An Interview with Cris Williamson

Ann Driscoll
May 1, 2009
Cris Williamson plays the guitar during her residency at a Singer/Songwriter Workshop.
Williamson switches to piano.
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth

Cris Williamson, a pioneering folk singer/songwriter and activist, visited Berklee for a three-day residency. Williamson was at the forefront of the women's music movement, which began in the early 1970s. Her landmark album, The Changer and the Changed, sold more than 500,000 copies and broke new ground by openly exploring lesbian themes. Along with several other activists, she founded Olivia Records, the first independent label run by women with the goal of releasing records by female artists.

Speaking by phone from her home in Seattle the week before she arrived at Berklee, Williamson shared her thoughts on songwriting and social justice with the Groove.

Ann Driscoll: What has been your association with Berklee? Are you excited to visit?

Cris Williamson: I've played at the BPC [Berklee Performance Center] in the past. It's been many years now. I certainly know it as a fine institution. I wish I myself had gone to a school like that. It's interesting to come back to it now. I'm thrilled to even come there. It's gonna be awesome.

AD: What kind of advice do you plan on giving to students, especially to young lesbian musicians who look up to you? What do you want them to take away from your residency at Berklee?

CW: Being a lesbian came so much later in my career because I started when I was 16 and I didn't fall in with the feminist world until my mid-20s. Before that I was in rock 'n' roll, folk music, and standards. I took voice lessons. Nobody taught me to write a song. Politics taught me about politics. Living in a world where all our leaders were assassinated one by one. It entrenched me in the left. When I became a feminist, I further honed a humanist consciousness, which is now a feminist leaning. The overriding element that led me into music is the human condition, that we are all alike. That's why different styles of music appeal—it's either good music or not. I listen to everything. I'm widely read in music as well as literature. And, so my approach to music is to speak as though we were all creatures who come to a water hole, in a clearing, in the wilderness. And everybody deserves the water, and the water to me is music. And that's what brings us all human beings together. And I think music should bring people together and not drag them apart.

AD: What would be an example of music that drags people apart?

CW: An example of that is where it's so deliberately laden with obscure lyrics and style, so that you feel you didn't belong there. Jazz and opera used to be that way. They were associated with class, but now they're not. Everyone can listen. If it moves you, it moves you. If it doesn't, let's move onto something else that does. As a writer, it's really important to come from the personal and aim for the universal. We all need to speak one language. We all need to agree. It furthers people to escalate differences. It's harder to sell peace very well.

AD: We've just come out of two terms of George W. Bush. Is making political music different now that Obama has been elected? What is the tone of the music you want to create in the age of Obama?

CW: There's the danger of preaching to the choir. The thing about either side, whether it's the left or the right, is that the left will sing to the left, and the right will sing to the right. What about the middle way? Somewhere in the middle lies the truth of either side.

As you say, it's easy for us to be politically aligned because we had a common enemy in Bush. Now the common enemy is poverty. From that is going to come more compassion from countries who labor constantly in the realms of poverty, who don't have water, who are racked with disease, who know no medicine.

The obvious problem is that we had somebody in the White House who never thought about anything. He was placed there for just that reason so that the shadow government behind him could operate efficiently as a business: government as the corporation. And then they all walk off as millionaires and leave us with two wars that nobody wanted that has to get cleaned up somehow and our tax money, which people are struggling to have to pay anyway, is going to have to pay the bonuses and salaries of the corporations. The powers that be set it up so that we could never regulate those agencies, like AIG, which is an insurance company that operates like a bank.

It was not Obama's fault. He was left with it. I don't know. He at least is a man of decent intelligence and his reach is based in people. People put him there. The next generation put him there. The young people: you live in that world of computer-generated reality—of grassroots internet mobilization.

We dropped out of the middle class, and tried to live tribally, because our innocence died, due to our leaders, who crushed our hope. It was hard to not feel cynical. For me, to come back and teach, and be a musician, I want to say to people, 'Making music is compassionate.' The raison d'etre of music is not to make money. Music eases things. It's a miraculous thing.

AD: What is your take on music that is not uplifting? Some of the greatest music that has been created is sad. What is your take?

CW: Music is a prism of the heart. If you pass the pain through that prism, it's refracted through fractals of emotion. One of those can be anger. One of those can be incredible pain, all embodied in music. It doesn't have to stay pent up. Once it's out, it's out.

Some people are more inclined towards down. I'm more inclined towards up. So, when I listen to reggae, that's revolutionary, spiritual, and danceable. It's anchored in the offbeat—the bass on two and four. All music is just patterns: musical patterns, word patterns. It's how you arrange the patterns that leads to your style. My friend Bonnie Raitt is a great blues player, but I always feel exalted when I hear her play—she passes it through that prism, and it's positive.

Music can help heal the sadness of the world—it's clinically proven. People write me, and say 'you've saved my life.' Never forget for one minute, somebody may listen to your music, so be careful. What's the effect you want here? Do you want to unite people, or split them? I like people to think and I like people to come to their own conclusions. It's very philosophical. I don't start out without savior behavior. Save yourself, before you save the world, as if you saved the world. It's existential. The Buddhists say 'You can't clean up the world but don't stop trying. Don't suffer over your own suffering.'

The harder song to write is the happy song. It's easy to write the sad song. When you're happy you don't need to write one. You're just being in the world. It's when we feel alienated that we have to write. So we can belong somewhere. We're caught between the devils and angels. It's cellular; it's visceral. Give people a place to perch. Do I want them to understand it? Yes. It doesn't mean I don't have personal, eclectic mythology, but I try to put the jewels in the right setting, so people can grasp your meaning. They don't have to understand your whole thing. The songs that last forever are simply made, they're simple stories—people sneer at that. But that's the music that lasts. That's Dvorak who used the folk melodies. Obama is like a folk song. He's the best of us right now.

AD: Who is at the forefront of music these days? Who are some upcoming artists you enjoy listening to?

CW: I haven't been listening to anybody. I've been listening to birds, I've been walking in silence. I've been listening to classical music. If I have music on, it's classical. In my car, I have been listening over and over to a James Taylor album. I love Joni Mitchell. I love so many artists that I think are truly great. Recently, because I've been writing so much, I try to write out of silence and space. If I'm stuck for a groove, I'll slip around on various radio stations. I'll borrow liberally from everywhere. I need to remember the notes the chickadee is singing. It whistles notes. I hear music coming out of rivers, out of the wind. I hear a lot of nature.

AD: Earlier you talked about how the raison d'etre of music shouldn't be to make money, but what has been your experience in the music industry in terms of earning a living?

CW: It's hard. Right now I don't have much money. Coming to Berklee is a great gig for me. It's business, but it's my absolute pleasure. I think of myself more as a trader. Women don't have money. When we first started, women would give whatever they could for our music; sometimes that was a dollar. Gradually, the prices would go up and up, just to match the standard of living.

I'm not a wealthy woman. I could have been. I had a major album. My album traveled to D.C. where a group of lesbians heard it. Meg Christian, one of these women, knew my album by heart. These women knew all my music—the music had traveled where I had not been. I had no idea what women's music was. Feminism was still sort of theoretical at that point. There weren't very many books about women. And Meg had this idea, and they did an interview with me, and it was on one of the very first women's radio shows. They started asking me about sexism in the music industry that I had experienced. I hadn't had hideous experiences in terms of sexism. I've been lucky—fortunate in fact. It was men who had lifted me up and put me in the industry in the first place—had invested in me. I said why don't you start a women's record company? And they did the next day.

Women didn't have much experience. There weren't women in bands or orchestras; all the engineers were men. We crashed through a whole membrane of things. We did Meg's album. We did The Changer and the Changed. We pressed 500 of them; they sold so fast. They sold out in a matter of days. I produced it. I never produced anything in my life.

We got a Christian, a far-right studio, gave us, a bunch of lesbians, a locked studio. So we could make our own mistakes and nobody could make us feel bad about it. And we did it and we learned how to do it! And we gave each other permission to do it. So we just made something up and it turned out to be a really viable alternative. After that, I cruised. I worked all the time. I was on the road all the time. We all helped create a whole batch of women artists who said "why can't we do it?" Now everyone can have their own label. It's all back in the heads of the people. It's a better thing. It's a greater thing.

AD: Were you in touch with the other people at the forefront of folk music and feminism? People like Dylan and Steinem?

CW: They were all working. We didn't have hang out time. Dylan was in another league all together. Gloria and I have met and we know each other. We've never hung out. I've hung with the circle that was around Janis Joplin. I was a hippie in Northern California at the same time that all of these movements were happening—while all these things were all getting borne. Of course, I listened to Dylan and Steinem! How brilliant she still is. What a fine human being Gloria Steinem is and she's changed the world. And I, in my way, also changed the world. I would never put myself in their league. I was so independent, because I became known as a lesbian singer. But my music isn't so heavy on gender or queer politics because it's about the human condition.

AD: What was it like being gay back then? Were there places you could go and hang out?

CW: There were gay bars, and there were lesbian bars. The only ones I ever went in were in San Francisco and they were famous. Maude's, for instance. They were famous. I was never really comfortable in them because I didn't drink. It was like hunting. People were hunting and I felt like prey. That aspect is always there. We started doing concerts at Unitarian churches and they let us into their churches and we started doing concerts there. The power of women in a room is huge—who weren't hunting but were there to be together. The Michigan Womyn's Festival, for example, is amazing—it's so professional.

AD: Do you think it's easier to get attention if you're an out artist? Does it help or hurt you?

CW: Well, it's lesbian chic. It became chic. But there were only two of them. Melissa Etheridge and k.d. lang. But it's still the boys' money behind them. The difference between that and the Michigan Womyn's Festival is that it's women's money. It's all women running it, and the only thing the men do is clean the toilets.