The soft-spoken, bearded library assistant in the Life Science Library doesn’t necessarily have the look of an indie rock guitarist who toured Europe with an acclaimed ’90s indie band, but there’s more to Harold Whit Williams, who recently released his first solo album after taking a break from recording music, than meets the eye.
Aside from working in the Life Science Library since 2002, Williams is a musician and a published poet who, over the last two decades, tasted the allure of a rock-star lifestyle, retreated into the stability of a steady job on campus and, recently, began to dabble in music again. The style of his sound and the sensibilities behind it have changed a bit since his days as a guitarist in the band Cotton Mather, but the appeal is still there and he sees exciting times ahead.
Williams, who grew up in Alabama and has a bachelor’s degree in geography, put out his first solo album, The Daily Worker Songbook, in March. The record has more of a bluegrass and folk vibe than his previous work, something he credits to the folk music scene that has surrounded Austin for decades. Besides studio work and a few other brief musical stints, the album’s release marks his return to music after he went on a hiatus in 2002 when Cotton Mather broke up. He said that now he’s pushing himself back into music at his own pace, something that being in a critically acclaimed rock band didn’t really allow.
“I’m just a cautious dude,” Williams said. “This is my first time I’ve ever played solo. I’ve always been a side man. I was a side man in Cotton Mather, I was a side man when I did some stuff with local singer-songwriter Kacy Crowley. I’ve just always been comfortable doing that, and this being my first solo thing, I’m just pretty cautious about it.”
Cautious wasn’t exactly the adjective of the day when Williams was in Cotton Mather, which experienced a rise in popularity when Oasis guitarist Noel Gallagher listened to the band’s sophomore album, Kon Tiki. After liking what he heard, Williams said Gallagher invited him and his bandmates to tour with Oasis. According to allmusic.com, they became minor celebrities in the U.K., where the album was a hit and their sound drew comparisons to the Beatles and Guided By Voices.
Williams said, however, even though some aspects of touring and being a rock star were fun, such as being in magazines and hearing Cotton Mather songs on the radio, it just wasn’t for him.
“I enjoyed touring to a certain level, but I didn’t do it very well,” Williams said. “Something about me just didn’t jive well with rock-and-roll touring. I basically just burned out; I didn’t want to be in a band.”
Even while playing with Cotton Mather, Williams’ appreciation of stability — and working in libraries — was still apparent. When he wasn’t on tour with the band, he was working at the Austin Public Library. Cotton Mather, although successful in Europe, wasn’t exactly a household name in the States and didn’t afford him financial security. Since those days, he has stayed with library-system jobs, and he doesn’t foresee that changing soon.
“Of course, I realize that keeping a day job kind of puts me at a disadvantage,” Williams said. “And I have so many musician friends that have made the leap and they are just doing their art, doing their music, and I really admire that. But even in Cotton Mather, I kept a day job [at the library]. My wife and I, neither of us are interested in living like gypsies, and with touring, whereas I enjoyed it sometimes, I’m just not sure I have that gypsy soul. So I always kind of kept it at arm’s length.”
This time around, Williams’ reemergence into music is on his own terms. Besides his cautious approach towards the recording, promotion and performance of his new record, he’s also getting a chance to try his hand at some new things. He wrote all the songs on his solo record, which is something that he didn’t have a chance to do in Cotton Mather. Williams has been writing poetry during the past decade (“Waiting For The Fire To Go Out,” a chapter book collection of his poetry will be published in the fall). He said that his reignited passion for playing music coincided perfectly with his development as a poet and what resulted was fresh and a good fit.
“I’m just going about it in a way that makes sense to me,” Williams said. “There’s no deadlines, no pressure, no label, there’s nobody booking me. I’m just kind of feeling this out myself.”