The myth of the introspective, tortured solo artist is archetypal. Reclusive, drug-addled, and depressed–it’s the stuff of Eric Clapton biographies and countless episodes of Behind the Music. But it’s not White Williams.
Instead, Williams (real name: Joe Williams) is part of the new but increasingly familiar sect of solo electronic pop acts able to transport their home studios to the live stage with ease. He wrote, composed, performed, and engineered the entirety of his debut LP, Smoke (Tigerbeat6), by himself–and, on the surface at least, there’s nothing tortured about him or the album.
“I’ve been really comfortable with being by myself,” Williams happily professes via phone from Brooklyn, where he recently moved after graduating school in Cleveland. “I like to have the spontaneity of saying, ‘Okay, I feel like working on this part of the song,’ and I don’t have to jump in a car to go meet with people.”
As a debut release–solo or not–Smoke is striking. At once poppy and experimental, melodious and atonal, Smoke drifts through the diverse genres of surf rock, psych, and hip-hop as easily as Williams’ unaffected vocals coolly hover over beats and guitars. In many ways, it’s an album about recording albums, an LP full of self-conscious deconstruction. Williams seems to love the process, and never lets the listener get too comfortable–a bright-eyed pop chorus will crash suddenly into stuttering, synthesizer distortion; vocals and guitars shift pitch from normality to nonsense.
This tension between actual instruments and computers, between pop and electronic, is something that Williams, like many of his contemporaries, exploits. “When I started picking up real instruments, I realized that you can use still use software, but things don’t have to come from inside a computer,” Williams says. “I lack a proficiency in playing guitar, in playing bass, and even a lot of my drum skills have deteriorated over the years, but something I’ve always known is effects, or how to re-pitch something, or how to copy and paste. There’s knowledge that never left me from making computer-based music.”
Williams concedes that a producer or “engineer at the very least” could be helpful when working on his next album, but “only if it’s not invading on [his] process for songwriting.” After hearing the jolting rewards of Smoke, it’s unlikely that anybody would want to.