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Music - Musicians - Interview | by SuccoAcido in Music - Musicians on 07/12/2012 - Comments (0)

Woodpecker Wooliams

The Woodpecker Wooliams are in fact a singer-songwriter, Gemma Williams. She’s just gotten back from a tour, saying to be dazzled and also gotten a post-tour cold. Over the last two years Woodpecker Wooliams has tours in Germany, Denmark, Switzerland, The Baltics, Russia and Italy, and she has played at Positivus festival (Latvia), The Big Chill, the Alternative Escape at the Willkommen Foxtrot and the first Fano Free Folk Festival (Denmark). Sometimes ‘interesting connections’ (as she said) happen... This is one of those times. Gemma is that kind of special and rare person which is delightful to meet even virtually. She lives in Brighton, she’s a keeper of bees, all round naturophile and appears to be also a lover of Russian Dolls. After a serious illness she sought out the countryside calm of Devon, moving in a cottage in Totnes, where she waitressed in a teashop. Totnes is a very peculiar town, affiliate to the Transition Town network, being among the towns which created it. A bunch of communities that are working to build resilience in response to climate destruction and economic instability, founding their existence upon the principles of permaculture. Her songs are unusual as her life and voice, an ethereal and maybe a little eerie voice. She’s created something halfway between folky sound and psychfolk, sometime noise music, blending traditional sweet harp sound with electronic, droney sound. An alluring, dramatic combination. She was also initiated onto a shamanic path, which is really remarkable, after completing a thorough practitioner's training over several years, including an overnight earth burial!! Truly an amazing side of her life. Indeed, her new album reveal a very shamanic point of view. ‘The Bird School Of Being Human’, released on Robot Elephant Records, is about birds that have stories to tell. “Rather than anthropomorphising animal characters,” Gemma says, “these songs are kind of how it might be like if people were aviomorphised, or if the birds were in human bodies. Bird's eye views... So they're the bird's songs really.” The songs are always compelling, going from desperation to spiritual elevation, throughout oversensitive frenzy, violence and self exploration. And, more the one song gave me the feeling of becoming physically a bird, truly. A single from the album, ‘Sparrow’, my favorite actually, has been released on 3rd September, and a beautiful video has been shot for her song Hummingbird by Paola Suhonen.


SA: Gemma, your music is something halfway between folky sound and psychfolk, sometime noise, even droney. The kind of music I’d like to do if I played music! Are you the all Woodpacker Wooliams or do you collaborate with other musicians? And how do you actually manage the recording, I mean, harp and taped-down keys, recorders, white noise…? Do you play and record everything by yourself?
GW: I'm glad you like it! Well; essentially I'm the 'Woodpecker. Previously I've recorded (and played) everything myself at home. For live shows too, actually, I've generally toured alone and tried to play as much at once as possible- hence taping down keys- but for this most recent album I was joined a few different musician friends. Marcus Hamblett is a dear friend and incredibly talented musician; he recorded it and played a few parts on the songs, and another friend Tom Heather sprinkled on some of his marvellous drumming. We played together for the album launch shows, and then for the tour I've just landed back from we boiled it down to a power-duo, joined this time by another multi-talented friend Benny Gregory, and we kind of reinterpreted the form of the songs, but kept the spirit of them true.

SA: About your previous album, what would you like to say? And how have you changed along your artistic path during the last years?
GW: The previous album, 'Diving Down', is pretty naive: It's more a document of me beginning to explore song and singing and the instruments- ideas really. People still seem to like it- I think it does have its own spirit- it was recorded in a cottage cut into the hill under Totnes castle, all in one room very simply so I think it's quite atmospheric, but it's not something I'd want to listen to myself now.

SA: Could you tell us something about who manage the labels that have released your cds?
GW: It's been a varied bunch. There've been a lot of bedroom labels who've released stuff: Folks in Copenhagen, Sicily, Russia, London, Scotland, Chicago- all working to differing degrees of home-spun or pro-looking. All putting a lot of heart into what they do and I'm sure spending their own money on it. A lot of time goes into the cultivating of these little labels and the crafting of the artwork. It's a beautiful cottage industry. The most recent album was released through a slightly larger indie label based in London called 'Robot Elephant Records'- they're a lovely pair of gents working on that.

SA: On your 20th birthday you’ve been initiated onto a shamanic path. Shamanism and music are deeply intermingled in a anthropological and magical perspective, music and percussions are means used to provoke trance-mind state. What kind of relationship do you find between the Shaman and the Musician in yourself?
GW: Hmm. Good question... You've hit the nail on the head really, that the two are very much interweaved. I'm of the belief that music is a primary tool for accessing altered stated, for both the performer and also the listeners. On the simplest of levels, music is known to 'move' people.
I'm not sure how much folks might know about shamanism, but essentially a practitioner seeks to become the 'hollow bone' and oftentimes uses voice and rhythm to achieve this. The idea is that by moving your ego aside, you can become a sacred vessel and 'transmit' whatever you might seek to connect with. I've found that for me, making music is a much more accessible, contemporary method of allowing oneself to move and be moved. It's easier for me to rationalise, more easily explained to friends. I suppose it also follows on in the ancient Bardic traditions of the British Isles. So- the two sides are very much like the dual faces of Janus- the double-faced god of doorways- although I wouldn't ordinarily talk about making music in this way! I tend to try to keep them a little separate, on the surface at least...

SA: I was thinking about bards too… I understand perfectly, I had similar experience.
Each song in your last album is about a bird that had a story to tell. You said “these songs are kind of how it might be like if people were aviomorphised, or if the birds were in human bodies. Bird's eye views...” In my opinion that’s a very shamanic point of view. Have your path, your training, influenced this artistic choice?

GW: I guess so. And you're right, I suppose it is quite a shamanic perspective! I definitely approached the making of this album in a different way to before. It really did feel like each song arrived, via a bird that wanted to share something, rather than me conceptualising the whole thing and putting words into their beaks. I think too, that my training has led me to feel a great affinity with the natural world, with the land I was borne of. I still live in a city and perhaps birds are the most obvious creatures to me that dwell in both built-up and more natural spaces. They cross a lot of thresholds- air, land, sea- they've become totems to me I guess. Role -models...

SA: My favorite is Sparrow, it has a bit of desperation and rage and also vulnerably at the same time, the sparrow mirrors some fragile female oversensitive vulnerably, I felt that kind of vulnerability in myself, something precious, and I became a sparrow listening to that song. Every work of art is re-created by the audience, I believe. What your personal view about that song?
GW: I do agree that songs are re-created by the listener. When you take a song in you respond to it in your own way. That's an exciting thing to be part of somehow... For me, it references Dolly Parton's 'Little Sparrow'. It definitely deals with a particular type of female over-sensitivity, fragility, when a person becomes so taught they might shatter. It also looks at how a particular type of maleness might respond to that. The potent , ambivalent passion of being intoxicated by a woman's fragility, wanting to protect her, baby her, how that turns into wanting to suffocate her. Something so sweet you want to both cradle and crush it...

SA: Sparrow was not the only song which gave me the feeling of becoming physically a bird, “how it might be like if people were aviomorphised” your words. Was your intention, by means of your music, offer a manner to experience that feeling?
GW: It's amazing to hear you say that. If that's the case, then it is a beautiful thing. The 'intention' of the album., was more to create a school, a map, a textbook- a 'bird school of being human'. For the various birds to give their medicine stories so that I might have a better idea of how to get by in a confusing human world. That was the purpose for me though- beyond that I think they wanted their voice shared so if that means that you can feel birdlike and see through their eyes, that is a great thing!

SA: You lived in Totnes. I lived there for a while, a very peculiar town, isn’t it? Totnes is part of the Transition Town network, being among the town which created it. What do you think about the Movement, a network of communities that are working to build resilience in response to climate destruction and economic instability, founding their existence upon the principles of permaculture?
GW: I did! And yes, it is quite a bonkers place! That's where I picked up the harp and started to make music, so I have fond memories of my very weird time there! I think it is a great idea, in principle. I'm not sure *how* much it works, but I think a lot has been done, and is happening that is good. I think that times are increasingly tough, and it's exciting to see peoples' various ways of dealing with the challenges of a modern world. My only caveat really is that a lot of these kind of projects only really seem to happen around, and to involve people who are already quite well-off. I'd love to see it permeating what might be termed 'working class' areas and communities of which there are still plenty in the UK.

SA: Tell me something about the place where you live…your home: you keep bees! You got a kind of farm, a cottage or what?
GW: I wish! No- I live in Hove, Brighton. I can see the sea form my window- the bees are really near in a park, in a secret place. I've lived in the countryside, done wwoofing and things, but have always ended up back in the (small) city. It's where friends ar, work is- it's a pretty good balance at the moment..

SA: Gemma you has also recently collaborated with Ivana Helsinki, a Finnish fashion and design label. I love Scandinavia, and I find that sort of Scandinavian mood in your songs also, that peculiar hovering remoteness and intense bareness. Is that a coincidence?
GW: What is ever a coincidence, eh? ;)  I think like probably attracts like. It was a surprise collaboration really. It came from a friend of mine Fiona Sally Miller and I preparing to go and tour Russia together (I have a huge amount of time for Russia- now that is a place of remoteness and bareness and intensity!). We kind of dreamed it up together and everything seemed to fall into place. I love the aesthetic of both the Ivana Helsinki clothes and the videos Paola makes.

SA: Yes! What is ever a coincidence… ;) About Russia, I’ve never been there, but I can image…. Is there any particular place where you’d love to live, or just go and visit?
GW: Russia was a place like that for me. It was such dream to be able to go there, and return back a second time. I could be happy living in Italy; I worked in Sardegna for a summer, and have spent quite a bit of time back and forth on little trips, visiting friends, on tour... I always feel very at home out there...

SA: Dou you remember any interesting or odd or funny experience during one of your tour? A good club, a good meal, anything you’d like to share with us..?
GW: Not anything I can confess to in print! No - erm, my favourite meal would have been in Saransk, in Southern Russia. We got put up by the promoter of the night and his girlfriend spent the day created a series of lavish traditional meals for us. For lunch she made some kind of dumplings- floating in a vegetable broth, I think they were filled with something like sweet potato / carrots? Really nice. Russian sleeper trains whizzing through the snow at night were good. Riding bikes drunk around Bologna at night...

SA: I’ve seen the beautiful video that Paola Suhonen shot for your song Humming bird. She also took part in the first Finnish Fashion Film Festival in August 2012. I’m fascinated by the crossover of different form of art. What do you think about the disappearing of boundaries between different means of artistic expression?
GW: Yes, it's a beautiful thing she made, isn't it?
It's a good thing in my books. I love the way things come together and create new things. There's a lot of that within DIY labels- handmaking CD / cassette artwork, lino-cutting, felting, knitting, crafting... It makes me very happy. It helps you think about things from a new perspective too, and gives more life to projects. Thinking about it now has kind of inspired me to go and get on with some making...

SA: Do you listen to music a lot? Would you give us a few good listening advises about some album you love?
GW: I do. I tend to rinse an album over and over. I isten to old vinyls a lot in my kitchen but not really 'cool' ones- things like Bert Kaemfert and Fleetwood Mac...
Top albums to recommend though would be: John Surman & Karin Krogg 'Such Winters of Memory', Vivian Void 'Div', Soccer 96 'Call to Arms'...

SA: Is there anything else you'd like to tell us about yourself?
GW: I think that's plenty! xx

SA: Yes, of course! Definitely! I'm sorry for your cold, hope you get better soon!! Thank you for your time and our little chat, Gemma, it's been not the usual interview.


2009 - ‘Fledgling’, on A Beard of Snails, 2009
August 2009 - ‘Diving Down’ on Autumn Fermant Records
May 2010 - ‘Sleeping Under Dark Suns’ limited edition cassette-tape through London based label My Dance The Skull
May 2011 - ‘Patryoska’ Released on tiny Italian imprint Wool Shop Productions and
March 2012 - re-released on hand-made cassette on Full Of Nothing
May 2012 - ‘Anni’ on Love Lion, Chicago, the score to a German film ‘Anni’, a collaboration with OCD
September 2012 - ‘The Bird School Of Being Human’, on Robot Elephant Records

© 2001, 2014 SuccoAcido - All Rights Reserved
Reg. Court of Palermo (Italy) n°21, 19.10.2001
All images, photographs and illustrations are copyright of respective authors.
Copyright in Italy and abroad is held by the publisher Edizioni De Dieux or by freelance contributors. Edizioni De Dieux does not necessarily share the views expressed from respective contributors.

Bibliography, links, notes:

pen: Barbara Lucrezia Paganelli and Marc De Dieux


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