Musical stalwart Keller Williams has been working steadily since his 1994 debut, Freek. In addition to putting out a children’s album and various solo releases, he’s collaborated with Bob Weir, Michael Franti and The String Cheese incident. His 17th album Bass, with his live reggae band Kdubalicious, blends funk, jazz,dub, pop and psychedelia. We asked Williams about his musical evolution, his writing process and his favorite tour memories.
There are no guitars used on Bass. Did this alter the way you approached writing?
It actually didn’t. All the songs on Bass were written on guitar. My guitar style revolves around the bass lines, so it was an easy transition – especially with two less strings to deal with and tune!
You’ve covered a lot of musical ground during your recording career, from a children’s album to a bluegrass covers album. What inspired you to write a reggae-funk record?
We definitely didn’t set out to make a reggae album. Jay Starling (keys) and Mark D (drums) are both in my favorite local Fredericksburg, Virginia reggae band called The Transmitters. They are very familiar with the different reggae styles and formulas. I’ve always loved the genre and the culture that surrounds it and it has crept into my style over the years. So while it wasn’t a deliberate intention – with these players and my style – the music just went there.
Any interesting real life stories behind the songs on the album?
The song “Super Hot” is pretty much as real life as it gets. That song is painfully true. “Thinking Out Loud” is a culmination of different psychedelic thoughts and visions that have occurred – such as leaves on trees becoming lion heads and roaring when the wind blows. That happened at the Oregon Country Fair about 10 years ago. I’ve been waiting patiently for a song where it that experience could be shared.
Who are some artists that inspired you to start writing?
Michael Hedges, Jerry Garcia, Victor Wooten, Bob Weir, Robert Hunter, John Barlow, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Ani DiFranco, Martin Sexton, and Danny Barnes.
What was the last song you wrote? Tell us about it.
I just did a live score of a Buster Keaton short movie called “One Week” for the New York Guitar Festival, so everything I’ve been writing lately is instrumental. The last song I made up with words is called “Bumper Sticker” (copyright 2011 Basil Leaf Music ASCAP). I was doing 3 shows with The Travelin’ McCourys. The show rolled like this: I did a solo loopless set with just a guitar and vocal mic. No electronics. Old school. Then The Del McCoury band would do their 100 minute set. Then the Travlin’ McCourys and I would play for an hour. Basically, it’s Del’s band without Del, and with a guest guitarist. Me. I was on a plane in between shows just buzzing with excitement and started thinking about my love for bluegrass music. It was representing simplicity, and I was truly enjoying the weekend. I opened my little book with hotel pen in hand and wrote the first thing that came to mind, which became the chorus. “Its hard to mow my lawn when my grass is blue.” I got “my grass is blue” from a bumper sticker.
What’s a song on Bass you really want people to hear, and why?
“I am Elvis.” That song has been in live setlist rotation for a while. This is the first time it’s been recorded. In a studio, that is. It was written as a mellow finger-picker kind of folk song. It turned into a soca/reggae thing once we started playing it in the keyboard trio. Now, solo, it’s turned into a bluegrass song. Singing the words in the same tempo but double timing the music. I have always liked this song more than my others. I don’t know why but this would be the song I want people to hear before any other song. Maybe I just enjoy playing it the most.
What’s a lyric you’re particularly proud of on the album?
I rise above and hover over realizing that I’m sober Drive like hell just like a loeber Twist and turn just like a cobra In a basket with the charmer Safe inside my shiny armor Rise above as music plays Appreciate the speaker plays I’m thinking out loud.
Are there any words you love or hate?
I love the word fuck and I hate the word cancelled.
How do you typically write songs? Words first, or melody?
I typically write the hook first. The chorus. Then come up with a concept from that.
Do you find yourself revising a lot, or do you like to write automatically?
Revising is good and done often. However, I get into stream of consciousness tangents that end up being interesting – at least interesting to me and my never ending quest to entertain myself.
Who’s an underrated songwriter, in your opinion?
Nathan Moore, Danny Barnes and Tim Bluhm should all be rich and famous from the sheer quality of their songwriting. Todd Snider and Mike Doughty should be household names and studied long after they are gone.
What’s a song you wish you’d written, and why?
I wish I wrote “Happy Birthday.” Everybody knows it and it will live forever.