Chelsea Williams knows how to work a crowd. Williams honed her craft as a singer-songwriter busking around Los Angeles for the past decade, a regular at Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade. Playing acoustic guitar, Williams performs a mix of Americana and indie-folk tunes as she competes with breakdancers, drummers, magicians and clowns for attention – and a few bucks – from tourists and locals at the shopping mecca.
Williams’ hard work paid off in a recording contract with Interscope Records – a deal that resulted in one unreleased album that Williams calls “everything that I never wanted to be.” Undeterred, Williams gained national attention with a featured spot in Maroon 5’s hit music video “Daylight (Playing For Change)” and NBC’s Today Show.
Coping with drunks and noise on the streets of L.A. toughened Williams, who kept on writing new songs and performing at the Promenade. Williams has just released a new album, Boomerang, on Blue Élan Records. She describes her personal journey in 12 infectious folk-pop tunes produced by multi-instrumentalist Ross Garren. Williams now embarks on a tour that includes a stop at New York’s Bitter End, where Bob Dylan –”a huge influence” – played early in his career. “I hope maybe there’s a tiny bit of Dylan’s spirit still there,” says Williams.
Rock Cellar asked Williams about her new album and her busking career – and whether success will bring her in from the streets for good.
Rock Cellar: For those who have never been there, set the scene of what the Third Street Promenade is like.
Chelsea Williams: It’s a three-block stretch of outdoor mall. There’s a bunch of shoppers out there bustling around all the time. There’s an occasional breakdancer booming loud music. There’s the woman who reads tea leaves in her giant hat. There’s all kinds of performers out there. I once saw nine accordion players. I tend to play on the weekend mornings because it’s quieter, there’s less breakdancers out there and I tend to get parents and their kids walking down, having breakfast on a Saturday or Sunday morning.
Do you still play there?
Chelsea Williams: I do still play there occasionally. I don’t play there as much as I used to because I have other stuff going on, but I love playing there and I hope to continue playing there as long as I play music.
How long have you played there?
Chelsea Williams: I was 19 or 20 when I started. It’s been about 10 years.
You’ve sold 100,000 CDs there, to everyone from Ron Howard to Sheryl Crow. What did you learn about performing over that time?
Chelsea Williams: Probably almost everything I know about performing, Things that I probably don’t even know that I know, because it’s been the primary place that I’ve performed for the last 10 years. I used to play out there 20 hours a week. Now it’s more like four or six hours a week but I think one of the most important things that I’ve learned out there is how to get people’s attention when they’re not there to see you. Because nobody really goes there to see the performers – maybe some people do but most people there are there to have lunch or to go to the Adidas shop or go to Old Navy or wherever. It’s about what song can I play or how can I sing it or how can I look somebody in the eye in a way that makes them want to stop for a second and explore a little further.
Did you ever become discouraged while waiting to be discovered and getting a record deal?
Chelsea Williams: Although those have always been goals of mine, they haven’t been the be all and end all of career goals. I just love playing music for people. I love performing at shows and seeing drunk people and babies dance. That’s my favorite thing in the whole entire world. While there have been ups and downs in my career, as long as I can go out, as long as I can take my guitar out and move somebody, I feel pretty happy.
You must have met your share of characters out there. What’s the weirdest encounter that you’ve had?
Chelsea Williams: Oh my goodness [laughs], that is a tough one. Man, everything from a guy I saw at nine o’clock in the morning on a Saturday with a huge American flag in his hand that jumped up on a trash can and dove into the sidewalk, there’s all kinds of stuff.
There was one guy who tried to throw his bike at me, which was very scary. I’m pretty sure he was homeless or had some kind of mental issue. He was playing guitar in a spot where I was set up. He came up and started playing guitar right next to me and I asked him if he would stop because it was disturbing the show. He got very upset with me and threatened to throw his bike at me. He picked it up and shook it at me. But this was a real interesting thing because 10 people ran over to the scene and stood between me and him. It was one of those rare moments where your faith in humanity is restored.
Wow, people really will step in and help. It was nice.
You must have gotten your share of promises about making the big time. Now that you are making it, what was your biggest disappointment during that time?
Chelsea Williams: I gotta say, when I was signed to Interscope Records, that was an absolute dream come true because when I was around 14 and I started to take music seriously, I sat down and I Googled all the record companies. I looked at what artists they had and I tried to piece together what kind of label they were at their hearts. And Interscope Records was the major record label that I decided I wanted to be signed to.
And later in life, I don’t even know if I remembered that until I got the signing papers from Interscope, and I was thinking, oh my God, this is the record company that I decided when I was 14 I wanted to be signed to. So it was like this huge wave of hopefulness and oh, my dream’s come true. And then to find out that it was everything that I never wanted to be. They wanted me to release music that had nothing to do with me. It was a bit of a disappointment, I must say.
What kind of music did they want you to record?
Chelsea Williams: The main difference was, I think the only real instruments were guitar and bass. Even the drums were synthesized. I had an idea of putting banjo on one of the songs and they ended up using a synthesized banjo. I didn’t have creative control. It seemed like everything was processed and it did not hold up to my core values as a person or a musician.
Because for me, when I’m making music, it’s very important that the music that I’m making can be reproduced live. I cut my teeth on performing live, I’ve made my living as a live performer for the last 10 years. That’s one of my basic tenets as a musician. So that was tough for me to stomach, for sure.
And then you sang about it on “Fools Gold” and “Dreamcatcher.”
Chelsea Williams: Exactly. Rather than go to therapy, which I probably should have done [laughs] I just wrote songs about it.
Who were some of your musical influences?
Chelsea Williams: I grew up listening to people like Neil Young and Crosby Stills & Nash, Todd Rundgren, these are some artists that my mom introduced me to. Carole King, just great, fantastic songwriters in sort of the folk genre. And when I started growing up and hanging out with my ruffian friends [laughs] they introduced me to people like Elliott Smith and Radiohead and the Pixies. And Dylan is a huge influence, absolutely.
You’re scheduled to play the Bitter End in New York, where Dylan played early in his career.
Chelsea Williams: I’m so excited about that. That’s definitely a bucket list item for me. The last time I was in New York I specifically made a trip to the Bitter End and took a picture in front of it because I’m a huge fan.
What are your thoughts about playing on the same stage where Dylan and many other greats played back in the day?
Chelsea Williams: I hope maybe there’s a tiny bit of Dylan’s spirit still there [laughs]. I hope it will rub off on me. No, I’m just excited to play there and excited to say that I’ve played there. It’s an absolute dream come true.
Appearing in the Maroon 5 video for “Daylight (Playing For Change)” had to have been a big break. How did that come about?
Chelsea Williams: That was a big surprise to me actually because I met this guy while I was playing on Third Street Promenade. He runs the Playing For Change video series. And he just asked me to do a live video on Third Street Promenade. He brought this sound equipment, he told me what song to learn. He said, “It’s a Maroon 5 song.” I said OK, I learned it, I showed up and we recorded it. And I had no idea what they were planning to do with it. And they didn’t tell me ’til it was on the VH1 Top 20 Video Countdown. And I turn on the television and I’m like, “Wait a second, I’m on television, that’s odd!” [Laughs] I didn’t know that was gonna happen.
Tell me about recording Boomerang. What were you looking for in the song selection process?
Chelsea Williams: Until recording Boomerang I had not released a solo record in five or six years. So I definitely had a lot of back catalog songs to deal with that I wanted to represent that portion of songwriting. But I also had new stuff that I really wanted to make the record. So we just pulled up to the studio and I recorded just acoustic demos, guitar and vocals. Part of the important thing with this record for me was, even though the production style is bigger than I’ve released in the past, there’s strings and horns and all kinds of stuff going on, arrangement-wise, I wanted to make sure that the songs stood up on their own, just guitar and vocals. So that was the first step, to get them all down with acoustic guitar and vocals and see how it came across.
So we just dove in from there. The producer, Ross Garren and I got out of L.A., we went up the Central Coast of California, stayed in this place that had no Internet access. We picked 16 songs at first and went to work arranging them and trying to figure out what instrumentation would go where and put them all together and brought it back down to L.A. where we ended up recording 14 of the songs and 12 of them made the record.
When you tour will you have any backing musicians or will it be just you and your guitar?
Chelsea Williams: It’s gonna be a little bit of both. Some of the shows, I’ll be able to take a band and some of the shows I’ll just be playing solo. Over the past year I’ve been working a lot with a looping pedal to fill in the sounds of the record a little bit more. It’s a live recording tool you can use. Say you want to lay down a beat. You click the pedal and play claps and then those claps play back and then you can record over that live.
So when I play solo I’ll be playing a little bit with that looping pedal but I’ll also be playing with Ross Garren. He plays piano and harmonica and there’s a great guitar player, John Schroeder, who will be playing with me as well on some of these gigs in California that I have coming up.
After 10 years on the Promenade, you must be able to handle any audience.
Chelsea Williams: I would hope so. I definitely have had my share of drunk people that just come up to me. It’s so weird, it’s always the drunk people that come up and stand one foot away from your face and just stare at you [laughs]. Now if I can’t handle playing for a couple of thousand people after that, I don’t know what will prepare me.
What’s next? Will you do a long tour or are you thinking about the next album?
Chelsea Williams: Through September and October I’ll mostly be on the road playing New York, Tennessee, North Carolina, Ohio, Wisconsin and a lot in California as well. I’m really looking forward to that and then after that I’m looking forward to taking a month to just go out into the desert somewhere with no distractions and write again. I’m really itching to write. The last year and a half has been such a whirlwind and I’m really interested to find out what comes out of me musically after this year. It’s been a lot of firsts.
Right now I’m still in the planning stages of the tour, which is the stressful part. Once everything’s put together I just get to go out and travel and show up. Right now I’m still planning everything, like OK, now if I drive this fast from Point A to Point B can I make it to the gig on time? I’m doing all the planning and the math right now. But yeah, I’m really looking forward to actually getting on the road and performing and looking forward to opening for Poco in New York. That’s gonna be so exciting.