Holy Roar singer-songwriter A.A. Williams discussed her debut EP.
Ever since signing with Holy Roar Records life has moved fast for London-based singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist A.A. Williams. Not only did her 2019 debut EP sell out on pre-orders alone, but she will be making her very first live performance at this year’s Roadburn Festival in April… a feat that is unheard of!
Though her debut EP runs less than 20 minutes in length, it feels like such a huge listen, with influences ranging from post-rock and grunge to folk music. Her slow, spacious and atmospheric songs are laced with a genuine and emotional delivery, with dense layers of guitars, keys, vocals and strings creating an expansive atmosphere. A.A. Williams has truly hit the ground running, showing an incredible amount of potential at such an early stage. And with her being so enthusiastic, bubbly and charming, it was an absolute pleasure to sit down and chat with her about it all…
Tell us more about your background as a musician.
As a musician I’ve been learning since I was a child. I was thrown out of ballet because I was too tall, so my mum was like “fuck what do we do now!?” So my dad had an electric organ at home that I used to fiddle about with. I started learning piano when I was six, and then gradually started adding more instruments on. My piano teacher taught cello, so that seemed logical. I found a guitar in the street about five years ago, fully functional, it had a sign on it saying “please take me, needs work”. As a way to try and learn the instrument, I thought I’d try and write some songs. It all just kind of snowballed on, there has never been a deliberate path…
Did you try and get as many of the instruments you play onto your debut EP?
Not deliberately, but if I can do strings I might as well. I used to spend a lot of time doing string arrangements for other people, so it only seemed logical to apply that knowledge to my own music. All of the instruments with the exception of bass and drums are all just me layered up in snazzy ways.
When you wrote the songs for the EP, did they start as just you as a solo musician?
Absolutely. They started with just me, a guitar and a notebook, then gradually they evolved into something more full. It’s a slow but rewarding process. I recorded the whole EP in my kitchen!
So when you play these songs live, will it be with a backing band?
Yes, four of us at the moment. I am swapping between electric, baritone and acoustic guitars, and a bit of keys. I’ve got a bass player, an electric guitarist and a drummer. Snazzy stuff huh!?
Is that the way you want to keep it, or do you feel that you could perform purely solo renditions of these songs?
Because of the way they’ve been written you could strip them down to any line-up really. You could do it with 20 people or one! But realistically speaking, at the moment I’d like to keep everything full band. Especially when you are emerging as an artist it would be easy to pigeon-hole me as just an acoustic artist. For the initial live outings it needs to be as big as it is because the sound is quite expansive and complex in places. I could sing the songs solo, but it doesn’t quite have the same effect.
So Roadburn Festival 2019 is your debut performance…
There are plenty of things that have been put into the diary, but Roadburn is the first!
That’s pretty unheard of, playing Roadburn Festival as a debut!
The whole thing is a bit nuts really! I submitted my music to Holy Roar because I love them as a label, but I thought “am I their cup of tea or not, I’m a bit quiet”, and they were just like “come on, bring it!” I went off and did the EP, and they passed it onto Roadburn, and they really enjoyed it!
That’s huge! How are you feeling about it?
I’m up for it! It’s going to be an insane way of doing it. I’m very excited, because I’ll be able to finally portray the music on the EP to people physically. I can’t wait, I’m really excited about it! You’ve got to take all of your opportunities and I’m not afraid to do it. Funnily enough getting on stage is one of the things I never feel nervous about, but I’m crap at shopping, and I freaked out this morning because my dog has hiccups!
So how did your unison with Holy Roar come about and how are you finding working with the label?
I submitted some demos, and they said we could just release that. But I felt like I could do better, so I recorded the EP off my own back. They were on it really quickly. One song carried over from the demos. The whole process has been incredibly quick. You encounter new things every day. You have to take each little thing as a new thing to deal with. It really is amazing, I’m loving it. Holy Roar have been incredibly supportive. They’re very hands on, but also not. They give you a list of things they want you to do, but then they just let you get on with it without bugging you. I’m a workaholic, so I’d rather just get on with it. I can take a holiday in three years time!
The amount of messages I’ve exchanged with other artists on the roster is lovely. There are so many great artists on the roster and so much scope for collaboration. It’s great to have a new group of people to bounce ideas off, it’s a little community. I go running to Boss Keloid‘s Herb Your Enthusiasm! I can gauge how well I’m doing by how far I’ve made it into the record!
So with there being so much metal and hardcore music on Holy Roar, how do you feel the fans and subscribers have taken to your sound?
I think that music can be heavy in more ways than sheer volume. You don’t have to scream or play horrendously fast to be heavy. A lot of it is in the lyrical content, the instrumentation and the delivery. When I look at some of the softer elements of Pijn, OHHMS, Talons and the new Rolo Tomassi record, there are elements that I can find similarities with. I’m not frightened of people thinking “who is this weird, soft woman”. The reception has been great so far. With anything, if you put something creative into the world, there is always an apprehension, when you’ve invested so much in it. You really want people to enjoy it and you want to convey something. So it’s been really beautiful to receive so many positive messages. I’m really pleasantly surprised at the reception. I think there is certainly going to be enough heavy in my sound.
Exactly! The EP has an emotional heaviness and the atmospheric qualities tie in well with other Holy Roar artists…
I think so too. A lot of it is about the tones you choose. I’m a big advocate of there being a lot of space in the songs. If you listen to ‘Cold’, it’s so slow and there is such a space between notes. If you listen to some Melvins records, they can be so slow that they make you seasick! But if you shorten those spaces a little bit, it kind of lulls you into a sort of trancy space.
Are you willing to reveal your biggest influences as a musician and songwriter?
That is the hardest question! When I was a kid I listened to mainly classical with my mum and dad. I was learning classical music from a young age, and I listen to that just as much as anything else. I started listening to heavier music when I was about fourteen. I made that speedy transition from Stereophonics one week, to Spineshank the next! I had my cello lessons in town at the weekend, and my mum would drive me and I remember trying to force her to listen to [Marilyn Manson‘s] Antichrist Superstar!
My parents have always been incredibly supportive, and in a weird way that’s an influence in itself. Everything you’ve ever done is an influence in a tiny, weird emotional way. Things you listened to as a child soak in. It might not be a direct influence, but it influences the way you feel when you write music. Some people feel music more when they listen to it. I’m definitely a cryer! I love to be able to feel some kind of emotional response with music.
We feel like there is a strong folk music influence coming through, are there any names that strike out to you?
No! I don’t really listen to much soft music. I’ve had my fair share of Radiohead, but nothing that was ever that subtle. The folk thing is not a deliberate choice, but I’m aware that there is an English folk element to it. Maybe it’s just a product of being British and living in this gloriously grey country? A lot of the time I get compared to artists I’ve never listened to!
So when you do start playing shows more regularly, will you feel comfortable playing alongside metal bands, or do you feel that you could do shows in the alternative and folk scene too?
There is a lot of scope because there are a lot of influences in this EP. The extremes of the record aren’t that extreme. The heavy bits aren’t that heavy and the soft bits aren’t that soft. There is a fairly broad range of dynamics in there. There is no reason I couldn’t play with heavy bands, as well as going out with bands like Florence + The Machine or The National. At the end of the day, they are fairly traditionally formed songs with verses and choruses. There is enough crossover, and going into a full-length, there is more room to explore those elements.
So speaking of a full-length album, is there one in the works?
I hope so! I’m always writing. There are songs that didn’t fit on the EP and songs that are in the middle of existence. I am certainly writing as if there is going to be one. I prefer to have too many songs to choose from than not enough. I probably give myself too much work, but if you want it to be as good as you can make it, you’ve gotta try as hard as you can.
A.A. Williams plays Roadburn festival next month. Purchase her debut EP here.
Words: Chris “Frenchie” French