By Steven M. Housman
The Real Deal
Songbird Cris Williamson Has A New CD & A New Tour!
I could write a short novel on my wonderful in-depth conversation with the extraordinarily talented Cris Williamson. This is a woman who has been labeled a pioneer of the women’s movement and has lived a very full life so far, and from what I gathered from our conversation, there’s plenty more to come. This gifted singer/songwriter is currently on tour promoting the 30th anniversary of her critically acclaimed album, The Changer And The Changed. This album still holds the record for the most copies sold by an independent artist on an independent label. Two months ago, in between her hectic touring, she stopped off in Palm Springs to perform her magic for a very fortunate audience during Dinah Shore weekend. After listening to several of her albums, it’s no wonder that she continues to sell out concerts everywhere she goes, most notably, three sellouts over the years at New York’s famed Carnegie Hall. I suppose I could keep boasting about her talent, but her close longtime friend, Bonnie Raitt, summed it up perfectly when she said, “The first time I heard Cris’ music, it was like hearing honey dripped on a cello… Cris has been a whole lot of women’s heroes including mine.” After this interview, and most definitely after hearing Cris perform, Ms. Raitt’s accolades almost sound underrated. It’s no wonder her latest CD is titled The Real Deal. Her words are direct, her praises for others is genuine, and her heart is as big as the Wyoming sky she was raised in.
You’ve been called a pioneer of the woman’s singer/songwriter era. How do you feel about that label?
First of all, I didn’t mean to be a pioneer. It’s just one of those fortuitous incidents in time. Timing is important in life and my timing was very good as far as that was concerned.
Did you go the usual route of seeking a record contract from a major label before becoming a co-founder of Olivia Records?
I had a lot of material, I had a major label, and then I met these lesbian feminists in Washington, D.C., and almost in an offhand manner in an interview they had decided to start a women’s recording company. And they did the very next day. That in itself was pretty radical. I wasn’t really a member of what was to become Olivia Records but I was a recording artist for them, and my album, The Changer and the Changed, which was their second album, became and still holds the title of the largest-selling independent women’s music album.
Where does the name Olivia come from?
It came from a lesbian novel that Meg Christian was reading at the time and they had to hurry up and come up with a name for the label and that’s what came up! It’s actually really simple. (Laughing)
When you are performing live, what songs are your favorites to perform?
It’s tough for me to pick, because the one that I love the most is the one on the tip of my tongue that has yet to be written. That would be my favorite. But I love every one of my songs. There isn’t a moment wasted on any of them. I remember when I only had one album of songs to choose from.
Can you believe you already have close to thirty albums?
That’s right, and it’s a great discovery for people. It’s a great body of work and I’m not done.
You sound as good as you did thirty years ago. As a matter of fact, I think your voice has even improved.
I think so, too. I’ve lost some of the top and I really notice it with my latest shows because those songs were written in my twenties and I had a bit more of the top range. Perhaps it interested me more then. It doesn’t interest me as much as it used to. You’ll notice, with most singers, their voices naturally descend with age.
Have you performed at Dinah Shore weekend before? If so, how is it different from performing the typical venues?
I have once, and the whole atmosphere is very different. It’s funny, I was just thinking yesterday, ‘What happened to Dinah and where is she in this?’ (Laughs). I just adored watching her every week on her show. I remember her as a big band singer. I studied that. They were my teachers. I was thinking yesterday that part of what I really love about doing our show there, in the midst of all this hullabaloo, is that I want to add the element of music where you sit and you listen and the party is internal. In this case, because we’re bringing the music of The Changer and the Changed music that’s thirty years old. It’s as though thirty years ago I put a honing device on people and I’ve activated it this year, and when they see “The Changer” show coming, they come in droves. I really feel this show brings a kind of sensibility to Palm Springs, and the party atmosphere is there. Why wouldn’t some people want something slightly different from everything else that’s being offered on the table? We just want to be one more thing on the banquet table, one more item that will perhaps go a little more directly to the heart.
I know that you are longtime friends with Bonnie Raitt. Is it true that Etta James is also a very big influence in your life?
Well, I knew about Etta, but my partner, Judy, has worked with Etta for years, and when I met her, we hit it off in the most natural, beautiful way. She’s got one of those voices that I’ve always admired. It’s unmistakable! So when you meet legends and you’re considered in your small pond to be one yourself when you meet someone of that stature, also Bonnie, who’s a legend it’s beautiful. So I’m among living legends. I’m in good company.
What other artists have influenced and fascinated you from your early years to the present?
Ella Fitzgerald is #1! When I was a young girl, probably fifth or sixth grade, I just heard her on a wind-up Victrola that we had in the mountains because we didn’t have any electricity where I grew up in Wyoming. Good ol’ Brokeback Mountain! I grew up in the location where that took place. We were very poor, but I grew up in paradise where there were no people, so I didn’t know we were poor. As far as Ella goes, I didn’t know she was a woman of color, the voice was that of a young girl. Even until the very end of her life, she had a youthful quality in her voice a lot of air and a lot of light and flexibility. You hear lots of singers now who have a lot of flexibility and they can hit every note, but it’s kind of a way to show off. It bores me, frankly. I’ve heard Ella, when she would scat, which I don’t like in anybody else, except Mel Torme. There’s Frank Sinatra for phrasing, and Jo Stafford for perfect pitch. Then we get into the rock and roll years and we’ve got the Rolling Stones, the Beatles. Then the pop years with Neil Sedaka and Carole King; the Brill Building legends and the stuff they wrote… It was great stuff! Then we get into the folk years with Dylan and Joan Baez and Judy Collins and Joni Mitchell, and by the time I got to Joni Mitchell, I almost threw my hands in the air and said ‘I cannot compete, this is genius!’
What did you discover first, your gift as a vocalist or your wonderful songwriting abilities?
Oh, definitely a vocalist. I didn’t write until I was sixteen. It was a little folk song. It’s on one of my early, early albums. I made three albums from the time I was sixteen to the time I was eighteen. I was in a town of 11,000 people and I made albums. Nobody in my town was surprised by that. When I was in seventh grade, my vibrato showed up and people would come up and look at my throat (laughs) and would say “Where’d you get that?” I was in a choir. You do everything you do in a small town. I sang at weddings and funerals. Lions Club meetings, now that’s a real riveting experience!
Besides The Changer and the Changed, are there any particular albums that you consider your finest accomplishments?
I think Ashes was a breakthrough for me because my relationship of 20 years had just broken up in a jagged way, and what was amazing to me was that all the while my heart was breaking. But it broke open and I discovered the difference between what I would call ordinary heartbreak and profound heartbreak. With profound heartbreak, the heart breaks open and inside is this ruby jewel that’s about your place in the world and welcome to the world, as it really is, where you fall to earth, and you crawl around and eat broken glass for about a year and then finally you stand up, and you put a handprint on the wall of the cave as you leave for somebody else that will be in there. When I wrote those songs on Ashes, I was amazed every time because they were pouring out of me into an empty well that would be filled with tears, and my skills as a songwriter were right there where I was actually struck dumb by how tragic it all was.
You felt a profound change with Ashes how do you feel now?
I’m way on the other side of that journey now. What’s amazing is that you can spin beauty out of tragedy. Every artist knows this. That’s why sad songs are easier to write. Those songs were sad, but they were also big. With a few exceptions, I avoided talking about anybody else in the situation, just what I was going through. That’s all you should really talk about in those cases. Instead of pointing a finger or trying to exact blame or shift your fans to your side.
I imagine that it must’ve been more difficult since you’re more of a public figure than your average friend or neighbor. Is that accurate?
Yes, because it was very public. But I ceased control of it right away and I took it right onstage. Though it might have been uncomfortable for people, I was forced into a bare lightbulb of truth, and everything was so clear to me. The light is incredibly clear in those times because it really is one breath in and one breath out, and one foot in front of the other. It connects you to all human beings it’s the common ground of heartbreak. That’s why there are so many sad songs. Now when people come up to me and say “I was so sad and you saved my life,” it’s not as if they said ‘you have a pretty voice.’ They said, “You saved my life and I was in a dark place.” That means more to me than anything. As a young girl, did I aim myself at any of this, only in the sense that I always wanted to make a difference? I think I have, and in that sense, I’m a very successful person.
What do you prefer touring or recording?
I prefer touring. I’m a live artist and I approach the studio as a live artist. I go in and I do it in one take. I would council any young artist to pay attention to the “old school.” Sing it as if your life depended on it, and do it right.
What are your plans for the future as far as touring and recording?
The next one is in Phoenix, and then we go to Albuquerque, then Boulder. We usually do it on weekends because we can get Vicki Randle that way. Vicki is the percussionist and singer on The Tonight Show. I’ve known her since she was 19, and she just has the voice of an angel. As far as recording, I don’t know yet. “The Changer Show” is taking up all of our energy and time now. It’s a major show, and everywhere we go each one has to be designed for the community. My girlfriend is just working like a dog to make all of this come together.
Is Judy (her management) your girlfriend?
She’s been my friend for over thirty years, and we became girlfriends and it’s really nice. She’s just brilliant and marketing is her bag. She’s changed my life.
You sound happy.
I am happy, and you would’ve noticed if I wasn’t. I’m just driving my life. Thanks for everything, and thanks for noticing so much.This interview first appeared in The BottomLine Magazine in Palm Springs, California.
© 2006 Steven M. Housman. All Rights Reserved.