Chelsea Williams may be the lesser-known of Blue Elan artists Rita Coolidge or Janiva Magness, yet she possesses their confidence and, like the latter, is willing to take some chances. Beautiful and Strange is her fourth album, having begun her career with her self-titled debut in 2006. This one follows 2017’s Boomerang, again with her producer (and husband), Ross Garren (Ben Folds, Bon Iver). The two aim for a precarious balance between the seemingly opposing forces of the quirky and the serious. The former employs toy pianos, singing saws and a floating quality to the music throughout these 11 tracks. The latter imbues their sweeping arrangements, as well as Williams’ engaging airy, breathy, sultry vocals that are, at times, akin to a jazz vocalist, Kat Edmondson being perhaps the best reference point.
“I guess if I had to define my style, it would be sort of Americana with a bit of modern pop, topped off by a healthy dose of reckless abandon,” Williams says. “I never want to confine myself creatively, and I apply these categories very loosely. My music tends to be as diverse as my musical taste. I grew up listening to every genre, from classic greats like the Beatles and Yes to the Flaming Lips, the Pixies and all the way over to Joni Mitchell, Bonnie Raitt, John Prine and Tom Waits. I even dabbled in jazz with people like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.”
Interestingly, Williams performs in a bluegrass/Americana band, the Salty Suites, and met Garren when both played in a country cover band. Yet comparisons to those she mentions such as Loretta Lynn and Emmylou Harris don’t really seep through here, at least ostensibly. What does are the Beatles, Brian Wilson, and those on the poppy side. “Muskegon” pays subtle homage to about half of their career, and the psychedelic, disorienting “Something Sweet” contains actual lyrical and musical references to George Harrison’s masterpiece, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” “High Speed Chase” and “The Best Is Yet to Come” perfectly depict that aforementioned “floating quality to the music” while the closing “Fffun” is the epitome of a quirky, child-like song.
She begins with “Wasted,” already released as a single and video. Its topicality, a destructive relationship nearing its end, may at first seem befuddling given the partnership between she and Garren, but the tonality of the piece immediately introduces the lush poppy hooks and layered sound. And, yes, if you were wondering, this is about her past. “There’s nothing like the freedom you feel when you get out of a toxic relationship,” explains Williams. “I was a master of toxic relationships in my 20s. ‘Wasted’ is a summary of some of my experiences wrapped up in a fun little musical package.” She follows with the album’s debut track, the highly melodic “Red Flag,” taking her glee to even higher heights with the intensity found in new love. Its singalong chorus may linger in your head for days.
Two other attention-grabbing tracks are “Dust” and the title track. On “Dust” she sounds very sultry, like a late-night jazz singer, caressing her lyrics over Garren’s Fender Rhodes with subtle strings backdrop. Midway, as Paul Wiancko’s cello takes over, she sings, “Hallelujah, I’m finally free/Hallelujah, logic lifted me up from my knees/I believe in what I can see. Hallelujah.” The intensity builds to a gorgeous climax of heavenly sounds. Williams and Garren tracked “Dust” at home, in their bathroom. To avoid ruining the recording, they had to silence their air-conditioning, on a stifling 100-degree day as well as turning off the heat-producing overhead light. Still, with each take we did, it got hotter and hotter in the bathroom,” Williams relates. “So, I ended up recording the vocals in a pitch-black bathroom in my drawers.”
The title track has a carousel-like melody with some provocative lyrics – “Oh, we say all kinds of things to all kinds of people/pretending that we have the reins/but it’s all just one big leap of faith/to be livin’, breathin’, dreamin’ … pretending that we could rearrange/this breathtaking pattern of atoms that’s beautiful and strange.” Apparently, it stems from discussions that she and her friends have on the differences between “magical” and “scientific thinking.” Williams finds beauty in the chaos. Like the other tunes, even when the lyrics are dark, the music is much brighter, filled with infectious hooks, and dreamy layers of sound.
Williams honed her skills busking at Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, where she captured the attention of passersby including Ron Howard and Sheryl Crow. This eventually led to a high-profile TV commercial singing in Maroon 5’s “Playing for Change” version of their hit “Daylight”, as well as a record deal and a Singer-Songwriter of the Year award from the Hollywood in Music and Media Awards. Even with these accolades, before the pandemic, Williams tried to visit the promenade at least a couple of times a month when not touring.
Speaking of which, In lieu of spring tour dates, Chelsea Williams has recently launched “Beautiful & Strange Quarantine Tuesdays”, a weekly live stream event that airs across her socials on Tuesdays at 2pm PT / 5pm