An Interview: Keller Williams
Interview & photography By Amy Panaia, Zingara Photography
Keller Williams, most noted for his one-man band looping extravaganza, is remaining true to his roots while pursuing a vast assortment of performance, recording, and extracurricular projects. Keller’s “Kids” album was just named one of the year’s best kid/family albums by The Washington Post. Keller Williams’ musical resume proves that he is one of the most talented and expressive musicians on the scene.
Amy: The “Kids” album is an exciting shift in your career, but it also makes a lot of sense for you to do. How long had you pondered the idea of making a family-oriented album?
Keller: A long time. My daughter was born in ’04 and I had a summary of songs written on this record before that. It took years to culminate the inspiration for the rest of them. It took actually having kids and then having those kids grow up a little and listen to kids music and it went from there. It’s been a good a long time, I would say probably eight years that it’s been in the thought process. The record was recorded about two years ago and we finished it up late last year. I finished it and then “shelfed it” and did the whole Keels “Thief” record which was released before “Kids”. It is definitely been in the thought process for a while and It’s finally out into the world; it’s set free!
Amy: My two youngest kids listened to the album with me and said to me “He’s weird!!” but that you were “so funny” and “so cool” and their favorite songs are "Good Advice" and "Mama Tooted". Which songs were most fun to record?
Keller: "Good Advice" has a little kid choir, so that was interesting having four or five kids standing in front of microphones singing along, and that was fun. "Mama Tooted" because it’s got this groovy little percussion line that I came up with at the last minute and that was kind of the first track with my new fretless bass It was an old bass that I had the frets taken out of and it was a new bass to me. "Mama Tooted" is definitely one that a lot of men like, a lot of kids like, but that’s kind of where it stops. The women grin and bear it and take it. I would have to say the ones with just me and Ella (Keller’s six year old daughter) were probably the coolest "Hey Little Baby", "Horseback Ride", "Fastest Song in the World."
Amy: I think one of your most charming features musically is your story-telling ability. This carries over to the “Kids” album. What do you think separates your album from other children’s music?
Keller: That’s a good question, that’s difficult... Doing this record got me into the XM Kids Place Live... I went in and recorded a kids show in front of a live audience that was my first kids’ show which was my first real exposure into the massive world of kids music and family music. Leading up to this record was a lot of the classics that we would play Jungle Book, Sound of Music and things like that. Once I started listening to Kids Place Live... The Concept is to get the parents involved so they can tap along and like it and want to put it on and just connect with their kids. Try and not compromise my original sound or style but yet keep the lyrics light and direct it towards the ten and under crowd.
Amy: You also have a children’s book Because I Said So. How excited are you about this? This is an interesting venture for you.
Keller: It wasn’t really a stretch. I didn’t really sit down and write a kid’s book... I sat down and wrote a funny kids song that was translated into a kid’s book and this added bonus was really exciting. The idea of doing book signings is quite fabulous! For me, to have people read my book a long time for now is another thing that’s really exciting. As a songwriter you always want to try and write something that outlives you; something that continues on long after you’re gone. I think that this book has a chance of doing that and that’s really exciting for me.
Amy: Your vibe from this past Smilefest was amazingly energetic, creative, spontaneous, and fresh. Do you feel like you’re keeping the same momentum now as you were at the start of the “Thief” tour?
Keller: The Keels and I vowed in the beginning even before we did a record and our creed was never to do too many shows together so that when we come together it’s always fresh. I think because of that there’s always some certain excitement that comes to the Keller/Keels set. Now that we’ve done about a dozen shows together, which is the most we’ve done In one couple month period, we are so much tighter both vocally and mentally. It’s even more exciting now than at the beginning. The Blackmountain show at the beginning of October was one that I really remember as being good.
Amy: I read an interview where you stated you had a great team handling different aspects of your career, but that you have a problem “keeping up”. What do you feel your biggest challenge is career wise?
Keller: Well keeping up in one aspect is just memorizing my schedule. I’ve found as I get older, the trust that I have for my team and how they totally have my back 100% I’m able to NOT look at the schedule and find out at the airport where I’m going (Laughing). It’s not the keeping up with it physically, It’s the mental side of it. I’m so grateful to have wonderful people who have my back. It’s difficult to keep up with the kids, chasing the kids around, having to do this nap before this interview. This is what I call “luxury problems”. People coming up and saying hi when I’m having dinner, and have a mouth full of food and want to shake my hand…this is just an example of what I call a luxury problem.
Amy: Are you so busy that you’ve lost sight of where you started from? Are you grateful for your humble beginnings?
Keller: Oh my god, everyday! It wasn’t that long ago that it was me and my wife and two dogs in our 74 Chevy blazer with a pop up. That’s real... That’s a song called the Blazebago. It’s parked out in the woods, it’s still around. It hasn’t run for many, many years and it’s been pushed back further into the woods, not by me of course, but by people paid by my wife- to get it out of her sight, type of thing(laughs). Really though, it was 1997 that I left Steamboat [Springs] and me and my wife traveled for three years... doing upwards of 200 shows a year making 200 bucks a week. Our mantra was “exposure”. Everything we made would go back into the gas tank or a hotel or the campground. It was probably ten years ago that people just started to come to the shows. It wasn’t that long ago, so that I definitely have a strong grasp of what has happened. I’m still way below main stream radar; I still feel there are tons of untapped things that I want to do and I want to experience. I’m very grateful to have people that buy the tickets and come support the shows and help me continue to do what I want to do.
Amy: You definitely have a very dedicated fan base.
Keller: I’m very lucky for that.
Amy: At Mag Fest, you briefly mentioned your musical history including: Hee Haw, punk rock days, The Grateful Dead, and then discovering your love & appreciation for Bluegrass. Who are some of your Bluegrass influences?
Keller: It starts with Hee Haw and Roy Clark’s “Pickin’ and Grinnin’”. Once I got into The Grateful Dead that opened me up to the Americana side of things. Once I got back into bluegrass, I guess it was Old and in the Way with Peter Rowan, David Grisman, Jerry Garcia, John Kahn, Vassar Clements... I lived that album, studied the album, I learned all those songs.
Also, Larry Keel and McGraw Gap, Larry’s band was definitely kind of like the first more up-close & personal experience. Standing right there and feeling the acoustic music, without any kind of amplification... with the upright bass and the banjo and the guitar and the mandolin. I think that was really one of my first real influences was that band.
Getting into everything that’s involved with the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, and all that that surrounds: Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Edgar Meyer, Bela Fleck, Marco Conner, so many incredible players. A band Strength in Numbers, they took traditional kind of Bluegrass instruments, and had a little bit of that Bluegrass sound, but it was leaning in the New Grass era, more intricate compositions, but done with traditional Bluegrass instruments…that really got me off too.
Bands today like Cadillac Sky, who are just fantastic. Yonder is really popular and for great reason too. Those guys are following the Bluegrass formula, but adding other elements of pop music and mixing up classic rock tunes. The list can just go on and on! Leftover Salmon... the best times I’ve had with Leftover was when they weren’t on stage at four a.m., picking in the campground. That’s where the real magic happens.
Amy: What’s on your current playlist?
Keller: I’ve been really into this album called “Funks, Fixes and Remixes” by the Pimps of Joytime. My love for that band started with that album. The Funky Lowlives- really great funky music, a lot of it instrumental. On the total opposite end of the spectrum... Bassnectar, Girl Talk, [DJ] Yodo. Yodo especially is crazy live electronic music, nothing is pre-recorded, everything is played and looped. It’s similar to what I do, yet way more tapped into the late night electronica thing that I love so much… I incorporate elements of that into my own show, but yet don’t really commit to going full-blown electronica. I kinda dig being absorbed by the full-blown electronica when it’s done right and live. Opposites attract and I really like when the beats are perfect. There’s a certain energy between midnight and five a.m. at festivals that’s really untouchable. It’s really popular now and it’s for good reason. I’m right there with them.
Check out KellerWilliams.net for all things Keller.