Q&A with Holly Williams

Depending on how you look at it, Holly Williams is either settling down or busier than she’s ever been. On the one hand, she has begun to embrace a domestic life with husband and Kings of Leon guitarist Chris Coleman, preferring wine and pajamas at 5 PM to a late night partying in LA or New York. On the other hand, she manages two stores in Nashville, runs a lifestyle blog, and continues writing and recording successful albums, all while preparing taking care of her family! But this sort of activity is befitting her family name; the daughter of Hank Williams Jr., Holly has songwriting, the road, and producing in her blood. Check out our Q&A below!

GGM: First off, congratulations on your pregnancy! Other than differences like not drinking after the show, what’s been the biggest difference on this tour as compared to your earlier ones?

HW: That’s a good question… Besides those first two months when I was hurling outside the van at one in the morning, I’m not sure if there’s been much! I’m so independent and I’m used to carrying all my own stuff. We travel very a la Jack Kerouac, planes, trains, rental cars, so it was nice to be taken care of, because I’m not allowed to life anything over ten pounds. It’s fun being catered to and having folks doing everything for me. That’s been a nice little perk, like “Oh, we’ll get all the guitars set up. You just come up and play!”

GGM: I know one of the big influences on The Highway was your shift into a more domestic lifestyle. How do you think that shift manifests itself on record?

HW: I think, if anything, that whole “You don’t know what you got till it’s gone” thing (is on this record). Before this record and before getting married, I was still runnin’ all over, single, makin’ albums. I cared more about having a fun night out with friends in New York or LA than at home. And then when I got married, I was like “Wait, I can hang out in my pajamas and have a glass of wine at 5 pm?” It was so much more of a restful, peaceful existence. I think I had a lot more time to focus on what really mattered from a family standpoint. A lot of the songs on this record were inspired by my great grandmother from my mom’s side who I spent so much time with growing up. That still life—they lived on a cotton farm and had a peaceful existence—when I got married I definitely started craving that more. My husband has been on the road for years and years and still is with Kings of Leon. I’d been on the road for years. We’d been everywhere that most people when they’re 85 haven’t been. We got to travel the world extensively and meet all our heroes, and then thought “man, we want to be at home.” I think it allowed me time to decide what I wanted to sing on this record and focus on being a better player and songwriter. It does feel like my first record in so many ways. There are songs on my first two I didn’t really know where I was from a production standpoint. This time, I knew I wanted to make it raw and much more intimate. I was tired of doing shows where people were like “ah, I wish it was like that on the record, just guitar and piano!” There’s more reflection on growing up and my whole past.

GGM: You mention your family and you can really hear them on this record, both when you acknowledge your name on “Without You” and on “Gone Away From Me,” which sounds autobiographical. How does your family literally influence your writing? Are they harsh critics or are they content to let you do your own thing?

HW: They’ve always been content. The songs we’re talking about are more about my mom’s side, but with my Dad, he was totally against me being in the music business until he realized I had a passion for writing. I’ve been doing this for ten years and I’m still in the van, roughin’ it in some ways. He’s seeing that it’s not about private jets, 50 million records and tour buses. It’s about building fan by fan, and if I get there one day, great, if not, I’m really happy playing for listening audiences in small theaters. In the beginning, when I broke the news “Hey, I’m not going to college. I’m going to start playing every coffee shop I can find,” he was like “Why are you going in the music business?!”, blah, blah, blah, but when he started reading lyrics I’d fax him, he was like, “Okay, I can see this is in your blood and you’re passionate about it.” He’s been very supportive because he sees why I’m doing it, and that I love the singer-songwriters like Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Joni Mitchell. From my Mom’s side, they’re great, simple Louisiana people who find it awesome that I’m writing about that side of my family because that was the side I was around so much more. I didn’t know Hank Williams Sr., as he died in 1952, and my grandmother shortly after. People ask me “What’s it like to be his granddaughter?” and I’m like “I don’t really know!” I’m a huge fan of his, and I feel it genetically that songwriting is in my blood and it comes naturally to me, but I spent 28 years of my life with my mom’s parents. They were the ones who had a bigger influence strictly because I was around them more. My mom’s side of the family is thrilled over “Waiting on June.” I remember the first time I called her and read her the lyrics, I thought she hung up on me, so I asked “Are you there?” and I hear her take this deep breath, and she’s totally crying, like “I can’t listen to these lyrics!” It’s such a true story! The name of the cook, the order of the children—every single thing in that song was word for word from their life. It’s funny, I never would have realized that a seven minute song about my grandparents would be the most requested by far from this album!

GGM: Were there any records you were listening to while writing The Highway that you think may have influenced the finished product?

HW: You know, I wasn’t at the time. I kind of have a thing that I’ve had to start doing, where I don’t listen to records too similar to me from a songwriting standpoint. It’ll happen that I write a song and then play it for my husband, and he’ll be like, “That’s this song!” It’s so subconscious, I’ll just be like “…Oh, crap! This is someone else’s melody and lyrics!” I try not to listen to songwriter stuff, but I listen to everybody’s music and lyrics. There’s always Lana Del Rey or Jay-Z or Radiohead or different classical stuff, but in terms of my favorite records, like Blood on the Tracks or Harvest, that sort of stuff, I try to stay away from listening to those records because I’ll start singing something and be like “This is awesome! Oh wait…”

GGM: Can you tell me some of your favorite albums of all time?

HW: For me, Closing Time, by Tom Waits, Harvest by Neil Young, Blood on the Tracks by Bob Dylan, OK Computer by Radiohead. From a family standpoint, it’d be Hank Jr. and Friends. The War on the Drugs, Lost in the Dream! I have been blasting that on road trips. It’s the greatest driving album that’s ever been made!

GGM: You’d mentioned that you’re really into Jay-Z. Can you tell me a song that you really like that might surprise people who expect you to only listen to country and rock?

HW: To that whole thing, it’s so bothersome to me how people assume if you sing one genre of music that’s all you listen to. I did a tweet recently that said the one concert I have to see come hell or high water is a Jay-Z show, as he’s probably my favorite artist live, and people were so surprised! I think he’s a great writer, and yeah, he might write about a lifestyle that’s totally different than mine, but he’s still an artist with a kick-ass band and I love seeing him. So yeah, whether it’s mainstream stuff like “99 Problems” or “Umbrella,” I’ve always loved that kind of music! I love dancing to it. From a branding standpoint, I love what he’s done with the different businesses and clothing lines. I love music in any genre if it’s good. I consider Eminem to be a great rapper in some songs, and I consider Jay-Z to be a great rapper. I love Zeppelin stuff and Pink Floyd stuff. To me, there’s only two genres: bad music and good music. I didn’t grow up at all on country music. My dad kept us completely sheltered from the music business, to the point where I didn’t understand who Waylon Jennings was until I was 21! He was like my second Dad! We were at his house very Saturday swimming! Johnny Cash would always call the house. I just thought these were Dad’s old-people friends! I did not comprehend until I started writing songs! I remember I was, like, 23, and Waylon was like “You should come to a show!” and I went to a show, and I was like “Mom… Waylon is famous???” It just did not click, you know, I was used to them at our Saturday morning brunches! I didn’t go to an awards show till I was 25, didn’t go to the Grand Ole Opry till I was in my 20s. When I was with my Dad, we were always hunting or fishing or watching old westerns. I’d been to maybe 6 or 8 shows, but he didn’t want us anywhere near the concerts. They were wild! So we were very sheltered, and I grew up a normal suburban life with my mom, you know, church field trips, and she’d play classical piano every night. I was not exposed to, like, “You need to listen to this country record” or “You need to listen to this country song.” I was not really exposed to music! Growing up I was only listening to New Kids on the Block (laughs). My dad would not come home, pick up a guitar, and have us sing songs. I kind of discovered him on my own, like “Wait, Dad, you’re a badass! You wrote all these songs?” He was always receptive to me being like “Play this song at a show!” but he kept us totally sheltered.

GGM: So you run The Afternoon Off lifestyle blog, wherein you talk about food and clothing and wisdom. It got me thinking: you love to cook. What’s your best dish?

HW: Cinnamon-braised beef short ribs is the most popular, requested by all my friends when it comes cold weather time. When I got married, I literally didn’t know how to scramble an egg! But I got on this Julia Child, Alice Waters kick where I just cooked and cooked and cooked, so it’s kind of my therapy. I haven’t had time to do it in a long time, but when I get time, taking herbs and chopping them into homemade sauces is like my therapy. Food was very important on my mom’s side of the family. Cooking is a nice mental break for me, definitely.

GGM: Where’s your favorite place to eat on a fancy night out in Nashville?

HW: We’ve been incredibly lucky because we’ve had a ton of great restaurants open in the past three years. It used to be really painful to eat here but now it’s becoming a town for foodie people like me. There are a few great ones. Rolf and Daughters is very incredible. I think was just voted number 3 best restaurant in the US! I’m a huge fan of Husk, great, all-local organic food with a twist and amazing cocktails. Patterson House has the best cinnamon sugar doughnuts you’ve ever had in your life. I’ll go there in my pajamas to pick them up. My favorite brunch is Pinewood Social Club. I could go on and on.

GGM: You also run a couple clothing stores in Nashville. Who are some of your favorite designers?

HW: The clothing store has been open for seven years now. I like Helmut Lang, Rag and Bone. I love basic, kind of with an edge. I love a brand called Mother which makes my favorite kind of denim. Golden Goose is a great brand out of Italy that makes chic cowboy boots, not like the ugly country, fringe, rhinestone thing. Great, beautiful Italian leather with different skins. I usually wear simple pieces with an edge. Quality over quantity is my philosophy. I’d rather buy one white t-shirt that’s gonna last me four years than keep buyin’ and buyin’. The other store is a very curated, general store that I opened 8 months ago. It came out of me being on tour and traveling the world and finding everything from cool organic dog food and local olive oil and French antiques, so many cool things! It’s a store of all my favorite things, a one-stop shop where you can buy things for your two year old or your grandmother or your wife or your husband.

GGM: What were you reading on this last tour?

HW: I was reading Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey. Downton Abbey is kind of my obsession, and this is based off the real lady of the house Downton Abbey is based off of. It’s interesting, the road is sort of like my vacation time, where for other people it’s their work time, because in Nashville I’m so incredibly busy with stores and employees. When I leave for tour, that’s when I get to bring out books.

GGM: Do you have a favorite story from this last tour?

HW: Well, I think it’s kind of funny I got knocked up before sound check on the Jason Isbell tour! (laughs) One thing that’s kind of kickass: I’m a huge Zeppelin fan and Jimmy Page decided to come to my show a couple weeks ago in London. I was in this amazing theater that held about 350 people and it was one of those places that’s pin-drop quiet. My husband was dying—that’s his god... That was the most intimidated people I’ve ever been. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some cool people, but this was a whole ‘nother level. (Jimmy Page) came back to my really shitty dressing room afterwards, and I was really embarrassed, cuz we had like a 10 dollar bottle of wine and some old hummus and celery (laughs). He was just the coolest. I’ve met pretty much all of my heroes, but I have to say, I don’t know if I’ve never met a more down-to-earth guy. That was probably the coolest thing that’s happened to me on tour: Jimmy Page sitting through 90 minutes of me up there doing my thing!

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