There are names you might expect to read in a review of Jess Williamson's Native State: Karen Dalton, Joanna Newsome, Devendra Banhart. But Pitchfork's Lindsay Zoladz struck mighty close to the source when she compared Williamson's voice to that of a coyote. Though it was clearly intended as an accolade, it's not hard to imagine a less hardy songwriter upset by the statement. Not Williamson. The native Texan didn't mind it one bit.
"I took the coyote comparison as a huge compliment," she says. "I liked that."
There's a distinct sense of the Southwest in Williamson's work. Though she spent recent years in New York, where she worked as a professional photographer, the songs of Native State were inspired by her return to Texas. The album title is more literal than one might suspect.
"All of the songs on Native State were written after I moved back to Austin from New York," Williamson says. "That is partially where the title of the record comes from; I wrote all the songs after I returned to my 'native state', which is Texas."
It's hard not to hear the desert in her songs, built on solid beds of guitar and banjo, with Williamson's distinctive mewl drifting over the top of her astral folk projections. But though she sings of shamans drinking salt water on "Medicine Wheel," ladies "moon-bathing by the river side" in "Spin the Wheel," and the futility of attempting to capture nature's majesty in "You Can Have Heaven on Earth," there are moments of bracing lyricism, too.
She confesses, "Ain't it just like me to talk so ugly," she adds to "Medicine Wheel," while discounting the idyllic fantasies of the West Coast when she breaks the spell she casts in "Medicine Wheel:" "Forget what they told 'ya, it gets cold in California." But nothing is quite as brutal as album opener "Blood Song," where she sneers, "That's what I call fucking timing."
"I figured if people can sit through that one then the rest will come easy," Williamson says.
Despite the barbs, Native State is gorgeous. The album finds her well-paired with Phoenix roots explorers North Brother Island, with whom she'll share the Crescent Ballroom stage on Tuesday, February 18. After playing the downtown hub, she's scheduled to perform at Arcosanti, the arts community established by the late Paolo Soleri.
"I have not been there," she says. "Shane [Renfro], the singer and songwriter for RF Shannon, the band I am touring with, lived and worked at Arcosanti in the summer of 2011. He set the show up for us. I am very excited to go!"
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