Brooks Williams conceives ‘Baby O!,’ his 17th record, in England
Former Northampton resident finds audience and inspiration in the UK
It’s a long way from Cambridge Mass to Cambridge, UK, but that is how far Brooks Williams traveled to give birth to Baby O!
Although it’s the first album he recorded there, Great Britain has been a second home of sorts to Williams for several years. “I’ve been touring in the UK since very early in my career,” he wrote in a recent email. “Over the years, I’ve consistently been inspired by the way UK audiences hear blues and American roots music. I don’t know any other way to say it, but that they get it. I feel like I discovered my voice in the UK because of this. My vision for this CD was to honor that fact.”
Williams also wanted to honor the British musicians he toured with when he was overseas — by bringing them into the studio, along with an empathic engineer. “Recording is recording, but I found the new setting inspiring primarily because I worked with a young, hip engineer named Andy Bell,” explained Williams. “He understood my music straight away and helped me flesh out how to make that work in the studio. So we used loads of mics — going for a very live and loud acoustic sound of my guitars, voice and my foot stomping on the floor. We kept everything pretty sparse and let the songs move as they wanted to move.”
The collaboration works particularly well on “Frank Delandry,” the alluring story-song that opens the album. I asked Williams about the inspiration. “Frank Delandry is an obscure New Orleans guitarist about whom very little is known except for the fact that he was reputed to be the greatest guitarist that ever lived. So great, in fact, that after his mysterious death, local guitarists got together to discuss whether or not they should bury their guitars with Delandry … he was that good, they say. But we have no way of knowing whether he was as fabulous as was reported or not because he was playing before recordings were being made.”
Two other Baby O! highlights are interpretations of undisputed blues greats. Son House’s song “Grinnin’ In Your Face” is sung a cappella, both by him and everyone I’ve ever heard cover it,” said Willliams. “The lyrics are what drew me to the song initially: The idea that we should not let other people’s pettiness bring us down and to remember that ‘there’s one thing to bear in mind, a good friend is hard to find.’ The timeless lyrics and great melody made me think of it as a hip hop song for some reason, and that inspired the groove-based guitar vibe and the jazzy chords I put around the melody.”
The native of Statesboro, Georgia has blues in his blood, and after covering a bevy of blues songs over the years finally got around to the gentle giant of the blues, Mississippi John Hurt. “His picking and singing are at once compelling and soothing, and I find myself going back to his songs again and again. “Louis Collins” has always been my favorite of his songs, primarily because it’s such a great story. And I’m a sucker for a narrative song anyway, so this was a natural choice.”
After 23 years of honing his craft — in particular his dexterous and tasteful guitar work (which Guitar Player magazine called “Stylistically rich, harmonically sophisticated, and breathtakingly beautiful”), Williams remains hungry to travel and play his brand of bluesy folk music for fans near and far.
“It feels like only yesterday that I was living in that one-room apartment in downtown Northampton trying to figure out how to book a few gigs. Sometimes I look at my guitar and think ‘whoa, look at the miles we’ve traveled and the places we’ve been.’ Then I look at the travel stickers on my guitar case and realize I’ve been to loads of places and yet I’m still looking forward to the next town, the next city, the next tour. That’s a cool thing because the touring and the recording — the making of this music — just keeps getting better and better. I’m very proud of that — the feeling that the best is just around the bend rather than in the rear-view mirror.”