Keller Williams tells it how it is

Singer-songwriter Keller Williams will perform on the 80-year-old stage at the Tampa Theatre tonight. He will be playing all of his own instruments. He won’t, however, be stuffing his shoes with bologna.


Read on to gain insight into the pre-show rituals, sources of inspiration and songwriting process of the Virginia-based performer.

Candace Braun: When I think of a one-man band, I tend to think of the Mary Poppins version, with cymbals tied to your feet and a giant drum strapped to your back. What’s a one-man performance actually like?

Keller Williams: Well, that is a one-man band performance. I guess a more modern-day one-man band in that perspective would be an act called Xavier Rudd. He’s from Australia and he plays all different instruments at the same time. It’s pretty amazing.

What I’m doing is kind of a cross between singer-songwriter solo, acoustic music along with kind of a disc-jockeying without records or CDs or anything. Instead of using records or CDs, what I do is create the music, record it right there on stage, and then play it back in time, so nothing is pre-recorded. My whole show is kind of grounded in solo acoustic. But then to make it more interesting I do what’s called live phrase sampling. I just play something or sing something and record it, then play it back right on time and then layer other instruments on top of it.

CB: Do you feel that not having to answer to other band members frees you up creatively?

KW: Oh yeah, man, sure. I can just, like, stop playing a song in the middle of it and go into another if I want to. I try not to do that, but you know, it definitely creates a lot of freedom and I’m just extremely grateful and lucky to have that.

CB: How would you describe your sound?

KW: I would describe my sound simply as solo-acoustic-jazz-funk-reggae-techno-grass. It’s fun.

CB: What are the musical influences that gave you such a varied sound?

KW: First and foremost, I would say Michael Hedges. He’s not around anymore, but he kind of showed me how one person can attack the solo acoustic genre. Victor Wooten, Bobby McFerrin are other ones. Obviously, Jerry Garcia and Grateful Dead are huge influences. Just the whole Grateful Dead world – you can veer off into bluegrass and jazz and into rock. Grateful Dead alone encompasses many musical genres. All kinds of stuff.

CB: Did listening to Grateful Dead and other bands like that initially spark your interest in music?

KW: Definitely, yeah. That’s what inspiration is: listening to different types of music and having that music make you want to play music.

CB: When did you first start playing instruments?

KW: When I was a kid I would bang on pots and pans. I had a little guitar I would pretend to play, and I’d kind of bang on the piano. I think my first gig was when I was 16. I picked up the guitar by age 12 and I learned enough chords and songs to later sit on a stool and play a few songs in some little restaurant.

CB: So are you self-taught then?

KW: Pretty much. My good buddy, Kirk Edwards, taught me some chords when I was young – like 12 or 13 – but other than that, no real formal training.

CB: What were your early shows like?

KW: I guess for about 10, 12 years I was the dude in the corner of the restaurant, you know. They just moved some tables out of the way, and they’d set up some background music guy in the corner. That was me. People weren’t really listening to me and I wasn’t really paying attention to them. There wasn’t a cover charge. I was just there for ambience – people weren’t coming there to see me, they were just going there to eat. I just happened to be playing there. Those were the early gigs.

CB: Now that you’ve moved on to bigger things, I’ve heard that you cover songs and “Kellerize” them. How exactly do you “Kellerize” a song?

KW: Pretty much just interpret it as it comes out. I don’t know. I don’t pick these songs – they kind of pick me. These songs get stuck in my head, and playing them live is a good way to get them out. I just try to do it different from the original.

CB: As far as your own songs go, what’s the songwriting process like?

KW: It usually comes words first. I get a hook, and then I just kind of write music around that.

CB: What inspires you to write a song?

KW: You kind of have to push the envelope as far as songwriting goes. You can’t get caught in one thing. For me, I just try to think of different things to write about, like science-fiction bluegrass. You know, something like that. Sometimes you can sit down to write something and it just never happens. It has to come to you. There are all different kinds of scenarios to go with: real life situations, there’s love, politics – which I stay away from – there’s all different kinds of things. Use whatever inspires you. If you have something you want to say – or nothing – you can be totally abstract. You can throw words together that don’t necessarily mean anything together but sound good together.

CB: What exactly is “Keller’s Cellar?”

KW: It’s an hour-long, self-indulgent narrated mix tape that comes across as a form of radio show. It’s pretty much everything I’m into, which is about everything except for contemporary country, Christian rock and opera. There is punk rock, jazz, bluegrass and obscure Grateful Dead music. Miles Davis, Bob Marley – all kinds of stuff. The show’s prerecorded, and I get into it when I can.

CB: So does gangsta rap fit in there?

KW: I’m adhering to FAA rules, and it takes a whole lot of editing to get gangsta rap on there. You know, I’m a huge fan of Chronic Records – the classic Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. I don’t get into the new stuff much. Us3, Blackalicious, Jurassic 5 – these guys are really in my groove. I’m really gangsta.

CB: Finally, do you have any pre-show rituals to partake in before hitting the stage at Tampa Theatre?

KW: Sure. I like to stick a piece of bologna in each one of my shoes. It makes me feel funny.

CB: Does it help you relieve those pre-show jitters?

KW: There are no jitters. I just like standing on bologna. Not like deli bologna. It’s got to be greasy, processed bologna. I’m just kidding – that’s not real. I’m pretty normal.