Unlike many L.A. transplants, singer-songwriter Chelsea Williams didn’t arrive as a starry-eyed dreamer seeking a catapult toward fame. It would have been a little soon for that anyway, considering she got there before she’d even started walking and talking.
With a vocal-coach mother and that Joni Mitchell-inspired name, it’s hardly surprising that Williams embraced music early on. By 12, she was writing songs and hitting open-mic nights. At 14, she joined a band of blues players closer in age to the grandfather she never knew. She drew inspiration from that grandfather’s sacrifice of his musical aspirations to raise his five daughters. At 21, she started busking at Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade. After watching her solo mom struggle to raise two daughters (even selling her guitar to buy them Christmas gifts one year), Williams’ LaLa Land desire was simply to make a living playing her dreamy-sounding pop for attentive — and hopefully generous — listeners.
Performing five hours a day, four days a week, she not only achieved that goal, she wound up scoring a high-profile TV commercial, singing in Maroon 5’s “Playing for Change” video version of their hit “Daylight,” and landing not one, but two record deals. Catching the appreciative ears of prominent Promenade strollers, including Ron Howard and the revered influence Sheryl Crow — to whom Rollingstone.com compared Williams in a 2017 ”10 artists you need to know” feature — was a huge bonus. The release of Beautiful and Strange (May 8, 2020) her second album for L.A. independent label Blue Elán Records (that second deal), will bring even more attention for Williams’ musical charms.
Nailing down her eclectic style is somewhat of a conundrum, however. Williams’ airy, elegantly nuanced vocals carry reminders of Sixpence None the Richer’s Leigh Anne Nash and the Sundays’ Harriet Wheeler. There are also tangential comparisons to jazz chanteuse Kat Edmonson and the recent work of genre-fluid Hymn for Her singer Lucy Tight. If those references seem esoteric, that’s a good thing, because having to stretch for comparisons reinforces the unique allure of Williams’ delivery. There’s no shoegazing detachment or sonic tripping involved; if anything, the opposite is true.
On Beautiful and Strange, which follows 2017’s Boomerang, Williams and her producer (and husband), Ross Garren, somehow strike a wire-walker’s balance between the seemingly opposing forces of childlike whimsy and mature sophistication. The former manifests as toy pianos, singing saws and a general lightness of being that floats like a breeze throughout these 11 tracks. The latter permeates their sweeping, deeply-layered arrangements, as well as Williams’ engaging style, whether she’s dissecting relationship dynamics or examining the very notion of destiny.
“I guess if I had to define my style, it would be sort of Americana with a bit of modern pop, topped off by a healthy dose of reckless abandon,” Williams says. “I never want to confine myself creatively, and I apply these categories very loosely.”
“My music tends to be as diverse as my musical taste,” she continues. “I grew up listening to every genre, from classic greats like the Beatles and Yes to the Flaming Lips, the Pixies and all the way over to Joni Mitchell, Bonnie Raitt, John Prine and Tom Waits. I even dabbled in jazz with people like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.”
Williams, who performs in a bluegrass/Americana band, the Salty Suites, and met Garren when both played in a country cover band, also mentions Loretta Lynn, Emmylou Harris (her beloved cat’s namesake) and Imogen Heap, along with Brian Wilson and Harry Nilsson. And even if she hadn’t mentioned the Beatles, their musical impact is evident all over these tracks; “Muskegon” pays subtle homage to about half of their career, and “Something Sweet” contains actual lyrical and musical references to George Harrison’s masterpiece, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
Then there’s the title tune, a merry-go-round waltz on which Williams’ vocals ribbon around a symphony of harmonicas, keyboards and strings as she sings: “Oh, we say all kinds of things to all kinds of people/pretending that we have the reins/but it’s all just one big leap of faith/to be livin’, breathin’, dreamin’ … pretending that we could rearrange/this breathtaking pattern of atoms that’s beautiful and strange.”
Williams says she and her friends often discuss the dichotomies between “magical” and “scientific” thinking. “Magical thinking doesn’t rely on scientific facts to form a view, whereas scientific thought relies heavily, if not solely, upon research and facts,” she explains. But even those who embrace the latter can fall prey to “scientific inaccuracies and magical stories we tell ourselves.” When they collide, confusion and conflict follow.
“That said,” Williams adds, “the overarching theme of Beautiful and Strange is that regardless of all the lies flying around and clashes in ideology, I still think that there is an exquisite charm and beauty to all of the chaos. Sometimes, I think about what would happen if we could all just step back for a moment and appreciate this beauty.”
It’s a lovely sentiment, and also encapsulates the album’s feeling of optimism despite the darkness. Even “Wasted,” the opener — about a destructive relationship that needs to have its plug pulled — is filled with sunny pop hooks.
The americana-pop “Red Flag,” one of two co-writes (with Julian Bunetta, Toby Gad and John Henry Ryan), is equally engaging. With one marvelously executed run up the scales, Williams perfectly evokes the breathless, caution-to-the-wind intensity of new love’s passion.
But it’s the gorgeous, moving “Dust” that clinches Williams’ worthiness for accolades such as her 2017 Hollywood in Music and Media Awards win for Singer-Songwriter of the Year. Sounding understated at first, she sings “Take my hand, you’re my brother/We were born in the same way/You live on one side and I’m on the other/but we’ll all be dust some day.” As Paul Wiancko’s cello takes over for Garren’s Fender Rhodes, she sings, “Hallelujah, I’m finally free/Hallelujah, logic lifted me up from my knees/I believe in what I can see. Hallelujah.” The intensity builds till her voice splits into an entire chorale of angelic notes before intricately arranged strings bring a final catharsis. It’s a powerful moment, one born from the ironic ascension to a heavenly peak by way of the lowest roads.
Williams and Garren tracked “Dust” at home, in their bathroom. To avoid ruining the recording, they had to silence their air-conditioning, on a stifling 100-degree day as well as turning off the heat-producing overhead light. “Still, with each take we did, it got hotter and hotter in the bathroom,” Williams relates. “So I ended up recording the vocals in a pitch black bathroom in my drawers.”
After years of busking in whatever conditions a day might bring — from label heads and musical idols to wildfire smoke and a guy who liked throwing dirty socks her way — she wasn’t fazed. In fact, Williams still tries to hit the promenade at least a couple of times a month when she’s not touring. “
It’s an important part of my core identity,” she says. “And I never feel quite like myself when I spend too much time away.”
And hey, putting herself out there has worked pretty well so far.
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