by Rich Hobson
Few words in the musical lexicon come quite so loaded as ‘heavy’. At times a signifier of tone, tempo, sound or just content, heaviness is a catch-all that transcends the notion of genre and envisages a sense of depth and emotional resonance – an antithesis to the presumed vapidness of mainstream culture. Despite this, no corner of the music world lays as significant a claim on heaviness than the worlds of rock and metal, the latter going so far as to adopt it into the proper nomenclature of the culture as a whole. And yet, in over 50 years of innovations, we still don’t have a total consensus on what heaviness actually is.
Faster, slower, louder – in metal, heaviness always signifies more. But metal isn’t the only genre that lays claim to such a tag, and songs outside that canon can promise heaviness that surpasses the emotional heft and complexity that any blast-beat or mosh-call could ever hope to achieve. It could be the cultural distillation of hundreds of years of oppression and injustice, as on Billie Holiday/Nina Simone’s renditions of ‘Strange Fruit’ (or more recently, Run The Jewels’ ‘Walking In The Snow’), the emotional reflections of an aged-soul facing down death as on Johnny Cash’s ‘Hurt’ or David Bowie’s Black Star, or simply the intertextual literacy triggered by hearing a classical piece at the right time to elicit an emotional response (think most movie scores, or the likes of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’ and Samuel Barber’s ‘Adagio For Strings’). Each is equally deserving of the ‘heavy’ tag, each for vastly different reasons.
Considering its sheer versatility, it’s fitting that ‘heavy’ seems to be the one word most easily applied to the music of London-based songwriter A.A. Williams. In a world where classification can so often determine audience, Williams draws cross-appeal over a wide musical spectrum. Her sound evokes the soulful simplicity of Nick Cave or Jay Jayle, whilst also capturing the ambient-ocean-of-emotion that embodies post-metal and even incorporating more than a little classical flourish into her palette for extra textural diversity.
“I was a classical musician for a long time, but I never really tried to do anything like this before,” she admits when asked about her background prior to this current project. “I started when I was like six, on the piano. I was predominantly a cellist – I did it throughout school and university – but don’t really perform it all that much these days unfortunately.”
It has scarcely been twelve months since A.A. Williams first burst onto the alternative music scene and unusually – for the modern scene at least – her background can’t be traced through a tide of garage bands and local-hopefuls before she pulled together her solo project. “One day I found a guitar… as you do!” she laughs. “As a classical musician I found an instrument I didn’t know how to play, so I sort of accidentally came round to playing with a band – it wasn’t intentional at all!”
Impulsive as this may seem, it also goes some way to explaining the more experimental elements of Williams’ sound and approach; borne not from a sense of identification with pre-existing scenes and sounds but instead through the sheer curiosity of a musician developing their craft organically. “I started trying to learn how to play and write songs; I hacked away at it and gradually put something together I was comfortable with. There wasn’t a sound I was trying to achieve; I was literally just trying to get to the end of each song. It was trial and error, but eventually you form a sound that adjusts to being just you. It was a lot of progressively using bits of technology to record myself and build things out, pushing to become independent in that sense because I wanted to just be able to get on with it by myself. Finally, it felt like I’d reached a point where I was happy with what I’d made, so much that I could actually send it out to people.”
Among the people she ended up sending these initial demos out to included underground-darling label Holy Roar, who would eventually put out her eponymous EP. “It was a bit of a shot in the dark, but I liked Holy Roar and a lot of the bands on there, even if they aren’t the same as what I do,” she explains. “I sent it over hoping they’d like what I was doing… and they did! I’d got some studio time already booked in so it made sense to get the EP sorted.”
In what would become a recurring theme for her career (to this point at least), things snowballed from there – alongside Holy Roar, Williams’ music also caught the attention of Roadburn Festival, a crucial melting pot for international acts across the alternative spectrum. “Things really started to take shape on the release of the first single ‘Control’,” she says. “It came out on Halloween 2018 and Roadburn very kindly agreed to premiere it on their social media. They’d been in touch as they were putting together a showcase for the festival and Holy Roar had said ‘we’ve got this new artist and maybe they’d be right’ – they came back with ‘yeah we love it, let’s do it!’ and helped to pull it off, so I got to be a part of that. From there everything got moving.“
Comparatively, it seemed like A.A. Williams burst onto the rock world overnight, her eponymous EP earning interest and accolades from the rock press while she headed out on the road to support the likes of The Sisters of Mercy, Amenra and Explosions in the Sky, each night winning new fans eager to champion her cause. Doing things the old fashioned way, Williams’ tour schedule was an expansive beast that saw her tour the UK and mainland Europe, landing spots at ArcTanGent and 2000 Trees to bolster her Roadburn debut. But even teaming up with legends and landing a spot at one of the underground’s most revered gatherings didn’t see her lose the characteristic humility and level headedness that permeates both her music and conversational tone.
“Realistically, you just play the songs!” she says when asked what playing Roadburn was like, considering it was the first show she played with her band: “In playing them you get an accurate representation of what they are. The way these songs are structured, they almost force you to feel the tension because of how sparse they are; you feel the lack of stuff going on, which also forces your attention to what is happening. It was quite crazy; people were queuing to get in, chatting about it and it was like ‘oh my god’. But really I just got onstage and did it! The whole Roadburn scenario is sort of a whirlwind; you’d got At The Gates performing over the weekend, who I really wanted to see, so I’m trying to squeeze in seeing their headline spot alongside my own performance and there wasn’t that much time to worry. Still, I’m looking to go back just to watch next time and enjoy – have a holiday!”
A holiday seems more than earned at this point. Even with a hefty set of live dates pencilled in, Williams even found time to team up with legendary instrumental band Mono to release a collaborative EP in December 2019, already using her opportunities to pave the way to greater achievements.
“I’d met Mono physically at Roadburn, but we’d been exchanging emails for a while as we share the same agent,” she says. “When our EP was first released Taka (Takaakira Goto, Mono guitarist) kindly got in touch and came to the Roadburn show. I hadn’t realised – I was halfway through performing and saw Mono just standing there watching, like ‘no pressure – don’t fuck it up!’ Taka was very supportive and we got chatting, so things went from there. It didn’t take too long to get to a demo stage, which wasn’t too far from where we ended up on the release.”
Early on, 2020 looked to be business as usual for Williams as she played a number of shows and set up dates to take her right through the year. Amongst this, she also organised a very special sold-out debut headline performance at London’s Southbank Centre in February, narrowly missing the collapse of live music in the face of the ongoing global pandemic. But even in the face of a near-total industry shutdown, Williams’ entrepreneurial spirit has shone through. Williams’ debut record Forever Blue is now out via Bella Union, a leap of faith amidst a colossal storm of uncertainty for artists worldwide who will likely have to come to terms with yet another seismic shift in how the industry will exist and operate going forwards. Even so, there is nothing uncertain about the musical content of this record – a grand, ambitious and soulful opus which combines emotional intensity and oceans of textural depth in an affirmative statement of artistry. Such control is not only exerted on her own material; Williams has also dived into the world of online releases during lockdown, the aptly titled ‘SONGS FROM ISOLATION’ series on YouTube taking classics from the likes of Radiohead, Deftones and Nine Inch Nails and giving them a powerful, minimalistic reimagining.
“I don’t want to do this half-hearted, I’d rather take every opportunity that I can – I love performing and singing new stuff,” she says resolutely. “In terms of what stands out for us so far, our first ArcTanGent performance was early in the morning so we weren’t expecting to pull a crowd, but then we walked out and it was like ‘holy fuck!’ – there were loads that came to see us. 2000 Trees was great because we were kind of the comedown spot on the Saturday afternoon, on the forest stage. It was lovely to strip back everything in a setting like that. It was all about subtle instrumentation and atmospherics really, but in that environment it was amazing – just me and the birds singing away.”
Such performances stand out as lightning-in-a-bottle moments in a career that already feels destined for greatness. “I’m a bit mind blown, to be honest!” she admits. “You make music and initially they inhabit this small space – you and a guitar or a piano or whatever. At that point you’re not really thinking of people hearing it on a grander scale – it’s in the back of your mind, hoping it’ll happen. But it’s not until opportunities arise that you think ‘I can release this, great!’. You can’t prepare yourself for the frightening yet cathartic moment it goes out into the world, wondering one – is anyone going to listen to it? Two – will they like it? I think that’s the same for all artists. You can’t control other people’s opinions – we have no idea how anything will go, so we’ve been pleasantly surprised so far with everything from how it’s been received to how it’s all presented to people.”
So early in her career, it’s impossible yet to tell if Williams truly embodies the same notions of auteurship that has embodied the acts she is most often associated with – Chelsea Wolfe and Nick Cave. But the signs are certainly there; in the disparate sonic elements that characterise both her self-titled EP and stunning debut record, in the way she commands total attention when onstage and even in the seamless assimilation of other bands’ art as part of her SONGS FROM ISOLATION series. Ultimately, at its core Williams’ story thus far is one of undying passion and unbridled creativity; the ultimate aspiration of any artist. “I can’t remember my life not having music in it – it’s like trying to remember what it was like before you could read,” she says. “I can’t imagine myself not in this situation really!”
At home alongside post-metal and alternative acts, but with enough melodic appeal to potentially breach the mainstream, A.A. Williams is in a perfect position to challenge preconceived notions of heaviness both within and outside the metal spectrum. Nowhere is this more apparent than on her debut full-length, Forever Blue. As with her previous material, Williams’ debut combines sombre tones and moods with melodies that are beautifully uplifting, each element juxtaposed against its opposite to create dissonant harmony. This is perfectly demonstrated on ‘Fearless’, a track which takes post-metal bleakness (and a smattering of snarls from Cult of Luna vocalist Johannes Persson) and buries it under a beautifully funereal melody worthy of My Dying Bride at their most wistful. Elsewhere, the sparse guitarwork of ‘Love and Pain’ evokes a sense of blues minimalism that wouldn’t go amiss on a latter-day Lucinda Williams or Mark Lanegan release, only to explode into a string-heavy crescendo that elevates the whole piece whilst preserving each individual component. Again and again, each track offers a microcosm of this effect – a dialing up of elements Williams has introduced us to before, but more – indicating that Williams’ debut isn’t just an ambitious statement of artistic intent – it literally embodies one of the crucial principles metal as a wider genre has aspired to.
Forever Blue stands as a bold statement of personal identity and finding a sense of kinship in otherness, asserting a unique sonic identity whilst still forging spiritual links with other acts from across the musical spectrum. Death gospel, post-rock, alternative – all tags that have been applied to Williams art thus far, but equally tags that fall short of capturing the essence of what she actually does. Because at its heart, no simple genre tag can encapsulate the sense of true artistic freedom that sits at the heart of A.A. Williams music, unshackled by scene tropes and ready to challenge preconceived notions about what heaviness truly means in 2020.