When asked where the melancholy in her beautiful, downbeat songs comes from, singer-songwriter A.A. Williams casts her mind back to primary school.
“I think I’ve always been like that, to be honest,” she says. “Everyone has it to an extent, and for me it was prominent for quite a long time. Your average child falls over in the playground and screams and shouts, and dinner ladies come running. But I would literally run off and hide in the toilet to try and fix it myself, so I didn’t show it to anyone. It’s an odd choice of action for a five-year-old, but that was how I was. I couldn’t bear anybody noticing me.”
A.A. Williams is fast gaining a reputation for writing introspective songs that spiritually align with metal. She released a soulful self-titled EP last January, without ever having played a show. Her baptism of fire was at cult festival Roadburn, and she’s since toured with the likes of Cult Of Luna and Sisters Of Mercy, and headlined a night at London’s prestigious Southbank Centre. Now signed to Bella Union, she’s just released Forever Blue – a clutch of string-augmented songs with massive crescendos that take her gothic death gospel sound to the next level. Rather than being riff-heavy, they are emotionally heavy, and deeply confessional. Since those early days, she’s been trying to figure out why she is the way she is.
“I think one of the issues I’m always trying to understand is my relationship with myself,” she admits.
A.A. Williams’ childhood sounds like something from a storybook. She grew up in suburban south London with a mum who had a career in technology and a dad who was a pastry chef. He worked from home so he could look after her, and would magic up dramatic, ornate cakes for weddings and birthdays. When her parents were out of the kitchen, A.A. would secretly lift the clingfilm on the container of buttercream he’d keep in the store cupboard, dip her finger inside, and devour the spoils. It was, she says, “like growing up in Bake Off”.
“My dad used to have this Nutella-style chocolate and hazelnut spread, but he had it in buckets,” she tell us over Skype, fresh from walking her long-haired miniature dachshund, Geezer (named, by her husband, after Black Sabbath’s bassist). “I remember my parents finding me in the larder sitting on one of them, with the other one on my lap, with a spoon! If you’re gonna have that much sugar in the house, you can’t expect a five year old not to get involved.”
Yet she was also painfully self-conscious. At school, she wouldn’t put her hand up in class. It didn’t help that she was also tall for her age; by the time she was four or five, she was wearing t-shirts for ages 9-10. Astonishingly, a ballet teacher turned her away after a handful of lessons, because she didn’t line up with the height of the other girls. Her mum thought it was important for her to have a creative outlet and so, upon hearing about a piano teacher across the road from the school, signed her up. A.A. took to it immediately.
“Looking back on it, it was an incredibly helpful thing to have some way of expressing those things. Even when you’re little and you don’t even know what you’re trying to express. You’re just making noise or playing your piece or practising, or whatever it is,” she reflects. “I think it’s good to have something that’s not words.”
A.A. continued to express herself, taking up cello and flute, and developing a “ridiculous work ethic” as she got a taste for learning. She was around age 14 when she experienced her biggest musical revelation yet: metal. Through movie soundtracks, she stumbled upon Rage Against The Machine, Deftones, Marilyn Manson, Rammstein and Slipknot, alongside the more indie likes of Placebo, Radiohead and Garbage – the first band she saw live. It was a whole new world of powerful alternative music that reflected how she felt on the inside, in a way she didn’t know was possible, at a life stage where it felt like “the world is just crushing onto you completely”. She still sounds shocked and delighted with the discovery today.
“My parents didn’t listen to heavy music and my friends didn’t, and then suddenly I was watching The Crow or something, and was like, ‘Hang on a second, what is this?” she exclaims. “My jaw was just on the floor permanently. Just going, ‘This is… the music for me that I didn’t know existed.’ It was like a safe, personal space for me. Oh, it was wonderful. Oh god, I loved it.”
Sticking by music, A.A. headed to London’s Goldsmiths university, where she completed a degree and an MA in classical studies with a focus on the cello. She began a PhD, but dropped it as she got busier with orchestral work, playing in the pit for musicals and arranging strings. Despite listening to metal, her interest in the guitar only transpired by a twist of fate, when she saw a black Squier Telecaster propped up by some railings one day. Wedged under the strings, there was a note: ‘Please take me, just needs work.’
“I took a picture of the guitar, because I thought, ‘I need proof that this happened, so that when I tell my friends, if they’re just like, “Yeah, whatever”, I can be like, “No, no, look, here it was!”’ she exclaims. “And then I took it. I gutted it at my kitchen table, improved it, and then I had a guitar that I didn’t know how to play.”
Instead of undergoing formal tuition, she resolved to teach herself by composing songs, and soon had another revelation: she could write material of her own. Preoccupied for years with playing the music of others, it had never crossed her mind that she could create music herself, and even though she was a fan of ‘popular’ music, none of those bands ever featured cellos. Over the past five years, she’s evolved a style that balances her classical experience with her affinity for metal, and values quiet contemplation alongside visceral outpourings. Like many artists, she sees songwriting as a therapeutic practice that puts her into a meditative state, allowing her subconscious free rein.
“A lot of the time in a song, if I’m singing about ‘you’, it’s not some other human, it might be just a part of a thought process that I’m not cool about, do you know what I mean? If you’ve got a self-destructive nature, or you’ve got the kind of personality where subconsciously you’re always telling yourself, ‘No, you can’t do that. You’re not good enough to do that. You can’t do this.’ And you’re just trying to fight against it, because you know that’s not how it’s meant to be,” she says. “A lot of it is about struggling with oneself and trying to accept oneself as being anything better than completely useless, and trying to take ownership of it and steer the ship a bit I suppose.”
Rather than hiding like her five-year-old self, Forever Blue finds A.A. exposing and releasing her fears via a distinctive, low voice that’s sometimes alone and sometimes couched in a post-metal whorl, but always feels like it’s next to your ear. Fearless features gutteral guest vocals from Cult Of Luna’s Johannes Persson, sweeping in like a stormy sea. It’s a record of comfort in unsteady times, and an intimate reminder of the malleability of our nature. The title of its lead single, All I Asked For (Was To End It All) might sound final, but it’s actually about realising that you can lay a part of your psychology to rest and transform into something better. Its pencil animation video depicts a naked young woman, who appears to be dead. Her body is gradually consumed by insects and flowers, literally blossoming into something new, as a goosebump-inducing crescendo swells.
“This is about someone who is trying to end their relationship with themselves that they don’t like, and they’re trying to understand how they can emerge from this positively and be brave and be strong, and try to kind of nip this situation in the bud, do you know what I mean?” she says. “But again, I write songs and it kind of just comes out.”
If A.A. Williams is a late bloomer, then she’s finally showing her colours, this process of self-actualisation making for an intense listening experience that appeals to her fellow metalheads. Since quitting her musical engagements last year to become a full-time solo artist, she’s more fulfilled and assured than ever. “I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity to have this change,” she says. “I don’t wanna pre-empt myself, because I don’t want to be disappointed 10 years down the line, but I do finally feel like I might have found the place I’m meant to be.”