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Desert Ramble

How Jess Williamson Tapped Into a Higher Power

Single for the first time in years, the singer-songwriter and Waxahatchee collaborator rediscovered the strength of love and a drum machine
Thalía Gochez for Rolling Stone

A t the height of the pandemic, Jess Williamson found herself taking long walks with her neighbor Natalie Mering, who performs as Weyes Blood. “I had met her in passing over the years, but we didn’t know each other,” says Williamson. “We were podded up, and we got to be really good friends.” Venturing around Los Feliz with Mering’s Pomeranian, Luigi, the songwriters discussed their upcoming music and dating, even starting a group text titled Ho Support. “We’d talk about boys and sorcery,” Mering says. “Mostly boys.”

Williamson chronicles some of her dating experiences on “Hunter,” her new single, out today. With delicate percussion supporting her honeyed vocals, she reflects on the harsh realities of Tinder. “I’ve been thrown to the wolves,” she sings. “And they ate me raw.”

“I missed the dating-app thing because I was in two back-to-back, long-term relationships,” Williamson, 35, says. “I had this very brief moment where I was like, ‘I want to see what this is all about.’ I was so unprepared for this level of rejection and dehumanization. I realized I’m not a casual person when it comes to matters of the heart, and I actually think if it’s not love, it’s boring.” 

“Hunter” is the second track off Williamson’s upcoming album Time Ain’t Accidental, out June 9 via Mexican Summer. With dense strokes of Americana and razor-sharp songwriting, the album traces a through-line from her 2020 breakthrough Sorceress and 2022’s I Walked with You a Ways, the album she made with Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield as the duo Plains. The 11 songs on the new album are a cozy concoction of Nineties country and older influences: imagine Deana Carter’s “Strawberry Wine” mashed with Neil Young’s Harvest Moon, and you’ll get the idea. Throughout the album, Williamson proves she is indeed not casual when it comes to romance. “My love is pure as the universe, honest as an ashtray,” she sings on “Hunter.”

“I knew she had this country quality, but she really lets it shine more lyrically,” Mering says. “I remember hearing ‘As honest as an ashtray’ and thinking it was really something she would say in person. She’s very candid and conversational. Personal, but warm. Not downtrodden, but hopeful.” 

Dress by Dôen 

WILLIAMSON IS ZOOMING from her home in Marfa, Texas, wearing a white eyelet blouse under light blue denim overalls, the bangs of her chestnut-brown hair swept across her forehead. The Dallas native and her rescue dog Nana — who is resting on the bed behind her — split their time between Texas and California. Williamson lives here in the desert with her partner, a former acquaintance she began dating within the last three years. “It’s a small town,” she says. “And I just kept running into this guy that I had known peripherally for years.”

The title track to Time Ain’t Accidental, which kicks off the album, is a charming recollection of how they fell in love. “I read you Raymond Carver by the pool bar like a lady,” she sings over a sparse drum machine. “Known you for a while, but you’d been someone else’s baby.” 

Williamson reveals she was truly reading one of Carver’s short fiction collections — 1988’s Where I’m Calling From — and her account of “Time Ain’t Accidental” unfolds like a short story of its own. “It was so magical,” she says of that day. “We were just hanging out by the pool, and this hail storm came out of nowhere. We’re all hiding under this awning, and they were playing Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. It was so romantic.” The following day, Williamson sat down at the keyboard and wrote the entire song.

The backbone of the track — and all of Time Ain’t Accidental — is a drum machine that comes from an iPhone app Williamson discovered at the beginning of quarantine. Unable to tour and recovering from the breakup of a four-year relationship, she needed a way to create music by herself. “It was the first time where I didn’t have anybody to bounce ideas off of, and I felt so raw and alone,” she says. “I couldn’t jam with people, and writing with a drum machine helped me fill in a lot of gaps sonically.”

Using the app, Williamson wrote “Pictures of Flowers,” an aching rumination on the pandemic. “If it’s the end of Los Angeles/Guess I’m not gonna be a star,” Williamson sings, with Hand Habits’ Meg Duffy remotely supplying slide guitar. 

Released in June 2020 as part of a Mexican Summer compilation, that song was the start of a brand new sound for Williamson. She had already written Plains songs like “Summer Sun” and “No Record of Wrongs,” but these were more lo-fi and indie, beautiful in their simplicity. “It was a light bulb moment of, ‘Maybe I don’t need to crowdsource all this stuff and I can trust something within,’” she says. 

Jess Williamson photographed in Los Angeles in March 2023. Dress by Dôen

Williamson brought the songs to Durham, North Carolina with producer Brad Cook, who’d worked on Plains as well as Waxahatchee’s Saint Cloud. She had assumed the beats were just placeholders for actual demos, but Cook convinced her otherwise. 

“The app is very user-friendly,” she says. “You don’t need a lot of knowledge to use this thing and make some cool sounds. So, to me, that was cheating. He literally took my phone and plugged it into the desktop computer and ripped the exact beats and put them straight into the session. He was like, ‘You wrote the songs with this as the frame. We need to keep that in there.’”

It’s a lesson Williamson also learned from Crutchfield, who told her to stop tinkering with the Plains gem “Abilene.” “She said, ‘This is a perfect song, it doesn’t need any work,’” Williamson recalls. “Again, if I thought something was too easy, then it must be wrong. I need to be there every step of the way, having a comment about every little sound. And it’s like no, I don’t. That’s actually not where my strengths are.”

That beautiful simplicity appears all over Time Ain’t Accidental, even in the biting “Chasing Spirits,” which Williamson wrote about her ex. “Are my love songs lies now that the love is gone?” she asks. “There’s the one about forever and/Loving you in a past life/Or whatever.”

On the meditative centerpiece “God In Everything,” Williamson sings of a higher power. But like the Sorceress track “Wind on Tin,” she keeps it vague.

“I grew up Christian,” she says. “God was a really specific thing, and Jesus and church and hell and no sex before marriage.” When she attended collage at the University of Texas, she continues, “I rejected everything and was atheist. But then in the last few years, I’ve found my own version of spirituality. I feel the presence of a higher power when I’m in nature and in little coincidences and miracles that happen every day. I say God because it’s a universal term that people understand, but it’s less this man in the sky with a beard.”

Then there are the dual tracks “Tobacco Two Step” and “Topanga Two Step,” a double gut-punch of Williamson’s two homes and her brief dance with Tinder. “I was thinking about the Texas Two Step, the dance we do back home,” she says. “I don’t really feel like I fit in there anymore, or if I’m even welcome in the same way. There’s a dance that I was doing, trying this whole dating thing out in L.A., and it was a moment where I felt split between the two places. That’s how I sometimes feel like with the actual Texas Two Step. I don’t actually know how to do it. I often in life have felt this thing of, everybody else knows the rules and they’re all following them and doing it right. I’m just trying to keep up with the steps.”

Production Credits

Produced by Joe Rodriguez & Sandra Riaño. Hair by Gabriella Mancha. Makeup by Yukari Bush. Styled by Raina Selene. Photography assistance by Ash Alexander

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