image by Hadas Di
When searching the internet for the meaning of “busk” one receives the following information:
gerund or present participle:
Definition: to play music or otherwise perform for voluntary donations in the street or subways.
So, if one were to correctly use the present participle form in a sentence, it might read:
“Chelsea Williams sold 100,000 copies of her first three indie CDs
while busking on Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade.”
Of course, you might also wonder at the sample sentence, but rest assured … it is not only an appropriate use of the term; it is also stating an astounding accomplishment in the life of a young singer/songwriter from Glendale, California, who has just released her debut album, Boomerang, on Blue Élan Records.
According to the official biography on her website, Chelsea Williams has been described as the music industry’s best—or worst—kept secret. Having already performed on The Today Show, opened for The Avett Brothers and Dwight Yoakam, and duetted in a guest appearance with Adam Levine for Maroon 5’s “Daylight (Playing for Change)” video, the true foundation of her career is the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, California. The Promenade is well-known to area residents and tourists for its diverse shopping and dining opportunities, as well as the constant presence of buskers; street musicians whose challenge it is to catch and keep an audience. It was here where Williams has spent the past ten years mesmerizing passersby, selling her homemade CDs for $5 and $10. Among those who stopped to listen and buy were singer/songwriter Sheryl Crow, one of Williams’ prime influences; famed director Ron Howard; and producer Toby Gad. Gad, who had worked with Beyoncé and Natasha Bedingfield, was taken with Williams’ talent and took her under his wing. Together, they worked on a project that resulted in a full-length album and a record deal with Interscope Records. Unfortunately, Williams soon felt that the label’s commitment to release the album was nonexistent and decided to dissolve the deal. Shattered, she enrolled in college, studying geology, thinking that perhaps she was better off pursuing music as a hobby rather than a career. However, after some time had passed, Williams reconnected with both her passion and her muse. Returning to the Promenade with newfound commitment, a collection of new songs grew under her belt, and Williams was ready when Fate visited—not once, but twice, to make her believe— in the form of Kirk Pasich, President of Blue Élan Records.
Pasich was adamant about allowing Williams to maintain her artistic and creative integrity. Williams describes her relationship with Blue Élan in the most glowing terms, adding, “I had never been given a record budget that came with so much creative control before.” With that freedom comes the knowledge that the new album achieves a primary mission: to take listeners on a journey. “That’s what I love about music myself, Williams says, “the ability to take somebody on a journey that they weren’t planning on.” Recorded with producer and multi-instrumentalist Ross Garren (Kesha, Ben Folds, Benmont Tench), Boomerang is a journey through a richly diverse landscape of Americana, indie folk, and lush pop … a winning combination of words, music, instrumentation, arrangement, and production leaving no doubt that Chelsea Williams has joined the front ranks of popular music’s New Guard.
Currently on tour to promote the new album, Chelsea Williams will be headlining the renowned NYC venue, The Bitter End, on September 11th, and will be opening for Rusty Young and Poco on September 13th at Manhattan’s City Winery.
Roy Abrams: I want to congratulate you on Boomerang! How does it feel?
Chelsea Williams: It feels amazing! I’m so proud! I’m dreaming![Laughs]
RA: Listening to the album for the past couple of days, I’m loving what I’m hearing. If we could, let’s circle back to earlier times. Something that fascinates me about your trajectory is what you did at the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, California. How many years did you perform there? How frequently were you appearing? (I know that they have a rotational performing schedule.)
CW: I still play out there, occasionally. I definitely hung out there for about ten years. There have been periods of time where I’ve played there more often, but there was a time when I played there around 20 hours a week.
RA: You started while still in high school?
CW: No, I started when I was 19.
RA: So many musicians are devotees of busking. What’s your take?
CW: It’s a really beautiful experience, because you kind of get people’s gut reactions. Some people go (to the Promenade) to listen to music but most people are there to shop or to eat lunch or do something else besides listen to music, so it’s kind of interesting to see what types of people you can get to stop; people who weren’t there to see me. It ends up being a really great connection, too, because it’s quite different than playing onstage in a dark room where you can’t see the audience. You know, you’re like two feet away from them, looking them in the eye, which can be terrifying, but I also think it creates a stronger connection between the audience and the performer.
RA: I understand that you started playing guitar at 13. When did the live performances begin?
CW: I think I started playing coffeehouses in L.A. around (age) 15.
RA: What’s the indie support scene like in L.A. these days?
CW: You know, I’ve kind of been a little bit of a lone wolf over there, doing my own thing, playing on the Promenade, and working my own way up.
RA: So interesting that you connected with Sheryl Crow in the Promenade environment!
CW: Yeah, I’ve met all kinds of cool people. Ron Howard also bought my CD out there. [Laughs]
RA: So, Kirk Pasich from Blue Élan Records encountered you there one day and basically said, “Let’s put out an album.”
CW: It sounds crazy but it really did happen like that. He basically came up to me while I was playing and handed me a business card and said, “I want to make a record with you. You can have all of the creative control. We don’t want to tell you what to do; you tell us what to do.” I didn’t think he was serious! I didn’t actually call him back the first time he gave me his card because it didn’t sound like a real thing to me. It sounded too good to be true, but it wasn’t! Luckily, I saw him again out there a couple of weeks later and he gave me his card again, and we met, and it was the real thing. Now I have a record and I’m opening for Poco. That’s crazy!
RA: Your experience with a major label deal almost drove you from your passion. That was Interscope Records, which is crazy, because I remember when they first started, and how they were known as the artist-friendly label, so apparently something changed over time, and I’m glad that you were able to get away!
CW: Thank you! That was an odd situation. They definitely (I think) were looking for a specific kind of artist when they signed me, but I wasn’t aware of that [chuckles] so it didn’t end up working out.
RA: Listening to the album, the autobiographical nature of the lyrics is readily evident. Do you find that to be cathartic?
CW: It’s a mixture of freeing and terrifying. The writing process can be very freeing when I see everything on the page, finished. The process of going through that can be very therapeutic. Then, when I’m basically singing journal entries into a microphone in front of a hundred people, that part can be terrifying at first, but that is also very cathartic, you know?
RA: The song “Fool’s Gold” was written about your experience with Interscope. What advice would you have for young artists who are approached by the majors? What would you tell them to keep their antennae up for?
CW: It’s important to know who you are, and that the label understands who you are, which seems simple. Even if you don’t have creative control—because a lot of times, with the major labels, you won’t—if they understand who you are and are not trying to turn you into something else, I think that’s a very basic (thing); it seems obvious, but I think a lot of times, it can be misunderstood.
RA: At one point, you were considering becoming a geologist. Were you an Earth Science kid at school?
CW: Actually, I got into geology a little bit later in life. It was after my deal with Interscope, and I was kind of reassessing whether I wanted to be a professional musician or whether I should just do it for fun. At that point, I felt like all the fun had gotten sucked out of it. I feel like that’s a really important state to hold on to as an artist. It needs to be fun! So I ended up going back to school and studying a bit of geology and I was doing that when I met Kirk. And hey, someday maybe I will go back and study to be a geologist, but right now I’m very happy that I’m just doing the music thing.
RA: As are your fans! Regarding your musical influences, from your Mom you got Carole King, Todd Rundgren, and James Taylor. Was Bob Dylan a self-discovery?
CW: Yeah, Dylan was a self-discovery for me. I had some musician friends and we would listen to Dylan records together. My Mom, as a vocal coach, was not a huge fan of Bob Dylan, but she put up with me listening to him in the house! [Laughs]
RA: Among the other influences you’ve cited are Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, and Elliot Smith, which is really interesting to me. The first time I heard “Anything Worth Saving”—which, by the way, was my introduction to your music—I kept telling myself, “I can hear her singing this with Elliot Smith.”
CW: Oh, wow— that’s a huge compliment—thank you! I absolutely love Elliot Smith and his craftsmanship as a songwriter. The production styles of the recordings he made are just fantastic. I’ve been very heavily influenced by that.
RA: What drew you to Radiohead?
CW: Up until I started listening to Radiohead and bands like The Pixies, I had been listening to mostly folk music; either acoustic singer/songwriters like Sheryl Crow or old-school stuff, like Patsy Cline. Then I was introduced to Radiohead and The Pixies and something sparked within me. I guess I was going through high school and that sort of angst-y emotion that needed to get out, which I was able to get out by listening to (those bands).
RA: How did you meet Ross Garren, your collaborative partner in the studio?
CW: Oh, that’s a funny story! We were on tour, and I actually met him at a park and ride in Ontario, California. We were going on tour with a country band and I was singing and he was playing harmonica in the band. We ended up spending five days together on a tour bus and becoming great friends and producing a record together! [Laughs]
RA: For the songwriting/demo phase, you chose to stay in a remote area with no outside distractions such as wifi or cable, then brought everything back to L.A. How did everything come together in the studio?
CW: We did production demos before we got all the musicians into the studio and had the pressure of “Okay, well, we gotta get this done by 4:00!” We did production demos with whatever sounds we could find on his sample library, just to get a general idea of what the sounds we wanted were, and then we ended up calling the musicians and all pulling up to a studio in Burbank called Heritage Recording Company. It’s a really cool spot. It’s small but he’s got a bunch of vintage gear, he’s got a nice vintage board, and mics and stuff. We recorded the bulk of the record there, when Ross and I got back to L.A.
RA: How long did the sessions take?
CW: I think we got everything in two weeks; it was two weeks spread out over a little bit of time. We did three days of bass, drums, and guitar; I did two vocal days, then we did overdubs of strings and all this other stuff—horns, all kinds of musicians coming in and out!
RA: What has kept you focused on and committed to the organic process regarding instrumentation and recording techniques?
CW: I’ve always made my living performing live, (so) I think that’s a big part of it. I never want to put anything on a record that I couldn’t reproduce live. That’s always been very important to me. Now, when I go on tour, will I have a string section and horns? Probably not, but I could recreate that live!
RA: I spoke with Rusty Young yesterday and learned that you recorded a version of “Rose of Cimarron” with him.
CW: Yeah, we recorded it at Cash Cabin, in Hendersonville, outside of Nashville, Tennessee. It was so much fun! It was exciting to go there with the purpose of recording with Rusty; it was really kind of mind-boggling! [Laughs]
RA: How did you cross paths with Rusty?
CW: I met him at Blue Élan event. We were both on the same night; it was a little press event that Kirk had put together at his place. We saw each other perform. I was blown away, and he apparently was impressed and called me up to record with them!
RA; The official CD release has taken place. What are your plans for the coming months?
CW: I’m pretty much going to be on the road for September and October. I’m going to be opening for Poco in New York on September 13th and I just found out I’m playing at the Bitter End on the 11th, which I’m so excited about—that’s a bucket list thing for me! I’ll be playing Nashville, Ohio, Tennessee; going all over for the next two months.
RA: Has your Mom attended any of the CD release parties?
CW: Not yet, but I’m hoping she’ll come to the official CD release party on August 29th. I’m trying to get her to come to that one! [Laughs]
RA: With all of this activity, do you still find time to go back and play at the Promenade?
CW: I do! I’d like to think that I always will. I grew up there; it’s kind of like my home. It feels like my hometown.
© Roy Abrams 2017