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Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2010

Hayward Williams: Songs From a Long Winter

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Milwaukee’s harsh winters take a well-documented toll on us physically, numbing our limbs, wearing out our backs and testing our immune systems, but they can be just as rough on us psychologically, as the blustery weather confines us to our homes, isolating us from the world. Singer-songwriter Hayward Williams’ latest album, Cotton Bell, was born of this annual seclusion.

“The last couple winters have been really hard, with long periods of snow and cold, and these songs came from that,” Williams says. “One of the songs in particular, ‘Mockingbird,’ was written from the perspective of sitting in my house, looking outside, knowing that if I went outside I would have to shovel.”

On that song, Williams gazes out the window, pining for spring’s thaw, but once it arrives he longs for the dryness of summer, then following that the colors of fall. That restlessness runs through the entire album, a collection of songs that are always either looking toward the future or dwelling on the past, but are never content with the present. Williams sings them with a heavy whiff of resignation, and his band’s sparse arrangements further underscore the melancholy.

“At first listen, a lot of people will probably consider these sad songs, but I don’t think of them that way,” Williams says. “They’re just contemplative. There’s a certain whimsical, wistful longing to them, and the songs ask a lot of questions. With the title track, I wrote it just before we recorded it, and I didn’t even know what it meant then—I just knew it was lonesome. Now I know that it’s about people and promises, and what happens when they don’t follow through with them.”

With an understated rootsiness that recalls Townes Van Zandt, Cotton Bell achieves a warm, natural sound. Most songs were recorded in just a few takes at producer Jon Christopher Hughes’ home studio in Bay View. The sessions were deliberately loose and unscripted.

“I’m always excited about what recording live can do,” Williams says. “Depending on the mood or how you feel, it can take you in different places, and make you try things you wouldn’t normally try.”

Williams’ last album, 2007’s Another Sailor’s Dream, earned the singer some strong press in Europe, where there’s a great demand for Americana. He tries to tour there every year or so.

“In Europe they’re just so ravenous about this kind of music, and even in little towns they come out to see it,” Williams says. The problem with dedicating much of his efforts overseas, he concedes, is “I probably haven’t been that great about promoting myself back home.”

Williams hopes to change that with Cotton Bell. He’s planning more regional tour dates this spring, but first he’ll release the album with a show Friday, Feb. 26, at the Skylight Opera Theatre, for a rare singer-songwriter performance at the gilded venue.

“I wanted the release show to be something special, and I figured the venue would put the audience in a certain mind-set,” Williams says. “I think it will add a certain amount of gravitas to the show.”

The $15 admission to the performance includes a copy of the album.