/fifty as far as like I wrote my songs and she wrote her songs, but we also both helped each other with each other’s songs and did kinda some punch-ups in the room sorta like a “take that line out” or “what if we do an instrumental there instead of that verse” or “that lines good, keep it” kinda thing. So it was also collaborative in a way that felt really good too.

Another fantastic line in a great song– in “I Walked With You A Ways”, the line, “There’s always a last time for anything you do / We don’t notice in the moment.” As I mentioned earlier, “Abilene” and “I Walked With You A Ways” felt very connected whether it was the same voice or it was a story in the next town over. Do your songs pull from… I don’t know if “collective conscious” is the right word, but do you build the worlds in your head and they populate those songs when you’re writing them?

Well, with this record, the songs that I wrote are very much autobiographical with some of the details changed to make it tap into this thing you’re talking about, this more universal experience. A song like “I Walked With You A Ways”, I was really thinking about Dolly Parton’s songwriting with that one. I was thinking about how she writes these timeless, heartwrenching, but a lot o’ times positive songs– like “I Will Always Love You”. “If I should stay, I would only be in your way, so I’ll go.” It’s ultimately out of love that she’s leaving; it’s because she loves this person. I will always love you. It’s so, “We can’t be together, but I love you, and so I’m gonna go.”

It’s such a beautiful sentiment in that song, and I was thinking about that with “I Walked With You A Ways” where it’s like when a relationship ends or a friendship ends, there can be bitterness or anger, sadness– but that person was in your life for a reason. You walked together through life for a time because you were meant to. I’ll be better all my days for the people that were close to me and if we’re not close today, it doesn’t mean that’s wasted time. It was happening for a reason.

Now, I wanna talk about– just briefly if we can– the next project. I missed Sorceress the first time around, so I dove into it facefirst while I was gettin’ ready for this interview. Great record, hate that I missed it, but excited to get ahead o’ the curve on the next one. We talked about the harmonies earlier and puttin’ them on this new project that you did with Brad Cook, and a question that I’d had originally was what are you taking from the experience with Plains back into your solo work that wasn’t necessarily there before?

A lot more confidence. And simplifying things a little bit. I think I learned through this process what’s really most important is the poignancy of lyrics and a singer’s voice. I think in the past, I was exploring a lot of different kinds of sonic textures and musical elements that were inspiring to me, and with this project, I think we did a lot of stripping back of anything that didn’t need to be there, distilling it into its simplest and most powerful form. I definitely took that into my new record. Simplifying how I wrote songs, getting more to the heart of the matter, my voice front and center is a big part of what I took away from this whole process.

Will it be in the same vein as Plains? On the more roots, country end? Or is it gonna be something in between what you’ve done before and now?

I think something new entirely. There’s definitely a lot of those classic country sounds that I’m obsessed with and more traditional instrumentation but then also some unexpected elements as well!

I Walked With You A Ways is available now on CD, vinyl, and through all major digital platforms.