Kathryn Williams: The tracks of my tears

She is known for her angsty compositions. So what's Kathryn Williams doing releasing a covers album?
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The Independent Culture

I'm not sure how it happened, but Kathryn Williams's eyes are full of tears. "Oh God, I'm so embarrassed," she mumbles, trying to hide behind her hair. "It's not because you've upset me, but because I'm now having to work out in my head why I've made this album, and suddenly it all seems quite bizarre."

I'm not sure how it happened, but Kathryn Williams's eyes are full of tears. "Oh God, I'm so embarrassed," she mumbles, trying to hide behind her hair. "It's not because you've upset me, but because I'm now having to work out in my head why I've made this album, and suddenly it all seems quite bizarre."

Emotional engagement is usually to be encouraged during interviews, but this is the first time I've ever managed to make someone cry. I don't know whether to put my arm around her shoulders or make for the door. In the end, we have a cup of tea, which seems to do the trick. "Oh yes, I'm much happier now that we've got tea and cake," she says, smiling at last.

Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised that Williams, the 30-year-old singer-songwriter from Liverpool, has a sensitive streak. This, after all, is the woman who has been tagged "the queen of bedsit angst" and who once said that she feels a failure if she hasn't made at least one person cry during her gigs (though presumably she wasn't talking about herself). Her songs speak of emotional dysfunction and loneliness, with a bittersweet introspection that brings to mind Nick Drake, Joni Mitchell and Carole King. But Williams would rather not be viewed as the pain-racked folkie. She tells me later that she loathes soppiness and likes to think she's as far removed from conventional perceptions of a tortured artist as it's possible to be. But it has been a long day, and earlier on was just, well, a blip.

We had been talking about her growing disillusionment with music when the tears started flowing. "I guess I'd lost faith in myself and become a bit bitter," she says, this time with determined composure. "I realised that I hadn't been thinking about music or even listening to it. I was feeling a bit dead about trying and not succeeding in what people expected of me. The people at the record company had put so much work into me and said my last album, Old Low Light, would be a massive success, but it wasn't. To them, success is all about being in the charts, selling a lot of records and being famous. I felt I'd let them down."

Those feelings of failure coincided with the end of a gruelling tour, on which Williams had a "difficult time" with one of the other musicians. "It wasn't anyone in my band, but I don't want to go into who it was," she says cautiously. "But the whole experience meant I lost confidence in me, in my music, in everything."

It was with a view to restoring her self-esteem and retracing her musical roots that Williams set about making an album of cover versions. Relations is a beautifully understated homage to her musical heroes, among them Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Tim Hardin, Ivor Cutler and Lou Reed. "I'd written the next two albums but I wasn't ready to give them to the label and I didn't want to sit on my arse and do nothing," Williams recalls. "So I just started listening to albums and got all my friends to send me compilations of their favourite songs. For two months I did nothing but listen to music, and then I called my manager and said I was going to make a covers album. I feel quite strange sitting here talking about it, as I never dreamt that it would be released. I get palpitations just thinking about it."

Williams admits to having reservations about releasing a CD of other people's songs. "I don't even like covers albums!" she exclaims, by now back to her strident, giggly self. "I'm full of contempt for all those people on Pop Idol. I was always screaming at the telly: 'They can't even write their own bloody songs.' Now I'm having to eat my words."

In the sleeve notes to the album, Williams expresses surprise at her own choices: "I thought I'd definitely do a Dylan cover, and something by The Beatles or John Lennon," she writes. "Songs just choose you sometimes without any apparent reason," she adds. But there are some that will always remain untouchable, such as Smokey Robinson's "Tracks of My Tears". The Coke advert on television that features a woman walking down the street singing Nina Simone's "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free" makes her feel "a little bit queasy". "This is why I don't know how to feel about this album," she explains. "I don't want anyone to think I'm trying to better the originals, or that I'm debasing their talent. It's more a case of trying subtly to put your stamp on what you consider to be a brilliant song. This record is a by-product of the fun we had messing about with them. I think, for me, it was more about the process of making it than the finished product. I wanted to find out how to produce an album and to get an overview that you just don't have when you've written the songs yourself."

Williams grew up in Liverpool, where her father used to sing in a folk band. As children, she and her older sister Emma used to write and perform songs together. She went to art college in Newcastle, but eventually decided that life as a painter wasn't for her. In her early years as a musician, she was so broke that she would sleep on friends' floors during tours to save on hotel bills. She put out her first album, Dog Leap Stairs, for just £80 on her own label, Caw, which she ran from the spare room at home (it's now run by her husband, Neil, from the garage). An appearance at a Nick Drake tribute concert in 1999 brought her to public attention, although it was a Mercury-prize nomination the following year - for her album Little Black Numbers - that sealed her reputation as a singer-songwriter of remarkable talent.

During the weeks following the nomination her phone buzzed with lucrative offers from record-company A&R people, all of which she rejected. "That would have been selling my soul," she says. "The words 'recording contract' have always scared the hell out of me. It's always seemed like some kind of Faustian pact." Now she has a licensing deal with Eastwest that means they distribute and market her music, though she retains the rights. "I don't even have to play them the album before I deliver it," Williams says delightedly. "I don't get any feedback about whether it's good or not until the end. God bless them, they're doing their best for me and I'll do what I can. It's not like I'm a cash cow for them, more of a cash calf. If it all goes horribly wrong, then I've got another plan; I've always dreamt of being an osteopath."

During the making of Relations, Eastwest was undergoing radical downsizing. After the disappointing sales of Old Low Light, Williams assumed she would be dropped. That the label decided to keep her led to some serious soul-searching about the kind of music she should be making. Now, she says, she has come full circle and pretty much resigned herself to the fact that she'll never be in the charts. "If I'm honest, I don't care now," she shrugs. "I mean, I wouldn't mind it - I do need a new kitchen. But if people don't like it, I don't give a toss. I'm expecting [the new album] to bomb, and I'm actually quite excited about the idea. It feels really freeing, because of what I went through about feeling a failure. Now I think, 'Well, if I want to feel a failure, let's see how low it can go.' This is my fourth album and I'm pretty much at the same level that I was with my first. I'm a survivor. Putting this record together has brought me back to realising that I'm really lucky. I'm making music, which I play in front of other people. The fans who I meet at gigs are all nice people who seem to really appreciate what I do. You can't ask for much more than that, can you?"

'Relations' is out now on Eastwest/ Caw. Williams plays the Pop Factory, Porth (01443 688500), tonight, then tours to 12 June ( www.kathrynwilliams.net)