Interview With Reva
(Believe it or not, this old interview was conducted by good friend and fellow renegade, Will Gray...)
A lonely day on Martha's Vineyard with nothing but the time that we've been given, I sit with Reva Williams for coffee and conversation. The second cup is poured.
What do you think makes you different from the other folk artists of the world?
I honestly have no idea how to answer this, but I'll try. Hmm... I'm not completely convinced that I am, or that if I am, what I'm doing is necessarily better. I guess some of what I blame it on is probably due to things like I've always read books more than I've listened to music, I didn't have a TV growing up, and my dad's a preacher who used to drink and fight a lot. So, that puts an interesting spin on trying to be good and knowing how to be bad. I guess it's my content — the sounds and themes in my songs that come from me. I suffer from an incurable hope and simultaneous despair, and I think I sound like that: dissonant and scared and joyful from one song to the next, and when you get to know me, you find that that's pretty much how I live. It's just the way my life seems to roll out from under me. I'm not trying to write the perfect song or the perfect hook or turn a phrase so cleverly people will pull their cars off the road to listen. I'm trying to live, trying to remember the good and the bad and the ugly and not turn my face away from any of it. I'm trying to invite people into a space and time where they can see themselves and each other and make room for the possibilities and treacheries of love. Am I doing that? I don't know.
How long have you been singing and playing guitar?
I've been singing my whole life. My first performance, if you can call it that, was with my sister in church — we were 3. Guitar, I started learning when I was in high school. I was tired of having to sing to tapes, so I took a class and learned a little.
Do you play any other instruments?
No, not very well. I do have an odd sense of pride in my shaker and tambourine skills though.
What is the songwriting process like for you?
Painful. I'm slow. At least compared to songwriters I know, I'm slow. It's a discipline for me, so I don't wait to write when I'm inspired. I write every day, hoping to move toward inspiration, or toward something that feels true or important or memorable to me in a way that sparks my curiosity to keep going with it. Usually, I stumble around a lot, looking for some kind of light switch, and when I think I find it, the odds are pretty good that I'm wrong, still in the dark and suffering from some kind of creative mirage, and then it usually takes me a while to see something for what it is. Sometimes, though, I do find the light switch and I hit on a sound or idea or line that feels like something I can't ignore, and I just try to write into it, melodically, lyrically, to expose it and turn it over, to get to the root or source somehow. In general, songs, whether they end up being good ones or bad ones, take me around 20 hours to finish, and then I still like to get some feedback from other writers and artists, so I can further edit and hone.
What is Unreturnable Dirt?
The phrase comes from a Charles Wright poem called Homage to Paul Cezanne. The language in the poem is crazy — really rich and stunning. You could read it out loud on a preschool playground, and I think 3 and 4 year-olds would stop running and screaming to listen b/c the sounds and words themselves are so good and surprising. Anyway, the poem is about the dead (not the grateful dead), and there's this line I love about how the dead have under their fingernails "an unreturnable dirt". It's the blessing and the curse of being human, the idea of "ashes to ashes, dust to dust" and I love that. We can't exchange or give back our flesh, our mortality, even in death, and certainly not in life. So much of the way I was encouraged to think when I was growing up led me to believe that if I could just reject my body and the things associated with it and the earth, then I would be happy and ok, that the goal of life on this planet was to rise above my humanity. Now, even if I could escape, and this "dirt" was returnable, I don't want to give it back. Good food, naps, good sex, music, fevers, strong coffee in the morning, Van Gogh, Kansas skies, blisters after a basketball game — so much good about this physical reality, so much pain, too. It's real and it's ours. I'm glad it's unreturnable.
Describe this record.
At its most fundamental level, it's about the songs and the voice that interprets the songs. There's more prose than poetry in the sounds and stories, in that I'm not really standing outside of any conversation that's currently taking place, but I think it sits at the edge of the conversations we usually hear in the popular music in our culture. It's a record that sits down with you face-to-face. There's not a lot of professional distance, sonically or lyrically, the kind of thing we expect from an acquaintance. In many ways, as a listener, coming into a new record or show created by an artist you barely know is like two acquaintances beginning to talk. In my record, it's just that they've both had too much to drink and are revealing a lot more than they normally would over the chip bowl to one another, which happens all the time in our lives and when it does, it's usually amazing and also uncomfortable, and there are times that this record is uncomfortable, even painful in places, but it's really hopeful, too. It's a very personal record, but I hope it's what Gallway Kinnell terms the "truly personal" as opposed to the "merely personal". I hope it's something universal that has the potential to both keep us awake at night and also, rock us to sleep.
What was it like to make this record?
It was both exhilarating and exhausting. I was terrified, having nightmares and crying a lot about having to pull it all together myself, to produce it, pay for it, make sure it got off the ground, and hope that against all the odds, it would be good. I don't know how most people go about these things, but I lost a lot of sleep over it. I made sure that the people who played on it and helped engineer it were not only good at what they do, but also easy to work with because I was so small in myself in regards to pulling this off. I needed to work with friends, people who love me and believe in me, and that's what I did. So, I was given a lot of grace and comfort through the process. Overall, I loved it. I can't wait to do the next one. Going into the studio is like talking to a burning bush. It's bizarre. It's either sacred ground, or proof that you're crazy.
Your sound is quite unique, what influenced your sound?
Singing my whole life with my sister is probably the biggest influence. We did a lot of accapella stuff, and always worked on a ton of harmonies. She's a great singer, and I think we pushed each other a lot. When you have two voices to work with, you have to keep things simple, but you don't have to be boring, which is both a relief and a challenge. We learned to adapt with the little we had, and I think my music still reflects that simplicity and adaptability.
Who are your musical influences?
It's hard for me to tell the difference between who has influenced me and who I've listened to a lot since I was younger, so I'll just go with the latter: early Suzanne Vega, Edie Brickell, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkle, Weezer, Bruce Cockburn, Sam Phillips, Elvis Costello, Joni Mitchell. I listened to The Indigo Girls and Ani Difranco a lot in college. When I was in middle school, I was obsessed with Basia, The B-52s, Broadway musical soundtracks and popular jazz ballads from the 40's and 50's that my sister and I would play on the piano and sing from old books that we bought at garage sales.
Are you excited about going on tour?
(pause) Yes. I'm nervous also. I have a lot of work to do in a very short amount of time, and it keeps me from doing cartwheels about hitting the road and playing for a lot of different people. I wish I could do the cartwheels — they just feel a bit like a time-waster right now. That's really negative isn't it?
So what can we expect from Gretel in 2005?
Hopefully, a lot of live shows. We're working right now to get on the road solid for the first couple months of summer, and even though my band is going to go home for a while after that, I'm going to keep playing. In the fall, hopefully we can hit a lot of dates again. At this stage, we just want to play for people.
Why should people buy Unreturnable Dirt?
I really don't think they "should" — b/c I don't like being motivated by the kind of feeling a "should" induces in me so I'd hate to pass that on to someone else. I think people will buy it if they like the music and the impression they're given by what I'm trying to do. I mean, buy it if you feel like your life will be enhanced by it, if it will add something to your day and your existence. If it won't, then buy something else that will. There's a ton of really good music out there, and I think people should work hard to find it, and when they do, they should invest in themselves by literally buying into what the artist is trying to do, so that more goodness and beauty can come forth in the future. I hope some people will feel that way about what I'm doing. I would buy my album. (smiles) I think it's worth it, but I don't expect everyone to feel that way. If after a show, I feel like someone will only buy my album if I talk them into it, I can tell you right now, I'm not going to try and do that. Maybe they just don't dig what I'm doing, or maybe I didn't do my job as a performer and communicator. Either way, I'm not an arm-twister. People know what they like, and if they like this, they'll buy it.