Karl S. Williams, musician

People tend to associate the blues with just that one 12-bar sound, but for me it’s more about the feeling. The blues is that thing that hits you in the soul …

Karl S. Williams is a curious enigma. Anyone who has been lucky to catch a live set from the legendary local blues man knows all too well that every performance is an outpouring of raw energy that seemingly comes from the depths of his soul leaving you emotionally and physically exhausted. Offstage, however, the softly spoken gent is humble and considered, a stark contrast to his onstage persona. In the same way, Karl S. Williams’ music covers the spectrum of soulful and intimate moments of introspection right through to all-out foot-stomping, banjo-strumming dance-floor fillers. The Weekend Edition Gold Coast caught up with Karl S. Williams to chat about his recent win at the Gold Coast Music Awards and well-spent weekends.

There is no phone reception at your house. Is that a lifestyle choice or something you discovered after moving there?
Well I do prefer to be out of town but it’s not necessarily to be out of phone range, that was something that just happened. Our last place was the same.

When did you first discover your musical abilities?
I was about 19, I stopped studying and I was at a bit of a loose end. I had a lot of spare time and for some reason I had this feeling that if I owned a guitar I’d be able to play it.

Did that prove to be the case?
I was terrible when I started but even then, I still felt like I could visualise what I wanted to do. I understood it I just had to get my body to work with the instrument.

Did you grow up listening to the blues?
I didn’t really grow up listening to the blues per say but it was always kind of there in its legacy through bands like Led Zeppelin, which was more like my growing-up music. I always had a fascination with African American traditions and particularly with the blues, I just never had a chance to explore that until I was a bit older. Following the influences back from Led Zeppelin you find yourself back at the blues very quickly.

How would you describe your style of music?
I call it the blues but it’s a tough one because people tend to associate the blues with just that one 12-bar sound, but for me it’s more about the feeling. The blues is that thing that hits you in the soul. Stylistically it’s more broad and I’m open to all things from Nina Simone to piano ballads, a bit of jazz influence all the way through to bluegrassy banjo-picking and everything in between.

What inspires you?
Everything, is the short answer! Constantly discovering new music, whether it’s music from a millennia ago right through to just now, there’s always someone finding a new way to be amazing with music and that’s a big influence. It can come from anywhere and life certainly provides its share of inspiration.

Congratulations on taking out Artist of the Year at the Gold Coast Music Awards recently. How did that feel?
Thank you very much. It was amazing! It really was an honour. I was saying to some friends of mine, any of the finalists and a whole number of people who weren’t finalists were all so deserving so to be the one was pretty amazing. It’s almost too much.

You’ve graced stage at BIGSOUND, Bluesfest and Woodford Folk Festival and toured with Busby Marou, Darren Middleton and Tex Perkins to name a few, what have been some of the highlights?
Tex Perkins was an early one for sure, that was kind of my first big support where I was touring with someone who I thought was like Australian music royalty, that was a real honour. Bluesfest earlier this year was a really big pinnacle for me.

You’ve been referred to as Australia’s answer to Jack White, how do you feel about the comparison?
Oh it’s flattering! Jack White is one of those few iconoclastic human beings out there in the world that just will go down in history so to be compared with him is very humbling. I don’t know if I can back that up.

Your live shows have developed a bit of a reputation for being fairly intense. For readers who haven’t had the pleasure yet, can you tell us what a live set from Karl S. Williams entails?
For me it’s all about trying to connect with people. The blues is a strange style of music that really gets people into a zone. I’ve heard that with choirs and audiences people’s heart beats actually sync-up and I think you can feel it when that happens. Lately I’ve been doing a duo thing with a drummer so it’s a bit more rock ‘n’ roll but we always try and bring it back to the absolute the core of music and end with a ballad that I sing acapella. It’s kind of like an exclamation point on the end that people tend to really respond to.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
I think to be honest, the best piece of advice I’ve received is when I first went to record something for all eternity and the engineer that I was working with basically looked at my songs and told me not to mess around with an EP, just go straight for the album and surprise people. That proved to be a very good piece of advice because that album Heartwood has served me very well and has really gotten me to where I am.

Are there any plans for a follow up album to Heartwood?
Absolutely. I’ve been working most of this year on writing and getting songs ready to go into the studio. It looks like I am going to be doing the album at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama. I’m really excited about it because Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett and a bunch of those early soul RnB cats recorded there so it’s right up my alley.

Any hints as to what listeners can expect from the new album?
I think sound-wise, it will be similar to Heartwood. I have a nice piano ballad that I am really proud of so that will be on there, probably with a big strings arrangement if I can wrangle the budget. And then being at Muscle Shoals, the home of RnB, I kind of want to incorporate a bit of that more upbeat kind of vibe. I guess the nearest kind of contemporary thing to compare it to might be Alabama Shakes.

What’s the dream?
My dreams have already been far exceeded. The fact that any person at all has purchased my album and liked it is amazing. Anything beyond that has been a real surprise, if anything my dream is just to be able to keep doing it full-time and to keep having people come to shows and be excited about the music.

Any words to live by?
Humility and gentleness, these two things seem to inform me and guide me in the right direction.

What are your essentials for a well-spent weekend?
Definitely my guitar Ida Belle and my banjo Betty Mae, you can’t go wrong if you’ve got those two in your company! A few vinyl to play and a bit of fresh air, nothing too extravagant.

You name your guitar and banjo?
Of course, every great guitar has a name. Mine are named after lady characters from Robert Johnson songs.

Only a Gold Coast local would know … my home suburb of Austinville, it’s kind of out in no man’s land.

FAVOURITE WEEKEND SPOT TO:
Perk up … 
The Millers Hands Espresso in Mudgeeraba, it’s my local.
Relax … 
The Soundlounge.
Indulge … 
Black Coffee Lyrics.
Dine …
 Slice Pizzeria in Burleigh Heads.
Be inspired…
The hinterland is where it’s at as far as inspiration goes.

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