The Ear is the Key


I sat down with my longtime friend, musician Felicity Williams, for a chat at The Common coffee shop on College Street.

So how’s it going?

It’s going sooo good… so good right now (with sarcasm).

What are you doing for the rest of your day here in Toronto?

I’m house and cat sitting right now. The cats are a on a very rigorous schedule. They get fed like six times a day at specified times.

You don’t mind doing that?

No, I’m on a bit of a leash right now, but I love them. They’re great cats.

Do you have any kind of rehearsal?

(She thinks about it)

No, I don’t think so… I was going to see a show, but I’m forgetting what show now. I’m nervous with this thing on.

What do you call yourself by the way? Musician? Vocalist?

(At this point, she gestures for us to leave the coffee shop and head into the adjacent laundromat where it’s quieter. With the machines whirring I’m not sure if it’s quieter, but it’s definitely a more fun place to do an interview! Perfectly kitsch. We settle in beside a large fern. Felicity points it out.)

Remember Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis?

(I say I saw him in Tofino with his kid and he was bugging everybody to stop taking pictures of him. Though apparently nobody was taking pictures of him.)

My friend played at his wedding.

Hey, what do you like to be called? A writer? Vocalist? Musician?

I guess I would say musician, ‘cause that seems the broadest.

Can you talk a little bit about how you embraced the life of the musician? The backstory behind that question that is that I’ve known you since you were a kid when you were debating being a musician or a doctor. Do you think you made the right choice?

I don’t know. I don’t know. I’ve been thinking about this a lot because back then when I was applying to universities I applied to some biology programs—actually, I didn’t apply to any music programs, and I ended up doing the Environmental Studies program at York for two years, before switching to music, because they offered me the most money. So I just—

‘Cause you were kind of little brainiac.

I’m kind of a genius… so… (Said with the perfect amount of sass!)

You really were though. I hope that doesn’t go away!

I hope not! Anyway!

Okay, so you do or you don’t regret it?

It’s weird how much I’ve carried that question over the years. And even now—we’ve been discussing this breakup I’ve been going through and how I feel like I’m falling through the void at all times and questioning everything and haven’t had a lot of motivation to practice or write or do anything except for the things I have to do ‘cause they were already booked! And I’m kind of thinking, “do I even want to do music anymore and what are my reasons for wanting to do this?” Through these doubts, I’ve been revisiting the idea of studying medicine, even imagining taking courses I would need in order to apply to med school. I’ve been kind of fantasizing about it.

Wow, could you see yourself actually doing it?

I don’t think so. Well, sure of course, I could, but my latest thought about it is, probably on any career path you get to a point where it’s really difficult to know what to do next and difficult to find motivation and you have to find a way to work through it. And the fact that I’ve already come this far doing what I’m doing, it seems like it would be the most fruitful thing to just address those challenges and keep going, rather than starting over. It feels like starting over would be like committing suicide, like a fantasy of abandoning or escaping this impasse and getting relief from doing something else. For me right now it just feels better to keep going and maybe the reward, the ways that it will be satisfying to solve the problems I am feeling about music right now will be—I can’t remember how I started that sentence… I’m seeing it in text in my head and trying to complete it. Anyway…

Do you feel that there are certain themes that you keep writing about? I’ve realized that I always have a character trying to break out of some constraint… that’s a thing I always do.

(Felicity pulls out a book by Ran Blake)

I’ve been reading this book by Ran Blake—he’s a pianist/composer and educator. The first chapter, creating a personal style…

(She starts to read) “Like Hitchcock always comes back to similar moments: police, paranoia, transfer of guilt, incarceration of the wrong person, insanity, telephone booths, humour at inappropriate times… in my judgement having a personal style is sometimes a superior trait for a musician, but it is true that there instances where it is not.”

Yeah, anyway… it seems natural that you develop a language, things will come up. Do I have themes?

(She thinks about this for a while, almost not wanting to talk about herself for a second… which makes me want to probe more!)

You used to write about nature. Do you still?

(She laughs and kind of moves on to another topic)

I also associate your songs with deep questions about the world.

That’s nice… I think I tend to not write that much about relationships, like explicitly about relationships. It’s a very familiar thing for people to write from the perspective of a lover.

You avoid that?

Yeah, for some reason—although I have written songs about that… but maybe I end up writing words that seem like they’re about something other than that explicitly.

You’re so interesting, because I’ve always felt that you could take a really conventional path and be really successful conventionally, but yet you’ve always trodden a path that is unconventional. Justin Bieber would write a song about a lover. Are you a rebel? Do you have a rebellious artist spirit?

I’m not so sure I could have ‘conventional success’—I’m not even sure what that is! My interest in music has tended to be more academic, and I don’t necessarily feel comfortable as a performer if I am the ‘leader.’ It has felt empowering to me to be more of a ‘side person’ as they say. I have always had the sense that the category of singer is linked to gender in some way and in the last century especially, the ‘female’ singer is performing for the gaze of, I guess men, but… somehow the gaze of whomever is this thing I want to get away from. I feel like the most important thing that is happening for the audience and the musicians is listening. So the ear is the key, not the gaze. Maybe I also feel insecure about how that gaze will find me.

In jazz school most of the instrumentalists were ‘male’ and many of the singers were ‘female’, and there was an attitude perpetuated by some of the faculty that the singers were inferior musicians (and perhaps in some cases that was a self-fulfilling mentality—at that time York’s jazz voice program was horribly segregated from the rest of the music program). The overlay of gender on that phenomenon made for a really ugly atmosphere which I responded to by trying to prove myself to these jazz bro gatekeepers. Of course there were wonderfully supportive and creative teachers and students as well, and in the end I can see that it was really my own ambition and curiosity that drove my exploration.

What have been some of your most rewarding creative experiences?

What first comes to mind is Hobson’s Choice—the process of working with Hobson’s Choice.

What’s Hobson’s Choice?

It’s a quartet with Michael Davidson on vibraphone, Rebecca Hennessy on trumpet, and Harley Card on guitar. We started playing together almost ten years ago which is insane! When I was in school I was never very good at group work. I think it was hard for me to collaborate with people. I have this idea of myself as a child not having many friends, being super nerdy, and in a way thinking I knew better than others and not having the patience to work with other people… feeling like I should direct the process, because I thought I could do it best. But I also felt lonely because of that.

So with Hobson’s Choice, it was my first experience of working well with others. Everyone would bring in songs and we would teach them to each other by ear (we all read music but we intentionally never notated anything) and arrange them together for the ensemble. For a few years we met every week to play and develop material. Over time, this has led to the creation of a sound that is simply the result of our relationship over many years. Michael and Rebecca and Harley are all such beautiful musicians and humans. There was no leader and we were all equally invested. It was a really productive process and it’s kind of a precious thing. It’s possible for that to happen but it doesn’t always happen.

‘Cause you also sing with Bahamas. Is it less collaborative?

Well, it’s not collaborative in terms of composition—Afie writes all the songs. We do some arranging together during the rehearsal process. But the arrangements and the approach do evolve subtly through performance practice, through the sheer number of shows that we play. To me, our collaboration exists most powerfully at the level of our connection onstage and the feeling between the audience and us. Playing with Bahamas has been my first experience of playing shows for big audiences who know and love the songs and that love is palpable in the room. The important thing that is happening is the energy… that sounds so—

New agey?

Yeah… but I don’t know how else to name it. It registers at the level of the sensory, of feeling. Or maybe it’s in the imagination? Plus at this point we’re all great friends and have fun traveling together. We laugh a lot.

Do you ever stop, close your eyes and listen?

I think I do that a lot, even with my eyes open. Well for one thing, I’ve been doing this meditation app—Headspace. At the beginning of each session, you take a couple of minutes to close your eyes, pay attention to sounds, and feel the weight of your body. Also I don’t have very good eye sight—I’ve worn a strong prescription since I was four. I can see pretty well with contacts, but I have a tendency to tune out visually. I think I usually pay more attention to what I hear than what I see.

Do you eavesdrop?

Sometimes it’s inevitable. I find it difficult to tune out sounds and it’s hard to focus on reading or whatever if something is distracting me aurally. It reminds me of this funny thing when I was little—my dad said that my mom had “Nolte eyes” (my mom’s maiden name is Nolte). Like if we were at a restaurant, he would call her out for staring at the people at other tables—for having “Nolte eyes” and not paying attention to what was happening at our table (I guess he felt that was a habit of people in her family). And I feel like kids would say to me “do you have a staring problem?” And I wonder if I did have a staring problem… maybe part of that thing about tuning out visually. I also remember being on the bus as a kid (you know a memory in which your field of vision is lower?) and thinking “how come other people aren’t looking at me? I’m looking at them!”

Are we as artists more open to the world? ‘Cause I do think that there is a closedness around me. Can you be an artist and not care… if we’re not tuned in to our senses?

Yeah, I mean the senses—what else is there?

Death—the cold earth!

How are you tuned in to the stories of our world?

I watch Democracy Now every day—I guess that’s one thing.

So you’re connected to social justice?

In a way the term “social justice” is a strange thing. It creates a distinction that I don’t understand. Like social justice is a priority as opposed to what? Of course social and economic justice are what we must bring into the world. I want all people to be well and to have what they need and to be autonomous. And there are so many things that we haven’t figured out about how to make that a reality for everyone. But there’s movement toward that all the time. I kind of think human beings are learning how to speak. There’s a movement toward more coherence.

You feel like we’re making progress as humans?

I do think so—yeah!

Are you an optimist?

I am! Obviously there is so much suffering, so much violence, so much greed and ignorance. But it’s like that Martin Luther King phrase, “The arc of history bends towards justice.”

Do you have any big artistic dreams?

What I really would like to be able to do is to become a more fluent improviser. I want to write songs, but I also want to be able to improvise with or without words in any context… to be able to navigate any harmony, any time feel… to be responsive to any rhythmic or harmonic or melodic idea that is being put out there by other musicians… to respond with facility and freedom. I guess to have all these things operating easily at a technical level so that expression can happen, and that is really about the immanence of love. I feel like it’s a lifelong thing.

How does money factor in?

That’s one of the big ones I’ve retained from Jesus’s teachings: “You can’t serve God and money.” That’s lodged in there. Although maybe it’s easier as a person with a certain amount of privilege to say that because all my physical needs are met. It’s sort of just a fetish to say that I’m prioritizing creative/spiritual considerations. I mean I do worry about money and feel afraid of not having enough money, but I’ve been trying to keep that concern separate from envisioning creative pursuits so that as much as possible fear isn’t dictating the choices I make about what I do. I’m really lucky to have musical work that more or less pays my bills—I’m thankful for that. Although I am planning to do some landscaping work this fall with my friend Robin Dann who is one of the most wonderful musicians I know!

Big artistic challenges?

Just a big feeling of resistance toward actually making something, starting something… sometimes a feeling of hatred for it.

Is it the law of inertia or something?

Maybe I’m just lazy!

Any advice? I see you as a very wise person. I don’t know if you see yourself that way…! You’re complex! I’m attracted to complexity!

I’m repulsed by it! (Laughs)

I’ve been seeking advice from people in this turbulent post-breakup time that I’m in—my friend Christine Duncan [a cool artist who teaches at U of T and Humber]—we got together yesterday and she gave me some good advice. She talked about how we need to learn to be our own support system, our own father, mother, child, friend. We’re not islands and do rely on others but we also need to learn— (Felicity stops herself, reminded of a thought)

Oh, side note: I had this dream last night that there were two of me and I was making out with myself. But I was kind of lucid dreaming. And I thought to myself, I don’t really want to be making out with myself. And suddenly there was a third person and I asked her if she could make one of me into someone else, ‘cause I don’t really want to be making out with myself. And she did and then it was lovely!

I love remembering dreams that clearly!

Christine also brought up the word ‘intention’ a lot—being able to make choices about what you want, about acting with intention, which is something I’ve had trouble with. I used to think God was calling me to be a doctor—I had a vivid sense of God as a father who was calling me to a certain vocation and then I felt like I was rebelling against him because I wasn’t sure I wanted to pursue medicine. But I was also always wondering, how do I know that God is calling me? What is the difference between my idea of what God is… is there an external reality of God that can interact with me as an other? How do I know that I’m not projecting this thing… and I didn’t know how to get an answer… how do I experience God’s reply? So now, when I’m having these doubts about what to do next, I just have to decide and be at peace with my decision. I can make a decision and let go of the feeling that I’m rebelling against something. I still don’t quite understand what it’s about. I think I have to be able to have intention and to be autonomous.

Is there a TV show you like?

Downton Abbey. I find it comforting. But I’ve watched it so many times… I know what’s going to happen. Oh and Maria Bamford—do you know her?


What? You need to watch her. She’s this stand-up comedian and writer from Minnesota and she does these hilarious impressions of her family.

(I make a mental note to shore up on Maria Bamford!)

Favourite book right now?

I’ve been memorizing a poem every week by this poet Ben Lerner.

Is there one you can say from memory?

Oh yeah!

(She gets set)

I had meant to apologize in advance.
I had meant to jettison all dogmatism in theory and all sclerosis in organization.
I had meant to place my hand in a position to receive the sun.
I imagined such a gesture would amount to batter, battery. A cookie

is not the only substance that receives the shape
of the instrument with which it’s cut. The man-child tucks
a flare gun into his sweat pants and sets out
for a bench of great beauty and peacefulness.

Like the girl my neighbors sent to Catholic school, tonight
the moon lies down with any boy who talks of leaving town.
My cowardice may or may not have a concrete economic foundation.
I beat Orlando Duran with a ratchet til he bled from his eye.

I like it when you cut the crust off my sandwiches.
The name of our state flower changes as it dries.

Thanks for talking to me.

(She laughs and we hug. I wish I could spend so much more time with her.)

When Felicity Williams isn’t playing shows inside or outside of Toronto, she is probably either playing bananagrams with Christine Bougie, locked in a staring contest with Facebook, or re-reading the same chapter of Slavoj Zizek’s The Sublime Object of Ideology for the 17th time. She feels okay about all of this, although she is also working toward finishing a Toronto Arts Council grant for her Al Purdy Project, songs based on the works of the Canadian poet. She’s also looking forward to the release of a new record by Bernice this fall/winter.


In Interviews

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