O Death: Karl S. Williams

There’s no doubt that Karl S. Williams marches to the beat of his own drum. In an age where popular music is made to order for instant consumption, here is a man whose music comes from another time and place, a craftsman with the ability to tap into a wellspring deep within his soul to create some of the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard. His voice can move from angelic sweetness to mournful pain and ragged rage in the space of a song. Whether it’s grinding blues or an a cappella spiritual Karl S. Williams is channeling the essence of the song in its purest sense and we are all that much richer for having shared in that experience.

Karl’s debut album, Heartwood was released independently three years ago. Later Karl was signed to a deal with Warner Music where they took him back into the studio to record new songs and remix some original recordings from Heartwood for their version of the album. With some strong label push behind him Karl then found himself playing major US showcase gigs including CMJ in New York.

Following that breakthrough Karl S. Williams returned home to the Gold Coast where he was named Artist of the Year at the inaugural Gold Coast Music Awards, but since then he’s kept a low profile while working on material for his next album. On the eve of a month long residency at the esteemed Northcote Social Club in Melbourne Karl released a new single featuring his interpretations of the spirituals O Death and O Come O Come Emmanuel.

Trevor Jackson caught up with Karl to discuss the new recording and to see how the album was shaping up.

The new single features two spiritual songs – one a haunting Appalachian dirge, the other an old Christian hymn. What is it about these types of songs that appeals to you?

The spiritual songs that I sing are ones that I have encountered mostly by accident and I always get a feeling from them that is at once ancient and timeless. There is something about hearing a tune from an earlier time that transports me (and hopefully others) to a place that exists out of time and I feel it gives a sense of our existence within a great continuum.

I also like the plainness of the language and melody (particularly in the folk spirituals like O Death) and when they are sung a cappella it really boils music down to its most primitive components. This informs a lot of my music, as it seems to me that music without artifice is very human and therefore connects with many people.

I suspect that you are more spiritual than religious in a formal sense – how is music such an emotive force?

They put a recording of Blind Willie Johnson singing Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground (a spiritual tune) on the gold disc that went with the Voyager probe into deep space. He doesn’t sing the words, he just moans but his performance conveys more than words. So much more that they figured it would represent the human spirit to whosoever may find that disc. Some songs more than others have this kind of magical quality and so I happened upon other spiritual songs and found that people really react to hearing them.

Yes, there is a religious component to the songs but primarily I think they speak about the human spirit, in their longing sound or their hopefulness for a better place to come or an end to suffering. It seems to me that these are universal things and I believe that’s why these songs (and so many others) are so moving. There are some people for whom the religious content carries a stigma that makes it hard for them to enjoy the songs without the religion but in any case it provokes discussion and feelings which is indeed the great power of music.

It’s hard to imagine these songs getting mainstream airplay, so obviously that isn’t crucial for you. In signing a deal with a major record label, do you ever worry that your artistic integrity might be compromised by their expectations of you?

Music is a sacred thing for me, so protecting it from the wrong influence has certainly always been a concern. Certainly I want to continue to grow my audience and I’m happy to engage with and take advice from others who believe in my music as well.

When I entered into a record deal I expected that there would be a certain amount of influence from the label but I am not really making the sort of music that could easily be shoe-horned into accessibility and never felt compromised by any influence that was felt. Ultimately my record deal has now lapsed because it just didn’t make financial sense to invest more money into this music in the current climate. I am fortunate that Strange Yonder, a small independent label, are releasing this 7″ and for my next album I will be left to my own devices. For now, our assault on mainstream radio will abate but I think there could be a crossover among the tracks for the next album.

You had a residency at Melbourne’s Northcote Social Club during August, does that suggest your fan base is now growing substantially beyond the Gold Coast?

It was my hope for this year to spend some time in Melbourne and try to grow things there. I have passed through a number of times before but this residency is my first chance to do an extended run of shows in Melbourne and connect with more people there.

You’re now also a member of the Melbourne based indie band Head Clouds, how are you balancing the demands between your solo work, Head Clouds and your work with the psychedelic outfit Tsun?

It’s nice to stoke a few fires and really it’s not so hard to balance them all (actually it’s a pleasure). Jayke Maddison (singer and guitarist) writes all the songs for Head Clouds so I just get to focus on my playing there and all my other writing just happens as the muse allows. So far I have an overabundance of songs for my next solo album and a growing pile of audio notes to work on with Tsun (and I have other project ideas for material that hasn’t got a home yet!). It can be hard when dates clash and I’ve still not struck the perfect balance but overall I really enjoy having a few things on the go and hope that it will help me become a more rounded musician.

It’s been a couple of years since your debut album Heartwood was released. How is your new album shaping up?

It feels like a long time and I’ve certainly written a lot of new material since then. I am very keen to get underway with recording and I think I’m down to the last round of polishing on these songs. It will be another diverse album, much like Heartwood, blues and soul but also touching on some folk/country stuff and a few nice piano tracks that I’m very proud of. Right now I’m trying to map out the recordings and figure how to tie those diverse styles together.

I’m hopeful to get it finished this year (rapidly disappearing) and release early next year, but as always I defer to the muse.

O Death is available on limited edition vinyl via karlswilliams.com.


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