Interview with Woodpecker Wooliams

by Diego Gerlach

Gemma Williams grew up in Crawley, Sussex, left after school and has since lived in York, Scotland, Sardinia, Brighton, Devon and Brighton again. A ‘keeper of bees’ among other things, you might argue she’s a bit on the cuckoo side of things, and although I can’t offer evidence to the contrary, please note that the reason you’re reading this is that she creates truly beautiful, ethereal folk music. “I sang at school in the choir on and off; I found music at school pretty frustrating as I could never express the sounds from inside accurately – I had clarinet lessons but just about scraped a Grade 2.” She goes by the alias Woodpecker Williams and I’d be lying if I wasn’t to admit that 1) I thought it to be a man’s name at first and 2) it immediately reminded me of Walter Lantz’s immortal, annoying creation the Woody Woodpecker in all its laughing-mad glory.

Woodpecker Wooliams is now releasing the Sleeping Under Dark Suns cassette on My Dance The Skull- two tracks that render the world in dark, magic-infused, bee-influenced (but of course) tones and once are over leave you kinda “O wow that was –”

Photo by Lucy Goodayle.

Right. Are you really a practicing magician?

Haha! A magician! I’m a whizz at card tricks…. No… I imagine you’re referring to the ‘shaman business’ but I’m kind of on a shamanic sabbatical at the moment. I haven’t seen any clients for a while now- any magic in my life is being redirected though music for the time being, mostly.

I asked about it because I’m really into thinking about the relation between the way art is created today and what is usually perceived as magic.

Ahh, I see. I’d say there can definitely be an aspect of ‘conjuring’ in creating good music- making successful sound-magic would be something to aspire to. I’ve been reminded recently of someone I saw play years ago, Damo Suzuki from Can, and he (these days) just rocks up to a venue, meets local musicians there and improvises with them on the night (he sings). I saw him twice in a row in Scotland and it was utterly awesome. He came across as a total magician and with no obvious cues, just orchestrated the band into some kind of musical trance. Awesome.

That’s what I meant and what I felt when I listened to your music. I suppose it’s the idea that art became more a matter of intuition and empiricism than a trade that could be taught and passed through in terms of the ‘Golden Ratio’ or music scales. What does your art aspire to? (Quite a broad question — I guess I wanna hear about what sort of subjects [if any] you have in mind when creating music]).

Hmm… What does my art aspire to? [I hope I’ve understood your question?] I guess on the one hand, it’s not really trying to aspire to anything, or rather, it presents a challenge for me to try not to try. Things work out best when I can be most relaxed, or most ‘in the moment’. I’ve got some totally inspiring women friends who bake incredibly, sew magnificently, make household-y things out of what might otherwise be considered scraps. So my approach is fuelled by that spirit of making. There are a handful of albums I’ve heard over the years that have kind of gotten in and alchemized me, or really fizzled in deeply and changed my character just a little bit. To be able to express sound in that same potent way would be the greatest success or prize in my mind, but even the practicing and stumbling along the way is like a kind of personal meditation. I don’t want to make it sound like making music for me is some kind of ego-centric process; it’s like the amazing gooey cake that my friend might make. She puts in her time and effort and love and the act of stopping and stirring or measuring is an act of therapy for her, but everyone else gets to share the yum and the joy at the end.

Do you work in any specific way?

I’m all for chance and circumstance weaving their ways in. Vocal parts I do sometimes re-record over and over- but that’s more about giving the sound time to come out or be born fully- like chiseling away at a sculpture. Singing is the thing I love most but it’s the hardest for me. I want to be as honest and unaffected with the singing as possible (trying to be a hollow bone) and that’s not always so easy to do. Instrumental bits I usually slap down in a frenzy and leave them in whatever (ahem) “creative” mess they’re in.

How did the place the recording process took place in affect the general feel of it?  Apart from you, who was involved in the process?

I recorded it at my home in Brighton – a tiny little sea-side studio flat in a Georgian terrace. I started making music about a year and a half ago in Devon in a completely atmospheric live-in studio in an 800-year old cottage with incredibly thick stone walls.  That place definitely had a lot to do with the sound… I was concerned that recording here may leave everything a bit flat, but I think that for me music is tied more closely to  personal process than to place, so the experience of me trying to settle back into a busy city life that felt a bit alien probably got infused more into it than the building itself.

Well, “Sleepers”, the first track , was a solo effort. Inspired, I’m sure, by the honeybee, but just me on the sounds. I think there’s some French radio in there too so better give credit where it’s due. For the second track (“Eurydice’s Lament”) it began with a drone created by the lovely Talvihorros. I came up to London to record with him one day and I fell in love with it, so the track kind of got built up from there…

Did I get it right? When you say “Inspired I’m sure by the honeybee” do you mean kinda like exactly what you said?! Can you tell me a little about it?

Yeah – I could ramble on for reams about the honeybee. I’m totally in love with her. I’m a city-girl now (by circumstance rather than choice!) but I’ve got a hive which I keep in the local park kinda hidden out of the way: The park-keepers were well up for it as it only helps in pollinating their flowers. The life of the bee is amazing- a matriarchal community of makers! Their lives are spent in a series of dedicated tasks to keep the hive as a whole running. They excrete all kinds of wondrous potions and unguents and do the sex-work of the flower kingdom. Magnificent! But seriously- I think it’s the mixture of relentless work tied in with care and effortless making that sets them up as a benchmark of an artist’s standard.

Do you work in any other media apart from music?

I made everything for the album that I released; it was so much fun! I crocheted, inked and embroidered for it. But to be honest, I always get frustrated by feeling like I’ve got butterfingers or I don’t have the skill to exert what I want to. I’m a baby at everything really, so I’ve been focusing mostly on music lately.

Way I see it, folk music tends to be attached to a way of looking at nature in search of clues about what being human means. I also see a strong element of magic involved in the sort of folk music being created in recent times. Agree/disagree?

I wish I knew more about the history of folk music. I’ve got a friend doing a PhD in the history of folk and I’m sure he’d fervently disagree! I know what you mean though and yes, you seem to be able to observe a trend for ‘folk’-based music that’s supported by a lot of other various artworks, often by the musicians themselves, and a lot of symbolism from the natural world. If there’s a proliferation of magic around I may be missing it as I’ve been trying to live the boozy, city-girl life for a little while now and keep my eyes shut!

Would you say you’re part of some sort of community (like-minded people feeding off each other’s creative juices) or do you tend to create in an isolated setting?

Well, I was living with a musician who’s worked as The Diamond Family Archive and King James (amongst other names/ bands) in Devon, where I started, and we shared a very small communal space. I used a lot of his instruments for the recordings there and he had very strong, clear ideas about what made valuable ‘art’, which will have influenced and inspired me, I’m sure. He was part of establishing Woodland Recordings who are now spread loosely between England and Germany. Woodland’s since been run by the other co-creator who plays as The Great Park, and he’s booking a little German tour for me this summer. That label was (and is) a real inspiration so it’s really exciting for me to be getting involved with them in this way.

Since returning to Brighton I’ve discovered a real community of musicians! The Wilkommen Collective is a group of musicians who diverge into various configurations for different bands. The rings of connections kind of radiate out from there, though and I’ve been lucky to meet a network of delightful people – many of whom are becoming real friends – who will call you up to come and sing on something for them, or you can call if you want a bass-part or a drum beat, and who all support gig opportunities for each other. It’s really lovely and I feel very lucky to have that on my doorstep.

Any thoughts on the fact the release will be cassette-only?

Well, I’m pretty excited… I think I love tapes. I’ve started using a dictaphone live. I like they way they age. A few people have mentioned to me that they don’t have tape-players anymore and so will find it a bit frustrating being limited to only this one format, but I kind of understand why DIY labels are starting to do it: Beyond the aesthetic aspect, there’s also the fact that it’d take a lot of effort to burn off a tape and share music, which encourages people to part with a few pounds and spend on burgeoning new labels sweating it out to make things work.

What really appeals to you about the music-making process?

The sex and drugs, groupies and copious amounts of money.

Well, that’s it. Thanks a million.

Diego Gerlach is a Brazilian writer, visual artist and comic creator. Under the moniker Máfia Líquida, he creates (in collaboration with Brazilian designer Felipe Oliveira) the ongoing sci-fi comic series GAHAFAW and some wicked poster art, described simultaneously as ‘Graphic answers to unasked questions’ or ‘Cyanide treacle for the brain’. And all you cats can dig it at: