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    Cris Williamson’s Transformative Power Endures

    Like a great prophet, perhaps Cris Williamson’s coming was foretold. Not in the Biblical sense, but by the Greek poet Sappho, or the lesbians featured in Renaissance engravings, or within the passionate writings of Saint Hildegard von Bingen, or in the hearts of any lesbian anywhere who longed for someone who could express their deepest truths and, in doing so, might liberate their very souls. That’s clearly a tall order, but Williamson delivered, and continues to do so 40 years after her landmark album The Changer and the Changed became one of the best-selling independent releases of all time.

    For fans, we are preaching to the chorus. For the rest of you, do yourself a huge favor by purchasing that remarkable aforementioned album and the 25 or so other extraordinary albums that she has recorded over the years, including her latest, Pray Tell. You’ll soon discover why her music is sung around campfires and in places of worship, why her albums are part of the curriculum for women’s studies courses, why she is sampled by hip hop artists, and why midwives play her songs as they welcome new lives into the world. Yes, she is that good!

    In the meantime, we hope that you enjoy the below interview that Williamson graciously granted for us ahead of performances in Massachusetts, Maine and New York. She’ll be returning to California in June for the Kate Wolf Music Festival in Laytonville and a series of songwriting workshops at Big Sur, and she’s also performing on an Olivia cruise to Alaska this May. Note that Olivia Records was Williamson’s brainchild, so we couldn’t do this special Olivia issue without including her.

    San Francisco Bay Times: Your music connects so deeply with so many. “Hand on You” from your latest compilation, for example, exhibits such a keen understanding of what it’s like for children to grow up never knowing hands of kindness and love. Is empathy itself a part of your spiritual practice?

    Cris Williamson: First of all, thank you so much for noticing that particular song and its particular message. I wanted to take that hands-on practice in families and reconfigure it in the kindest, most loving of ways. I honestly believe that loving hands can teach all living creatures how to accept and learn about kindness, and drive violence further from those lives.

    Loving-kindness, Compassion, Equanimity and Joy—the four unlimited qualities are part of my daily practice. Practice never makes perfect. Rather, it leads endlessly, one moment after another, to the next part of the practice, the next obstacle, the next teacher, the next wisdom. These qualities have a Forever quality about them, never conquered, always rising in one way or another to teach and challenge us. So…yes, empathy is so important to me. I despair sometimes when I am near a lack of it, but then, something will appear and revive it in my soul. I think—and it’s just thinking on my part—that I am empathetic by nature. I hope so.

    San Francisco Bay Times: Thinking again of connection, we are struck by how—even with tremendous success and a very large following—you have never lost touch with your audiences. There is no music industry exec(s), high tech set design, or other major barrier standing between you and your listeners. From the purchasing of your music, to people singing along at shows, it’s a very personal experience. Have you worked to maintain that, or is the more direct approach something that just evolved? In any case, it speaks to your fearlessness (due to inherent vulnerability), honesty and integrity as an artist.

    Cris Williamson: As you say, Connection and the realization that all things are interconnected is my world. It’s that belief that keeps me honest in my intention, that keeps me Present, which reminds me that whoever comes gets the Show. It is tempting to measure oneself by the numbers: how many people come, how many CDs you sell, how popular you are, etc. These things are transient, and not part of what endures.

    I am after that, that which endures, and in the long run, I am the only one who knows what is open and what is closed in the room of my life. I work on disarming myself and opening fearful, closed places…therefore, remaining visible and vulnerable. It’s risky to be sure, but so alive!

    I am practicing listening to the stories of people who love my music, who come up to me and have something to impart, something that turned and changed in them when they heard my music. Because that is a miraculous thing to me, this changing power, I stay still, I listen, and I am able to receive the gifts people are there to give me…some sort of echolocation of my being here. Music is personal, and must remain so. I think, as you suggest, it is something that has evolved as I’ve grown into my Self, and shed fears along the way. I have no skill for anything except being myself, singing myself, giving myself. It all leads to believability, a kind of opening of the skin, a becoming porous, audience and performer alike. That leads to Equanimity.

    San Francisco Bay Times: We love this from you, about songwriting: “I always carry a small book and pen in case something should strike my fancy. The trick is to capture the fancy-striker, to catch it in order to release it eventually into the world…as a song. I am a scribe, a hunter- gatherer, a fisher person, a dog on the hunt. Once I am on the track of something, the feeling of excitement grows and grows.”

    Please share a bit more about that feeling of excitement, and what it’s like for you to develop a song and then send it out into the world. Are you working on material now that is giving you this sensation? 

    Cris Williamson: This feeling of excitement is just the coolest thing! I’ve trained myself to be a catcher, to always be looking and listening for the next lyrical idea. I work from words to music almost exclusively. (I can work the other way, but this way is my favorite). Conversations I overhear can lead to an idea. Titles, and headlines, and a radio story can lead to a song. And now when I write the words, I hear the music and feel the rhythm. I write down the idea, a sketch of sorts. Later, I go to my books and glean my fields. I gather here and there and put the ideas I’ve collected in one place—often on my computer. The words have a kind of solidity on the computer page for some reason, and I can often see patterns emerging. That’s what songs are anyway…patterns. I pay attention to the niggling feeling that says, “This is not quite right.” And I tinker with that spot, that part of the pattern that does not hold the water the way I want and need it to. Songs are made things, but still, and yet, there is Mystery to it. I am so thankful for the Mystery and do not wish to disturb it or crack the Code.

    cris2San Francisco Bay Times: “Sanctuary,” the first track of your latest release, is such a beautiful song and concept. Do you find sanctuary in the music of others? Who are some of the artists, and what are some of the songs that have comforted you and given you hope?

    Cris Williamson: Oh, where to begin…where to end. Almost all music inspires me, all kinds of patterns and styles. Sometimes I think I love folk music the best; sometimes I think I love classical music the best; sometimes I think rock & roll is the key to the world; sometimes, it’s bird songs that fill my heart with Joy. Bach, and Beethoven, Chopin, Judy Collins and Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, Etta James, Getz/Gilberto, Brubeck Gillian Welch, Laura Nyro, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Frank Sinatra, all my pals in the women’s music movement, everything I listened to growing up, everything I hear now. I know I’ve not named everyone and I can’t possibly list them all! Hope and comfort and total joy have been found for me in the song of the Western Meadowlark. It’s the bird of my childhood and brings with it always the best feelings in the world…and Sanctuary.

    San Francisco Bay Times: You’ve probably answered this a million times, but we couldn’t find the information, so here goes: When did you first begin to play music and did a friend or family member encourage/inspire this early interest? Please also share a bit about how life in Colorado and Wyoming