Behind the Music: Interview with Deborah Williams

‘It’s so easy for the inner critic to pipe up when you are working alone.’

Following the release of her new single ‘Show Me The Way’, we chatted with singer-songwriter, film/TV composer and producer Deborah Williams to discover how these different areas influence each other, and why her forthcoming album is a more personal expression than anything to date. 

Firstly, congratulations on your stunning new track ‘Show Me The Way’. What is the meaning behind the title? Thank you! The title was originally ‘How Am I Doing?’, as though asking the question to everyone and anything out there, for some sort of dialogue and reassurance. But then I played the track to someone and they referred to it as ‘Show Me the Way’. It occurred to me that this title was actually way more appropriate because it’s not just about asking for reassurance, but more a plea for some sort of North Star with regards to navigating life.

When you began composing the track, what was your initial vision for it? I wanted it to sound epic. I also wanted there to be 2 different voices. The voice in the verses talking of the struggles and woes of the daily grind; mental struggles and feeling like an outsider, the stronger voices of the chorus: ‘SHOW ME’ – reflecting the need for change and the urge for progression. I kept referring to the ‘show me’ lines when I was collaborating with producers Joe Fields and Nick Carter as wanting the treatment of the vocals to have a serpent-like quality. I wanted it to sound alluring and captivating. I think they thought I was nuts!

Did the evolution of the track take you in a different direction to what you initially planned? The track went in the right direction, but I’m not sure whether one is ever entirely happy with a track. I always find myself noticing details that niggle me, but overall, I’m happy with the outcome. Joe and Nick definitely helped me with that.

What do you feel ‘Show Me The Way’ says about your musicality that your previous releases haven’t? That’s a good question… I think it sounds more evolved. I think each track I create builds in some way on the last, often in very subtle ways. Perhaps in this track the evolution was a bit more in the vocals being more unapologetically honest.

If someone was watching a Deborah Williams recording session, what would they notice first? That I don’t sit still. Anyone that knows me knows that I have ants in my pants. This is part of the challenge I have with my work. Sitting for hours at a time does not come easily to me, so I get up and move, walk, do yoga, play with the dogs, all day long. I gravitate back to my speakers, my mic and my equipment solely because I have music to make.

What is your earliest musical memory? My earliest musical memory is sitting on the wooden floor of our house in London when I was around 4 or 5 years old. There was music on in the background all the time. James Taylor, Joni Mitchell… and the odd bit of Tchaikovsky!

Reflecting on the process of your 2019 release ‘Femme Fatale’, what has kept the same or changed as you worked on your forthcoming album? ‘Femme Fatale’ was a collection of songs created especially for Sony for one of their sync catalogues. So, the brief, as you can imagine from the name, was to keep that undertone running through all those songs. This latest album of mine is not commissioned but a more personal expression of aspects of living that interest me now. There is however a strong thread in terms of the style and production between the albums.

I was always so terrified of performing live, so when I faced my fears I felt an enormous sense of peace and pride.’

Turning to interrelated skills, what are the biggest benefits/downsides about being a producer as well as a musician? I became a producer out of absolute necessity, and it has opened a lot of doors. It’s hugely fulfilling to be able to play with sound in a much more varied way. I can now create anything from an oboe to a car crash sound effect, which is very cool and fun. When I don’t like the way something sounds, I now have an idea what to do about it, whereas as a musician, I wouldn’t always know how to express what I wanted to hear. I’m still learning though, and sometimes I still rely on the ‘professionals’ for mixing and certain elements of production, like I did on ‘Show Me The Way’.

Linked with this, how have your experiences in the theatre and film industries shaped your development in the music industry? I often write my songs with another form of media in mind. I may have a strong visual idea which would complement a song, or in the case of TV and film work, I may actually have the visual and this will inform the music. I often find it easier to write this way. Watching the world of theatre has influenced my work greatly as it makes me realise the undeniable craft so many people have and that inspires me to try and hone mine.

So as a composer for film and TV, as well as a songwriter, how do you go about getting into the correct headspace for each context? I’m able to jump into work mode quite easily now. What is often harder is getting into the zone with regards to my own commercial releases. It’s so easy for the inner critic to pipe up when you are working alone, whereas when you are working with or for others, there is no time to listen to that bullsh*t! I’ve become quite disciplined at just being in my studio no matter how I feel, or what my headspace is like. In truth, the bigger challenge is probably trying to fit it all in with a family and the responsibilities that come with that (for which I am deeply grateful)! Throw months of homeschooling and a puppy in the mix and you’ve got quite a cocktail!

What are the advantages of composing in multiple genres? Composing in multiple genres is so much fun. I really enjoy putting on different sonic hats. It’s playful and keeps it interesting. My own music often has quite haunting or dark undertones, and it’s great to balance that out with alternative music.

Out of all your projects so far, which one did you find the most rewarding and why? I recently composed an orchestral piece for a commercial for a well-known car brand. I got to write and produce a piece of music I was really proud of, which stretched my composing and production abilities. But if I think about it, probably the best I’ve ever felt with regards to my music is after performing a gig that has gone well. I was always so terrified of performing live, so when I faced my fears and did it anyway, I felt an enormous sense of peace and pride.

And finally, what are the three albums/tracks that you couldn’t live without? Any day you ask me this, the answer will be different. Today I’d have to say: Radiohead: ‘Creep’, Norah Jones: Feels Like Home (album), Joni Mitchell: A Case of You 

Thanks Deborah Williams for chatting with Listen to Discover

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