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"I'm such a blatantly honest person," says Holly Williams, "and I love to listen to an album and think the artist is truly sharing their life with me. I like to feel like I'm really getting in and knowing that person."
With her debut album Here With Me for Mercury Nashville, Holly has succeeded in creating the type of album that would easily find a place among the works of her favorite artists. Penning the majority of the album's 11 tracks, Holly writes with piercing clarity on situations plucked from her life. While these songs come from extremely personal places, Holly's emotional honesty and commanding vocal performances give Here With Me a timeless quality that only gets richer on repeated listens.
Though still in her 20's, Holly has been using music to tell the story of her life and those around her for the better part of two decades. Starting at age eight, Holly filled a notebook she called "Holly's song folder" with her own compositions, though the lyrical content was far beyond the comprehension of your typical elementary school student. The first of these songs, titled "Who Am I", told the story of a woman in her 20's facing a broken marriage. Holly's penchant for addressing life's ups and downs through song was clearly established at this point, as was her songwriting method.
"The way I wrote then is the way I write now. A song comes to me in its entirety. The chorus and melody come at the same time, but I didn't really sing my songs for many people back then. It was just kind of the first hints of what I would do later."
As Holly grew older, her interests ranged from modeling and fashion to interior design. Her love affair with songwriting came back to the forefront at age 17 when she picked up a guitar, learned a few chords, and discovered her gift for crafting music and lyrics was still very much intact. As her high school friends continued on to college, Holly took a different path -- striking out on her own to make music. Giving herself one year to pursue her dream, Holly began booking shows for herself around Nashville at age 18.
That one year turned into three with Holly playing shows by herself and with a small band. Following a three-month stay in Los Angeles where she honed her songwriting skills and mastered the piano as a second instrument, Holly accepted an offer to tour Europe with Canadian artist Ron Sexsmith.
"I flew over there with a guitar and a backpack full of five-song EP's I'd made and took trains to each venue," says Holly. "It was killer. I had just read Jack Kerouac's novel On The Road, and it changed me. I was traveling along, soaking up every minute of it. I loved it."
Around this time, Holly began to realize the full meaning of her family's history in the music world. Though her father is country legend Hank Williams, Jr., Holly's time spent with her dad mostly took place when he was off the road and away from the spotlight. In turn, Holly never realized the influence of her grandfather Hank Williams, Sr. until she embarked on her own musical explorations.
"The artists that I love are the ones that brought me back to him. When I started making music and writing songs, I heard people like Bruce Springsteen and Leonard Cohen talk about Hank Sr. I started listening to Bob Dylan, and he would talk a lot about Hank Sr. being an influence. It's funny how that circle happened."
Over the next few years, Holly's touring kept her on the road for months at a time with several more European tours rounding out her hectic stateside touring schedule. Sometimes driving up to 10 hours between gigs in her mom's suburban, Holly found herself sharing a bill with a wide range of artists including Billy Bob Thornton, Train, John Mellencamp and Duncan Sheik, in addition to playing a string of shows throughout Europe opening for Keith Urban. With five years of independent touring under her belt, Holly signed her first record deal in 2004 and released her critically-acclaimed debut album, The Ones We Never Knew, that same year.
With her career on the upswing, Holly's life was almost cut short when she and her sister Hilary were involved in a devastating wreck near Memphis in March 2006. Hilary's injuries were much more extensive than Holly's, and both were in critical condition by the time their parents arrived at the hospital. Looking back on the accident, Holly is truly thankful she and her sister survived. The events of that day forever changed the course of Holly's life and serve as the inspiration for one of Here With Me's most stirring tracks "Without Jesus Here With Me".
"Living through that wreck was a miracle," Holly declares. "My sister told me one mile before it happened to put on my seatbelt. I usually never would have put it on, but it saved my life. Even the fact that my arm is here is a miracle. The car was lying on top of it. We landed sideways and they thought when they pulled me out of the car that my arm wouldn't be going with me. But it was only broken. The whole experience was a real turning point for me."
Holly's new songs began to take on a more straightforward tone. One song in particular, "Mama", struck a chord with Holly's live audiences and eventually led to a record deal with Mercury Nashville.
Taking on the touchy, yet all too commonplace topic of divorce, "Mama" tells the story of Holly's own mother and the positive attitude she displayed to her daughters while splitting up with their father. "So many parents talk about their spouses so horribly in front of their kids," Holly says. "One thing my parents never did was talk about each other in a negative light," she says. "There's two lines in â€˜Mama' that really stick out to me â€“ â€˜You were smiling when you could've been crying all night' and â€˜You never wore your pain too thick.' It's such an important thing they did for us. I don't think I realized it until I was 25 though. I feel like it relates. Everyone knows someone who has that story going on in their lives."
As it turns out, "Mama" is just the tip of the iceberg on this collection of gems. Whether flowing from Holly's own pen or selected from the exceptional catalog of Nashville's top tunesmiths, the songs on Here With Me each contain a vulnerably honest quality brought to life by Holly's stunning vocal performances. Blessed with an extremely versatile instrument, Holly possesses the ability to wrap her voice around a lyric, wringing the emotion out of every syllable whether she's conveying a defiant determination to survive a heartbreak, expressing the subtle nuances of regret or playfully telling the story of a new love.
Nowhere is Holly's gift with a lyric more evident than on the project's first single, "Keep The Change", an anthem exploring the moment an old love starts to become history. Written by Hillary Lindsey and Luke Laird, Holly even breaks new ground for herself on "Keep The Change" with her gritty vocal delivery. She says, "I've never written anything myself that allows my voice to go where it does on 'Keep The Change.' Every single person can relate to that story. We've all been to that point when a love is over and you're bedridden and miserable, but then the sun shines, and you say, 'OK, I'm gonna get in my car and get out even though I'm dying inside.' It's that first step of moving on with your life."
Sometimes when that love is over, the pain is slow to subside -- a situation Holly eloquently explores in the straightforward lyrics of "I Hold On". Holly explains, "I was having a hard time letting go of a past relationship, I wrote this song quickly and simply â€“ â€˜I used to move on easy I was strong/Like a widow to her lover I hold on' -- I was really trying to be literal about hanging on to something. We kept the production simple, and the lyric is definitely foremost on this track."
Where "I Hold On" pertains to a particular time and place, the pointedly confrontational lyrics of "He's Making A Fool Out Of You" â€“ â€˜I can't believe it/How'd you get here/I remember you when you were smart' -- has a more mysterious origin. "I started this song at three in the morning while on the road in Scotland. It just came out of nowhere," Holly says. In fact, it was only later she realized the song could pertain to the couples she grew up seeing smiling their way through Nashville cocktail parties while their marriages were in shambles.
"My parents' friends had that situation going on where the wives would be on some tours, and the girlfriend would be on others. Sometimes these people were the ones giving me advice to stay true to myself, and they were living this life. I'm not putting them down, because I've never been there. I just didn't understand how they could deal with that personally and look so happy on the outside."
On another one of Here With Me's stand out tracks, "Three Days In Bed", Holly's measured choice of words and haunting vocal performance paints a startling visual in the listener's mind recounting the story of a love affair in Paris. "This song speaks for itself, inspired by truth and fantasy," explains Holly. "It's the only track on the record that is a live performance with me and my guitar, completely raw, which was very important to me to have on this record."
"My whole thing with writing is I love to tell a story," Holly says. "When I listen to songs, I play the movie in my head. There are certain songs in my head I see the colors and the visuals. Tom Waits is a genius at doing this. I've always hoped some of my songs inspire vivid pictures."
"A song that was a departure for me from what I'm used to writing, but is an absolute blast to play live is â€˜Love I Think Will Last'," Holly admits. A song which follows in the light-hearted vein of Johnny and June Carter Cash's "Jackson", Holly continues, "People laugh at it. They love the story of it."
While Holly has clearly forged her own musical path, shades of the Williams family musical history pop up here and there throughout Here With Me. "Alone" finds Holly tapping into the lonesome simplicity of Hank, Sr.'s lyrics with a tune about her own fear of commitment, while Hank, Sr.'s actual name appears in the lyrics for "Without Jesus Here With Me".
In addition to making music, Holly has another outlet for her boundless creative energy. Building on her lifelong love affair with fashion and design, Holly opened the high-end clothing and accessories boutique H. Audrey in 2007, and H. Audrey Home in 2008, introducing new designers and brands to Nashville's retail scene.
"I've always had this business side that I've needed to fulfill. I actually get to travel to Paris twice a year for work which is crazy to me, and dress friends of mine and stylish musicians. Sheryl Crow, Patty Griffin and Faith Hill all have a great eye for fashion. I love seeing who wears what to award shows and concerts!"
Holly's stores have quickly become one of Nashville's hottest retail spots, but just one listen to Here With Me makes it clear that Holly's first love is and will always be making music.
She says, "When it's in the blood, you can't help it."