Brooks Williams: Shadows of The South
by Jan Vanderhorst
There are certain things in life which define who you are. Paramount among them is how your parents raised you and where you grew up. It seems no matter what you achieve in life, you're still your parent's child from that little town or city back home.
It's something singer-songwriter Brooks Williams is keenly aware of. Although he's lived his adult life in the Boston area, he knows his southern upbringing filters every song he sings and every story he tells. "The South gives you a sense of place", he says, "it's a definite place and it's something I can't escape from. When I open my mouth to tell a story, I am drawing on a whole tradition that I was born into...which is that people have a story and let's sit down and listen to it. It's not necessarily going to be clever or witty or fast. It could be kind of slow. That's very much the kind of tradition I've come out of. I can't write really differently from that. I've tried to get away from that voice, but it's there (with me). There's a syntax and sense of delivery that is very much in my music that's very apparent."
Born in Statesboro, Georgia, Brooks' family moved around to Mobile, Alabama and Jackson Mississippi before heading north to New Haven, Connecticut and the culture shock that is New England.
"At the time, the South was what we called the "Old South", which meant it was more genteel, it was more "Christian". It wasn't true Christianity. But everybody went to church (and) everybody had certain values based on what they were taught in church. That was very different from the North (which) was more liberal. That was where all the universities were, that was where all the liberal thinking was. It used to be a bit of a shock to come up to the North. People in the South thought the North was very harsh and very rough, and people were kinda crass. All they talked about was money. I know it affected my older brothers a lot more than it did me, they didn't make the transition as well as I did. As soon as they got done with school, they all went back to the South. I'm the one who stayed because I actually liked it up here. I found a wonderful lifestyle. I loved the influences from all the universities, tones of international students and all the great music. (It) was just as cool as it could get."
It was at college in Boston where Brooks began his musical education. "Boston is a wonderful music city", he relates, "with great live music and there's great music on the radio. That, for example, would be where I first heard the Robert Johnson version of "Crossroads", as opposed to the Eric Clapton version. I would have always thought Eric Clapton wrote that song. Then I got to Boston and I'm listening to college radio thinking 'Wow, how'd they get that old guy to do that Eric Clapton song?'. Then I realized, 'Wait a minute, I think I've got the whole thing backwards!'. That was the beginning of my education. It was an amazing time."
Brooks acted like a musical sponge, soaking up every kind of influence he could find.
"I listened to a lot of American roots music, which at the time, that's not what we called it. It was just whatever was on the radio. There was a lot of R & B, Motown, 60's-70's blues, like Michael Bloomfield and Canned Heat, Allman Brothers and Eric Clapton. Those were my earliest memories of music. As I got older, I began to broaden my influences. That was when I first heard British finger style guitar playing and Irish songwriters and jazz. But primarily those roots, the country blues and the American rock and roll, that's the basis for everything (I do)."
While the education began in college, the interest in music goes back to when Brooks Williams was very young.
"I was writing songs as early as 5 or 6 (years old), but I wouldn't call them songs. I was into the creative process. Rather than learn existing stuff, I would sit down with a ukulele, with a guitar, with a piano and I was composing my own pieces. It wasn't until I was in my teens, 16 or 17, that I actually began to seriously put some thought into what I was doing, and actually considered playing a song of mine to my friends. That was a little different. But from the earliest stages I was always aware that one of the parts of playing music was making up your own music."
It is the music and his ability to play it that forms the foundation Brooks has built his career on.
"If for some reason I lost the ability to write words, I would still play music, I would still find a way to be in music. If I lost the ability to play the instrument, I don't know if I would be in music. It's really the music itself that's first with me.
That doesn't mean I don't care about what I write about, I care very deeply. I see the music as a means to putting lyrics there that have meaning, and hopefully (not) just for me (but) for other people." Although the music comes first for Brooks, the songs he writes are just as easily driven by the lyrics as they are by the music.
"Sometimes songs come to me lyrics first, but it would be lyrics with a melody in mind. Sometimes (it's) melody and lyrics simultaneously. Certainly there are songs that are riff-driven. Off my new record (Hundred Year Shadow), the song 'Darker Kind Of Blue' is very much a riff-driven song. It's chordal and it's very dense, almost jazz-like chords. Those lyrics are shaped by the music. Whereas a song like 'Willie Mae Brown' or 'Mockingbird Hill', those were lyrics first."
The new recording 'Hundred Year Shadow' finds Brooks sitting in the producer's chair in Massachusetts after releasing two albums produced in Canada.
"Some of my favourite experiences in the studio were up in Canada. 1995's 'Knife Edge' and 1997's 'Seven Sisters' (released on Green Linnet) were both recorded at Grant Avenue Studio in Hamilton, Ontario with Colin Linden and Bob Doidge respectively.
I would have come back again (but) I switched labels (to Signature Sounds). There's a studio component that goes with the label, so I was using the label's studio, which is a great benefit. I got to work at odd hours and long chunks of time if I needed to. Part of it was the feeling that 'Gee I had such a great experience in Canada (with Colin and Bob), I don't know how you can get any better that that. I thought: I can't bring them to me, so maybe this is the time for me to take what I learned working there and see if I can pull together my own package. It was a challenge, but I definitely fell Bob and Colin set me on the (right) path. I got some good training from working with them." While he may have taken his technical cues as a producer from Colin Linden and Bob Doidge, Brooks Williams has a definite vision of how he wants his music to sound.
"I'm not a fan of music that's heavy-handed in terms of the production. I tend to like very stripped down groups. I prefer trios, I like spare music, I like solo music. I like hearing one person playing their instrument. So it was very conscious on my part to keep this record as lean as I could. What's ironic actually is that even with keeping this record lean, I'm still aware there are some cuts where it's a little denser than I wanted. There's a few too many layers there. I tend to want to hear the nuances of the instrument. Here's a case in point: I love the guitar, especially as an acoustic instrument. There's a whole palette of colours sonically that you hear, especially in the studio under the great microscope of high quality microphones. When you put other instruments on top of that (guitar), you start to lose frequencies, because there are frequencies in (the) other instruments that battle the frequencies of the guitar. So the guitar gets thinner and thinner, the more stuff you put on it. I want to hear the full range of all the instruments and I find the less I put on there, the more you're apt to hear the nuances, those overtones and the semi-tones that sound so rich."
To find out more about Brooks Williams new album "Hundred Year Shadow," the website for the Signature Sounds Recording Company is: signature-sounds.com.
Brooks' own website is: brookswilliams.com.
Jan Vanderhorst can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org