A conversation with renowned singer-songwriter Holly Williams

She’s the daughter of Hank Williams, Jr. and the granddaughter of Hank Williams, Sr., but she is hardly pigeonholed by her lineage. Holly Williams is a critically acclaimed singer-songwriter who happens to live in Nashville, yes, but she also has a blog (The Afternoon Off), is a self-professed foodie, and owns H. Audrey (Elle magazine’s “top shop,” a boutique that stylists, locals, and celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow all frequent). Currently, Williams is touring the world, living the Kerouacian life in support of her latest release entitled, The Highway. AXS.com caught up with Holly for an early morning interview while she was in New York. The in-depth conversation focused on honesty in songwriting, her love of the road, and how threads of creativity intertwine throughout the various aspects of her life.

AXS.com: I think this is the earliest I’ve ever conducted an interview with a musician. Is this time really okay with you?

Holly Williams: Yeah, these early hours come from being a business owner, I guess. I’ve got a long day ahead of me in New York, so this is perfect!

AXS.com: Let’s jump right into it, then. The closer to autobiographical that most songwriters get, the more vague or veiled their lyrics become. However, there is such a wonderfully straightforward honesty in your writing. Is that something you have to work at, or does it come naturally to be so bold and open?

Holly: I’ve always loved simple lyrics like Tom Waits or Jackson Browne. I love the songs that play like little movies in your head. Obviously, sometimes you want to have something that’s a little mysterious if it fits the song, but for the types of songs I’m writing, it just makes sense for them to be pretty straightforward. That’s the part of Hank’s songwriting that I love so much, it’s my favorite thing about his music, my grandfather’s music. I love the simplicity in his lyrics.

AXS.com: The simplicity you’re talking about is in your focused approach to songwriting. Your lyrics are clear and very detailed. The songs are real to me, I can see them in my head and I feel the realness of them. Many artists would be terrified to be this honest in their writing.

Holly: Well, thank you, I appreciate that. It can be nerve-racking. There’s a song on the album called “Giving Up,” and it’s way too close to home. The song is about a family member who is a female and she doesn’t know it’s about her... but her kids do. People come up to me and say, “This song is the reason I stayed out of AA.” There are certain songs about things like that where I can’t really say who they are about, but I do always want to be real in my writing.

AXS.com: I think that’s why your songs hit people so strongly, they are obviously very personal, but they carry a universal message.

Holly: Thank you. That’s always the goal. The song, “Waiting on June,” is a very personal song about my grandparents, but many people come up to me and tell me, “That’s the story of my grandparents, too.” That’s what you want, you want something that people can relate to. Even if you’re telling a personal story, it still needs a universal feeling.

AXS.com: What surprised me the most about this release was finding out that the title track, the focus of the album, “The Highway,” actually wasn’t part of the original set of songs.

Holly: Initially, I only had nine songs on the album and it just felt kind of unfinished, I knew I had to say something else. I kept telling my producer, “I just don’t feel like it’s complete, there’s something that I’m missing, but I don’t know what it is.” One night, I literally was at a gas station filling up the car and that song, “The Highway,” it just came out of nowhere! I just started singing the chorus. I ran home and I wrote it. I told my husband, “Listen to this song! We gotta cut this song!” I was so excited about it! It ended up being one of the most popular songs on the record. And, it really is the story of the record, it’s why I miss the road so much and just how much it means to me to be on tour and playing these songs live.

AXS.com: From a listener’s perspective, the first time I heard it, it was already a classic. It’s your “Let It Be” or Hey Jude.”

Holly: You are very nice, thank you.

AXS.com: Besides doing music, you write a blog and run a store. Do you think the success and critical acclaim this album has received will make you refocus you’re life so there’s more music in it?

Holly: Well, I haven’t written a blog in maybe three months, and I’ve only written maybe four in the last year, so it definitely has cobwebs. But, I want to do it. This week alone, I’m visiting four cities and I’m a big foodie, so sometimes I just may want to write a paragraph on what I’ve discovered. It’s fun for me. It’s not just for other people to read, but it’s also for me to be able to look back and say, “Oh yeah, I remember that restaurant in Philly!” And with the store, at this point, I employ about a dozen people, so I can’t really just go and shut it down. I’ve got a responsibility there. Also, as a solo artist, it’s nice to sometimes be able to just walk away from music for a month or two and just fold jeans and be a retailer. Honestly, that boosts my creativity. If you’re in a band, you’re constantly being inspired by different people, but as a solo artist, it’s so easy to get stuck on your own planet and in your own world. With all these different aspects of my life, I definitely can feel pretty overwhelmed at times ... and now my husband and I are expecting in October, so that’s going to be—

AXS.com: Really?! You guys are expecting? Congratulations!

Holly: Thank you! But that is going to add another layer. However, I am getting better about delegating every single day.

AXS.com: I think creative people can see the whole world as a creative outlet. It doesn’t matter if your writing, blogging, or running a store, it’s all a creative endeavor.

Holly: Yeah.

AXS.com: But, is everything equally fulfilling for you?

Holly: It’s hard for me to say because when I’m on the road, I’m saying, “This is number one, this is number one, music is number one!” And, I do think music always is number one. But sometimes, when I’m off and I’m home with the dogs and cooking and going to stores, that feels really nice and quiet and calm because I’m not running to a new city every day. But it all intertwines. Last week, I found a couple lines for my store in Mobile, Alabama. I’ve found lines in upstate New York. And, I’ve found Cashmere lines in Germany! I literally go on tour and try to find the best of that city or find some local artists and I just bring what I find back to Nashville. So, it’s not really work in that I have to go out searching. Being a buyer is a part of being a songwriter. It all works together.

AXS.com: Just from looking at your websites, it’s obvious that you have a very keen awareness of great design and fashion.

Holly: Actually, I was going to be an interior designer. I remember my high school counselor saying, “Okay, it’s a nice dream and all, but it’s not a reality, so let’s focus on the next job.” [laughing] But honestly, when I’m off the road, I do freelance interior design. I just love being creative, whether it’s writing songs or choosing furniture, I love it all.

AXS.com: Is there anything you'd like to bring up in closing?

Holly: I was born on the same day as Jack Kerouac, so I guess that’s why I love being on the road. This tour is a little bittersweet because as soon as I have this baby, there’s no more of me getting in a Suburban and driving 12 hours ... I mean, I can do it in a bigger car with a nanny and a crib [laughing]. But, this tour’s been great! I love touring this way, no busses or planes, just three or four musicians in a van. I love 300 seat songwriter listening rooms. Every now and then, someone comes to a show and all they hear is “Hank’s daughter,” so they come, they drink a lot and they expect to party. Meanwhile, I’m like, “Here’s a Jackson Browne song.” But I’m loving what I’m doing, and I am very blessed to have the response I’ve had to this album.

On Friday, May 30, Holly Williams will be in Philadelphia performing a special upstairs concert event at 8 p.m. (doors at 7 p.m.) at the prestigious World Cafe Live. Following is the current list of Holly’s 2014 summer tour dates:

May 29, 2014, Washington, DC, The Hamilton
May 30, 2014, Philadelphia, PA, World Café Live
May 31, 2014, Chesterfield, VA, Ragtime Carnival at Pocahontas State Park
June 07, 2014, Memphis, TN, Moon River Music Festival
June 13, 2014, Mill Valley, CA, Sweetwater Music Hall
June 15, 2014, San Luis Obispo, CA, Live Oak Music Festival
June 23, 2014, London, United Kingdom, Kings Place
June 24, 2014, Birmingham, United Kingdom, Glee Club
June 25, 2014, Manchester, United Kingdom, Ruby Lounge
June 26, 2014, Bishopston, United Kingdom, St. Bonaventure's
June 27, 2014, Glastonbury, United Kingdom, Glastonbury Festival
June 29, 2014, Nottingham, United Kingdom, The Glee Club
July 01, 2014, Dublin, Ireland, Whelans
July 02, 2014, Glasgow, United Kingdom, St Andrew's In The Square
July 03, 2014, Gateshead, United Kingdom, The Sage
July 05, 2014, Easton, United Kingdom, Maverick Festival
July 11, 2014, Houston, TX, Mucky Duck
July 12, 2014, New Braunfels, TX, Gruene Hall w/ Dale Watson
July 13, 2014, Dallas, TX, The Kessler Theater
July 17, 2014, Telluride, CO, Telluride Americana Music Fest at the Sheridan Opera House
July 18, 2014, Denver, CO, Soiled Dove Underground
July 20, 2014, St. Helena, CA, Long Meadow Ranch Winery & Farmstead
July 25, 2014, White Sulphur Springs, MT, Red Ants Pants Festival
July 26, 2014, Bozeman, MT, Live From The Divide
July 31, 2014, Duluth, GA, Eddie Owen Presents at the RCT

For more information on Holly Williams, visit her at www.hollywilliams.com.