Chillin’ With Keller Williams

With an unabashedly fun, quirky songwriting voice and a knack for inventing infectious rhythmic grooves (not to mention the rather impressive layers of sound he can get out of live phrase sampling of his own playing), singer-songwriter-guitarist Keller Williams is exactly the kind of hard-to-pigeonhole entertainer that the majority of mainstream media tends to ignore. When asked if, 10 years into his career as a performer, his perspective on the music industry has changed, he says no.

“I never really looked to the labels as a savior … I am still way off mainstream radar, and never really had high hopes for the actual [music] industry. I’ve always had somewhat selfish reasons for playing: to entertain myself, and hopefully I can entertain other people, too.”

Nevertheless, for an independent artist, Williams has managed to attract and sustain a relatively large-and loyal-following, something he attributes mainly to persistence and grassroots support. “It’s taken years to get to this point. It’s simply returning to the same towns year after year; start small, keep doing it, and hopefully people bring their friends next time,” Williams remarks, adding that overall, he is happy with where his career is right now. “It’s quite comfortable for me in my own little world.”

Although he is a songwriter and performer, Williams notes that he never learned how to read music notation. “I wrote my first song when I was about 12. I was taking piano lessons, and it came time for the recital, but I couldn’t read music or anything, so I just kind of made up my own song.” Indeed, with original songs to his credit including ones titled “Love Handles,” “Kidney in a Cooler” and “Blazeabago,” one of the best parts of what Williams has to offer is his own unique songwriting voice.

“A lot of those [songs] are basic things that actually happened. Some are tidbits of conversations that got turned into a fictional tale, and sometimes I just use my imagination.” For his vocal songs, Williams says that the words usually come to him before the music does, whereas the instrumental ones come from “mindlessly doodling” on the guitar. Generally speaking, however, “I try to stay away from politics and sappy love songs … but I am in love, so there are some,” Williams comments, though he shies away from love song cliches.

Williams names the release he gets from being onstage as his favorite part. “I have tons of music kicking around inside my head, and I want the music to be out. It’s not the same at home, because at home, you can be playing, but the phone can ring, and you get distracted. If the phone rings while you’re onstage, you can’t answer it.” His job as a musician is “to entertain, to help people get out of their heads for a few hours, forget their worries and the world struggles going on right now.”

When I spoke with Williams, he was gearing up to start his current tour. “We’re doing 15 shows in 19 days,” with his appearance at The Canopy Club in Urbana scheduled near the end. “When it gets close to the last show of a tour, there’s always a special energy.” Although touring has its hardships-such as the tendency to get “quick and easy food,” which makes it “very easy to be unhealthy” and “put pounds on when on the road”-Williams says he likes that he gets to “see the world and get paid for it-or at least pay your expenses.” He also encourages people to come out to the live shows, remarking that, “It’s really hard to get to know what I’m about without seeing the show.”

Williams has been quite busy with recording, touring and his own radio show (Keller’s Cellar-“Somewhat Ruleless Radio”) for the past couple of years, and has several projects in the works for 2005 as well, which include “picking some bluegrass with friends,” a forthcoming DVD release and a new studio project featuring collaborations with other artists, something that Williams says he’s been wanting to do for a while. Williams also added that “We just had a baby … so she’s filling my life with all kinds of goodness right now … She’s my next 18-year plan.”

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