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Jess Williamson found herself in a coveted grad school program for photography when she realized she had to leave. In high school and college she’d curbed her desire to create music, sticking to the sidelines as a journalist, a radio DJ or the friend and girlfriend of musicians. So two terms into her time at Parsons she dropped out, left New York, and headed back to Texas with the hope of piecing together a music career.
“In high school and college all my friends had bands, my boyfriend was in a band,” Williamson said. “I was a writer for the University of Texas newspaper so I interviewed bands, and I had a radio station so I was always finding out about new bands and playing new music on the show. But I was secretly so jealous of all those people that were playing shows—the people I was interviewing. I lacked the confidence to try because I didn’t know how to play an instrument. I was so late in the game try to start.”
Some of her earliest memories involve singing—as a small child on the playground or even at slumber parties—but her early passes at learning guitar were failures. It wasn’t until her final year in college that she saw the inimitable Ralph White play a banjo-fueled, spooky set in a friend’s basement that Williamson found a conduit for her creativity.
“I just fell in love with the banjo. I thought ‘I can do that, I can learn the banjo,’ still not really thinking I would pursue music seriously,” she said. “Just because it was a void that I wanted to feel. So that started it.”
Upon returning to Texas, Jess recorded a piecemeal set of songs in her friend’s studio. She’d written approximately five songs while living in New York, and these formed her initial EP Medicine Wheel/Death Song. “The first EP felt like it was kind of just thrown together,” she admitted. “I wanted to record some things so I just recorded whatever I had. But after that, I wanted to make something that felt like a real complete document.”
Enter the deathblow to a multi-year saga of a relationship, and she was left to confront herself sans grad school or relationship. But instead of despairing, Jess welcomed the starkness. She began a campaign to face down her own rejection—to confront herself in loneliness.
“I stopped and realized that as long as I could remember I’ve always been so focused on dating. It was this huge distraction that society told me was normal. Look in teen girl magazines, it’s all about how to be attractive and what to do on dates [/fusion_builder_column][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][Editor’s note: Except Rookie. We’re not biased or anything :)]. And I realized: I am not going to do this anymore. I don’t need to be in a relationship. Instead, I want to completely dive in to the feeling of being alone and of being rejected, of being lonely.”
Holing up in a big Victorian house on the outskirts of Austin, Williamson’s self-seclusion led to the songs that make up her debut full-length album Native State. Although the easy assumption about the record is that it references her return to Texas, but there’s a reflective element to the close, defiant lilt of these seven songs that sprang from her solitude.
“The title Native State is a more obvious reference to Texas as my home, but it also speaks to this period of turning inward and trying to get to know myself for the first time. Doing so without all the distractions of impressing other people. It’s funny how much we don’t do that and how much no one really tells you to do that. Everyone is so externally focused.”
The songs are spare, with banjo, hints of a rhythm section and the deeper graveness of a cello, but it is the inward speculation of Williamson’s voice and lyrics that thrust Native State into a echelon that debut album rarely reach. In order to release her songs, Williamson started her own label under the alias Brutal Honest, and sent it out into the universe. It picked up brief traction on Pitchfork and she’ll embark on a short tour this spring with fellow Austin group RF Shannon, who will also serve as her backing band on the road.
“I remember a year ago wishing that I had the money to send RF Shannon into the studio myself to record something and put it out,” she said. “We’re going to do a 7-inch together after the tour too that’ll be out through a small Austin label called Punctum Records in April.”
Williamson doesn’t have much conception of what the future will hold beyond the tour, the 7-inch and the chaos that is Austin’s looming annual music festival South By Southwest (SXSW). But, despite the banjo as an entry point for her music, she is increasingly drawn to other forms of instrumentation and has been hypnotized by the basic flexibility of electric guitar. Besides, being stereotyped as a cute girl with a banjo has grown tiresome.
“Maybe they see a picture and see that I have a banjo and they think it’s this cutesy singer/songwriter thing. That isn’t my vibe at all, I don’t think the banjo is cute. I think it’s actually creepy and dark!” she explained. “The reason I got into it was when I saw Ralph White play and it was this dark haunting old thing that blew me away. I still love the banjo but I feel more inspired by the classic, genre-less aspect of playing a guitar. I’ve been playing guitar for about two years now so I’m really a beginner. But I have four songs written for the next release and they’re all on guitar. Maybe that’s a reaction of being pigeonholed as a banjo lady.”
If you’re going to listen to any girl and banjo combination this year though, you’ll be hard-pressed to find one with more bitter resonance and naked self-examination than Williamson’s Native State. There’s a spine of old Texan rebellion in this brief waif of a record. In the half hour mostly acoustic songs that she’s produced, her honeyed voice floats across the top like a hot wind, carrying debris and dust with craggy surety.
One track (and photograph collection) proclaims You Can Have Heaven on Earth. The solution: “to be happily known, happily if only known by you.” There’s no accounting for the new age clamor toward finding yourself, but Native State is the work of a woman who heard her own refrain above the din.[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]