Victoria Williams Offers Fresh Water To Drink

Songstress started out to make disc of jazz standards, but her originality won out.

Songstress Victoria Williams' new album, Water To Drink, contains a fresh batch of her quirky, off-center characters and observations on life, along with covers of several classic jazz pieces and the Brazilian-flavored title track.

But it isn't quite the record she had envisioned.

"It was supposed to be an album of jazz standards," Williams said from her California home recently, "and I actually recorded that. But we recorded a whole bunch of other stuff too, and they persuaded me to go in another direction. I guess it's always good to have your own stuff on your records."

Fans of the singer, who readily admits her work falls somewhere between folk, pop and jazz, will surely agree.

Though in her cover of "Until the Real Thing Comes Along" Williams almost evokes Billie Holiday at times, it's in her own songs — explaining crazy characters in "Grandma's Hat Pin" (RealAudio excerpt) or exploring the joys of living with clutter in "Junk" (RealAudio excerpt) — that the Louisiana-born writer's knack for juxtaposing the mundane and the marvelous shines.

And Williams has some famous fans, too.

In 1992, while Williams was on tour opening for Neil Young, she found her hands going numb and was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a degenerative disease which is not fatal but for which no cure has been found.

Some of those friends joined to record Sweet Relief (Sony 1993) — an album of 14 of the then-uninsured Williams' songs — which raised enough money to pay her medical bills and enable her to start a foundation for musicians in need.

Help From Her Friends

Among participants in the project were Soul Asylum, who recorded "Summer of Drugs" (RealAudio excerpt), Lucinda Williams, who cut "Main Road," Michelle Shocked ("Holy Spirit") and Pearl Jam, who contributed their version of "Crazy Mary" (RealAudio excerpt).

Williams still must take the disease into account. "It's a battle sometimes," she said, "but it's OK; I'm OK." Meanwhile, the nonprofit Sweet Relief organization she founded has helped hundreds of musicians facing problems due either to aging or poor health.

Though she's now well known enough to be featured in Billboard and People magazine, Williams spent the early part of her musical career scratching out a living in relative obscurity. She started as a teenager playing in bands in Louisiana and Texas. "I guess you could call it folk, what we were doing," she said. "Lots of Guy Clark, Willie Nelson, stuff like that."

After moving to California, she became a regular at songwriter nights at Los Angeles' famed Troubadour Club and played for tips on Venice Beach. She also married songwriter Peter Case, formerly of the Plimsouls, and the two formed a jug-band group named the Incredibly Strung Out Band.

Williams issued two solo albums that suffered from record company marketing problems (Happy Come Home in 1987 and 1990's Swing the Statue), and her marriage foundered, too. Her recordings and live shows were marking her as a musician's musician, though, and her off-kilter vocal style combined with collage-like lyrics earned her comparisons to Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan.

Quenching Her Thirst

Now in a second marriage, with Mark Olson of the Jayhawks, she's worked on joint projects such as the Harmony Creekdippers and a track on the Gram Parsons tribute Return of the Grievous Angel (Almo Sounds, 1999), with longtime friends Buddy and Julie Miller.

She continues to write, too.

"I have all these notebooks, drawers full of notebooks of ideas, things I'm working on," she said. "We produced Water To Drink, too, here at home. I really like working on the production part of things. I think doing it at home made me more relaxed, and I think you can hear that in my vocals on the record."

Williams opened dates for Lou Reed in May and June, and while she enjoyed that, she said she's really looking forward to headlining her own shows in the fall.

"When you're the opening act, you don't get to play as much as I like to," she said. "I'll be playing at the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival late in August, and then I think in October I'll be touring around the country. I really like to do good old-fashioned two-hour shows, so that's what I'm looking forward to."

She's also looking forward to sharing the songs from Water To Drink. "It's soul music," she said, "music from the soul and good for the soul. That's what I hope people will think."