Alan Williams: Sometimes You Need To Hit Pause for 25 Years

In 1995, Alan Williams wrote and recorded a heartfelt album of songs to process the loss of his record deal and the dissolution of his marriage.

When the album was randomly chosen for critique at a South by Southwest panel, the response was bad. Alan’s dreams were crushed. He put away his guitar and shelved the album.

Now 25 years later, Alan is finally releasing the album. Not much has changed about the album. But maybe there’s something about him that has changed?

In this episode, Alan and I chat about:

  • Why he lost all faith in the album (and in everything really) when his CD was chosen for critique at South by Southwest
  • Why he carries hundreds of CDs of his failed album with him to this day
  • How he fell into teaching at a university and realized he was meant to be a teacher
  • How the core of who we are might have be there all along and remain within us no matter how much we change
  • The closure he feels now that the album is finally out
  • If Alan was truly ready to release the album, even if the review at South by Southwest had been positive
  • Why it’s important to be in the moment, even if the moment appears very bleak

Transcript with Alan Williams:

Tim 0:00
Today I’m joined by Alan Williams. He’s a son, husband, singer, songwriter, leader of the band Bird Song At Morning, and also a professor and coordinator of music business at UMass Lowell. And you also have a PhD in oh my gosh, how do you pronounce that? ethno musicology?

Alan Williams 0:18
Well done.

Tim 0:18
I got it!

Alan Williams 0:20
Don’t ask me what it means.

Tim 0:22
Yeah, I had look up the Wikipedia entry. So 1993 you have a band, we’re going way back here Noughts and Crosses, gets a record deal, which arguably, I think is the goal, generally of any band.

Alan Williams 0:35
I feel like it certainly was back in that day.

Tim 0:37
Yeah, I guess it has changed. So you do it, you get the record deal. And then it sort of falls apart. You’re dropping the label. And then I don’t know if the universe just has it’s like 2020 of the universe is going crazy. The record deal falls through but then you also you end your marriage, which I feel like is two very large things happening at one time.

So you get some friends together, you head up to Maine and you decide to record this 12 track album called evidence to sort of imagine to process what was going on. You finish the album. And unfortunately, it doesn’t really get any steam behind it and use, quote unquote shelve it. And now it’s 20 2025 years later, and you said it’s time to release this album. It’s the obvious question to me, Alan, why 25 years later?

Alan Williams 1:32
And why not 125 years later.

Tim 1:34
Well, I suppose I was thinking, why not 10, 15?

Alan Williams 1:39
Yeah, you know, or the interim time period, I think. I mean, that’s a that’s a good lead in. Interestingly, the timeline is even more confusing than it might seem from what you just described because the lead singer from Knots and Crosses and I were married, we broke up and in the middle of making our second album and can continued with the band.

So I was sort of processing the demise of that relationship for a year and a half while I’m in putting out the second album, and then dealing with the sort of major label dialogue stuff. And we got signed to a major and that is definitely a whole other story. very entertaining. Lots of very interesting colorful characters, but at any rate, yeah, the label is sold to a big conglomerate.

And we are let go as part of the purge of acts that have not yet generated a million dollars for the company. And so we came to that sort of crossroads as a band of what do we do? We were booked to play the Newport Folk Festival, we had a lot of momentum that we should have and should have been able to take advantage of, but, but I think that the the relationship stuff, it just was like, Okay, if we’re at a crossroads, Now’s my time.

For now it’s all of our time to make the left and right turn And not plow forward. And, you know, it was a relatively amicable breakup of the band because I think we were all really tired and frustrated. At the same time in that band, they were two songwriters. I was the third songwriter, which means mostly they didn’t do my stuff. So I had a whole lot of creative energy. I was the producer of the band, but not the writer and wanting to put out like, it sort of felt like Okay, great.

Now this dumb band is out of the way I can really do my stuff. It’s very spinal tap. Yeah, we can do our rock opera. But that was the energy that propelled me forward. And I actually lived in Maine, and it was the band was sort of located in Portland, Maine, hand in Boston. So a lot of driving. And we Knots and Crosses had played several times in this Performing Arts Center in Portland and just loved the vibe on the stage and it was just like a small 300 500 seater kind of thing.

So I made an arrangement with the person would own the building to go there for five days and we set up and recorded as if we were playing a concert so his drums and guitars and his amps and their onstage and it’s, you know not so much the headphones more like monitors and just trying to get a sense of recording with field because Knots and Crosses, had always done a very labored layered kind of approach to how we recorded stuff and I wanted to see if I could rise to the challenge.

I knew immediately that I couldn’t so I knew right then again, these are not going to be keeper vocals. But there was this sort of great vibe amongst friends. It felt like a lot of folks that had been in Knots and Crosses to folks that had been with me all through days in the conservatory and even Greg Porter, the bass player. I knew from high school when we grew up in North Carolina, different parts of the state but still, he and I both came up to Boston together to go to school.

We were in bands together he is in Birdsong At Morning and he’s still playing music with me now. So there’s this really nice sense of a long, continuous thread of folks. And I kind of wanted to have fun making music because I think with Knots and Crosses, there was that sense of career focus, and this needs to count and this there’s a lot of pressure on each one of the recording sessions.

And, you know, you do a show and you’re not really into the vibe of the show, you’re sort of casing the room did the record exec comm or the press people here? You’re not really in the moment, and I desperately wanted to see if I could get in the moment. So the sessions for the record were really joyful and it had great positive energy. And then I went back and sort of worked on vocals and overdubs and stuff in my apartment and mixed the album, pressed the album so a whole bunch of CDs arrive and weird thing was so at that point or for like a year and a half.

And for that I got involved with a woman who’s now my wife, and Darlene Wilson, and she had been a fairly established producer in Boston. That’s actually how I met her. She did some Knots and Crosses demos in the, in the old days. And she had gone to Southwest, South by Southwest a few times with acts that she had been producing and had had success in getting deals and, you know, some some attention to them. And I think she was going to Austin for one of those sort of gigs.

And I said, hey, I’ll tag along and we’ll go, it’ll be great because it won’t be Boston in March, and it’ll be warm. It’ll be nice. And so we went, and I have these CDs, they just arrived. So like I’ll bring a few you never know. And South by Southwest did this thing where you could throw your CD in a box and they would gather together in a small little conference room, maybe 30 or 40 people and there’ll be a panel of listeners, and they would dip their hand in the box. And pull out three or four CDs and play a cut and then sort of critique it.

Tim 7:05
Were these just random people? Or were these like,

Alan Williams 7:08
Just random people.

Tim 7:08
Oh, wow.

Alan Williams 7:10
Well, the panel the panel were theoretically industry people, you know. And I’m not gonna name them, though their names are etched in my mind that they Yeah. So So obviously, I got my CD drawn out of the box. And it was this great like, Ooh, this is wonderful. And wow, they put I can see it, they pulled my CD out. This is going to be great because, you know, I feel really confident and and. And the response to it was interesting, because it wasn’t negative.

But it was this weird kind of negative response. And they were kind of going into the, yeah, it’s really, really good. Sounds great. I see Darlene Wilson’s name, so she must have had something to do with that and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. But you know, I just, it’s just Not and and they moved on. Now, nobody knew. I mean, nobody’s looking around at me going oh my god they hated your record because nobody knows totally blind I’m just sitting there but I am dying inside because it really is the first response anybody’s given to me about the record and it just.

I lost all faith in the whole project in that moment and and to be honest, kind of lost. It was a bit of an identity crisis, lost faith and everything. And so got back to Boston and I decided, that’s okay, I’ll give CDs to the people that played on it. And that helped pay for it. But that’s it. I’m not going to put this out in the world. And so I have 970 copies of this thing. That I to this very day, they’re back behind the wall behind me. They I love Come around with me everywhere I go, partly as a reminder of one, you know that sort of over ambitious, are you sure you’re ready?

Maybe you shouldn’t have made that record just yet. But also as kind of a reminder of the cost of doing that kind of project. Now, obviously, there’s the economic cost, but the longer term cost on your psyche, about when you put out something creative. You are hoping for a response. I mean, I think, probably in the Noughts and Crosses days, I was hoping for a million dollars in a big, you know, TV appearance, and I’d meet all the famous people and we’ve worked together and be great. I think now, even now, if I put out something, the response I’m looking for, it’s just that someone likes it.

That’s someone not because not because it’s going to feed my ego all that much or feed my pocketbook at all. But that actually someone enjoyed the experience of the music. And I wasn’t getting that or I certainly didn’t get it from the panel. And now when I look the CDs around, it’s just you know, be mindful about, about your creative output, you’re gonna risk something. And you put it out there, people may not respond, and are you prepared for that? I wasn’t at the time. And a large interim period, you know, I mean, 25 years is a long time.

Yeah. I mean, you mentioned that I’m a college professor. And so, you know, most of my students are younger than that. And I’m like, Alright, yeah, I’m, in fact, I’m going to do as part of promoting the release of the record. We’re going to do some webcasts. And so I’ve actually brought in the band is basically Greg Porter and myself, plus, all these former students that I think are really good players.

And it’s like, alright, you guys. So this record is older than half of you in the room right now. It’s, it’s kind of weird. We’re generally underscores that I’m even that much older than everybody in the room to think that the students you’re teaching are we’re not probably born when you recorded the album that’s a little bit kind of out of this world in a sense.

It is because and I actually started teaching within a couple of within a year or two of that record not coming out as part of a kind of a shift in my life. I, when the record didn’t come out, I put away the guitars. And I didn’t make a musical sound for many, many years. I certainly didn’t write any songs, I didn’t sing, I didn’t play I didn’t do anything. I became a recording engineer. So I was surrounded by other musicians, a lot of friends and, and it was rewarding in some ways, because you’re still part of that creative process.

But I would look at them as the people that did know what they were doing, and we’re real musicians. And even though I had been raised to think I was going to be a classical piano player from the age of six, I knew that was my destiny. And I went to a conservatory and had my first freakout when I realized no I wasn’t. And, you know, became a different kind of musician as a result, and that’s okay. But putting the music away completely and, and yet, you know, when you’re when you’re in the studio there would there would be those moments where it’s a sort of painful guy, I really wish I could touch that piano and play it.

Tim 12:25
It had to be hard to not express yourself. I mean, you’re helping these folks express themselves creatively and you’re in a way creatively expressing yourself, but I mean, it can’t feel the same as if you were producing your own music was that, like, did you have to hold yourself back? Or at the same time? Did that not encourage you to want to kind of, it seems to me like you, you shut off your creative outlet. And you said I’ll go help other people who have they’re still turned on, but I’m shutting mine off. During that process of helping the others though. Did it start to you start to feel yours want to be turned back on?

Alan Williams 13:03
It was the hardest in the beginning. And in the very beginning, it was not I wasn’t even hired, I would go to sessions that Darlene was producing that my friends were playing on. So we would all be hanging out around the table eating chocolate jokes, all this great stuff, really good energy. And then it’s like, Okay, it’s time to go to work and everybody but me would get up to go do something legitimate. And I’m just sitting there going, I guess I’ll clean up the table. I mean, I’m, I’m not any I’m not, I have no purpose in this place.

Then once I started doing sessions with other people, at least I had a reason to be there. And so it didn’t feel like and in fact, in some ways, when you’re an engineer, you’re the only engineer in the room. Everybody else is this musician. So But hey, no one else is going to come over and, you know, plug in the gear and tell you I’m doing it wrong. So there was a little bit of latitude and just sort of feeling comfortable in that. That could that was my realm.

Of course, I ended up working with all these musicians that were astoundingly good producers and engineers on their own. So there would be those moments. I was like, okay, Ben, just don’t come over here and see what I’m doing because you’re gonna think I’m doing it really badly. But then what happened was I fell into a teaching gig just as an adjunct one course at this University where I still teach. And as soon as I got in the classroom, and it was an amazing situation because I had a Bachelor’s I didn’t have an advanced degree at all.

But they were desperate because they designed this new course and had scheduled it and at the end had hired somebody and at the first class meeting, that person never showed up. So the chair of the department was in a complete panic started calling other faculty members Do you know anybody that can teach this thing and they offered it to Darlene and she said I’m in the milovanovic can’t do it. I’m sitting at home and this fax I don’t even know how old you are but axes are these machines were paper would spit up.

And this paper starts spewing out. And it’s a one page outline of this course. I was like, What is that? That’s really weird. But man, I could do this off the top of my head. And Darlene said, I can’t do it. She told the chair, talk to the talk to Alan. And I over the phone, they hired me. And in a day and a half, I was in the classroom. And all I had was this one page outline. So I made the course up, literally off the top of my head, and realized by maybe like the third class meeting that maybe I’ve been wrong all along that I was actually supposed to be a teacher. It felt,

Tim 15:38
Oh, interesting.

Alan Williams 15:40
I think music for me, it always been really compelling, but also a little bit conflicted. And the classroom just felt comfortable. People would ask questions, and then my response was, wow, that’s a great question. And I would have a half answer like I would know enough information to give them some of what they’re asking about, but also be comfortable enough to admit.

And that’s the limit of what I know, let’s keep talking about Does anybody else have ideas and it’s, it’s actually a great way to be a teacher to not know what you’re doing. And that was really rewarding. And so for a couple of years, I was doing engineering gigs and working with some singer songwriters putting their bands together. And teaching. And then the chair said, you know, I’d love to bring you on to do more teaching, your evaluations are really strong, and but I can’t hire you without an advanced degree, you really need to have a Master’s.

And frankly, it should be the PhD. So I said, Well, I can’t afford to go to school, and I don’t know anything about anything anyway. So that’s just out the window. And then people would would, would tell me, no, actually, there are some areas that you might want to explore and that you might get in and they also suggested, look for the weird, obscure programs, because sometimes they’re desperate force and it might be easier to get in.

So I I thought okay, well, what’s this ethnomusicology thing? I kind of have a rough idea of what I think that means I was kind of not right in my assumptions, but enough to say, maybe that could work. And as part of the application process, they said, you know, submit your scholarly writings, why didn’t have any scholarly writings. But what I did have was this giant listening guide that I’d written for one of my courses. So I submitted that. And I think that they realized that they had a unique applicant, not necessarily a qualified applicant.

Yeah, I stood out a little bit. So I ended up getting in to school at a university in Providence, Rhode Island, so I was so nervous that I decided not to move there as like, I probably isn’t going to work. They’re probably going to kick me out after a month. So I’ll just I’ll go where I can drive. So I drove an hour back and forth every day to go to grad school. also grew up driving up to Lowell for half an hour. So some days was just I put a lot of miles on the car.

But it was also really interesting to step into lots of different worlds, the University world where I was a student, and then a university role where I’m a teacher and that was kind of interesting, I think it would make for enhanced experiences in both directions. But the really good thing was that as part of the ethnomusicology degree, we needed to play in several different, you know, global cultural music situations. And so they had a West African drumming ensemble, they had Javanese gamelan. Eventually they had a Middle Eastern and Arabic music ensemble.

They had an old time String Band, but I already play guitar was that was fine. I didn’t need to do that. But, but I jumped into the West African drum group and, you know, started playing drums and sort of started making music without even really being aware. Hey, wait a minute, I’m making music I swore I’d never do this and reconnect did with the joy of making music partly because there was no expectation that any of us knew anything about West African music.

And so as we’re learning and playing, it was just about the thrill of making music and making music with other people and discovering stuff together. And same thing happened in the gamma lon and it, it felt like this very exciting. There’s no pressure here. It’s just the joy of finding, kind of establishing community through music.

And the guy that ran the old time string ensemble String Band, he had a really interesting take on things, which was that he just felt that it was important that people play, they didn’t have to be good. It didn’t have to be. They didn’t give concerts, they didn’t give final performances. And you would go up to the rehearsal, and there would be because undergrads as well, lots of hills.

There’d be like 40 people in a circle. And there’d be you know, yeah, I mean, somebody’s worst nightmare. You know, eight fiddle players 10 banjos and you know, it’s like, oh, no, what a god awful sound This is, and yet everyone in it was having the time of their lives. And he talked to me a little bit about that, just like that. It’s that for him. It wasn’t a matter of accomplished playing it was that people could find experience the joy of making music in whatever context. And so that was really interesting to me. And I mentioned it to Darlene. And she said, Oh, I’ve always wanted to play fiddle. So she started coming down and play Avaya. She’d never played to learn to play the instrument while she was there.

And she came back and said, I love doing this. I don’t know why we don’t make music. And I thought that’s a good question. Why don’t we make music. So ended up getting my guitar out of its case, and we happen to be going to Hawaii and decided to rent guitars while you’re there. So we can sort of explore music, and I discovered Hawaiian slack key guitar. tunings, because that’s what was up on the wall. I pulled this instrument off the wall and played what I thought was a E major chord.

And it was a major chord. And they showed me these things like, Oh my god, this is fun. Again, I think in some ways, it took the pressure off of feeling like I needed to know what I was doing, because it was like, Oh, this guitar doesn’t play the same way that I expected to. So I’m free to discover stuff. And I started writing songs I wrote like three songs out of nowhere. And in the spirit of the String Band thing, we had formed a little ad hoc group in our living room of all of our friends, who had once been musicians and had given it up to do other things.

My friend Greg was one of those people. Birdsong At Morning formed out of that with Darlene Greg and I, being the only people that kept coming week after week after week, partly to explore that notion of mean, why have we let go something that seems so important to us at it for long periods of our lives? And was there a way for us to make music that was free from all of the negative connotations that we had sort of accumulated around it, and maybe reading just the plain of music for its own sake, which was what we did for a little while, and then then the professional in me was like, okay, but I’ve written all these songs.

Now I want to actually polish them, I want to rehearse. And we would rehearse and they would start to sound good. And like, I think we should record I think we should perform and, you know, eventually. Now maybe it’s it’s a dangerous place, because it could be all that. Oh, now we have to promote records. And we have to think about the real Think about all that stuff. And it is the joy of go out of it. I think there were there were a lot of moments in the birdsong timeframe.

And we’ve been we’ve been doing this for over a dozen years now, where we would start to skirt up to this, that feeling of this isn’t really fun, and step back birdsong now is really basically me Greg and Arlene are involved in it. But I think part of it was if I said okay, I’ll take a hold of the responsibility I’ll pay for everything. I’ll do all the hard work. That way you guys can just jump in have fun playing and not feel like you’re getting involved in something that isn’t joyful, right?

This is the longest winded answer to the original question but I swear I’m getting there.

Tim 23:27
There’s some good stuff along the way.

Alan Williams 23:31
Why this album 25 years later part of it is you know, I ended up getting the PhD I got a tenure job teaching and as part of that academic world you put together your your CV, your list of what you’ve done, your the books, you’ve written the journal articles that this or that and as part of music I get to claim creative work as well. So on my CV is a list of all the songs I’ve written all the albums I’ve ever produced, engineered, played on.

Whatever. And then I would list evidence, which was the name of the album at the time back in the 90s, which is called evidence. I would list that there and list the songs. But unlike all the other entries, which had explanations about, you know, okay, this sold X number of copies, or these people played on it, or got this kind of review or whatever, it just was nothing that was a black hole of this thing is there, but it has, it seems to have no bearing on it had to be glaring, like in your face.

Probably no one is actually reading my CV with that kind of level of detail, but I felt something a little bit weird about it. And I think during some round of that kind of promotion stuff, I really looked at it seriously and said, I should listen to that thing. Just swallow hard and just listen to it and be prepared to cry about you know, wow, that really is bad.

And so I listened to it, I pulled it out and I listened to it. And I said, You know, I actually like this and a lot of these songs are still good. They’re they’re, they’re younger songs. I don’t write music like this anymore. They’re all in standard guitar tuning for one. But I still connect to it, and then actually maybe can find a little more depth in it. Then I was able to at the time, and the band sounded great. It was like wow, no wonder I like the record at the time because they sound amazing.

But listening to it, I said, What does sound funny to me is I feel like the vocals are very tentative, because in Noughts and Crosses. Carol Noonan was the lead singer and she and I sing a lot of harmonies, and I would occasionally do lead lead vocal lines, but mostly a lot of harmony singing. And anybody out there that does harmony singing knows that the major rule of thumb for harmony singing is never conflict with the prime voice. You’re trying to sing with.

And one of the ways to do that is to not ever enunciate. So when you sing harmony, you’re young. Because you don’t want to have lots of to propose and did it is, and lots of sentences, all that kind of stuff. So you, you learn to round all that out. And I feel like I sang this whole album without any concept. You know, it doesn’t sound that bad, but it didn’t sound like I was in the song. It sounded like it was in my head singing, to make sure everything lined up and was in tune and all that kind of crap.

So I thought, you know, I have learned a bit in my time since then, especially in terms of feeling more comfortable singing and finding maybe my own personality as a singer. So the question would be, could I maybe re sing the songs And would it work? There was a technological hurdle involved because it was tracked to a format called a dat, which was a early multitrack digital format that was recorded on videotape.

Everybody that was around in the early 90s that wasn’t a mega Rockstar Noseda, it’s because it was suddenly this very much more affordable way to make digital recordings. And anyway, it’s very outmoded format took me a long time to track down somebody that could transfer all those tapes into a computer file that I could actually work with. So I did that I threw the tracks up and said, Wow, they do some really good there. The engineer had done an amazing job of the band sounds great. Now let’s let’s see if I can sing this stuff.

And for the most part, it I fell right into it. It felt great. It felt really energetic. And I thought this this feels like yeah, I should do this project. Let let me let me go. But there were a couple of moments where it’s like, wow, I’m in my mid 50s. I’m not 30 years old anymore. I’m not sure I have those notes. I almost have them on a really good day I have them. When is that good day gonna come around?

Because so I did a little bit of technological trickery on a couple of moments just because it just sounded very strange to me. But the other really weird thing is I decided not to redo all the harmonies that I had done. So on the record, there’s a lot of 30 year old me singing along with 55 year old me that’s kind of cool home. It’s, it’s cool.

And there was one song where, okay, here’s here’s, I didn’t want to get too uptight about singing, right? So I threw the tracks up and I just sang and a lot of these songs I really hadn’t sung in 25 years. I didn’t remember the words necessarily. I had the CD with the lyric sheet in it, but

I’m 55 or I’m older than that now at the time was 55 by Eyes are going a little bit bad. I couldn’t actually read the lyric sheet. I couldn’t be bothered to go find reading glasses. It’s like no, no, you’re in the moment Sing, sing, sing. So I did. And when when I went to mix it together, I realized, Oh no, I didn’t sing the right phrase here, the backing vocals, the harmonies, they don’t line up, everything’s wrong. What am I gonna do? I’m gonna do.

And so there are moments where I cut back to my original vocal for half of a phrase. And then back to my new vocal, and no one has heard where it is. And if I even told you what song I don’t think you’d be able to pick it up. And that’s fascinating to me, just to think, in 25 years, I feel like I went through all this psychological change and musical growth and all that. But I kind of sound like I did. You know, it’s like that, that core of who we are. Kind of does stay with us. And you can you can build on that metaphor all day.

All the changes we go through all the but there is something inherently us that is probably us at birth or us at the age of four and it’s just who we hold on to. And I realized just listening to myself going okay I do sing a little bit differently now and I am in my mind audibly older but the core is it’s kind of the same it’s still there.

Tim 30:24
There’s something so symbolic about you today singing an intertwining singing with you of the yesterday. I just love that like that must just be so beautiful.

Alan Williams 30:38
It was a risky moment and then yeah, when it when it came back to me and listening to and go, Oh, it works. But I said that’s fine. Wow, that’s kind of interesting. Wow, do I hear these? I mean, they’re very age centric. Do I hear how old I am? And but but then it did it came it felt like beautiful like no, I don’t know. And then the other thing about this whole project has been rediscovering some of the songs, which actually seem more resonant in this particular global moment that we’re experiencing than they did when I wrote them or when I sang them.

There are a couple of songs that feel like I must have written them for this. This moment. I didn’t. But part of me in that weird sort of time folds upon itself way just wondered if Okay, the album truly was not meant to come out 25 years ago, but it really is meant to be out now. It isn’t that you pulled some crap off the shelf because you needed to fill time because between albums or something, it’s that this is the moment this is the time that this thing needs to come out.

And I think it’s been really helpful for me as a musician and writer and whatever to to discover that maybe I did have something to say back then. But that I say Maybe a little better now. And it might be more easily heard now. Because the response I’m getting from people listening to the record now is much stronger, much more positive than I was getting from that guy at South by Southwest.

So, I i’ve, there’s so many great record industry stories about people, you know, passing on dance and then falling in love with them two weeks later, and they don’t know it’s the same band and all those sorts of stories. But I just think for me the resilience of the project. And the joy of even just for me listening to everybody else’s contributions with 25 years distance, especially like when you’re mixing and you’re getting there and like, Alright, what’s he really doing on that snare drum is that is there what’s when I could just sort of listen to each person’s contribution and marvel at my good fortune in in knowing such great musicians.

All of whom are really dear friends. And I feel like there are a lot of people who benefit from having really good friends. And there are benefits who have worked with great musicians, but in my world, they’re one in the same. And that’s I do find that somewhat rare. The guitar player from Noughts and Crosses, who also plays on this record, moved to Ireland in the late 90s. And he’s like, Alan, you have no idea how spoiled we were. There’s, there’s great musicians in Ireland, obviously.

But not necessarily great musicians doing the kind of thing that that we were doing is like, you know, I can’t find a drummer that I feel really good with knots and crosses, played with every amazing drummer in Boston at the time. And there were a ton of them. You know, they’re there. They’ve got many of them have gone on to do really big, big, big things. And when I when I run into Boston rock, historian, people, people who were around back in the day, you know, I’ll say Oh, Yeah, we did a couple of shows with so and so I’m so and so on with your drummer too, and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

And that turned out to be a rare thing that I we just lucked into this moment where there were great players that were willing to sit down with us. And I got really attuned to what it’s like to work with a dozen different great drummers who have a dozen different takes on how to play and how to engage with music. It was a real education. And so this album has two drummers on it, and I think that I’ve developed a real love for for drummers, because I’m spoiled just as sad, we’re spoiled. But I still get a chance to play with great drummers so that in bass players, I tell my students like, you know, if a band is good, just listen to the bass player.

Nobody listens to the bass player who isn’t Yeah, stay in bands, right? Like they’re there. They’re the musician you don’t pay attention to but in my world I think that you’ll know if it’s a great band, if the bass player is really good. And you’ll know the bass players really good.

Because you don’t know what they’re doing. It’s not that they’re flashy players. It’s that you, you aren’t aware of what they’re doing. And the band sounds good. And then if you start trying to think of a Why does this band Sound good? And the band that went on before then didn’t? Yeah, it’s a great singer. It’s like, you know, but for me, bass players. And that’s a very musical kind of observation.

Tim 35:31
No bass players have always been something that I agree whenever I listen to music, when you start to hear it, and then you like lock in on the bass and you just start to listen to the bass. You think wow, have I never noticed this in a song before? And then you just like it’s this beautiful like dance they’re doing.

Alan Williams 35:51
Yeah, exactly. That’s a great way to describe that bass players are doing a dance, I think. And there’s also that phenomenon that I always Play up, which is like if you’re in a room. And in some other room music is playing. So, you know, there’s music but but what you’re hearing is you’re not hearing the song, you can’t really hear the lyric.

But you can hear the bass. And so one of the great tricks is like, Can I name that song in three seconds by figuring out what is. And you know, I often can do it, but I think it’s just because I often focus my listening on what the bass player is doing. So anyway, there’s a plug for great bass players.

Tim 36:32
Absolutely. So, so now that the album is out, people have responded to it. Like it sort of has been out amongst us now. Do you feel like some semblance of closure from like, what sort of drove you to create it in the first place? Like do you feel like you’ve closed that loop?

Alan Williams 36:54
That’s a great question. I feel I do feel like a sense of closure in In terms of all of the messy gobbledygook that I was grappling with, that feels like closure, it feels like I really truly put a lot of that stuff to bed. I’m much more confident, much more relaxed. I’m older and don’t feel as dependent upon some immediate response or whatever it doesn’t need to signify more potential it just needs to be what it is.

But the energy of the record and the fun I’ve had in making it I realize now is coloring the music I’m writing these days because I got a basically almost a new albums worth of material written and I can very much hear the the influence of this album. on it, it I’m not even sure I made it. I may put it out under my name rather than birdsong that morning because it feels like it’s somewhere in between the two or it’s even like neither neither nor it’s something new.

But it feels like now I’m allowed to incorporate this album. And that part of my musical thing in whatever language I want to use going forward. So there’s closure. And that closure allows me to draw upon it, which is, in a good way, I think.

Tim 38:17
Yeah, it sounds like you were able, like this album coming out and I was able to sort of open that creativity valve back up and now you’re just it’s spewing out.

Alan Williams 38:27
Yeah, and Birdsong At Morning was also the story of a resurrection of all these musicians not not coming back to music. But yeah, I think that’s, it’s one of the things that, you know, it’s because I deal with so many 20 year olds in school, all of whom have big aspirations, and, and for them a timeframe of, you know, oh my god, waiting three months, I can’t bear it.

But from my perspective, it’s like a three it takes me three months to figure out whether I want To think about three months or not, you know, this time is a very relative concept here. Don’t be so pressured to feel like you’ve got to come up with your thing right now. I feel like a lot of the 20 year olds that I deal with are, they’re feeling the pressure to somehow deliver something amazing. I think too soon, like, take the pressure off, it’s okay.

You know, you don’t have to be instantly brilliant. Some people are, most people are not. And so that part of working with those folks and having a little bit of experience that says, you know, you’re gonna have a lot of time, to make mistakes to do things that you’re almost happy with. And eventually the happy stuff comes in, you’ll know that when you get there. That’s the little bit of wisdom I can impart at the same time.

When I talk to friends of mine that are, you know, in their 50s or 60s, A lot of them are, they are burned out, they don’t have the drive they have no. And, you know, there’s nothing like hanging out with 20 year olds who have a lot of energy and a lot of great ideas. And they’re full of stuff. And I just feel like I like I hope they let me keep teaching because I need to kind of suck up some of that energy and get inspired by what I hear them saying and doing. And, I mean, I teach in a music program.

So I’m working with music majors. And there have been moments that I’ve heard from students that and I’ll say to them, I say, I gotta tell you, I would pay money for that. That actually is the best String Quartet. That’s the best five minutes of string quartet music I’ve ever heard in my life. And I’ve heard some good players. But you guys weren’t brilliant for the whole hour of the show.

But you hit this thing for a while that was as potent as anything I’ve ever heard. And I realized now that if I open my ears up to not just dismissing 20 year olds out of hand, they are often quite brilliant. And it’s me that’s missing it. And I want to think back to that guy at South by Southwest to say, you weren’t listening. You are already moving on to the next CD and thinking about your lunch appointment or whatever.

And you weren’t Listening, you weren’t paying attention to it. And I have, you know, found myself as a teacher, sometimes you’re like grappling with all this other stuff and you’re missing this beautiful moment that’s happening right in front of you. So it’s been a good reminder to really tune in to those things. And also to recognize that as a teacher, you your words have power, even words that you don’t intend to have power do. And I and I often think about that guy at South by Southwest because he wasn’t saying anything mean or bad.

And I’m sure he walked out of that room with no idea that he had killed my soul. And I realized that that’s an overstatement, sort of, but but when you’re dealing with students, especially at that point in their life, they’re 20 years old, they really are trying to become the adult they’ve dreamed of being. Then you can say some positive thing that will give them incredible inspiration and validation and encouragement. And you can say some casual, something that will really hurt them. So it’s a it’s a, it’s a it’s a thing to be mindful of as a teacher.

So I draw on the experience of evidence on earth in its earlier form, often as an educator, and I’m hoping that maybe when we get back to school in another couple of weeks, you know, and I say, Hey, kids, my, I got put out melt this summer. I think they are enthused that that I bothered to keep trying to do new music and, you know, to, to get down, roll up my sleeves just like they are me what we’ll get together and try to trade information.

Has anybody figured out how to promote it this way, or that’s a cool audience thing or whatever. So I feel like I get to be one of them. They are one of me. We are just musicians. We’re not in the same building anymore. But we’re musicians on the same mosaic and zoom or whatever and learning from one another and celebrating you Any accomplishment? Because especially I think in this time period, any accomplishment is something to be celebrated?

Absolutely. Do you think that guy at South by Southwest, you know, he really did sort of change your life? Do you think if he had, like been enthralled with the album, or at least was positive or gave you some like positive signal? Would that have changed the trajectory? Or were you still like would? Would you still have not been ready at your core to release it?

Alan Williams
That’s such a good, I think, I think that’s a great observation. I mean, you’re implying what I think is probably true, that I wasn’t ready. And and you see a whole lot of musicians who aren’t ready, who are given some degree of, of success and then the pressure to truly deliver I watched Billy Eilish on the Democratic Convention the other night.

And I just thought, how is she so self possessed? to just do this thing? In the weirdest of circumstances with a massive audience, she’s going to do a new song, she’s going to do it at a folder, a very exposed vocal. And I just thought, okay, so she’s one of the people who is ready. This is her moment or has been her moment and good, she’ll probably survive and make a lot of great records and wonderful. But we all know a lot of musicians, some of whom have been brilliant and haven’t been able to deal with the brilliant pressure. But I think a lot of musicians who aren’t in fact, brilliant to get a little taste of it.

And then they’re not ready for it. The world isn’t actually going to continually praise them, and they don’t know what to do when that happens. That’s easily what would have happened to me. I think I would have probably been encouraged by a positive response from some SXSW panel and then gone headfirst in to situations where my radar and other people are saying, you know, this isn’t quite right or do not, you know, take scale it back a little bit. No, no, the guy sounds lovely. I’m a rock star Come on.

There is that sort of self deception that can happen that eventually, you know, it becomes it gets laid out. And I think that could be permanently devastating. I mean, I overreacted to his negative response. But I wasn’t even it wasn’t permanent, because here I am, I am still making music. I did resurrect that record.

But I think there are other people who might have had more success earlier on, where it would have been permanently devastating. You know, maybe they stopped creating music or, you know, maybe they they know are low no longer with us, you know, those, that whole spectrum of sadness. So I in some ways, maybe I owe that guy. debt of gratitude. Cuz I don’t think I was ready. Yeah, yeah.

Yeah. It’s to think, yeah, I just think about that you could have, you know, could things have gone a totally different way? Maybe Maybe not. I, when I kind of gather is that like thinking about your, your journey? It’s sort of this, this hint that sometimes things do take time. And that’s actually okay. Like, I mean, 25 years might be an extreme example.

But you know, I mean, the notions there right? Like you tell your students it’s okay if you don’t have this figured out or you’re not achieving what you’re trying to achieve at this very moment. Like you can give it some time and that’s okay. especially in this day and age, I feel like we are all like if it doesn’t happen for our laws, or today it’s it’s a failure.

Alan Williams
Right and i think that’s that’s so true. And even just talking people who are trying to grapple with this moment and and feeling like everything is on hold everything on pause, but with each day that everything is on pause starts to feel like no, it’s not on pause, it’s on stop. And it’s we’re going to let our finger off the button, it’s not going to come back, it’s going to be permanently stopped.

But I think instead if we are able to, to think about hibernation to think about pause to think about slowing down, and that even something that’s been put on pause, can be put back into play. That all of the dreams that people had six months ago, a year ago, they can come back, they can they can explore them. But I also think this moment has been a really important opportunity for us to, to ponder all the stuff that we take for granted to to ponder all the things made from the political spectrum to ponder all the things that have been somewhat tacitly accepted, and that I feel in this moment, that’s no longer acceptable.

And people are grappling with all sorts of things that are long overdue. And maybe, you know, this is when everything’s on pause, let’s do that. Let’s take this time to really unpack a lot of this complicated stuff. Then the pressure is going to be on to say, all right, as we’re able to open things up and come back to life. We have an opportunity to build it differently.

We don’t rebuild what we once were, this is this is an opportunity. It’s a really, it’s a weighty responsible kind of thing. But But whether that’s big political shifts, or whether it’s just sort of internal sensibilities and what does one want to do With their life and I, I feel like this is a place where Yeah, all options are on the table, things that you had discounted before might actually still be valid things that you tried and didn’t think worked.

You can come back to them. And maybe they actually will make more sense to you five years down the line or a five months later or whatever it is. And and then for me, this sort of slowing down has been good. It’s the it is that reminder to be in the moment, even if the moment appears really, really bleak. Because I think a lot of the times the moment itself is actually not that bleak. I mean, if your health is threatened, it certainly is.

But, but it’s more about the anxiety about the next moment, being bleak that makes the current one feel so bleak, and If you can get to this place where you are able to entertain that actually, there could be a nice moment around the corner. That in fact, it’s likely to be a nice moment around the corner that can help us through this particular stuff. I think I’ve been really lucky I the record got kind of put on hold yet again in the early stages of all the COVID stuff.

But I’ve had a project to work on in this interim phase and it’s given me I think, something positive to keep in mind and to work toward and something that was in my hands It was not trying to remake the world it was trying to get this little album out, you know. And so I personally have been having some positive growth and feeling okay, at least in the last couple of months feeling okay.

And other people, deep friends of mine that haven’t had something to focus On, they have felt as a drift, as I know, many, many, many people out there are feeling. And so I feel particularly fortunate in that regard just that I had this thing that I that probably if it hadn’t been 25 years old and dammit, I was gonna commit to doing this, I would have let it go.

If it was like a new album out of nowhere, I just started in January, it probably would have just stopped, it would have been really hard to maintain the momentum. But this record was like, Oh, come on, I’m putting it out. This album is coming out, I really don’t care what goes on it has to happen. And therefore it does come out. So I don’t know what to tell you and your listeners.

And we will all come back to these moments many times I think in the future, but we are all living through something and there will be hopefully time ahead where we can process it. And and yeah, and I guess if we’re if we’re using My album is a metaphor that Yeah, you can you can process it and come to terms with difficult parts of a past and and find the things that you can build upon. So that’s I’ve been lucky in that regard regarding this record, and I’m kind of hoping that I can take that attitude out there. Each day that follows.

Alan, what a perfect note to end on. Thank you so much.

Alan Williams
Thank you, Tim. It’s been really a pleasure.

Oh, it absolutely has. Thank you so much for joining me and I so agree, I think you know, I think in some ways, like this album, you bringing it about now is very helpful for you, like you just said, during these times, and maybe maybe there was a reason that you you know, it timed itself this way. I mean, all things considered. Maybe there was a reason.

Alan Williams
Yeah. And if there wasn’t, let’s just say there was.

Sometimes, sometimes.

Alan Williams
We’ll just pretend that there was and it’s almost self fulfilling prophecy. There is a reason.

Yeah. That reminds me of a previous guest, Lydia Slaby. She’s a cancer survivor but she had open heart surgery that turns out she didn’t need to have and we talked a lot about in the theme of the episode was the stories you tell yourself that to get through it. And you know, sometimes that’s what you need.

Alan Williams
And she did and she survived. And now she has this.

She wrote a fantastic book. It’s called Wait, It Gets Worse. Yeah, it’s a it’s my God. It’s such a fantastic book, but what you just said, You know, I say, Well, at least that’s what I tell myself. That’s exactly what she said. So, okay. Well, thank you so much, Alan. I’m so excited to to share this. I really appreciate it.

Alan Williams
I really appreciate it too. So thanks, everybody, for listening.

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