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Songs in a Safe Place

Austin singer/songwriter Jess Williamson found inspiration in the banjo and finding a home in Austin

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Going home and turning inward gave Jess Williamson her debut album.

The songwriter describes the meaning behind Native State in two ways, the geographic and the personal. After leaving graduate school in New York and returning to Austin, Texas, Williamson fell in love with the city all over again. And in doing so, Williamson found herself much more comfortable living in her own skin.

"When I moved to New York City, I was focused really externally. I was in a new place and I wanted to make new friends. I was really affected by what was going on around me in the city," she says. "When I came back to Texas, I focused on, for the first time ever, doing a lot of self-work and hanging out by myself, not going out really and trying to connect for the first time with being OK being alone. I feel like that is your native state of being. You're alone. You're alone even in a room full of people."

As she resettled in Austin, Williamson, a singer since childhood and a banjo player since college, turned her attention to writing songs in a new way, focusing on how they worked together and connected, like chapters or linked stories in a book.

"What really defines this collection of songs is I wrote all of them after I moved back to Austin, when I really had the intention of making a solo record," she says.

The songs on Native State touch on restlessness, identity, selfhood, change and how the post-collegiate years are full of competing and contradictory impulses. In a sense, it's the outline of the path Williamson took back to her native state, and the questions she sees on the horizon.

"Becoming comfortable alone and embracing it, being OK with that, is something I'd never valued until recently," she says.

Growing up in Texas, Williamson loved music from a young age.

"I was always a singer, from when I was a little girl. My best friend and I in second grade would put on concerts for the whole playground. I told my mom I'd be a singer like Dolly Parton. Then, growing up and going through school, society kind of beats that out of you. I took some voice lessons in high school, but mostly I felt like it wasn't realistic," she says.

Williamson went to the University of Texas in Austin, majoring in photojournalism. While in school, she worked for the college newspaper and radio station and picked up the banjo.

Radio station friends lived in Rancho Relaxo, a house known for its basement shows. Williamson describes her banjo conversion while watching Austin's Ralph White perform there one night.

"He's been around forever but he doesn't have a big following outside of Austin. He plays a few instruments, but mainly banjo and I remember watching him and just being completely transfixed. I couldn't stop thinking about it and I wanted to take banjo lessons. I just had this feeling about it. I never had this reaction to an instrument that way," she says.

Williamson started taking banjo lessons, invigorated by the strong connection she felt to the instrument.

"I'd had a hard time with guitar before. I tried to pick it up but my hands were too small. The banjo fit better and it gave me more confidence to play the guitar," she says.

Graduating in 2009, Williamson took the next step to pursuing a career in photography by moving to New York and enrolling in the MFA program at Parsons The New School for Design.

"After the first semester, I freaked out and realized that lingering dream I'd always had was never going to happen if I became a slave to debt and had to get a salary job to pay it off," she says.

After two semesters, she left school, starting a band in New York and writing songs, but the homesickness grew and she decided she needed to return to Austin.

"I knew I had people here who could really help me and it felt like a safe place to get something new started. I didn't have that same community in New York. I knew I could come back, live cheaply and be able to write and figure things out. Austin is a really safe place to explore music and I knew I could book shows and record," she says.

Her choice to focus on music fueled a creative streak and Williamson's songwriting took off once she returned.

"Sometimes they come really fast and it's like a miracle. It feels like you're not even writing, you're just tapped into something," she says.

Native State, released Jan. 28, is mostly Williamson's voice and banjo. Percussion is minimal. Flourishes of cello, bass, dobro and organ color the edges. It's a spare album, made not of Texas twang but of Williamson's haunting and delicate singing and playing.

"For me, the most important part of the songs are really the lyrics," she says. "I like a minimal sound and I like working with silence, so I didn't want to make it a super-fleshed-out record."

The quietness benefits songs like "Medicine Wheel" and "Spin the Wheel," airy and earthy tunes that look at the cycle of life from the honest perspective of a 20-something. "Been draped over dozens of faces/ Been cut, dried, bleached and braided/ One part dead, one part haunted/ Get up close and you see the ghosts," Williamson sings at the opening of "Medicine Wheel."

The album's peak is the final track, "Seventh Song," which draws on the pressures she felt when considering leaving, and then returning to, Austin.

"That song has a lot to do with the tension between wanting to be a rolling stone and gather no moss and be really open to whatever comes your way, the tension between living that way and between really making your home and investing in your city and your group of people," she says. "There are really good things that come from both ways of living, and when I wrote that song I was really wanting to invest in Austin and the city and the relationships I have here, but feeling the advice I was getting from everyone around to move away to a big city where all the opportunities are."

For now, though, Williamson has found her balance: recording and writing in Austin and then taking her music on the road.

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