Artist Q&A: Catching Up with Van William

Artist Q&A: Catching Up with Van William

By William Glanz

Indie Rocker Goes Solo

Van William made a name for himself with his first band, Port O’Brien, and then with his next project, WATERS. On Friday, January 19, he will release his first solo effort, Countries, on Fantasy Records.

William’s experiences as a commercial fisherman gave him material for some of the tracks on Countries. The indie rocker worked alongside his father in Alaska, fishing for salmon near Kodiak Island.

With his father retiring from fishing, those days are behind William and he’s embarking on a new journey. We recently caught up with Van to discuss the new album, going solo, Alaska, commercial fishing and working with First Aid Kit singers Klara and Johanna Soderberg on “Revolution.”

Photo: Silvia Grav

SoundExchange: Your new album, Countries, comes out January 19, although you released the first single in October and you’ve released an EP. First of all, congratulations. What is the most rewarding part of getting your first solo release out to the world, and what was the most challenging part of that whole process?

William: To be honest, the whole thing is still a bit of a shock to me. When I made the record, I had no idea if it would even come out. I was still touring with my old band WATERS and even though this record had become my singular passion over the previous several months, I don’t think I was allowing myself to give in to the dream of it. When we started putting out music, and it started gaining attention, I had to pinch myself at every stop along the way. In terms of challenges, I think the waiting was the hardest part 😉 It’s been a while since I made the record, and it takes so long to get the team in place and everything sorted, so there have been times that I’ve been very antsy. But after all of that, I’m so grateful for the opportunity to get this music out to as many ears as possible. I’ve never believed in a collection of songs as much as this record (by far), so that makes it especially exciting.

SoundExchange: The vocals on “Revolution” are fantastic. It’s obvious that Klara and Johanna Soderberg are fantastic additions to the single. But how did you decide they were the best fit? Have you worked with them before?

William: I met Klara and Johanna from First Aid Kit almost ten years ago. Their first tour ever was opening up for my first band Port O’Brien in Europe. Time and the Atlantic Ocean separated us for a long time (they live in Stockholm), but we reconnected at our mutual friend’s house party in LA a couple years ago. I had been working on “Revolution” and even before reconnecting with them, I had the idea that having their gorgeous vocals on the song would be magical. I was so humbled and thrilled when they suggested doing just that!

SoundExchange: People have talked a lot about the video for “Revolution.” It’s very cinematic. Where did the idea for such a cinematic video come from? Do you think it’s important to have a video that complements a single these days?

William: I had the idea for that video while binge-watching Ingmar Bergman movies on my friend’s dad’s Filmstruck account. Besides the obvious Swedish connection, there was always something so ‘classic’ about “Revolution” to me and I really wanted the video to be simple, black and white, and yes – cinematic. For me, the video-making process is incredibly important. It’s such a tremendous opportunity to have a hand in pairing music with a moving visual that is easily accessible to anyone at any time online. Being a kid growing up with TRL and having to record music videos on VHS to repeatedly watch them (which I frequently did), I still don’t take that for granted at all.

SoundExchange: You’ve spoken about your summers in Alaska. How did place and geography influence the music in Countries? And how do they influence your music more broadly?

William: My life in Alaska has always provided me with a sense of clarity. To be honest, I’d say I’m more ‘inspired’ by the relationships I have than any specific geographic location, but the fact that Alaska can separate me so fully from life in civilization has proven to be invaluable. I can get lost in the bubble of human drama and it can be tough to write about things while I’m living inside them. Outside of Alaska, travelling around the rest of this country (especially in these insane and dark times) has shaped so much of the record. I’m always torn between being furious at the people in charge and floored by the generosity and warmth of the people who actually live and breathe and work here.

SoundExchange: You spent those summers in Alaska working with your father, who was a commercial fisherman. That sounds like hard work. Has that experience influenced your sound as well? Even if it influenced your sound in a different way? Or did it just convince you that music was a better career than fishing?

William: To be honest, I’m still not totally convinced that music is the better career. I’m still very torn about having to say goodbye to that life. It is hard. Brutally hard. Weeks out at sea with no shower, toilet, humans, other than the same three other people on the crew. But there is something about it that is so deeply in my DNA that it’s very hard to say goodbye to. It feels remarkably similar to a bad breakup. That being said, when I’m on stage, playing these songs for people, and see them reacting to them, I have moments of pure clarity and euphoria that are impossible to match.

SoundExchange: Speaking of work, talk about working as an indie artist these days. Indies seem to be having a resurgence. Do you feel like music fans are more receptive to indies? Or that indies have a bigger audience than in past years?

William: I can’t really speak to any of that in an overall sense, but I will say that I feel like the music community that I’ve found myself is more active and engaged than anything I’ve seen before. I think if indie rock will ever die, it would have already. I grew up on this type of music, from early Modest Mouse and Pavement to Big Thief and Jay Som, and more than ever, there is something so pointed and important about it to me.