It seems some wizard with a passion for music casted a spell on Brighton residents in order to allow some musical talents to bloom out of that lovely town. Just as it had happened with the great surprise of Gazelle Twin, another talented Brighton resident , Woodpecker Wooliams, aka singer and songwriter Gemma Williams, deserves our attention. She’s got a strong passion for nature and loves nursing her bees and Russian dolls (!) whenever she is not receiving visits from inspiring birds: even if her unnerving and meaningful songs deal with personal and familiar histories, gender roles, male aggression, female hysteria, violence and more, she states that she “didn’t set out to explore these ideas. Each song came via a bird that had a story to tell. A bit like a reverse Disney animation – rather than anthropomorphizing animal characters, these songs are kind of how it might be like if people were aviomorphised, or if the birds were in human bodies. Bird’s eye views… So they’re the bird’s songs really. My life is changing / has changed so much over the course of making this album, surprising me, over and over”. Originally featuring the sweet catchy tremolo of her voice, chimes, harp and the odd bell, her intriguing songs have been blanketed with a droney electronic mantle, which made them even more intriguing. We had a chat with this skilled and nice musician just after the first launch shows of her album “The Bird School Of Being Human”, recently released by Robot Elephant Records, which I highly recommend you check out!
Chain D.L.K.: Hi Gemma. How are you?
Woodpecker Wooliams: Ahh, I’m good thank you. Hungry – not much for breakfast around here, but really happy; it’s been an amazing weekend of launch shows…
Chain D.L.K.: I’ve read you are introducing your release through some dates. What were people’s first reactions?
Woodpecker Wooliams: Yes we have a tour planned now for the UK – strangely although I’ve played quite a lot in Europe (and Italy!) and Russia I’ve never toured in the UK. I’m excited. As for people’s first reactions I’ve been blown away by all the positivity and love reflecting back this way in response to the album…
Chain D.L.K.: Out of idle, do you like ornithology?
Woodpecker Wooliams: Yep! Although I’m more into bee-watching than bird-watching. And I haven’t really got much time for it. Also in Brighton you can’t help but watch the seagulls as they get all up in your grill no matter what you’re doing.
Chain D.L.K.: Your singing is really enchanting… more like the one by a nightingale, but you’ve chosen woodpecker for your artistic guise… how come?
Woodpecker Wooliams: That’s really sweet of you – thank you! Well, I’ve sort of grown into the Woodpecker so I’m not sure I can take full credit for the name – that’s the one that came! I think it suits the music, and me: Woodpeckers are hardy little resilient guys, their sound is a bit abrasive but charming nonetheless, they never give up… I admire their spirit!
Chain D.L.K.: I normally respect musician’s privacy, but according to the liner notes related to your personal experiences, a deep humaneness on your side emerges clearly… are you sure that the “transfiguration” into a bird (rather than an angel… since they both fly!) is not a burden?
Woodpecker Wooliams: Again I really respect the animal nature of the birds. They’re often referenced in literature, culture, historically as representatives of flight, freedom, escape, as fragile, delicate things… and whilst all of that holds true I like to imagine their fast little heart beats, their blood, their super-quick reactions, the sky fights… I think life can be tough enough without rattling round and round in your head trying to analyze it; in that sense being a human is quite a burden – it’s hard to move beyond the brain and just ‘be’. That’s where the birds have stepped in and offered advice…
Chain D.L.K.: You’re based in Brighton, aren’t you? I’ve recently had a chat with another great female musician from there, Gazelle Twin, and on that occasion I mentioned a fight between a guy defending his meal from seagulls… first of all, can you tell us more about this creative explosion in the lovely Brighton? How did life in Brighton have an influence on your music?
Woodpecker Wooliams: Brighton is a great place to be – I’m realizing that more and more. I’ve been here nearly eight years now and the longer I’m here the more it seems like everybody knows everybody somehow. I think it’s been easy for me to take for granted how accepting Brighton is, and there is a real collaborative spirit amongst not just musicians but all the many and varied creatives here. We’re really lucky! I suppose in terms of influencing my music though - it’s hard if something bad happens within this big social network - you can never escape certain people and even if you can avoid bumping into them there’ll always be plenty of mutual friends… in that circumstance Brighton can feel a bit claustrophobic and looking back I think you might be able to hear something of that on the record.
Chain D.L.K.: …and what about your song “Gull”?
Woodpecker Wooliams: Yep. The gulls. THEY’RE EVERYWHERE! They’re an iconic Brighton image, they’re enormous here and pretty aggressive, though also fairly stupid. I was never going to write an album from birds’ eye views and not have a gull in there! Also I think I really wanted to have license to play a tape of screaming slowed-down gulls at every gig. It’s a horrible, brilliant sound!
Chain D.L.K.: You started the track “Crow” with a bugle call and finished it with a numerical sequence… what can you tell us about this song?
Woodpecker Wooliams: It’s quite dark. It includes some ‘numbers stations’ samples which are essentially spy radios. I took inspiration from that as a starting point, and mixed it with a dash of the spirit of Edgar Allen Poe (think, ‘The Raven’ who’s also a corvid) and cooked up something that hopefully suggests latent, rumbling, bowel-shaking fear. In particular, in this story, fear of self…
Chain D.L.K.: Maybe you know about the childhood dreams of Italian genius Leonardo da Vinci – your initial song “Red Kite” as well your words about your inspiration (“Each song came via a bird that had a story to tell”) reminded me this anecdote where a bird he used to “dream” was a red kite – …according to Freud’s analysis, it was a screen memory. A symbolic vision more than a real fact, which joined the research about his birth and his parents and influenced his creativity as well as his presumed homosexuality… so maybe you’re a genius too!
Woodpecker Wooliams: I have to look this up – I wasn’t aware of it. Amazing… I can’t really say too much about them other than that they embody, or represent, for me at least, some potent, ineffable, creative matrilineal spark…
Chain D.L.K.: Could you tell us something more about what you defined a “reverse Disney animation”?
Woodpecker Wooliams: That was my ineloquent attempt at describing the way in which the stories have been told: in Disney cartoons very often animals are the lead characters, however they have ‘human’ characters or personalities. They’ve been anthropomorphized; human-ness imagined onto animals. This album has the reverse approach: the songs are very much from human characters, however the characters (behaviors, traits, cultural associations…) of different species of birds have been imagined onto the humans. So, in Disney’s ‘Robin Hood’, Robin and Maid Marion are foxes in appearance, yet with a human spirit. In the ‘Bird School’ the narrative characters are human in appearance, yet with the imagined spirit of a bird. I think ‘Red Kite’ is the only track that doesn’t work in that way - rather it takes the tale of an interaction with a bird as its starting block, then spins into the bird world from there…
Chain D.L.K.: One of the most daydreaming and heavenly songs is “Dove”… does it have any of the typical Christian association or not?
Woodpecker Wooliams: I suppose it is in lots of ways. I’m glad you think it’s daydreamy and heavenly - it might be my favourite song on the album. I was in Rome mid-tour last summer and we had the day to potter about. Our host took us to a chapel that had a scene /shrine dedicated to Santa Teresa and my heart started fluttering as I stood before it and read her story. Looking up directly above me was the sky light, really high up, with a stained glass dove in its centre. I think the song touches on a religious experience…
Chain D.L.K.: Your last song mentions a hummingbird, one the most beautiful, aggressive (it seems so), quick and small birds… what should it teach to people?
Woodpecker Wooliams: Hummingbird is the great finale; the arrival in Paradise! You’re right though – it’s an extraordinarily beautiful bird yet is also both incredibly small and fragile as well as able to stand its ground and fight its corner. It balances mid-air and appears to hover yet is constantly in motion. I think the hummingbird speaks of grace and fluidity… as well as not taking any shit! Gentle power…
Chain D.L.K.: After this chat, which you hopefully enjoyed as much as I did, what could it be my aviomorph? Any bird getting close (and hopefully suggesting some lyrics) to you while answering?
Woodpecker Wooliams: It’s been a wonderful chat! I wish I chose your favourite bird and impress you thoroughly but I don’t think it works like that what WOULD your avimorph be…? Xx
Chain D.L.K.: Hopefully not a turkey on Thanksgiving day!
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