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Nine Songs
Kathryn Williams

With new album Willson Williams, Kathryn Williams brings Edinburgh’s Withered Hand into her collaborative universe with thoroughly charming results. She talks to Alan Pedder about the songs that inspired their new duo and soundtracked her life.

07 May 2024, 13:00 | Words by Alan Pedder

In the 25 years since Kathryn Williams released her debut album Dog Leap Stairs, the Newcastle-based artist has flourished into a vividly illustrative songwriter with a wide-ranging mode of expression

Across 11 solo albums and two retrospectives – plus side projects (The Crayonettes, The Pond), a novel (The Ormering Tide), and album-length collaborations with dynastic folk singer Neill MacColl, jazz musician Anthony Kerr, author Laura Barrett and former Poet Laureate Dame Carol Ann Duffy – Williams has gently edged into musical territories far beyond the simplicity of her early work.

Her new album, Willson Williams – a collaboration with Edinburgh-based musician Dan Willson, aka Withered Hand – is less concerned with taking measured risks than it is with warm and fuzzy songcraft that sparkles with wit and unruffled clarity. Stormy closing track "Big Nothing" is perhaps as close to straight-up indie-rock that Williams has ever strayed, but for the most part the duo stay within the folk-pop margins where they already excel.


Speaking to Best Fit from her garage home studio, Williams recalls feeling like a teenager again while writing with Willson, whom she calls “a kindred spirit.” “He had never really done harmonies with other people before, so we just had to work things out by approaching it like we were kids again,” she says. “It was a bit like going around to someone’s house after school and pretending you’re in band, and we learned to really trust each other to let the songs go where they needed to. The by-product of that is that I made a really good friend, which I never expected to have.”

Williams describes her friendship with Willson as “basically us just telling each other all of our insecurities and things we’re paranoid about,” and they’ve poured a lot of those discussions into the album. Whether it’s feeling lost among the social rules of engagement (“Weekend”), worries about their careers (“Arrow”), or lying in bed with intrusive thoughts about being crushed to death by a precarious tower of self-help books (“Shelf”), the two indulge their fantasies and fears in a way that feels generous, truthful and unfailingly sweet.

The first time they both remember meeting was at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2019, but Williams thinks they’d actually met briefly, years before, at a Fence Collective event in Anstruther. Her version of events might explain why, when Willson came up to Williams after her performance in Edinburgh to introduce himself, she immediately gave him a great big hug – and his wife, too. “I think I was just so pleased to have someone come over, because I’d been so nervous,” she says, laughing at her own awkwardness. “He looked shocked, but he kind of looks like that all the time anyway.”

A little later, after hearing that Willson hadn’t been writing for a while, Williams fired off a tweet in his direction wondering what kind of songs they would write together. “I left it up for a few hours and then deleted it because maybe he would think that I was being really weird,” she says. “But then he wrote back saying, ‘Was that for me?’ – I think he thought I’d sent it to the wrong person.” And, just like that, their pretend band was formed.

Willson Williams table

The name Willson Williams might sound like a character straight out of a 1970s American TV show, “some kind of gnarly old cowboy or a gritty political lawyer,” but the songs are charmingly British with their references to Shepherds Bush (“Arrow”), a classic Edinburgh pub (“Wish”) and Elvis Costello (“Elvis”). “I really love specific details in songs,” says Williams, talking about her own work as well as the songs she’s chosen for her Nine Songs list. “To me, it’s a surefire way of making something feel true.”

"No Cigarettes" by Withered Hand

BEST FIT: I have to ask, which is your preferred version: the one from the first Withered Hand album or the one from the EP that came before that?

KATHRYN WILLIAMS: The album version, I think, but I like both. Actually, I’ve probably mostly heard this song live, from seeing Dan play shows and Instagram lives, where he has kind of a cult following. For me, I just love the comedy in his lyrics, and the way he plays on words, the way he plays with imagery. I love that aspect of all his early stuff. I mean, “Always the back end of this pantomime horse” is such an interesting way of talking about a relationship.

I could quote books or poetry at you all day but I’m terrible at remembering lyrics. but there are just so many brilliant lines here. “Think me and you could maybe use a lost weekend / I’ve been losing all my friends,” is another one I love. “All we seem to do these days is wave our arms and yell / Other people are hell” is another. I feel like every line of this song is a classic and there’s a really beautiful, very satisfying, rhythmic nature to the way he puts all these brilliant lines together.

One thing that I think comes through in all of your choices is that the lyrics and the rhythm of words is something that’s really important to you.

Yeah, they are, but it’s not always in a literary way. I love songs that have lyrics that evoke really vivid images, when they feel like short films playing inside my head. That’s the sort of songs that I go wild for.

I think you’ve referred to it as ‘showing not telling’ before, when talking about what you’re trying to do in your own music.

Yeah, and I fail quite a lot [laughs]. But I’m always so happy when I get it right. In any case, it’s definitely something that I aim towards – the showing not telling – and Dan does that too. His songs can be conversational but so clever and intricate, so full of imagery. But he's never clever in a sort of pious or full-of-himself way. He’s not trying to be a dark little poet. I feel like his music sort of transcends that.

"The Gold String" by Devon Sproule

BEST FIT: You’ve often said that Devon Sproule is one of your favourite singers and that you feel like she should be more widely known. How did her music come into your life, and what do you love about this song in particular?

KATHRYN WILLIAMS: I first heard her music when she was touring solo as the support act for my friend Paul Smith of Maximo Park – it was at the Cluny in Newcastle, I think – and she just blew me away. It honestly felt like she flipped a switch inside me. I remember that I hadn’t really been to a gig in ages where I’d had that magical feeling. Every song she played had some wonderful plot twist, some unusual chord structure or melodic turn, or something really special in the imagery. I was so impressed and was like, ‘How have I never heard of this person?’

Later, I went to see her play a show around the release of her album, The Gold String. She had an ensemble at the show, with a woodwind section, a bass player and a drummer, and it was just… wow. It’s probably still in my top five best gigs ever. The whole place was packed out, but you couldn’t hear a single murmur between songs. People were that rapt.

When my kids were a bit younger, we went on a roadtrip around Europe for six weeks in our beaten up blue van, and there were a few albums that we would just listen to over and over. The Gold String was one of those albums. Honestly, I think every song on the album is brilliant, but the title track is the one that really speaks to me. Lyrically, it’s got an ease to it but also a kind of complexity, in the same way that a lot of Paul Simon’s songs have both an ease and a complexity. If you listen to the song, it’s like it glides along like a swan. But then, when you look at the chord progressions and the time signatures – the way it’s been constructed – it’s actually mechanics underneath. It’s a mechanical black swan, and I just love that. As a songwriter myself, who is more like Winnie the Pooh, a bear of little brains, I’m just always astounded when I listen to something that feels just like it’s always organically existed. Like, how did she even come up with that?

Also, the sentiment of the song is the most beautiful thing. It’s this imagined idea that all the people we love in the world are connected by these invisible gold strings, like we’re spiders on a web or something. Like, if my sister had a bad day I might feel a little twitch on her gold string and give her a call.

So, yeah, I’ll say it again. Devon Sproule should be more well known. She’s amazing.

Have you two become friends?

In my imagination, yes [laughs].

I definitely gushed at her at the merch table – I think we swapped CDs. But I’m basically always talking to people about her while she probably doesn’t even know I exist, but that doesn’t matter to me. I just think she’s brilliant.

Has she put out anything since The Gold String? It feels like a long time since we heard from her, which is a shame.

Oh, well, she is releasing stuff on Patreon now with her husband. Maybe instead of releasing albums, I’m not sure.

"My Funny Valentine" by Chet Baker

BEST FIT: This song has been covered by hundreds and hundreds of other artists, including you on your album, Resonator, with vibraphonist Anthony Kerr. Even Chet himself recorded several versions of “My Funny Valentine”. Do you have a favourite one?

KATHRYN WILLIAMS: It’s the one on the Chet Baker Sings album, I think. I have this double LP set with a pink and black cover that includes that album and one other, and it’s one of the only records in my collection that I can just keep turning over and over. It’s like continually flipping a pancake, I just never get bored. It’s an album that you can’t wear out.

You can’t oversell Chet Baker Sings. It’s like when people talk about Venice and how amazing it is. When people talk about other places that way, you can sometimes be sort of done in by it. But then if you go to Venice, it is so amazing, and it doesn’t matter how many times people tell you the same thing. I feel the same about Chet Baker.

It's so strange to think that when he first started to sing on his records, people got really disturbed by it and felt like he was ruining the music. I think they must have just not understood what he was trying to do, as hard to imagine as that is. His voice is one of my all-time favourites. It’s unbelievable, like silk. So smooth and classic. It’s a bit of a weird thing for me, though, because I don’t think he was a particularly nice person. There must have been something good and tender in him, though, because his voice is so full of beauty. I really do think that you can really touch someone’s soul through listening to their voice.

What can I say about “My Funny Valentine”? I mean, I sang it – nowhere near as well as he did – but it was a beautiful thing to do. I love it when you get to sing someone else’s song, work out what’s going on inside it, and how the shape of it feels in your mouth. I love the lyrics too. I love it when a love song is not about someone being so beautiful and perfect, and talks about all the funny, quirky, ugly, idiosyncratic things we can love about someone. Which is, ultimately, the ideal of true love, isn’t it?

Speaking of beautiful, I have to say that I did not realise until today that Chet Baker was such a good-looking man.

Yeah, I think they used to call him the James Dean of jazz.

Your parents listened to a lot of Chet Baker, Ella Fitzgerald and other jazz artists when you were growing up, but I think I remember that you were never really into jazz until you took on the Resonatorproject.

Not at all, really, but now we've got absolutely loads of jazz in our vinyl collection. My husband, Neil, is really into jazz and we love listening to John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Alice Coltrane and so many others. I guess it's something that comes with age as well. Jazz goes really well with doing cryptic crosswords, which has become a thing I do now that I'm 50.

In bed on a Saturday morning, right?

[laughs] Yeah, exactly. My god, I'm so sad.

"A Case of You" by Joni Mitchell

KATHRYN WILLIAMS: I bought my first Joni Mitchell album on vinyl when I was 16 or 17, from a place in Liverpool that was full of hippie shops and a few vinyl record shops too. It’s not there anymore but I can close my eyes and remember it perfectly.

The one I bought was her first album, Song to a Seagull, and I got really into it. Then, when I was at uni, someone lent me Blue and I just couldn’t get over it. It was like kissing someone and realising that they are the love of your life. I never got around to listening to all her other albums because I can’t get away from Blue. It’s such a perfectly encapsulated record.

As a songwriter, I love “A Case of You” because of the almost journalistic way in which it’s written. From the very first statement – “Just before our love got lost you said / I am as constant as the Northern Star” – onwards, it’s just amazing line after amazing line. It’s just perfect. As songs go, it does everything. I mean, it goes deep. I love how she makes these really bold statements and mixes that up with more mundane details. I’ve definitely sobbed to “A Case of You” many, many times.

Trying to deeply explain why you love something so beautiful is impossible sometimes. You just can’t. It’s like standing on top of a mountain, looking out at the stunning view, or trying to photograph the moon. You can’t get close to the reality. So, yeah, I don’t think I can explain my love for this song any more than that. But it’s probably in my top three favourites of all time.

I remember, way back in the day, someone at The Guardian called you “the northeast’s very own Joni Mitchell,” which is quite a lot to live up to.

Oh my god, I think I remember that now that you've said it. It's hilarious to even think that way, but, yes, I'll take it!. I'll take any compliments these days. I’ll have to put it on a t-shirt.

"America" by Simon & Garfunkel

KATHRYN WILLIAMS: My dad is a massive Paul Simon fan, and I grew up listening to a load of Simon & Garfunkel and Paul Simon cassette tapes on car rides. I remember being in the car the first time I heard “America” and having a sort of lightbulb moment when they sang the line that goes, “‘Kathy,’ I said as we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh.” It was the first time I’d ever heard my name in a song, and something sort of switched on in me where I was like, ‘Well, my name is in a song. I could be in a song.’

It was just of those strange little connections that happen in your brain, and I never really got over that. I don’t think I ever got over the journey of this song. I love the playful nature of the lyrics, like “She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy / I said, ‘Be careful, his bowtie is really a camera.’” I really love specific details, like the suit fabric, in songs. To me, it’s a surefire way of making something feel true.

Another reason why I love this song is the freedom that it represents. I remember when I was a student in Liverpool, I worked in a place called the Pilgrim Pub, which was sort of an underground, alternative pub. I’d work there for a few hours, and on each shift I was allowed to play three songs for free on the jukebox. I always use to put “America” on, “Lay Lady Lay” by Bob Dylan, and “Que Sera Sera” by Doris Day. Because of that, “America” became so closely associated with the world of possibility that you feel when you start becoming independent of your parents. When you start to feel like maybe you’re the lead in a film of your own life.

So, yeah, I’ve chosen it because it’s so closely connected to my dad, and to the feeling of adventure.

Did it make you want to go to America and take the Greyhound on a cross-country trip?

Yeah. But I didn't do it.

When I was a kid, I thought the Greyhound sounded so cool, but the reality really didn’t live up to that when I finally rode one.

Yeah, I think we need to write a song together about the Megabus. [ad libbing] “Don’t poo on the Megabus / It’s not allowed.”

"Let it Be" by The Beatles

BEST FIT: As a Liverpool girl, there just had to be a Beatles song on this list. I love the story you’ve told before about singing in the choir at school and how the songs would be a mix of Beatles songs and hymns, but as a child you didn’t always know which one was which.

KATHRYN WILLIAMS: Yeah, it was all part of the institution. We’d sing songs like “Yellow Submarine”, which was obviously not a hymn, but then we’d sing something like “Let it Be” alongside “When a Knight Won His Spurs”, which I really thought was a Beatles song. So, yeah, we couldn’t always work out which was which. I have a very strong memory of that.

You’ve chosen “Let it Be” here. What’s your connection to this song?

This is one that I have grown to love, probably only in the last three or four years. I never really liked it that much before. I chose it mainly for that reason, because often when you choose songs in this way it’s because you’ve loved them all your life.

So what changed your mind?

I was staying with my parents in Liverpool, sharing the spare double bed with my son Ted. My dad came in to say good morning, got into the bed too, and the three of us just started singing “Let it Be” by The Beatles together. I have a voice memo recording of it on my phone and it’s one of the most precious things I own. It’s just so special to me, hearing my son’s little voice and my dad’s much older sounding voice, singing together.

Because of that, I started to really appreciate the meaning of the song and how it’s like a hymn, and how it’s about voices on the other side telling you that it’s going to be okay. I always thought it was a bit cheesy when I was growing up. I was definitely a bit sniffy or snobby about it, but now I’m in this different mindset and at a different time in my life, I’ve realised how amazing it is that basically one of the biggest bands in the world could write something so heartfelt – this little meaningful hymn – and how that can easily be sniffed at or overlooked. Because, actually, it’s so beautiful. It’s a beautiful, earnest song about love and loss.

How much do you think being raised on this diet of The Beatles influenced your own songwriting? A few people have commented on how you have a Beatles-esque sense of melody, for example Carol Ann Duffy when you were writing together.

What can I say? I mean, just let me lie in that bath for a minute. Oh my god. I might still need some money to fix the kitchen window, but I just feel so happy to have that kind of recognition from people like that.

I think I do have a similar sensibility as a songwriter, but it’s not like I try to be that way, or even think in that way. The melodies were just there when I was growing up and they’re just so ingrained in me, somewhere beyond my own thinking. I mean, I’m from south Liverpool, which is where The Beatles are from. We lived around the corner from Penny Lane and from Strawberry Fields. My dad went to youth club with John Lennon. So, yeah, I don’t know. I’m not as good as them but I do know that sometimes I’ll write a melody and think, ‘Oh yeah, that’s a bit Beatles-y.’

Would you say there are any Beatles-like melodies on the Willson Williams record?

“Weekend” has a sort of 1960s Beatles feel to it, and I think “Grace” could fit on Revolver.

"Who Knows Where the Time Goes?" by Sandy Denny & The Strawbs

KATHRYN WILLIAMS: This is the earliest version, before the one she recorded with Fairport Convention, and the lyrics are actually a bit different. She hadn’t edited them at that point, because I think there are a couple of lines that are stolen from another song that were then changed out.

I love this song, and I’ve played it a few times live. One memorable time was the first gig back after lockdown, at The Cluny again. Ann Cleeves, the author, was in the audience that night and she came up and chatted to me afterwards. Apparently it was one of songs that had been played at her husband’s funeral and is an all-time favourite of hers, and she just couldn’t believe that I had decided to cover it. It was quite an emotional talk.

This song fits what seems to be a running theme among the songs that I’ve chosen. It connects with “Let it Be”, in that it’s also an earnest and heartfelt questioning of things that are bigger than us. Things like the passage of time, the yearning and the sense of loss. But then it also has this very vivid imagery, and it just glides along like a swan. Sandy Denny’s voice was so beautiful in its plaintiveness. I always think that if her voice was a person, it would look like the girl with the pearl earring.

I love that! So, Sandy Denny was one of the real-life musicians – as well as Kate Bush and Joni Mitchell – that inspired the character of Cass in Laura Barnett’s novel Greatest Hits. Did you have Sandy in mind at all when you were writing the soundtrack?

Yeah, I had her in mind, definitely. That was a strange kind of commission to get. I absolutely love Laura but it was funny because we would talk about a particular song for the character, Cass, and she would say something like, “This would have been in the top 10” as guidance. I was like, “I can’t even write a top 10 hit for myself!” So it was challenging, but it was really good fun. And I did actually make it into a fictional top 10.

Anything can happen!

Yeah. I'm a fictional size eight. I'm fictionally great in bed. I have a fictionally perfectly tidy house.

"The Kiss" by Judee Sill

KATHRYN WILLIAMS: It was Ed Harcourt who first introduced me to this song. We’d been making the Hypoxia album in London, when he lived there, and we had this dinner party one night back at his place. Ren Harvieu was there, and Romeo and Michele Stodart. We were drinking Mezcal and it was kind of a wild night. But when he put this song on, everything just stopped. It felt like some kind of magical incantation that somehow stopped time. I have such a strong memory of that feeling.

I don’t know why – maybe because of the double-tracked vocal – but at first I thought it was Elliott Smith. But then it clearly wasn’t. Then I thought it was maybe some kind of higher-pitched Nina Simone. I had all these thoughts about what I was listening to. It wasn’t a particularly beautiful voice, but somehow the song was, and still is, one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard. I just couldn’t believe that I’d never heard it before.

I feel like it does a similar thing to that piece by Erik Satie, “Gymnopédie No.1”, where each piano note seems to sort of shimmer in the air before it drops, like some of beautiful firework. It totally blew me away and it makes me cry. You can tell that she really had a knowledge of classical music and of orchestration. I don’t think anything else on that record, Heart Food, comes anywhere near it. But, you know, if I could write even one song as good and as beautiful and as heartstopping as “The Kiss” then I think I might just retire.

"Change" by Big Thief

KATHRYN WILLIAMS: Oh my gosh. Adrianne Lenker. What a voice, and what a wordsmith. I absolutely love Big Thief. This song, “Change”, was a really big influence on the Willson Williams record. I mean, we could never sound like them, but this is one of the songs that Dan and I would listen to a lot while walking across Edinburgh to the studios in Leith, listening with one headphone each.

I think it just has a poetry to it that also works just as well written down. As a lyricist, Adrianne Lenker reminds me a bit of Carol Ann Duffy. Her choice of words is seemingly quite simple, but each one is a perfect choice. The shape of the words is a perfect choice.

I love this song so much. To me, it feels like a solace, because I find change really difficult, I find things that don’t go to plan difficult. So it’s wonderful to listen to this song that’s really soothing and uplifting about a subject I find hard.

Adrianne has said “Change” is a song that she received rather than wrote, and that she didn’t really understand it until much later.

Yeah, it feels very much like one of those songs that are sort of transmitted through you, which are always a beautiful gift and often the ones that end up being people’s favourites. You feel like a bit of a fraud when you play them. I’ve got a couple of songs that have come that way. I almost don’t want to take credit for them because it feels like I was just the secretary that escorted them in.

Which songs are those?

[laughs] Alan, no. I’m not gonna tell you.

Willson Williams is out now via One Little Independent Records. Kathryn Williams and Withered Hand are on tour across the UK throughout the rest of May.

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