Amanda Jo Williams' cosmic country
Listening to Amanda Jo Williams’ rough-shod country-folk is like eating a squirrel stew supper before falling into bed, where you then lie awake and hear the haunted scrabbles of raccoons, coyotes and bears and wonder if you staggered out there, would you be eaten alive or inducted into some ritualistic animal society. Her primal music is an open maw to the mysteries and fears of the world. With a twang-heavy voice that sometimes breaks into manic gibberish or other cartoonish effects, she sounds like an unruly, sometimes lonely little girl left to her own devices.
At 30, Williams has already lived a storied life. She grew up in rural Georgia around horses and cows, born to a cat-woman Mama (she’s got something like 50 prowling around) and a Daddy who was “kind of mean.” When she was 19, she whisked herself off to New York City to model. But she didn’t do that well – “I couldn’t loosen up my face, I couldn’t come out of myself,” she said in a chat at a Silver Lake coffee shop where she sat nursing a small thermos of tequila, wearing scuffed-up cowboy boots and a rabbit’s foot around her neck.
After New York, she hitchhiked to Woodstock with Adam Green from Moldy Peaches and another friend and met the free-spirited Conceptual artist Paul McMahon. Within weeks, she was pregnant with his twins. “I like older men,” she said with a sparkle to her wide-set hazel eyes. Later, she expanded her list: “I like animals, old people and babies -- that's who I feel comfortable around because they're real.” Williams admitted that a lot of her songs are inspired by lovers and heartbreak, though lately she’s also been moved to write “saving the world, spiritual songs.”
McMahon taught Williams how to play the guitar and together they formed a band, Army of Love. But after awhile, Williams wanted to do her own thing. With Matthew O’Neill, her current husband, on guitar, and hired hands like fiddle player Larry Packer, who’s jammed with Lou Reed and the Band, Williams in 2006 recorded “Yes I Will, Mr. Man,” a 10-song collection that Williams sees as influenced by her Dylan phase, but it’s Dylan as only she could do it, with oddball vocals and hard-strummed guitars.
After performing a few shows in Los Angeles in 2008, Williams ditched nursing school to pursue music full time on the West Coast. In March this year, she rereleased “Yes I Will, Mr. Man” with the small label White Noise and has been steadily playing in Echo Park and Silver Lake clubs but with nearly all new material, including a few raunchy songs. “I don’t feel comfortable playing those old songs,” she said. “It was so long ago now.” The new songs like “The Bear Eats Me” are a departure from the old – her voice is higher and the music is more stripped-down, spooky and atmospheric. At the end of June, she’ll record a new album.
For now, she’s living with O’Neill and their 3-year-old son Jack in a hippie commune in Topanga that she doesn’t romanticize. “I was biased going in there – I thought everyone was going to be lazy and passive-aggressive, and I was kind of right, but there are some nice people.” A couple of days a week, Williams works as a front-desk receptionist at the Malibu Motel (which, she said, can get a few sketchy customers late at night).
Along with discovering what she prefers musically -- “I like to keep it simple and let the songs be what they want to be” -- Williams has learned to accept the dry spells between fruitful bursts of energy when she writes several new songs. She also has several side projects going: her alter-ego Jo Cool, who sings “really sexual and silly podunk songs”; Little Feet Learning Center, an outlet for “poop songs” made with her twin daughters; and short movies that she makes on her computer.
Williams isn’t sure what label will put out her next record, but she wants to make sure it gets into the right hands. And if it doesn’t, she’ll be back to writing songs in her Topanga shack with its one solar panel. “I’m not compromising, not with nursing school or any of that anymore,” she said. “I don’t care, I’ll die poor.”
-- Margaret Wappler
Amanda Jo Williams plays tonight at Spaceland with Moris Tepper, Horse Thieves and Jack Ladder. 1717 Silver Lake Blvd. 8:30 p.m. $5. She also plays Sunday at the Fish Fry Jamboree at Echo Country Outpost, 1930 Echo Park Ave.. Noon to 11 p.m. $7, music only.
Photo credit: Daiana Feuer