Off The Stage: Jessi Williams of The Lonely Wild

Photo credit: Ryan Kanaly

For most casual fans of music, the forty-five minutes that a band spends on the stage is all they can see. However, when the guitar cases are closed and the venue’s floor is littered with empty beer cans and trash, most bands load their gear into the van and return back to their normal lives.

Mother Church Pew’s Off The Stage is a series that celebrates a band’s path to where they are and the things they do behind the scenes to stay there.

Jessi Williams’ life has always had two common factor; music and family.

“My mom was always my biggest influence,” Williams remembers. “She always had music on in the house. She had a big vinyl collection and we’d always sit around and listen to things together. Even as a little, little girl, she was sharing things with me musically. I was always in love with rock n’ roll and Motown. Because of her I’m a big Neil Young fan.”

Williams would take the spark that her mom implanted in her and watch it rage into a full fire through high school band. Learning trumpet in the 4th grade, she would begin down a path that would endlessly reflect a passion for music.

In a beautiful full-circle set of events, the woman that taught Williams she loved music, would begin making music of her own with the claw hammer banjo in her 30s after watching her daughter grow and build as a musician. As the years went on, Williams’ family would congregate and engage in weekly jams in their kitchens. “I’d have twenty random bluegrass players in my kitchen on a Saturday night. I remember watching an 80-year-old man tear up a Dobro and thought it was the most amazing thing.”

The evening inspired Williams to begin playing Dobro and guitar. However, with all of the benefits of in kitchen bluegrass training, the overwhelmingly encompassing experience left Williams with insecurities to match her advantages.

“Sometimes I struggled with the fact that they all played already and were great while I was trying to learn to play a guitar. Any time that you’re trying to learn an instrument, it is the most horrific sounding thing. So I’d hide in my room and learn chords.”

However, the fear of being exposed for her shortcomings didn’t stop Williams from overcoming them. The group’s residential multi-instrumentalist found holds her own in the band, playing piano, trumpet, percussion, bass and contributing to vocals. If something needs to be played, she finds a way to make the sound.

Looking back, she admits she misses the purity of those moments. “It still happens when I visit my friends in Nashville ” she admits. “I don’t know why, but it doesn’t seem like a part of the culture here.  It is a nightly thing there, but it seems like people just don’t get together here in L.A. to jam. Maybe it is a midwest thing?”

Originally from Indiana, Williams attended school in Bloomington. After graduating, she like many musicians made the migration to Nashville to get her first taste of “playing out.” While doing time on Music Row, she met her daughter’s dad. His role in the army took them to Fort Riley, Kansas, where her daughter Lilly was born. Following his deployment to Iraq, Williams and her daughter moved around visiting family, who’d they stay with. Once of those stops found the pair in California.

Once in L.A., Williams opted to never leave. They would lay stack and build a home shortly after arriving.

From there, she worked to figure out the balance of being a mother, an employee and a musician.

“It is difficult. There are times that I just have to stop. But, life is really about balance.” She confesses. “There are waves when I have to focus on a job because I have to pay rent. There are times when I have to focus on the music because that’s the dream. Focusing on Lilly is important because I love her and she makes me happy. But it is also important to be able to make sure there is time for me. I have to exercise and feel good mentally.”

Williams’ story screams the truth about the resounding misconception that musicians live a glamorous life.

“There are times on tour where I’ll put my head in my sleeping bag and I’ll cry because I miss my daughter so much.”  Williams confesses. “She’s older now and she’s gotten use to it, but it is still very hard for me.”

Williams survives by letting go of control. “You have to rely on family and friends. I keep my tours shorter. We try not to do anything more than two weeks, with the longest we’ve done being a month. During those times I’ll fly my mom out to help.”

In the end, Williams confesses that family is the most important thing. “I find it important that before I go on a tour, I give Lilly an equal amount of time. So we will go on a vacation or something special. Whatever it takes to make sure we get to be together. It is important to me that I don’t leave for tour then come home and start a new job right away. She deserves that time.”

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