The singer/guitarist deemed “America’s Best Songwriter” by Time magazine has just released her first live album, Live @ the Fillmore [Lost Highway], which features selections from her acclaimed World Without Tears album as well as old favorites like “Blue,” “Joy,” and “I Lost It.” The writing of some of these songs spanned decades.
“I remember the first seeds of ‘Blue’ from 20 years ago,” she says. “That sounds incredible, but it’s true. I worked on ‘Out of Touch’ for years, too. I had an old version from a demo tape and I went back to it, resurrected it, and rewrote it. I don’t throw anything away; I have all my scratch notes that I might end up using later.
“It’s hard to really know when a song is finished, but it’s a feeling. It’s like any craft you do, akin to sewing a quilt or painting. One thing that helps is performing your art,” she advises. “You present it to people and see how they respond.” Williams chose a Gibson J-45 and a Fender Esquire for her live recordings at San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium. Her favorite songwriting guitar is her Martin D-28, which she purchased 25 years ago for $400. “It’s my lucky guitar now—I have a real emotional attachment to it. I write all my songs on it.” She prefers a National thumb pick and two Dunlop fingerpicks to a flat pick, and she uses a Shubb capo.
Williams shows no signs of slowing down as a tunesmith, and she unquestioningly employs the same straightforward approach to songcraft she always has. “I play the chords and then the melodies come,” she says. And the songs keep on coming, with 21 tunes already written for her album due out next year. “I’ve been extremely prolific lately,” she says. “I was writing in the studio, which is the first time that’s ever happened. I was changing words and making adjustments on the spot. It was pretty exciting. As a songwriter, I continue to grow and push the envelope. I like to feel like I’m always moving forward. I don’t want to be standing there watching the river flow—I want to be in the river.
“It takes a lot of courage to go inside and deal with the demons that we all have. Exploring and writing about that stuff is what makes songwriting interesting. Inspiration is everywhere you look; it’s everywhere you turn. It doesn’t matter what town you live in, or whether you’re rich or poor. You can be well adjusted and content and still have things to write about because it just means you’re learning to manage the pain that you feel. It doesn’t mean you don’t have pain. You just have to deal with it in as healthy a way as possible, and that’s the beauty of what art is supposed to be.”