“What better way is there to express yourself than through music?” asks singer-songwriter Chelsea Williams. Her question is almost rhetorical, as Williams, in full obedience to her heart’s most urgent commands, documents her emotions in song in ways that can feel astonishing. Sometimes those feelings are carefree and luminous; other times they’re troubled and turbulent. But when channeled through her captivating voice and intoxicating melodies, they work their way into the thicket of your senses before coming to rest in your soul.
Whether Williams is the music industry’s best- or worst-kept-secret is open to debate. Sure, she’s performed on The Today Show and has opened for big names such as the Avett Brothers and Dwight Yoakam, and she’s even had a high-profile guest shot on a Maroon 5 video, dueting with Adam Levine on the group’s No. 1 smash “Daylight (Playing For Change).”
But the truly incredible part of the golden-voiced chanteuse’s story has taken place at Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, where she’s performed acoustically for the past few years. During these appearances, Williams has managed to move an unprecedented 100,000 copies of her three indie records – Chelsea Williams, Decoration Aisle and The Earth & the Sea. Her customer base has even included the likes of Academy Award-winning director Ron Howard, who was so impressed by what he heard that he bought a CD. Even one of Williams’ biggest influences, singer-songwriter Sheryl Crow, walked away with an album.
“The Promenade is huge part of my life,” says Williams. “It’s one of the only spots that I know of in Los Angeles that has such a high volume of foot traffic. People are out and about enjoying themselves, and they know that they’re going to hear musicians. It’s incredible when I get comments like, ‘I was having a really bad day, but your music totally brought me out of it.’ That’s what I love about music myself – the ability to take somebody on a journey that they weren’t planning on.”
Kirk Pasich, President of Blue Élan Records, might not have been anticipating such a journey when he first caught one of Williams’ outdoor gigs, but he quickly knew it was one he wanted to take over and over. And so now we have Williams’ debut on Blue Élan, Boomerang, a thoroughly winning and transcendent mix of Americana, indie-folk and lush pop that places the young artist front and center among the preeminent performers of the day. “My aim with this record was to maintain integrity, creatively and musically,” she states. “I wanted to let creativity rule the process and not be afraid to step outside of what was expected of me.”
Williams musical journey began early. Born in Columbus, Ohio, she was still an infant when her mother picked her up for a move to Glendale, California. “My mom had dreams of being a songwriter herself,” she explains. “She was always writing and playing guitar and singing around the house. I used to fall asleep in the living room while listening to her playing music with her friends. I think it all sort of seeped into my head and stayed with me.”
It wasn’t long before Williams joined in on her mother’s living room jams. “It just seemed very natural to me,” she says. “Music always pulled me in. We would go to Disneyland, and I would always run toward the stage whenever a band was playing. I just wanted to be a part of it.” Her mother’s CD collection – Carole King, Todd Rundgren and James Taylor were favorites – made the first impression on Williams, but she soon discovered Bob Dylan. “We didn’t agree on Dylan,” Williams laughs. “I think my mother didn’t like his voice, but it seemed so beautiful to me.”
By the age of 13, Williams took up the guitar and started writing her own first songs. “It seemed so normal to me because that’s what my mom and her friends were doing,” she remembers. “I didn’t even worry about whether what I was writing was good or bad. I just enjoyed doing it.” In high school, her listening habits included solo artists such as Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan and Elliott Smith, but she eventually discovered bands like Radiohead and the Pixies. Williams recalls how hanging out with the “indie rock kids” at school led to an interesting musical exchange: “I introduced them to Dylan, and they hipped me to Death Cab for Cutie. It was pretty cool.”
Even before graduation, Williams hit the local clubs and coffee houses, and once she had her diploma in hand she made her way onto the stages of Hollywood, performing at the Knitting Factory, Hotel Café, Room 5, and On the Rocks. “They were great learning experiences, but in truth, I didn’t like to play those gigs,” she explains. “They didn’t pay very well, and you oftentimes had to go out of pocket just for the chance to be seen and heard.” Williams discovered that busking on the streets of Glendale offered a better opportunity to get her music across. “There were people walking around with Starbucks cups, and you had little kids trying to break dance,” she says. “The people really listened.” From there, she decided to take her act to the burgeoning outdoor scene of the Third Street Promenade.
With the Santa Monica Pier and the Pacific Ocean as her backdrop, Williams truly found her voice. Recording her music on her own (“I did a lot on my computer with GarageBand”), she found enthusiastic buyers willing to lay down $5 and $10 a CD. Connections were made – people gave her business cards and asked her to sing on sessions – one of them being producer Toby Gad, famous for his work with Beyonce and Natasha Bedingfield. The two worked on a collection of songs that yielded a full album, which strangely enough, resulted in Williams’ first taste of heartbreak.
“Toby pitched me to Interscope, and they bit,” she explains. “They said, ‘We love you and we love the album, and we want to release it as soon as possible.’ I was thrilled.” And then, a perplexing thing happened… as in nothing happened. “The label wanted me to do more writing, which I did, but then it became obvious that they weren’t going to release the album,” she says. “I couldn’t understand it.”
At first, Williams was crushed and even briefly considered quitting music (“I considered becoming a geologist”), but after extricating herself from the deal she realized it was all for the best. “After I got some distance from the album I’d recorded, I felt like it didn’t represent me anymore,” she says. “So I dusted myself off and hit the streets again, and after a while things came back around.”
By the time Williams met up with Kirk Pasich at the Promenade, she had a batch of new songs that would fully reflect her commitment to processing emotions with honesty, courage, hope and humor. Working with producer and multi-instrumentalist Ross Garren (Kesha, Ben Folds, Benmont Tench), she turned those songs into Boomerang, an album that grows in depth and meaning with each listen.
On the wistful pop symphony opener “Angeles Crest,” Williams paints a vivid picture of her childhood, envisioning the mountains she and her mother once drove by. With clear-eyed perception she looks back at the road once traveled and stares down the future on “Fool’s Gold” (“I wrote it right when I parted ways with my prior label. It’s me processing the situation”). Opening her throat with the bracing line “I was frozen by a mighty cold wind,” Williams further recounts that painful label experience on the aching country ballad “Dreamcatcher.” “Out of Sight” is a striking, chilling piece of torch-song blues, on which she casts off a previous personal entanglement with the mantra “out of sight, out of mind.” But on the buoyant, aptly titled “Rush” she finds herself caught up in the dizzying first flush of a new love. “It’s all about being in that moment,” she says, “all the crazy fears and hopes that come with the possibilities of a relationship.”
A stronger, wiser but no less hopeful Williams looks back on the recording of Boomerang thusly: “For me, this record has been an exercise in taking the reins and forging my own path in music and in life. I had never been given a record budget that came with so much creative control before. With that kind of freedom came a greater sense of responsibility and a greater pride in the work we were creating. I am so proud of the record Ross and I created.”
And with a characteristic note of levity, she adds, “I’m so happy that I didn’t give up music to become a geologist.”