As the holiday season gets into full swing, I am beginning a new series on the blog. “Artist and Writer Interviews” will spotlight working artists and writers – the spaces in which they work, where they find their inspiration, what makes them unique. I will feature one artist or writer each month. (If you are a working artist or writer who would like to be considered for this series, or if you want to recommend an artist or writer to interview for this series, please contact me.)
Kicking off the series is a longtime friend who just happens to be a professional musician and music teacher. Dawn Williams, a Minnesota native who now makes her home in Durham, North Carolina, considers her music an extension of herself – bold, stunning, and vulnerable. In this “chat,” Dawn talks about the beauty of mistakes and music as an art of “layering.” Read on to learn how she taps into her creative well, see what major project she has going right now, and how you can win some free music.
1) Describe your work space. Where, in what environment, do you find you are the most productive and creative?
I do most of my work in my piano room, an open room in the front of my house where my baby grand Kawai lives. When my husband and I were house shopping, we knew our future home had to have room for a piano. The baby Kawai is the first piece of “furniture” we bought as a couple.
I do my best composing when I am home alone. I get self-conscious creating when anyone is around (my husband included). I keep track of my ideas via the voice recorder feature on my iPhone.
2) When do you do the bulk of your creative work? Do you adhere to any sort of schedule? Why or why not?
Because I teach piano lessons from home, my schedule is different each day. I find I have to be intentional about using my time wisely. Every once in a while, I have a few hours to myself in the mornings to work on songwriting. Other times, I compose in spurts of 15-minute breaks here, 30-minute breaks there. (This is where the voice recorder is crucial!) If I’ve been teaching lessons all day, I find at the end of the day it’s important to simply get out of the music room and do something else. (My husband, also a musician, sometimes wants to “jam” with me when he comes home from work. It can be a challenge, because music is still an “outlet” for him, whereas for me music is what I do all day, every day. So when he’s ready to “unwind” with a music jam session, often I am in need of a different outlet.)
My projects come in waves, so my work schedule depends on what projects I am seeking or fine-tuning. Sometimes I’ll be working on an arrangement for a student or playing through music books to discover a new piece for a student to work on. Churches hire me to compose anthems in honor of significant events. Sometimes I rehearse to accompany an instrumentalist or singer. My projects are always different, and by and large I am open to anything.
3) Where do you find inspiration for the music you write? Who have been some of your greatest influences?
Often my ideas come from where I spend most of my day – teaching lessons. I might latch onto a recurring sound, or hear the beginning of a new song that stems from a mistake. I have found that my students can make really great mistakes that are perfect for the start of a new piece of music.
My dad played a lot of instrumental music around our house when I was growing up. My car radio is always playing music. Both these sources have influenced the sounds and styles that define my music today. But my middle school piano teacher was the biggest influence on me starting to create my own music. She gave me freedom that previous teachers had not. I started reading and thinking in chords. I’d change the left-hand bass to a different pattern, adding in little flourishes or altering the ending. These exercises made the music mine.
4) Why do you make music?
I love the way music can tell stories. The swells that build emotion, dissonances that build tension and consonances that bring resolution – all of these characteristics help music to speak. Some people journal to express their thoughts and emotions. I write music. I like to think of my writing and playing as my life’s soundtrack.
5) What is one of the most important lessons you have learned through the music and creating music?
Creativity can’t be forced. Sometimes you just have to stop and revisit an idea on a different day with a different attitude. On my new Christmas album, I had 10 of 12 songs ready to go the weekend before I was headed to Nashville to record. I still needed 2 more and was quite anxious about which songs to do, how to arrange them, how to make them unique/“mine.” Everything I tried was plain lousy. I was angry and frustrated. I walked away from it for the rest of the day (really hard to do when you have a fast-approaching deadline!). I slept on it, prayed about it, and the next morning I woke up with fresh ideas. By the end of the day, those songs were complete. Personally, they’ve become 2 of my favorites on the album.
6) How do you balance time to pursue your creative endeavors with other facets of life that demand attention?
Um, if you’ve got the answer, can you fill me in? I’m still struggling with that word “balance.” I often operate with a “get ‘er done” mentality. Real life happens, and if I want to be a musician, I just have to jump in and do it on top of everything else.
7) Do you find that seasons inform your work?
My first thought is that my work is dictated by whichever project I am working on. But, if it’s a project of my own choosing, such as my new Christmas album, then seasons definitely play into it. The Christmas season is nostalgic for me; for years I have used that time to prepare church solos and relish in my favorite carols at the piano. I have channeled that seasonal energy into a big writing and recording project that I’ve dreamed of doing for years. While this project has been beckoning for a long time, the “season” has never been right – that balance between music, jobs, finances, family life, etc. just didn’t quite all fit. However, all the pieces have come together in 2013 to make this a fitting time to approach this project.
8) Describe briefly the album recording process.
There are so many approaches to recording an album. In my case, I want to be the one who does the composing and arranging. Other musicians choose to collaborate with another writer. I begin with a foundation of creating the piano parts, leaving space for other instruments to add their parts. Occasionally, I’ll have a specific line or melody for a specific instrument, but most often the instrumentalists will listen and improvise their own part to match the piano foundation.
For my new album, “Wonder: Songs for the Season,” I recorded the piano parts at home and sent the files to my producer in Nashville. Recording my parts at home allowed me to change sections if I wanted to. My producer listened to the piano tracks. Then, we collaborated about what instruments we imagined in certain sections. Comparing the process to a movie, I am the script writer who also gets an acting role. The producer is the movie director; his job is to see the music as a whole, cast the right characters for the other parts and see that all the parts come together successfully. The songs are built in layers, one part being added on top of the next. Rarely are multiple musicians recorded at the same time.
9) How did you land a producer? Describe your relationship with him.
I met my producer because God put me in the right place at the right time. I was teaching after-school piano lessons in 2009 when I met the music teacher whose classroom I used to conduct lessons. She had just recorded her first album that summer and was having a CD release concert that winter. On a whim, I encouraged her to let me know if she ever needed a piano player for any of her shows. Turns out, she did. Her producer was also there, so we briefly worked together. Later on, he offered to work with me one-on-one. So a few months later, I worked on my next recording project with him. We see each other only when I’m working on a project in Nashville, or occasionally when he travels to North Carolina to meet with another client. We touch base via phone every couple of months.
10) What are you working on right now? How did the project come to you, and why is it important?
Right now I am doing one of the most ambitious projects I’ve ever undertaken. “Wonder: Sounds and Stories of Christmas” features arrangements of some well known tunes mixed in with the beloved Christmas tales, readings and poems, with the storytelling talent of local radio personality Bill Jordan.
For a long time I have dreamed of putting together a performance where people come simply for the sake of enjoying music. Christmas is a season when people crave events to attend as a family and “get in the spirit.” I wanted to create a show that would help families prepare for the Christmas season in a feel-good, traditional way that focused on the true reason of Christmas. I don’t want to get caught up in the glitz and commercialism so often associated with December. The songs of “Wonder” are traditional, yet arranged in interesting and contemporary ways.
The shows are incredibly important to me as a musician. I am taking a leap of faith and jumping into the next tier of being a performing artist. I hope to grow this year’s show of two performances into a future tour, where I would travel to more venues and cities in the coming years.
*Share your favorite Christmas carol in the “Comments” section below to win a free copy of “Wonder: Songs for the Season.” Happy holidays!