The Spirit of the Harp: An Interview with Gemma Williams of Woodpecker Wooliams

Woodpecker Wooliams is the project of Brighton, UK-based songwriter and musician Gemma Williams. Since her first release (Diving Down) in 2009, she has released a number of solo recordings and collaborations including the soundtrack to an independent film. I recently had the chance to chat to her about her music, performances, literary loves, and upcoming projects.

How did your Woodpecker Wooliams project come about? Can you tell me about the name?

I was sort of shaken up out of my ordinary life once upon a time thanks to a bout of inexplicable seizures. At the time I felt like I’d lost everything as I had to quit my midwifery training, couldn’t work to pay the bills where I was living, etc… I slunk off to hide myself away down in Devonshire’s countryside, holed up in a cottage cut into the hill under Totnes castle and happened upon a shop hiring out harps for pennies (more or less). And thence was born the Woodpecker. The more I played and sang the better I felt, so as much as it’s for pleasure, it’s kind of also for health.

What do you think of recent developments in experimental folk music, for want of a better term? Is there a strong scene in Brighton? 

Well I feel really fortunate about the way playing music has introduced me to little musical communities all over. Last year, for example I had the privilege of touring around Russia with an Italian musician called Golden Cup and a Russian duo called Love Cult. It totally opened my eyes to this burgeoning network of artists somewhere on the spectrum between ‘experimental’, ‘noise’ and ‘folk soundtrack’ that spreads all the way across Russia, Finland, Poland and a bunch of other icey places! There are so many DIY cassette-tape imprints out there too releasing extremely well-presented, super cool, niche stuff; it’s really exciting.

As for Brighton, it’s a pretty throbbingly creative place and as such there are many different scenes. You always think everyone making music here knows everyone making music here, but then there are always new waves rising up. I’d say that whilst Brighton does boast holding an annual noise festival, and produces a fair amount of experimental music, it seems to excel in producing pop and popular/alt folk.

Harp is one of your main instruments. Are there any particular harpists past and present who have influenced you? 

I do use the harp, but as I said we kind of stumbled upon one another. I actually try not to listen too much to harpists, because although I love the sound of the instrument, it feels important to find my own way with it – not to (indirectly) take influence from someone else’s style. For me it’s more the spirit of the harp itself that inspires me – in that vein, I’d say Orpheus was a dude. He played a lyre, but that’s the kind of forefather of the harp.

Lyrics and storytelling are a striking part of your music. I’ve already asked you about musical influences, do you have any favourite writers you see as an influence?

When I set out to make a piece of music, the starting point is the story. The story could be one one short moment or it could run over years. The aim is to transmit that feeling, and that tale, through sound. So, yes, I’m possibly more influenced by books than other music; I’m also deeply influenced by the people around me. I’m just about finished recording a new album and I think it’s fair to say there are several literary references in those songs. Voices from women writers like Jean Rhys, Virginia Woolf and The Brontë Sisters tend to most easily weave themselves into my music as you can trace a kind of hysterical lineage through them that I’m very fond of. I’m also a great fan of myth and fairytale.

I’m really enjoying your live recording from Woodland Recordings. Is performing live an important part of your project? From the videos on YouTube, I can see that you play an impressive array of instruments in addition to the harp. 

Thank you. That was from my first tour in 2010 out in Germany with Stephen who runs Woodland Recordings and plays and writes prolifically. I get bored easily, and I worry about boring others, so I like to chop and change instruments and keep myself amused. A friend came to see me play once and told me I looked like a big kid in a playroom — which probably isn’t far from the truth. I’m really enjoying adding noisier glitchier toys to the set at the moment.

Playing live is, on the one hand, still always incredibly daunting, but the imp of the perverse within me quite likes the trauma of it. On the other hand, it permits me to travel to places I’d never have been to otherwise. I love the unpredictable experience of touring and the warmth of hospitality that people show to travelling musicians.

Continuing on the theme of videos, do you see the Internet and sites like YouTube as being helpful in reaching a global audience? How about digital downloads and the endless debates about it? 

Phew. I don’t know: I don’t know if I’d have been able to do half the things I’ve done if it weren’t for the internet. We probably would never have crossed paths to do this interview, from one side of the world to another, if it weren’t for the way music is shared these days. I like it, I think!

Youtube is a great device for sharing music, but it doesn’t really suit my attention span; I’m not a great scourer of the interweb. My sister made a super cool video though for a single that Becky Becky, the electro-sex-pop band I seem to occasionally front, made a few months ago. We got to fill the honeymoon suite of a local boutique kinky hotel with friends and dance around spraying Cava in a the hot-tub. That was fun.

I can also see that a lot of thought goes into the physical forms your releases take.

Yep. I think the whole thing’s important; it’s a package.

What are some of your favourite labels and artists at the moment, including ones you have worked with? 

I think I’ll just have to name-check a load of friends: The Woolshop Productions (Italy) hand-make the packaging for all their releases (including mine) and each one’s works of art. A Beard of Snails (Denmark) do similarly. My Dance The Skull released a tape of mine in 2010 and whilst they’re quite minimalist when it comes to packaging their roster is far out in a great way. Jozik Records (Finland) and Full of Nothing (Russia) are putting out some cassette-based corkers too.

Can you talk about some of your current projects like your forthcoming releases on Full of Nothing? I know one of those releases is a reissue which is great as it’s nice to see limited editions stay in print so they can reach a wider audience.

Yeah! 2012 is going to be a busy year for the Pecker. The guys at Full of Nothing are re-releasing the Patryoska EP (which originally came out on The Woolshop Productions) early last year. It was a very small run but got a lot of really positive feedback so we’re bringing it back, on tape this time. There’s also an awesome noise jam from a couple of our concerts last year featuring Love Cult, myself and Golden Cup which they’ll be releasing soon enough.

I was asked to write a soundtrack for an indie film made in Hamburg last year – I got to go out to the premiere and it was really emotional hearing the music up in the film. That’s a collaboration with a Brighton-based hipster musician called OCDC and is due for release on Love Lion (Chicago) early this year.

Finally, I have an album of songs, called The Bird School of Being Human, that is pretty much good to go. It’s been a long time coming, and I’m really excited about it. Robot Elephant Records (London) will be releasing it sometime around late Spring I should think. A friend and excellent muscian, Marcus Hamblett, has been recording it and he’s really done wonders. Songs of murder and madness; grimier and noisier than before but still melodic and unashamedly fey. I can’t wait to share it!

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Check out the Woodpecker Wooliams blog here.  The Bird School of Being Human out Spring 2012. Patryoska re-release and Love Cult meets Golden Cup meets WW  live improv cassette are out now.  Anni OST‘ is also being released in Spring 2012.

[Feature image by Steven Burch.]

Andrea Quinlan is based in Christchurch, New Zealand. She has had poetry published in brief, Gaga Stigmata and Delirious Hem. Her poetry chapbook, We Speak Girl, will be published by Dancing Girl Press in 2012. Her blog is The Rainbow Notebook.

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One Comment on “The Spirit of the Harp: An Interview with Gemma Williams of Woodpecker Wooliams”

  1. racheljfentonRachel J Fenton
    March 9 2012 at 6:15 pm #

    Excellent interview. Love this line: “you can trace a kind of hysterical lineage”. Looking forward to the album release.

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