If you're not familiar with Gemma Williams' music, then get familiar now. Better known by her stage name Woodpecker Wooliams, the multi-instrumentalist has been creating a wave of excitement among fans and critics since her debut album The Bird School of Being Human hit the shelves last year. This unconventional singer-songwriter plays the harp, deep and dark synthesizers, and a balloon during her sets. We sat down in the tall grass to discuss her interesting music.
Music Review Database: So why the name Woodpecker Wooliams?
Gemma: I think I’ve grown in to it over time. When I took it on I was just starting to make music living in a cottage in Totnes. I had been really ill and had a lot of seizures, so I was kind of shaking a lot and my head was hurting, and I felt like setting my head against a brick wall over and over. But I guess it’s also something about the tenacity of keeping going and chugging on. Wooliams, just because my surname is Williams and I was wearing lots of woolly jumpers because it was freezing.
MRD: Have you always liked animals and used animals in your music?
Gemma: I think so yeah. Yeah, I'm not really a pet person, but I’ve got a lot of respect for animals and from when the music started I think they’ve kind of been involved as an influence.
MRD: When did you start writing songs?
Gemma: Properly in 2009, after being unwell. I don’t think I’d really written any before.
MRD: And they mostly include birds in the title, so is that taken from the woodpecker?
Gemma: I guess it’s a starting point yeah, but the recent album songs are all loosely related to a different bird, but not everything I do. I'm not like a bird freak, a bird maniac.
MRD: Who in your life has inspired you the most as an artist?
Gemma: Well, maybe probably equally people like Robert Wyatt and Robin Williamson because their music kind of creates a vessel to carry a spirit or a feeling. I'm just reading a book now about Nijinsky, he's a Russian ballet dancer. It's really inspiring, I've only just came across it recently but, he seems to be someone who conveys the same sort of thing through the medium of dance.
MRD: What led you to the harp?
Gemma: I wanted to sing, and I'm really shit at kind of spatial things and trying to get two hands on a guitar is impossible. In Totnes where I was living, there was a shop down the road that hired out harps for £6.99 a month, so I just hired a harp and had a little go, and really liked it.
MRD: Who influenced your industrial sound?
Gemma: I don’t know if it was a person so much. I didn’t want to make something that was one dimensional or really simple. There’s like a lot of conflict in all the themes of songs I was writing. also there’s a lot of conflict in the world around us, so I wanted to yeah, bring that forward. And also I just felt a bit sick just playing the harp and I’ve got a really high pitched voice and felt a bit like I was a sugar plum fairy.
MRD: Do you feel it was a bit empty without having something else extra over the harp?
Gemma: Yeah and just a bit like super sweet, that pink icing which is fine, but you don’t want a whole cake of pink icing, because it's too much, for me... I'm wearing a pink dress.
MRD: Was it difficult creating these songs that are acoustic and have the harp, but with the synthesizer there as well?
Gemma: It's really fun. It's a bit harder trying to get that balance live. Like today here, they asked me to play on my own, do a solo set because it’s a small stage, and normally I’ve got a band and more recently I’ve been playing with a band and between us we can get some filthy noises but then across the set you can balance it with like sweeter songs but then, when I’m on my own I feel a bit sick about the thought of just playing the harp and singing.
MRD: Are you nervous?
Gemma: Yeah, cause I can't quite convey the.. I want to be a bit urgggggggggggggggggggggg, but I don't know how it's going to happen. So if you want to do some hyping in the background and be like urghhhhhhhhhhh, come and do it.
MRD: Is this your first time playing at the Cambridge Folk Festival?
MRD: Are you excited?
Gemma: Yes. I think I might have come to Cambridge once when I left school and I was thinking, do I want to go to Cambridge University, and I maybe went on a little boat. Is there like a little boat in a little river?
MRD: There is a little river.
Gemma: I think I did that, so all of it, exciting. I sort of turned against folk a bit because of not wanting to be too twee. I started reading something recently called Electric Eden by Rob Young. It's like exploring folk music in the British isles but it does it in such a beautiful way and makes it really vivid, about drawing from the land and this whole history. It's kind of made it exciting again, so now I’m pleased to be here.
MRD: What are your plans for the future?
Gemma: I've got a plan for a new set of songs, so I’ve just needed the time to be able to write them - well they’re kind of written in my head. So hopefully summer I will be writing loads and playing festivals.