About 10 minutes into an interview with Keller Williams, he busts out, mostly kidding, but vehemently exclaiming: “Analyze, man, analyze it. Dissect it. Tell me what it’s all about. I need guidance.”
I doubt Keller Williams needs much guidance. During our discussion, he’s sitting outside his home on a bank of Virginia’s Rappahannock River. Birds chirp in the background. At one point, his wife Emily interrupts and Williams comes back to the phone, excusing himself: “Kyle is here to work on my outdoor speakers.” Williams doesn’t sound like someone who’s spending much time trying to figure it all out.
Nor would he seem to have much reason. The 36-year-old released his 10th album since 1994 earlier this year, a span during which he estimates performing his solo acoustic guitar show roughly 200 times per year. The performances feature Williams layering his onstage recordings of vocal percussion, bass riffs and sometimes harmonies over live singing and guitar playing with the aid of a series of looping pedals. The result is a dense and dexterous cascade of sound, complex enough for seated listening but compulsively danceable.
Still, at the same time that Williams enjoys strong album and ticket sales, he downplays the quality of his output. He still reflects on a 2002 segment on National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition” with surprise.
“I really didn’t picture myself dealing with NPR. I thought it would be great to one day do it but I never thought my music—I still don’t think my music really has the meat to hold the attention of someone who just listens to NPR,” he says. “I’ve always considered my musicianship to come second to my love for music. Standing outside myself and listening to the music I create, there is so much other music out there that I love that I feel is so much stronger…I’ve gotta keep a hand on reality in the sense that my music could be better to me.”
Trying to get a more concrete idea of what Williams would like to improve is tricky. For instance, his latest album, Grass, is a departure from solo recording—the effort includes rare guests in flatpicker Larry Keel and his wife/bassist Jenny Keel—and Williams is quick to respond that he’d change nothing about the sessions.
“It is what it is,” he says. “It’s people sitting in a room with microphones making music that we love. I wouldn’t change anything about it.” Then he pauses a heartbeat and continues: “Maybe what I would change is that I would actually learn how to play the mandolin and play an actual mandolin instead of a small modified guitar to try to sound like a mandolin. That’s one thing I would change, I guess.”
The explanation tracks his earlier description, in which Williams’ love for music supersedes his musicianship: he first embraces the session as it happened in the moment but then steps back, critical of his musicianship rather than the music itself. The observation prompts Williams’ retort about analyzing; he’s good-natured but pointed, meaning to steer away from intellectualizing his music.
It’s not that Williams’ music isn’t amenable to analysis. He acknowledges a panoply of influences: Leo Kottke for his guitar virtuosity, bassist Victor Wooten for his innovative use of loops, Bobby McFerrin for his percussive vocals, the Grateful Dead for their emphasis on improvisation and two-set shows. The primary force shaping Williams’ musical choices, however, is internal and visceral.
“For a long time I was considered the singer-songwriter folk music type simply because there was just one microphone and one guitar and that’s just the genre you’re put in when that’s the instrumentation you have,” he says.” And then I just started to—I started to dance, and I started try to create more out of what I had. I was dancing, into the dance vibe, into the groove, wanting to create energy to circle around at a show where I was playing instead of just music and song. I wanted there to be energy.”
That’s where looping technology comes in. By making it possible to add a fat bottom and percussive tracks to his stage show, loops facilitate the energy Williams is after.
Playing loopless has its advantages, says Williams, it bolsters his musicianship by “forc[ing] me to be creative with less and that’s a really good thing.” But experimenting with the pedals makes it easier—and here Williams self-consciously adopts a Spicoliesque tone—“to dance, man.”
That preference for the overall experience over instrumental technique—for music over musicianship—makes Williams’ one-man jam go. So, though his motivation is hardly ineffable, what keeps him coming back seems to be the chance to dance with ineffability.
Keller Williams plays the UC Ballroom Friday, April 28, at 8 PM. $22. Tickets available at Ear Candy Music, Rockin Rudy’s and Rainbow’s End.