Having more fun

By MATT ASHARE  |  February 13, 2007

“I mean, if it’s something you can do and it feels good to you and you can make money off it, then great. But it took me a long time to learn that just because an artist is making a lot of money doesn’t mean that it’s bad. The best examples of that are Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young and Bob Dylan and all those people we all look up to. Those are the artists who have made me feel it’s okay to do what I want to do. Now I’m to the point where I’m older and I’m wiser and if I want to do a little video or something, big deal. Like Starbucks has been talking to me about maybe sponsoring my tour. And that whole thing came up again where I wasn’t sure what my fans would think because aren’t people always talking about Starbucks moving in and driving out the mom-and-pop coffee shops? All the same, you know, when we’re on the road, where do we go to get coffee? And this is what I do for a living: I have to make a living and I have to pay the band. But there are some lines that I still won’t cross because, well, that’s just who I am.”

One big line Williams crossed with West entailed choosing a producer, and it’s probably the single biggest reason the album is being hailed by many as a breakthrough just in terms of sound. In the past, she’d always worked with other musicians — Steve Earle, Charlie Sexton, Gurf Morlix. And they would share her less-is-more rootsy sensibility. This time she handed the reins over to Hal Wilner, the NYC-based producer best known for his work with artists like Lou Reed and Marianne Faithfull as well as multi-artist, cross-genre tributes to the likes of Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus. The result is a fuller-sounding disc that incorporates everything from Hammond organ to string arrangements to samples. And working with Wilner put Williams in a more experimental frame of mind herself. Indeed, though there’s plenty of the expected melancholy on West, she just seems to be having fun.

“This is the record I’ve always wanted to make sonically,” she says. And that’s the kind thing you hear from musicians all the time. Yet from this obsessive compulsive it carries more weight. “I’m proud of all my records in terms of the songwriting. But this is the first time I’ve worked with a real producer. And that’s something that has come with my growth and with having more self-confidence. Because I was always so terrified almost to the point of paranoia about being overproduced. That’s why I always made sure my producers were other musicians.”

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