"It was a dark time for me, and music became my only saving grace" We chat with Van William
Hey Van, how the devil are you doing?
I am doing well, thank you for asking.
Where are you right now?
I am in Berlin, sitting in my hotel room. It's a large room with four beds and a lot of floor space (hardwood). I am sitting at a square table that is in one of the corners of the room. Things on the table: whiskey and unsalted nuts from our rider, my phone, a water bottle, and a piece of paper with the WiFi login.
What have you been up to today?
I performed 'Cosmic Sign' on German national radio. I walked around Kreuzberg and drank incredible coffee at 29 Grams. I had vegan Vietnamese food at Soya. It was good, but there was too much sauce on it. It is very cold in Berlin today. I went to a bookstore and bought a biography on Alexander von Humboldt called "The Invention Of Nature" and then I read the introduction and first few chapters (it's good). I came back to the room and exercised while watching Star Wars cartoons. My dad texted me saying that he finally sold his boat, the Shawnee. He got less than the asking price, but was still happy with the transaction. Then I ate falafel next door. Now I'm doing this.
Tell us about yourself.
My name is Van. I'm from a small town in California called Cambria. I'm also from a small town in Alaska called Kodiak, which is on Kodiak Island. I went to UC Berkeley and received a degree in Anthropology, but I haven't used it. I recorded and toured as the singer of the bands Port O'Brien and WATERS. Now I record and perform as Van William. William is my middle name. Pierszalowski is my last name.
Do you get confused with the other Van Williams, the star of The Green Hornet TV show?
No, but sometimes promoters or venues write my name as Van Williams because it can be so hard and confusing to do things. I do get confused with Jimmi Simpson, who is a popular television actor. He has starred in Westworld and Black Mirror, among many other series.
What can you tell us about your new record Countries in two sentences?
I wrote and recorded it as a reaction to a long-term relationship falling out from under me and my father's retirement from commercial fishing, which I had thought of as an alternate career path. It is full of carefully arranged and structured songs with lush string arrangements and vocal harmonies while almost falling apart under the covers with live performances from my best friends.
How did you go about writing and choosing which songs to record?
I spent a lot of time writing at my folks' cabin in the Sierra Nevada. It was a dark time for me, and music became my only saving grace. I wrote about 15 songs, recorded 13, and picked 11 to be on the record.
Tell us about ‘Revolution’, my favourite track on the record.
'Revolution' started as a song about two people who agree that there is something very wrong with their relationship, but can't agree on how to go about fixing it. It's a cautionary tale that became more relevant during the Democratic primary in the 2016 election. I believe that most of us on that end of the spectrum mostly agree on the goals of reducing income inequality, ramping up gun control, protecting the environment, providing a path to citizenship for immigrants, and creating a more open and just society. The bickering and name-calling and purity testing got in the way, and we lost big time. We can't let that happen again. Just because someone isn't as verbose or "authentic" (whatever the hell that means) doesn't mean they can't be an effective public servant.
I really like ‘Never Had Enough Of You’ as well, what’s the story to that song?
I really like that song too. It's about two people who are around each other every second of every day, but are somehow never really "together." It's about the schisms of intimacy that can form when two people are too dependent.
You have First Aid Kit doing a bit of singing on the record, how did you meet those guys?
I met Klara and Johanna in 2009, when First Aid Kit supported Port O'Brien on a tour throughout Europe. We reconnected a couple of years ago in LA. I sent them my record while I was mixing it and they offered to sing on it, which blew my mind. They are incredible human beings and true artists.
When was the last time you were starstruck?
When I saw Mark Ellis a.k.a. Mark2-D2, co-host of a YouTube show called Collider Jedi Council. It's a weekly talk show where the 3-4 hosts talk about all of the Star Wars news from the previous week. I've watched every episode. I talked to Mark outside the Arclight in Hollywood and he gave me a shoutout on the next week's show. It was a real thrill.
Can you tell us the best and the worst thing about your hometown?
Regarding Cambria, the best thing is that it is incredibly gorgeous and isolated. The worst thing is that you can't go to the grocery store without running into a former teacher or mail-delivery person.
You used to help out on your father’s salmon fishing boat, that must be really hard work, but beautiful in Alaska, can you tell us about that?
It's exceptionally difficult work. We are out at sea for up to two months at a time. There is no shower or toilet. The seas can get quite rough. We work up to 20 hours per day. It's dramatically intense. As you mentioned, it's also very beautiful. After a while, your body gets used to the work and you can just focus on the task at hand. In a way, it's meditation through sleep deprivation and physical labor.
If you could recommend one song to hear this week, what would it be?
'Dreams Tonite' by Alvvays. I love the backup vocals in the last chorus and outro very much.
What’s the question we should have asked you today but haven’t?
What do you think of the President of the United States?
Finally, how do you take your coffee?
I take it from a local coffee shop that specializes in single origin light-ish roasted coffee via V-60, Aeropress, or Chemex. A good batch brew will also do. No cream or sugar.
Van is touring the US and Canada with TDF fave Lissie throughout May, for more on Van and those dates you can visit his website, follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook, or look at him on Instagram.
You can stream Countries from all good services now.