For Santa Monica singer-songwriter Chelsea Williams, music is a dialogue with the listener
By Bliss Bowen
As a child growing up in Sun Valley, Chelsea Williams would fall asleep listening to her songwriter mom jam with friends in the living room. It wasn’t a surprise when she started joining their circle.
After graduating from high school, frustrated with a “really unrewarding” telemarketing job, Williams decided to earn rent money doing what she loves: making music. Coffeeshop gigs weren’t paying anything, so she started busking at the Glendale Marketplace. Before long she was setting up with her acoustic guitar and amp on Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade; she estimates she’s been performing there for 10 to 12 years.
“I refer to it as my unofficial agent,” she says of the promenade, “because it’s been responsible for connecting me with all kinds of people. I’ve been through all these different highs and lows through my career, but the promenade has been a constant for me — playing on the street, anyway.”
Williams made the rounds of Hollywood clubs like the now-gone Knitting Factory and Room 5, but didn’t always enjoy playing in those venues, especially since it often ended up costing her money to do so. She felt more fulfilled playing on the street for people who weren’t necessarily expecting to hear live music, and figuring out creative ways to reach them emotionally.
“It feels more like a direct conversation between you and an individual when you’re playing on the street,” she observes. “You take away the barrier of the stage and the lights. There’s this unspoken rule in a club where the audience and the performer are like two separate locations, almost, even though you’re in the same room; there’s that invisible fourth wall. But when you’re just playing on the street it becomes more of a conversation, and I feel like the connection’s deeper. Just being able to meet somebody that I was never going to meet before who had no intention of going to a live show that day, and make them stop and listen, and then hand them a CD personally and have that unique personal interaction. …
“Also, for me, it’s sort of a response to the whole explosion of social media and how that seems to connect you to people — and it does, it’s an amazing tool. But at the same time you’re connected you’re separated also; you’re not looking at the person’s face, you’re not having a direct conversation with them.”
By the time Blue Elan Records President Kirk Pasich happened upon Williams on the promenade a couple of years ago, she had self-released three albums (her self-titled 2007 debut, 2008’s “Decoration Aisle” and 2012’s “The Earth & the Sea”) that reflected her songwriter influences (Bob Dylan, Carole King, Elliott Smith). She had also disentangled herself from a disappointing dance with Interscope. Drawn in by Williams’ expressive warmth and insightful writing, Pasich signed her. In August Blue Elan released “Boomerang,” a polished, ear-friendly production that balances winsome sweetness (“Anything Worth Saving,” “Fool’s Gold”) with darker introspection (“Out of Sight, Out of Mind”).
Now, after a year of performing in listening rooms and theatres where audiences are showing up to hear her solo or to open for Blue Elan labelmates like Rusty Young and Poco or Jack Tempchin, for whom she opens at McCabe’s Guitar Shop on Sunday, Williams says she’s “really enjoying” performing in clubs. But she still busks when her touring schedule allows.
“It’s kind of like a meditation for me,” she explains. “I feel like I grew up there; it feels like home, and there’s something comforting about going out there and playing. I think it’s something I’ll always do.”
She’s recorded a song with Young that will be released next year and plans to promote “Boomerang” with more shows in January. She’d like to take a break from the “whirlwind” of the last few months and try a different approach to her next album.
“I think I’m going to take a couple weeks to just settle down, maybe actually busk a little bit and write,” she says. “I’d really like to take a month off and go somewhere and write the next record. I’ve never actually written a record as a full piece of work; I’ve always put the record together from songs I’d already written. I’ve never sat down and said, ‘I’m going to write a record,’ y’know? I’m hoping for the next record to do something more like that.”
Chelsea Williams opens for Jack Tempchin at McCabe’s Guitar Shop (3101 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica) at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 26. Tickets are $25. Call (310) 828-4497 or visit chelseawilliams.com.