Cartographer of the Soul

This is a story of community and joy; of hardship, optimism, and drive. A very human tale, this is a story about faith. Victoria Williams hasn’t just died, started a grassroots faith ’n’ politics movement, put out a new album, or made an oh-so-startling Pat Boone-esque career move. That’s okay; she hadn’t when I first heard of her either.

See, this is how it works: Someone you know and trust introduces you to Victoria’s world. Then you spread the word to people who know and trust you, and so on. In my case, it was my best friend, Derek, who secured my immigration into the land o’ Vic. And what a world it is.

Born on December 23, 1958, in Forbing, Louisiana—a too-small-to-get-on-the-Allstate-map town—the young Victoria had to seek excitement in the nearby town of Shreveport. Up in the northeast corner of the state, Shreveport is close enough to both Texas and Arkansas for the musical mix to incorporate Cajun, bluegrass, country, jazz, soul, and various strands of the folk-weave. Hard-rockin’ 1970s Southern boogie leavened the predominantly acoustic influences on her developing style. Vic’s first gig was in Lickskillet, in the east end of Texas. She was singing in local folk clubs by the time she was in her late teens and working in various skilled laboring jobs of the house-painter/roofer variety.

Of life in the Shreveport area, she said in an interview with Mojo in December 1994: "There’s a kind of local craziness down there. The pace is so slow you can see what’s boiling underneath." Despite moving to the Los Angeles area in the early ’80s, the bayou and the "local craziness" provides her with the characters populating her songs. Victoria may have moved from La. to LA, but the "Vieux Amis" of 1990’s Swing the Statue! are still sitting on a Cajun bench with the rich red earth beneath it. "T.C.," "Opelousas," "Harry," "Crazy Mary," and "Pappy" all celebrate people and places significant in her life and celebrated in her songs.

People are a major component in Victoria’s work. She seems to have a knack for drawing them to her and somehow liberating them. Some impressive people have contributed to her albums, including R.E.M.’s Mike Mills and Peter Buck, T-Bone Burnett, Buddy and Julie Miller, Tammy Rogers, and Syd Straw. Her brothers David and Andy Williams regularly collaborate with her, both live and in-studio, while her husband, lead Jayhawk Mark Olson, adds his distinctive voice to "When We Sing Together" on Loose. Long-time Beach Boys collaborator Van Dyke Parks is responsible for the delightfully off-kilter string arrangements on Happy Come Home and Loose, which complement Williams’ quirky vocals perfectly.

After just a short time in Victoria’s world, you begin to realize that she isn’t cool because she’s worked with all these interesting people. Rather, these people are interesting because they’ve been touched by the hand o’ Vic.

VICTORIA WILLIAMS became a Christian while in California, and married Christian singer-songwriter Peter Case. On the strength of Case’s recommendation and a blazing live show, his label, Geffen, released William’s debut, Happy Come Home, in 1987. Unfortunately neither relationship worked out and 1990 found a now-divorced Victoria putting out Swing the Statue! on indie label Rough Trade. Statue is typically optimistic, yet still finds space for lines such as: "Why must it start/Why do lovers part/Why does the cheating go on/Why have hearts turned to stone" ("Why Look at the Moon"), and for a song her brother David and friend Marvin Etzioni seem to have written specifically for the album, "I Can’t Cry Hard Enough" ("Now that you’re gone/I can’t cry hard enough").

There was another long delay before 1994’s release of Loose. After losing the sensation in her hands in 1992 while opening for Neil Young and perforce finishing her set a cappella, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Being a songwriter’s songwriter doesn’t tend to reap great financial reward, so there was no money with which to pay her medical bills. 1993’s release of Sweet Relief was evidence of the regard in which her work is held by her kindred musicians (see "Finding Sweet Relief," page 52). Her marriage that same year to Mark Olson of The Jayhawks and a move to the southern Californian high desert north of Joshua Tree also kept her quite busy. A return to health allowed her to make her movie debut, a supporting role in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.

Following the critical and commercial success of Sweet Relief, both the listening public and the music press were prepared (finally) to pay attention to Williams’ work. Loose surpassed all expectations. It is such a breathtakingly beautiful record that even Britain’s caustically hipper-than-thou Melody Maker had to confess, "Victoria Williams has a rare and precious gift that transcends mere musical ability. This woman can cure cynicism."

Doing justice to the incredible swoon of Williams’ singing voice is no easy task. Her vocal chords are the human equivalent of a Leslie speaker—the variable-speed, rotary-speaker that gives a Hammond organ its unique, whirring sound. Hers is a voice of no definable age or category. It is not a "folk" voice or a "rock" voice; it’s Victoria’s voice.

Williams sings like the little girl struggling with her solo of "Away in a Manger" at the Christmas service; she sings like a querulous old woman. She sings with passion; she sings with grace. Mostly she sings like all these things at once without any canceling the others out.

God has promised always to be present; it’s easier to believe when Victoria’s singing. She may not sound like anyone else you’ve ever heard, but she never sounds otherworldly. This is a throat that definitely has blood in it; the voice emerging from it is unmistakably human.

ON MORE RECENT releases, her singing may be unusual, but it is never mannered. Older songs, however, like "Shoes" on 1987’s Happy Come Home can take the unprepared listener by surprise with the erratic, liquid quality of Williams’ voice. (Since you’re far more likely to know Loose inside out and back to front before you ever get within even sniffing distance of either of the first two albums, that shouldn’t be a problem.)

One of the most enduringly gorgeous moments on Loose is the song "My Ally," which was co-written by and features Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner. Ordinarily I can’t abide his overly contrived alterna-angst and grating voice. "My Ally," though, has seriously forced me to reconsider. It is a beautiful paean to platonic friendship with a loose sound, a tight groove, fragile harmonies, and great words: "No we don’t make passionate love/No we don’t even kiss and hug/Not a lot of jealousy/I’m friends with you/I hope you’re friends with me/You’re my ally."

That’s one of the most surprising things about Williams’ work; her songs are so human that they bring out the humanity in people you’d previously known hadn’t had any. She inspires love. Even Eddie Vedder sounds warm and passionate on Pearl Jam’s Sweet Relief cover of "Crazy Mary." Of course, he had Victoria playing guitar and singing harmonies with him; even so, I had a prejudice challenged. She’s good for my ability to forgive. She expands my tolerance, by accident mostly.

Beyond even her roots and her friends, her musical ability and her honest human-ness, is Victoria’s simple faith. Although songs like "I’ll Do His Will," "Holy Spirit," "Weeds," "Lift Him Up," "Psalms," and "You R Loved" ("Jesus walked on water/ Turned the water into wine/Went down to the drunkards/To tell them everything is fine/You are loved, you are loved, you are really loved") are overtly Christian in content, generally her faith is evident rather than obvious.

Williams’ ethos is pretty well encapsulated in these lines from "Merry Go Round" on her debut album: "The key to the merry go round is the merry/the key to the fairy tale is the fairy/We’ve sat on the bridge between happy and scary/Too long." Sweet Relief proved that Vic’s songs are good enough to be real songs, good enough for "worldly" musicians to be tripping over their feet in the rush to record her material—no accommodation necessary, no need to excuse it on the grounds that "at least her stuff’s Christian." Hallelujah.

Life seems to have reached a more stable place in Victoria’s world: She’s happily married, her condition is responding to treatment, and she’s currently recording her third album for the Mammoth record label. According to the sleeve notes on Loose, we can probably expect the songs "Bath," "Firefly," and "Weather." Previous albums have included songs covering such fertile and varied ground as God, footwear, love, betrayal, friendship, and pet dogs, so it seems pointless to guess at anything other than its unique brilliance.

Victoria Williams is a contemporary psalmist. In a universe with precious few maps, she is a cartographer of the soul. Her optimism is undaunted, but never daunting, never denying our frailty or her own, never vacuously victorious, always Victoria. Like my pal Derek says: "Sometimes you think Victoria’s too happy, but then I guess the pain is always there." We are blessed. You are loved.

RICHARD VERNON is a former Sojourners intern, now living in Waterfoot, Scotland, where he listens obsessively to music.

A Victoria Williams Discography:
Studio Albums
Happy Come Home. Geffen, 1987.
Swing the Statue! Rough Trade, 1990.
Loose. Mammoth, 1994.

Live Album:
This Moment in Toronto. Mammoth/C.B.C., 1996 (with the Loose Band).

Guest Appearances:
Victoria Williams has appeared on albums by such artists as The Jayhawks, Julie Miller, and Joe Henry. She has also contributed to tribute albums for Neil Young, Mark Heard, and Gram Parsons.

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