Interview: Sam Williams’ Debut Album, ‘Glasshouse Children,’ Is a Success No Matter What
Sam Williams released his debut album, Glasshouse Children, on Friday (Aug. 20), and whatever happens from here on out with the record is just fine with him.
"It's had success enough for me," says Williams, admitting that his June signing with UMG Nashville "came together very, very quickly" and was "surprising" — "I never saw myself signing with a major label in Nashville," he notes — but pleasantly so.
"I didn't set out to do or prove anything other than be myself on this album. And I think the main message of it is that vulnerability is powerful. That's something that I really believe in," Williams says. Later, he adds, "Feeling championed by people who really care about the music is is enough for me."
Williams knows a bit about putting your whole self into your music, and about getting the right people in your corner. His surname may be relatively common, but it makes him royalty within country music: He's the youngest child of Hank Williams Jr., which makes him the half-sibling of several other musical Williamses and the grandson of Hank Williams.
Sam Williams, however, was for years reluctant to pursue a career in music; after all, with great power comes great responsibility. "Putting aside the expectation and legacy is something that I'm still working on," the artist confesses, "but gaining the confidence to record this album ... and finally getting to this point, where the world can have it, feels really good."
There wasn't any particular moment when the switch flipped for Williams, so to speak; rather, he explains, "the more that I did it, the more that I loved it, and the more of people's reactions to my work I would see, the more seriously I would take it."
His father, too, has been a source of wisdom.
"My dad's biggest advice has always been to just by myself, and that everything I'm supposed to do is already within me," the younger Williams says. Hank Jr. spent years singing his father's songs and making a career as a Hank Williams impersonator of sorts, until breaking out of that family tradition and turning toward a more rock-infused style.
"I think most of the major advice I've taken is indirect, and it's from listening to his music when he went in his own direction, and listening to interviews, and just growing as a person," Sam Williams continues. "Even if someone else liked it more, I just wouldn't think it would be worthwhile to imitate and do something that's already been done.
"I promise there are better Hank Williams Sr. impersonators than me, that's for sure," he adds, "but there's only one of me. So why wouldn't I do that?"
Williams' style is dreamy and grand — often alt-pop-esque, even — and largely tells personal stories in a style that's both metaphorical and direct. His co-writers include several lauded songwriters: Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, Mary Gauthier, Daniel Tashian and Brandy Clark, among others.
"It was important to me to test the waters with writers known for different things ... because I wanted to be versatile, and that helps you achieve that," says Williams, pointing in particular to his "Hopeless Romanticism" co-writer Justin Parker, a songwriter and producer out of England known for writing Rihanna's 2012 hit "Stay."
Williams stretches further with "Wild Girl," an outlier sonically and lyrically on Glasshouse Children. The song, co-written with Chris Hennessee and the Cadillac Three's Jaren Johnston, tells the story of "a small-town, hang-around, little left-of-center preacher's daughter" and, in turn, her daughter — a story "about never realizing your full potential and getting sucked into the town that you're from and never leaving," as Williams explains it.
""Wild Girl" I kind of see as going in to write a hit country song," Williams continues, "and then me putting my own spin on it and making it more of a story."
Johnston also produced several of the songs on Glasshouse Children (Williams worked with Tommy Cecil, Jason Gantt, Paul Moak and Bobby Holly and Sean McConnell as producers, too).
"I needed that collaborative partner that didn't have a preconceived direction of where they wanted the album to head," Williams reflects. "I think a lot of people would become too attached to making sure the album is 'country' — whoever decides what that means — and I think Jaren and I just wanted to see what we could create and how cool we can make it."
In addition to Johnston, Glasshouse Children features two more collaborators who will be familiar to mainstream country music fans: Keith Urban, on "Kids," and Dolly Parton, on "Happy All the Time." The latter song, Williams has had completed and had to keep a secret for about two and a half years.
"I though, 'Oh my God, what the hell am I going to do? Do I have any songs that are good enough to stand beside this?' ... There were times I was thinking, 'Is this ever going to come out?'" remembers Williams, who didn't get to be in the studio with Parton while she was recording but did get to meet her a few months after the fact.
"We just sat and talked. Dolly is very, very business-minded and very spiritual-minded ... and she's always thinking ahead," Williams shares. "It was really, really inspiring to me. I came out of meeting her kind of really taken aback and blown away and ready to work harder."
It was "Glasshouse Children," though, that became the album's title track. The song, which also opens the album with a wall of strings, tackles plenty of those feelings that Williams has about being a Williams. He held onto the title for a bit before co-writing the song with Dan Auerbach and Ronnie Bowman, not quite knowing what it meant but also "afraid to even really think about what it meant."
"I think it's many things: Being seen but not feeling seen, and kind of the premise that hurt people hurt people," Williams explains. "The phrase kind of expounds on, to me, that sometimes when people['s] tribulations and their trauma becomes so much a part of their identity, it's hard to separate themselves from it, and it's hard to grow and to move on from it ...
"I think everybody [processes] in different ways," he adds. "And, for me, that's writing about it and and singing about it."
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