God, I don’t know,” laughed Victoria Williams while talking about how a Louisiana tunesmith who made her bones in the Los Angeles club scene came to live in the deep desert. In a hippie cafe on the wide road that leads from Joshua Tree National Park to the big, twirly wind generators outside Palm Springs, Williams is not exactly holding court. She has too much natural humility for that. But in the air-conditioned splendor (it’s at least 90 degrees outside) of our Saturday meeting-place, neither is she shrinking from the limelight. After all, she enjoys the recognition and warmth from the community just about everywhere we go in this bright, beautiful, infernally hot little town.
Williams has never been rock star famous (yet), though she did tour with Neil Young, and her fans and friends include Richard Thompson, M. Ward, and Jimmy Page. Diminutive and idiosyncratic, she rules a stage with an odd balance of self-possessed calm and an implicit and guileless vulnerability. (People, often men, become instinctively protective around her.) Musically, you could place Williams, who will play at the Presidio Chapel this Friday night, somewhere between Lucinda Williams and Joanna Newsom, though this is unfair because it’s too easy. The former is her friend and fellow Louisianan, and the latter shares the voice. “I’ve heard one of her songs, and I liked her very much,” said Williams of Newsom. When I mention that they sound a bit alike, she responds with candor. “People told me that, too.”
Born in Louisiana in the late 1950s, Williams played piano and later learned guitar. She was in her first band in the fifth grade. “The Gurgles!” she cried in recollection, surprising folks at other tables. “We were great.” She came out to Los Angeles in the late 1970s, busking on Venice Beach. Connections to the Troubadour folk nights and L.A. luminaries like Van Dyke Parks-who produced her first CD and introduced her to great musicians-quickly followed. She also met and married Peter Case, the former Plimsouls star, who was a major force in guiding her career.
Very quickly, critics began singing her praises. Unlikely jazz and folk melds mark her best songs, including “Summer of Drugs.” “Sometimes it takes me forever to put something together, but that came all at once,” she said. It opens with the image of Williams’s sister bitten by a poisonous snake and the singer administering first aid. “I started my teenage years with poison in my mouth,” she sings on her second album. On the flip side is “Tarbelly and Featherfoot,” a song about excessively drooling pet dogs, which took her forever to write.
Both are somehow distinctively her, as is the rest of her large body of work. “I made seven albums on my own and seven albums with the Creekdippers,” she said proudly, referring to a band she and her ex-husband, Mark Olson (the former Jayhawk), fronted. They toured extensively, though she’s currently on hiatus from the band so she can pursue other interests. She likes leaving the desert in summer. “It’s ridiculously hot here,” she said.
Disaster visited her rising arc, though. While on tour with Neil Young, Williams realized her hands and feet were numb. She was eventually diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and-for the dozen years since-has endured onslaughts and remissions of the disease, though she got in early on what was an experimental drug that has to be injected daily. (A famous tribute album, Sweet Relief, featuring Lou Reed, Social Distortion, and Pearl Jam, raised both money and her rather esoteric fame.) Even with insurance, she spends in the low four figures a month for the shots.
With typical aplomb, Williams smiled and said, “It’s like I’m paying rent on my body.” When I suggest there’s something heroic about maintaining a musical career in such circumstances, she looks at me with an arched eyebrow. “Really?” she asked, as if it never occurred to her before. “People say you’re never given more than you can handle.” So her current situation, however unfortunate, is best? “Well :” she said, again smiling.
Williams plays a regular gig on Sunday nights with her pickup band the Thriftstore Allstars at a big tavern in nearby Pioneertown called Pappy and Harriet’s. “It just gets so loud,” she said. It may look Old West, but the bar was built by Hollywood in the 1940s, and the town is called Pioneertown because Roy Rogers’s band, the Sons of the Pioneers, lived there. She’s been using the gigs as practice for her S.B. show, but they’ve been a magnet for others. Jimmy Page dropped in to play one night. “It was great,” she said. “Everybody there got on their cell phone and before you knew it, that place was packed.”
But the future beckons her, too. “Last year M. Ward got in touch with my manager, and I went out on tour with him,” she said. She loves Ward’s work and is cautiously approaching an opportunity to record with him, though she seems worried something might jinx the project. “There’s something weird about me you ought to know,” she said, leaning over in confiding fashion. “I really do work all the time, but if it’s not something I’m happy with : Let’s just say I have all these notebooks full of ideas, and I just call them my blather,” she laughed. She plans to spend summer reviewing those notebooks and tapes with the hope of finding enough material to work with. “That’s what M. Ward told me to do. He said, ‘Don’t write anything more, just see what you have.'” She paused, considering the relative tedium of all that. “But I do prefer to be writing.”
She also prefers improvisation on stage to just playing a list of hits. “But tell me the truth,” she said self-consciously. “Do you think I should be the last act?” After a self-pep talk, Williams seems to have resigned herself to Friday night’s lineup. “I’ll have fun up there. I guess I’ll just go on third, but don’t blame me if everybody leaves.”
I doubt they will.
Victoria Williams shares the stage with Devon Sproule and Angela Correa this Friday, May 25 at the Presidio Chapel at 7:30 p.m. For ticket info, call 965-0093.