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An Interview with Anna-Lynne Williams of Lotte Kestner

Anna-Lynne Williams of Lotte Kestner
15 March 2013

I first heard of Anna-Lynne Williams (ALW) through her mesmerizing work with dream pop veterans, Trespassers William. Their hazy, late night music reminded me of Mazzy Star in passing, but their music seemed to emanate from dark, isolated places rather than the shreds of the Paisley Underground. Williams played guitar and sang lead for many years, and her different way of playing guitar ultimately resulted in her current injury (discussed below). She hasn’t let that stop her, working with many different artists from techno gods, The Chemical Brothers, to her collaboration with Robert Gomez in Ormonde. When she’s on her own, she works under the moniker of Lotte Kestner. Her beautiful voice and amazing talent are undiminished by the pain she lives with every day. I was delighted to converse with her by email about projects past and present.

I am sure you get asked this a lot, but can you tell us what inspired the name Lotte Kestner?

ALW: A few years after I’d already read “The Sorrows of Young Werther”, I came across the name Lotte Kestner again. She was the woman who inspired that novel. I loved the sound of her name, and I borrowed it. She’s a symbol of unrequited love.

Tell us about the recording process. Do you mostly record at home, and what equipment do you use?

ALW: In Trespassers William, we generally worked in studios and had outside help with mixing. So for Lotte Kestner, I’ve been doing the opposite. Recording on my own equipment in the living room, mixing it myself. For a few of the songs on “The Bluebird of Happiness”, I relocated my set-up to a rental house. I just use a computer, a preamp, a couple of microphones (one nice clean one, one dirty antique one), and my small collection of instruments. If there’s a solo part I’m hearing and I don’t have the necessary instrument, then I just sing it.

Anna-Lynne Williams live.

I’d love to hear about the inception of Bluebird of Happiness and the different guest musicians you worked with.

ALW: I don’t generally think of an album conceptually until the songs are already recorded and I’m ordering the tracks. I just deal with one song at a time. However, I knew that I wanted to write a really sad song and call it “The Bluebird of Happiness,” so that one was named before it even began. I bought a candle holder at a flea market with those words on the bottom, and I was going through the darkest point of my life so far and I was feeling beaten and ironic. Once I’d written the song, I felt like it was an apt name for the album as well. As for the artists who appeared on the album, I had no idea there would be so many of my favorites when I first set out working on it. I suppose I spent about a year writing and recording the album (except “Sweetheart”, which I had tracked a few years earlier). And during that time, different people crossed my path and offered their services. I had to ask Damien (Jurado) a few times to duet, but I finally got him to come over and now we’re really good friends.

”Eggshell” is stylistically different from your other songs on this record, and I see you’ve just released a remix on your web site. Does this herald a future musical direction, or is it something akin to some of the electronic music you’ve created to date?

ALW: “Eggshell” was actually a result of necessity, in a way. When I had such bad tendinitis that I couldn’t even work a zipper or a button, I took off to Vashon Island for a week by myself to sit on a couch and rest my arm on a pillow with ice and a copy of “The Corrections”. I brought a Microkorg and an old mic with me, and was aching to make music after not touching a guitar in a long time. “Eggshell” is the sound of me trying to make music with one hand, without the rest of my gear around. I enjoy dark electronic music, but it usually isn’t emotional sounding enough for me. I tried to give it a singer/songwriter quality even though it was all synths. I’d love to try to make more music like that, and I know my label is gunning for that. I didn’t really question putting it on the album, even if it doesn’t quite match up.

Anna-Lynne Williams at the piano.

What cities will this tour bring you to, and do you plan to take in the sights along the way? I am in New England, and would love to see you if you visit us.

ALW: This is the first year that I don’t actually have tour plans, though I have a feeling something will pop up, because it usually does. It’s partly because of my left hand. I still can’t really play the guitar, and don’t expect to any year soon. So the thought of touring is much more grueling than it used to be. It means teaching someone else all of my songs, or else completely redesigning my sound. Though I’m up for either of those things. I like touring Europe best. I’ve been lucky enough to hit at least one country a year for the past few years (Belgium, Switzerland, the Netherlands). I really want to go back (to all three). Most likely, my band Ormonde will tour first since that’s the most fun and doable since there are two of us. Meanwhile, I’m just playing a bunch in Seattle.

Can you talk a little about the sublime Trespassers William and why the band ultimately decided to break up? Is there any possibility you’d work with these musicians again in the future on other projects?

ALW: I was writing and performing in Trespassers William for what seems like my entire life, so I think it was an important thing to step away from, even though I still like to play some of those songs at my solo shows. We had so many member change-ups that it weakened the band, and there were some complicated personal reasons why we all eventually parted ways. I think it’s perfectly likely that Matt and I could record or perform together some time in the future. But for now, I’m focusing on the other projects in my life. It is a hard thing to walk away from 15 years worth of songs you’ve written though. I’m grateful for the last big six-week tour we went on in 2009. Those were the best shows of our career. I’m glad not to have missed out on that.

How did working with The Chemical Brothers come about? I adore that song you did with them (“Hold Tight London”).

ALW: Thank you! Apparently they heard a Trespassers song on a mix, and contacted our label (Bella Union) and sent me the instrumental to write to. Luck had it I was going to the UK for a tour, and met up with them in their studio, laid down the vocals, and it ended up fitting the album. So grateful.

Do your poems ultimately become lyrics?

ALW: I had never turned any of my poems into songs until recently. I think it’s because I haven’t been able to play guitar much this past year and a half, due to my injury, so I’ve had to work through my thoughts in poetry instead of music. I can’t just sit around strumming a guitar for fun anymore. I can only last a few minutes. So having all these poems sitting around has helped me to finish songs more quickly, and the words are somewhat more intentional and vivid, because they were meant to be able to stand on their own.

What inspires your songwriting?

ALW: It sounds goth, but pain.

What music are you listening to right now? What about music that has influenced you, such as Catherine Wheel and The Smiths?

ALW: I need to listen to a lot more music than I have been. I used to spend all my money on albums, but these days I just find a good one and stick with it. I don’t know most of the new bands. I like to listen to my friends’ albums. I like to meditate to Talk Talk. I like to sing along to David Bazan when I’m cooking. I don’t listen to music most of the rest of the time. But yeah, I used to listen to The Smiths and The Cocteau Twins and Red House Painters all day long.

Do you have any poetry books or other creative ventures coming our way in the near future?

ALW: I’ve been posting all of my new poetry on my Tumblr blog, so I supposed it wouldn’t make sense to release those in another format. I like to share things when they’re brand new and I still feel uncertain about them. It’s the same way with songs. I try to always record them the day I write them. I don’t want any of the bloom to be gone. At least 8 or 9 of the songs on the new album were recorded the day I wrote them. That is the best part about recording yourself, and not being a perfectionist. I do have a little Poetry EP coming out in a month or so. It’s me and a few of my friends singing poems that I wrote.

And finally, how has it been working with Saint Marie Records?

ALW: Every label situation is so different, and the SMR model really works for me. Some labels are too small, or too big, or too busy. One of the best things about SMR is that I feel like they’re my friends. Anthony and I get coffee and chat (because he lives in Seattle). Wyatt (who lives in Texas) and I exchange emails almost every day. They are incredibly attentive and like to get things done as quickly as I do. It’s such a good fit. And we all like dark stuff.

Photo credit: Piano picture by Edgardo Flores.

Check out Anna-Lynne’s Facebook page and catch her on Tumblr.