Jess Williamson: The Best of What’s NextPhoto by Katy Shayne Music Features Jess Williamson
Hometown: Austin, Texas
Album: Native State
For Fans Of: Abigail Washburn, Emily Wells, Basia Bulat
On the cover of Jess Williamson’s debut album, a woman’s hand rests gently on an indiscernible stretch of skin. The background is almost completely blown out and just a few bursts of color escape the nearly grayscale image. Her fingernails play the canvas for such vibrancy, emblazoned with emblems—the yellow rose of Texas, the Texas state flag and a desert scene with a sunset and a cactus—that tell stories of how this album came to fruition.
Native State is the result of a crisis and return to home. Texas was the refuge and the rejuvenation.
“It definitely took me leaving Texas to appreciate Texas, which I think is partially why this new record has a subtle, or not so subtle, Texas theme to the album art,” Williamson says.
The 20-something songstress wrote and recorded the entire LP in her home state, but she didn’t actually begin by expressing herself through songs; that only came when she started playing the banjo about five years ago.
After Williamson, who grew up outside Dallas, earned her bachelor’s degree in photojournalism from the University of Texas, she immediately moved to New York City to pursue an MFA in photography at Parsons The New School for Design. Unlike the cliché, Texas felt small at the time, and the allure of the big city called to her. Plus, like many Millennials, she found herself with limited post-grad options. Accepting an offer to attend graduate school in New York seemed like a convenient, logical and responsible next step.
“I had this crisis moment where I realized that I really needed to pursue music,” she says. “I had this moment where I was walking through Union Square to get to one of my classes and I was on the phone with my mom and I was crying talking to her.”
Williamson recreates the dialogue using caricatured voices that bring just enough jest to the life-altering decision. She starts off high-pitched and panicky: “Mom, I’m getting in so much debt! I’m going to graduate from grad school when I’m 23 and I’m going to have almost $100,000 in debt and I’ll never be able to go on tour!’
Changing her intonation to represent her concerned, confused mother, Williamson continues, “What are you talking about going on tour? You don’t even have a band.”
“You don’t understand, Mom!,” Williamson whinnies, resorting to the consummate upset daughter retort.
She chuckles at the memory and retelling. But ultimately, that talk spurred her to choose music.
“The truth was, in the back of my mind, ever since I was a little kid I always thought that there would be time,” she says. “Somewhere down the line, there would be time and I would do this music thing that I always wanted to do. And in that conversation, I realized that I had never done it and it wasn’t just going to fall in my lap and I was becoming a slave to this debt—this insane amount of debt that I couldn’t even comprehend. I realized that now is the time. If I was to stay in grad school, I would be forced to get a really stable job with a salary to pay back all the debt and if I did that, I never would have been able to pursue music, which I always wanted to do.”
So Williamson abandoned the path, packed up and moved back to Austin. She reconnected with the landscapes of her native state and the inspiration it provided. And Native State showcases those societal and natural influences through technical banjo work and her wispy, yet, controlled soprano. The LP moves quickly with just seven songs, but each individual track tells a slow and deliberate folksy narrative. Her haunting singing voice, which twinges and aches throughout, infuses those tales with emotion that is at once unnerving and soothing.
But the album’s peak comes in the middle with the two-and-a-half-minute “Field.” The song starts as stark as Bon Iver’s “Woods,” with Williamson’s tenuous, echoing voice layered on top of itself with no other musical blanket to embrace it from the chilling elements. Her coos rise like animalistic howls over the buzzing cellos and bassy banjo until the sparse plucking subsides.
As if changing career paths and writing an album of original songs weren’t enough, Williamson also formed her own record label to release Native State. Brutal Honest will present Native State on Jan. 28. Continuing with the Texas imagery, the first 300 pressings will feature a tri-color design like the Texas flag. Williamson hopes to grow the label into a larger platform not only for her future recordings, but also for her friends’ zines and photo books. After Native State’s release party in Austin, Williamson plans to tour the West Coast in February and return home for South By Southwest in March.
For all of Native State’s tension and somberness, Williamson remains chipper and chatty, quick to laugh and embrace. And although time remains the most persistent of challenges, she faces it with optimistic pop cultural quips and invokes the hashtag of a generation: “YOLO!”