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The Resilience Of Victoria Williams

Dec 2, 2017
Originally published on December 2, 2017 5:27 pm

Victoria Williams has one of the most distinctive voices in American rock. She's also one of its most unusual lyricists.

The singer can't remember a time when she didn't sing.

"I kind of unconsciously sang before I'd go to bed. I would be singing to where my brother would knock on the wall and say, 'Shut up,'" Williams tells NPR's Alex Cohen.

Eventually, she grew a bit more conscious of her talent and started performing with local bands around her hometown of Forbing, Louisiana. But Williams never really thought of it as a career — until one night, when she played at a gig at a deer camp for a gathering of hunters.

"The band went on break and I went and I sang a song," says Williams. "And this hunter came up and he says, 'I'll give you a hundred dollars if you sing another song.'"

Soon after, Williams began writing songs like "Happy Come Home," a tune inspired by one of her neighbors who lost her dog.

"It touches me because of the lyric, 'Happy come home.' Maybe it's not even a dog... maybe it's just happiness," says Williams.

From there, Williams built a loyal following on simple songs that strike a deeper chord.

"To me, empathy is the main instrument of our very existence... The ordinary human condition in all of its comedy and tragedy — and she had all of that in a pronounced way," says pianist and composer Van Dyke Parks, who has worked with such notable artists as The Beach Boys, U2 and Skrillex and arranged Williams' 1987 debut album.

That album caught the attention of the famed filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker, who had already made documentaries about Bob Dylan and the epochal Monterey Pop Festival. Pennebaker shot a short film about Williams and her music.

By 1993, she had earned a coveted spot as the opening act for Neil Young. At first, the tour was going great — until her career almost came to an end.

"I was like on the 23rd show," says Williams. "All of a sudden my hands were numb and I couldn't play the guitar, so I'm just standing there sitting and singing a capella. So his manager said, 'You've got to go to the hospital and figure out what's wrong with you.'"

Williams was eventually diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a degenerative disease of the central nervous system. She had to stop performing to regain her health and, before long, the singer was overwhelmed by medical bills. Luckily, Williams had earned some fans through an appearance years before on a cable access show in New York City.

"I was mesmerized," says Sylvia Reed, second wife of the late Lou Reed. "Her voice and the song, the lyrics were amazing. And I called Lou over and said 'Look at this, look at this...'"

The couple wound up befriending Williams and when the singer fell ill. "We felt this immediate need to help her...and I think a lot of people felt that way."

Reed says it wasn't too hard to get some people to record Williams' songs for a benefit album Reed helped organize, Sweet Relief: A Benefit for Victoria Williams featured a dozen artists including Pearl Jam, Lucinda Williams, and Reed's husband. Victoria Williams says she'll never forget the first time she heard it.

"I was in Louisiana and I was down on this long road and lots of trees. I was just listening to it and just crying, crying out of joy."

Sweet Relief helped bring Williams' music to a much wider audience and raised so much money she wound up with a surplus. She used it to establish a foundation for other musicians struggling with medical costs.

With her health back on track, Victoria Williams hit the road again in 1995. A fan recorded one of her New York shows and posted the audio to YouTube nearly 20 years later.

Now, Williams' record label has released it, although Williams says she barely remembers this show.

These days, she lives in Joshua Tree, California, where she still struggles with MS – there is no cure, but her Sweet Relief Foundation is still in operation, helping other musicians. Williams has been well enough to work on new material with the help of a Chinese zither she discovered in a music store.

"I think it's kind of gone back to what it was at the very, very beginning of singing. Singing words that I don't know what they mean. It's like singing in tongues," she says.

Victoria Williams hopes to release a record of these songs. It would be her first album of new material in more than 15 years.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Let's hear now about a distinct voice in American rock - Victoria Williams. She's known for her unusual lyrics, and she has a devoted following. But her career almost came to an end more than 20 years ago. Alex Cohen of member station KPCC reports that a newly-released recording of a performance from back then reminds Williams' fans of her unique sound.

ALEX COHEN, BYLINE: Victoria Williams can't remember a time when she didn't sing.

VICTORIA WILLIAMS: I kind of unconsciously sang before I'd go to bed. My brother would knock on the walls, like, shut up (laughter).

COHEN: Eventually, she grew a bit more conscious of her talent and started performing with local bands around her hometown of Forbing, La. But Williams never really thought of it as a career, until one night, when she played a gig at a deer camp, a gathering space for hunters.

WILLIAMS: The band went on break, and I went and I sang a song. And this hunter came up and he says, I'll give you a hundred dollars if you sing another song.

COHEN: Soon after, Williams began writing songs, like this one, inspired by a neighbor who lost her dog.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAPPY")

WILLIAMS: (Singing) Happy, come home. Happy. And all the neighbors thought she was screaming crazy right out of her head. She was happy.

It touches me, I think, because of the lyric - Happy, come home - which maybe it's not even a dog. Maybe it's just happiness.

COHEN: Victoria Williams has built a loyal following on seemingly-simple songs that strike a deeper chord.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CENTURY PLANT")

WILLIAMS: (Singing) Outside my house is a cactus plant they call the century tree. And only once in a hundred years, it flowers gracefully. And you never know when it will bloom. Hey, do you want to come out and play the game? It's never too late.

VAN DYKE PARKS: To me, empathy is the main instrument of our very existence.

COHEN: Pianist and composer Van Dyke Parks has worked with such notable artists as The Beach Boys, U2 and Skrillex.

PARKS: And to hit on this stuff of - it's the ordinary human condition in all of its comedy and tragedy. And she had all of that in a pronounced way.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHOES")

WILLIAMS: (Singing) I walked plenty of miles down long and bumpy roads, and I've had lots of holes on the soles of my shoes.

COHEN: Parks arranged Victoria Williams Williams's 1987 debut album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHOES")

WILLIAMS: (Singing) I'm on my second sole. It's looking mighty worn. I danced in it, ran in it, put plenty of miles.

COHEN: The album caught the attention of filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker, who had already made documentaries about Bob Dylan and the Monterey Pop Festival. He shot a short film about Williams and her music.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "HAPPY COME HOME")

WILLIAMS: I got this warning (ph). I feel like it's too much like a frog. I mean, y'all don't mind it. OK.

COHEN: By 1993, she'd earned a coveted spot as the opening act for Neil Young. At first, the tour was going great.

WILLIAMS: I was on like the 23rd show, when all of a sudden, my hands were numb. And I really couldn't play the guitar, so I'm just standing there singing a cappella. And then his manager said, you've got to go to the hospital and find out what's wrong with you.

COHEN: Williams was eventually diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She had to stop performing to regain her health. And before long, the singer was overwhelmed by medical bills. Luckily, Williams had earned some fans through an appearance years before on a cable-access show in New York City.

SYLVIA REED: I had never seen her or heard of her, but her voice and the lyrics were amazing. And I called Lou over. I said, look at this. Look at this.

COHEN: That's Sylvia Reed, the late Lou Reed's second wife. The couple wound up befriending Williams, and when the singer fell ill...

S. REED: We just felt this immediate need to help her, and I think a lot of people felt that way.

COHEN: So, Reed says, it wasn't too hard to get some of those people to record Williams's songs for a benefit album Reed helped organize. "Sweet Relief" featured a dozen artists, including Pearl Jam, Lucinda Williams and Reed's husband, Lou.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TARBELLY AND FEATHERFOOT")

LOU REED: (Singing) Thump, thump, down the stairs he came. She heard him coming. She stood there just the same.

COHEN: "Sweet Relief" helped bring her music to a much wider audience and raised so much money, Williams wound up with a surplus. She used it to establish a foundation for other musicians struggling with medical costs. With her health back on track, Victoria Williams hit the road again in 1995.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILLIAMS: That's Molly (ph). She decided to come on stage. She's traveling with us on the road, and she's in heat.

COHEN: A fan recorded this New York show and posted the audio to YouTube nearly 20 years later. Now, Williams's record label has released it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILLIAMS: (Singing) She lived on a curve in the road in an old tar-paper shack on the south side of the town, on the wrong side of the tracks.

COHEN: Williams says she barely remembers the show. These days, she lives in Joshua Tree, Calif., where she still struggles with MS. There is no cure, but her Sweet Relief foundation is still in operation, helping other musicians. And Williams has been well enough to work on new material...

(SOUNDBITE OF ZITHER)

COHEN: ...With the help of a Chinese zither she discovered in a music store.

WILLIAMS: It's kind of gone back to what it was at the very, very beginning of singing, of singing like words that I don't know what they mean.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILLIAMS: (Vocalizing).

I'd say it's just like singing in tongues.

COHEN: Victoria Williams hopes to release a record of these songs. It would be her first album of new material in more than 15 years. Alex Cohen, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.