A fresh look at a deep collection: Guitarist and songwriter Brooks Williams revises old songs on new album

  • Voted one of the top 100 acoustic guitarists in the world, Brooks Williams has long been adept at fingerpicking, slide guitar and great rhythmic playing with a flatpick. Photo by Ira Hantz

  • Voted one of the top 100 acoustic guitarists in the world, Brooks Williams has long been adept at fingerpicking, slide guitar and great rhythmic playing with a flatpick. Photo by Ira Hantz

  • Brooks Williams has now been mining his claim to the rich traditions of blues, folk and Americana music for 30 years; he sums up some of that journey on his new album.

  • Williams says he approached the re-recording of some of his old songs as if “I was creating a cover version” of something another person might have written. Photo courtesy of Deb and Ian Tilley

Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Fans of rootsy singer-songwriter and guitarist Brooks Williams know he’s never been to one to rest on his laurels. His live shows are memorable not just for his standout guitar playing and confident vocals but for his regular reinterpretation of some of his older songs — and for the obvious pleasure he gets from performing.

The one-time Valley resident, who moved to England about 10 years ago, was due to play at The Parlor Room in Northampton March 19. Like the club’s other late March shows, Williams’ concert was canceled due to the COVID-19 outbreak. But fans can still pick up his new album, “Work My Claim,” which marks his 30th year of touring.

“Work My Claim” seems an apt title for the album: It offers a retrospective look at Williams’ long career while also showcasing both the way he reworks his material and mines the rich traditions of blues, folk, jazz and other genres to come up with a sound and style all his own.

On the new album, which includes 12 songs on CD and four additional tracks available as a download, Williams has reached back in some cases for tunes he recorded almost 30 years ago; most have been retooled stylistically, sometimes with revised lyrics and different backing instruments.

Not all the songs go back that far. A couple, including “Whatever It Takes” and “Here Comes the Blues,” were featured on his previous studio album, 2018’s “Lucky Star.” But both are reworked on the new record, especially “Whatever It Takes,” which has been transformed from a slow, soul-flavored number to a jump blues, with bright piano chords, backing vocals and tautly strummed acoustic guitar.

In an email interview, Williams, who lives in Cambridge, England but tours regularly in the U.S., explained that to re-record past songs, they “still had to ‘speak’ to me” and feel like “they had some fresh life in them.” And in some cases, he’d previously written different melodies and rhythms for the same song and opted to try the different take.

“I have a weird songwriting process,” he said. “I write lyrics first. But then I write two or three completely different melodies to the same set of lyrics. It’s part of my process and helps me refine the lyrics. The version of ‘Whatever It Takes’ on ‘Work My Claim’ is the original version…. The version you hear on ‘Lucky Star’ is version two. It seemed to fit with the vibe of the recording session at the time.”

Williams also credits his public relations agent, Jared Ingersol, with getting him thinking about doing a 30th anniversary tour and recording. “I’m not one ... for looking back at my work, so it took a little convincing! I’m glad he persevered, gently but persistently.”

Among the cuts from early in his career (when he lived in Florence) on “Work My Claim” are “Inland Sailor,” from his 1994 album of the same name; “Mercy Illinois” from 1993’s “Back to Mercy”; and “You Don’t Know My Mind” from 1995’s “Knife Edge.” He says he pretty much had to go back and re-learn all these older songs.

“I am, to a fault, forward-looking and stubbornly positive that the best is yet to come,” he said. “So I tend to release an album, tour it, and move on. I’m trying to be better about that and include some older material for the fans. ‘Work My Claim’ has helped me a lot in this way.”

How it came together

The process of going back through his catalog — some 28 albums — to find material to re-record was a long but ultimately enjoyable one, he notes. Part of the winnowing process involved deciding which songs felt “like they were still a part of my DNA,” he added, and recognizing which ones “are of a time and place,” best left “in their original airing.” Also omitted were any of his guitar instrumentals, some of which were previously collected on his 2000 album “Little Lion.”

Williams also sought input from his fans, telling them in an email blast and through social media about the project and asking them what they’d like to see. One overwhelming choice was “King of California,” his cover of a David Alvin song that he’s been playing since about 2011 and had recorded on his 2013 album, “New Everything.”

The new version offers punchier guitar — much like that from Williams’ live performances of “King of California” — and some haunting fiddle (and penny whistle) played by John McCusker, who had just returned from touring with Mark Knopfler. Also heard on the song is mandolin by Williams’ old pal Jim Henry, the Shutesbury multi-instrumentalist, who, recording remotely, added mandolin and backing vocals to a number of other tracks on “Work My Claim.”

In addition, the album features work by singer Christine Collister, pianist Phil Richardson, and fiddle player Aaron Catlow, all from England.

“[E]veryone made a Herculean effort and took time out to give my recording their A-list chops,” said Williams. “I’m incredibly humbled by that. John McCusker was only home from the Mark Knopfler tour for two days in the whole of the spring and summer. One of those days he spent on my music. I’m forever grateful.”

Fans of Williams’ earlier albums will likely be intrigued with his new take on some of the older cuts. “Seven Sisters,” the lead cut from his 1997 album of the same name, here substitutes gentle fingerpicked guitar for the more driving rhythm of the original tune, while “Inland Sailor” does something of the opposite.

“Inland Sailor” was originally a more introspective cut, sung from the perspective of a young American singer-songwriter traveling by train across the British Isles for the first time. The new version offers revamped lyrics from the standpoint of an old sailor looking back on his past days at sea.

“When I reintroduced myself to my older songs, these changes happened organically,” said Williams. “And the truth is, the story of the sailor was much more interesting to me than the story of the young American songwriter staring out a window.

“It’s like when I decide to cover a song by another songwriter,” he added. “I look for myself in their work. Can I locate a truth in the narrative that is real to me? I approached these old songs the same way. I was creating a cover version of a song I wrote, but I treated it as if I didn’t write it.”

“Mercy Illinois,” originally a folky tune, has been given a more Americana, old-timey feel with fiddle and mandolin. The lyrics have also been revamped: They offer a narrative about the death of a small-town character whose house is then robbed while residents attend his funeral, with a chorus that notes that life often presents scenarios like this where “you don’t know if you should laugh or cry.”

Williams said the song garnered him a good amount of attention when it was first released, including an interview in Acoustic Guitar magazine. And looking back on the song today, he says, he’s struck by how it reminds him of his own bonds with so many other people: “I see more and more clearly how deeply connected we are in our community.”

There are other fine tracks to be found on “Work My Claim,” including a new version of his popular 2010 song “Frank Delandry.” Brooks Williams fans will want to get a copy of the album — especially given it’s uncertain when they’ll have a chance to see him live again — and the new CD also offers a nice introduction to people unfamiliar with his work. Time to get acquainted!

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

Brooks Williams’ website is brookswilliams.com.